Pop songs go back into the words

When Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods" was on Broadway in the late 1980s, a marvelous parody was making the rounds too, called "Into the Words." It spoofed Sondheim's tricky-to-sing (and listen to!) lyrics - so intricate and complex, but so thought-provoking as well.

Like W.S. Gilbert (lyricist of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical team) a hundred years before him, Sondheim challenged both audiences and singers to wring all the meaning out of his words.

Today's rock and rap usually bury words beneath the beat. But lyrics are making yet another comeback. The blossoming cabaret scene (see our story next door) is playing a big part. Not only longtime pros but amateurs and "hope-to-bes" are stepping in front of the mike and opening their hearts in song. At a Boston-area cabaret night last winter, the songsters ranged from a moonlighting businessman to a high school student to budding pros already at work in clubs.

Cabaret's seedy, smoke-filled rooms are mostly gone, but the songs remain the same: Gershwin, Porter, Mercer, and other marvels.

Their tunes are about what could have been and what still might be; what to remember, what to forget, and how to go forward now. It's a thinking-person's music. Said singer Natalie Cole, daughter of the incomparable Nat King Cole, to the Orange County (Calif.) Register recently, "There used to be songs that I would listen to and have to go look up words in the dictionary afterward, you know?

"What happened to smart music like that? I don't have to look up any of this stuff now [in rap music] - and some of it I wouldn't want to look up."

Not that cabaret is kid-glove stuff. The revival of "Cabaret" now on Broadway and on tour has darkened the tone of that Tony-winning musical considerably since the 1972 movie version won Oscars and introduced it to a wide audience. "It's rough, it's dirty, it's in your face," the revival's director, Sam Mendes, told Playbill magazine about the show.

Liza Minnelli's familiar take on the title song ("Life is a cabaret, old chum") is an "I will survive" anthem. As sung by Teri Hatcher during the show's Boston run last month, it was an agonized cry of rage and pain - a quite different, but equally stunning, show-stopping moment.

A correction: In response to the story on Web music ("Groovin' on the Internet, Page 13, June 18), we received an e-mail from Tunes.com noting that while consumers can download music from its site, they must do it manually. No service currently offers automatic downloads.

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