Maude Maggart is looking over the Algonquin Hotel’s newly renovated Oak Room. “They got rid of the booth in the corner!” she wails. “I sat there once with this guy who was courting me to be my manager. I kept having to poke him—he was nodding off.”
Maggart didn’t hire the guy. But his behavior sums up the perennial problem of cabaret: keeping the most well-worn of songs relevant and exciting. It’s a challenge that Maggart, 32, surmounts in her spellbinding shows, six weeks of which begin on Tuesday at the Oak Room. Her tremulous, warm alto is largely untrained and less flashy than Liza’s or Barbra’s, but her stage presence is transfixing: She’s a doleful brunette with a soothing manner, no finger-snapping, no sequins. She also bears an uncanny resemblance to her little sister, the singer-songwriter Fiona Apple.
Though Maggart says she and Apple are close and have contemplated a sister act (they sing an eerie duet of “It’s Only a Paper Moon”), she’s glad to have avoided the spotlight Apple attracts. “She has a tremendous gift, and I think it’s important that she has a voice heard on a gigantic level,” Maggart says, “but it’s much easier to be a big fish in a small pond. And I’ve picked one of the only genres where you get more respect the older you are.” Still, Maggart acknowledges that her niche has its problems. “Simon Cowell, on American Idol, drives me crazy when he says, ‘Oh, that’s too cabaret.’ I’m like, Oh my God, why don’t you just say bad? You’re equating ‘cabaret’ with ‘bad,’ and that’s not necessarily true! Well, plenty of the time it is true. But, you know, it depends!”
What it depends upon is interpretation, and that’s where Maggart excels, particularly because she doesn’t equate melisma with individuality. “It’s a really common wrong idea that you have to change a song to make it interesting,” she agrees. “The songs everyone knows—they’re the ones whose skeletal structure is really sound.” To that end, she avoids listening to recordings when researching a song, with the exception of Fred Astaire’s, which are like “listening to the sheet music”; he sang utterly straight, allowing a song’s pure charms to come through. So although Christina Aguilera’s swooping evocation of Etta James may pack a punch, Maggart’s languorous vibrato allows a song’s lyrics to speak for themselves, and the effect is haunting. It can transport an audience beyond the staid room—which is what the Great American Songbook’s idiom was meant to do. “It’s live performance at its artistic best,” Maggart says. “Or it has the potential to be.”