Three Little Words

Maude Maggart at the Algonquin Hotel on Friday, April 16.

Maude Maggart has a wonderful voice, but recordings don’t do her justice. So much of her performance is in the performance—in her expression and bearing, in the intimacy she creates as she sings, the crooked smiles, the elegantly raised eyebrows, the hushed notes you have to hold your breath to hear in the small room—that CDs feel inadequate by comparison. Audio alone lacks that spark that makes her such a mesmerizing singer.

But in person, she’s magical. Her latest program isn’t so themed as the ones I’ve heard previously (Parents and Children and Good Girl/Bad Girl, still my favorite), but it, too, is perfectly paced and very thoughtfully put together. I never get over just how good Maggart is at getting her listeners to really listen to a song, mull over its lyrics, and experience the arc of its melody as if for the first time.

The new program, Three Little Words, features songs that are, first, about love—which isn’t much of a constraint considering that she sings cabaret and that she interprets “love” rather broadly—and that, second, have three-word titles—which is a constraint, and an arbitrary one at that. Maggart justifies the three-word rule quite charmingly, though, by suggesting that brevity—using a few words with great precision—is often the mark of a great lyricist.

And Maggart has a real affinity of lyrics. She speaks eloquently on the subject, and she always seems to include one Sondheim song in which lyrics arguably are more important and memorable than the raw music. This time it is the manic patter song “Getting Married Today” from Company, which she performs with crisp, tight diction and fabulous comedic flair.

“Getting Married Today” comes about midway through the program, when the song selections begin to veer from naive innocence into darker material, showing off Maggart’s versatility. Maybe that’s part of the reason she can be so jarring on CD: she’s a vocal chameleon—making her voice light and girlish for “I’m Old Fashioned” and then full and sultry for “Body and Soul”—so without the context of her physical presence, the songs might sound as though they came from entirely different people.

They don’t, of course, and part of the pleasure is watching her slip in and out of various personas with self-awareness, a coolly analytical eye, and a droll sense of humor. I may have underestimated that humor in the past, but it’s definitely there. It takes real cheek to cap a set of moody, wallowing torch songs with “The Masochism Tango”—a gleefully perverse, over-the-top ode to S&M with lyrics that might make the Marquis de Sade blanch before cracking up—but Maggart does so with an impish, I’m-screwing-with-you grin. And it’s hilarious.

Things calm down after that, and Maggart ends up capping the evening with a lovely, touchingly sincere rendition of “Make Someone Happy.” (Just to be clear, “The Masochism Tango” and “Make Someone Happy” are not juxtaposed directly against each other. That would be too bizarre, even for me.) It’s not a showy, virtuousic song (Jimmy Durante recorded it, for god’s sake), but Maggart performs it with such warmth and such elegant phrasing that it’s breathtaking all the same. I was so happy to be there to experience it.

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