We paid a return visit to Au Lapin Agile in Paris’s fabled Montmartre area. Since it’s beginning in 1860, the Cabaret has welcomed and fostered generations of singers, musicians, poets, and artists. The show has a melange of incredibly talented singers and artists. Of course the entire show is in French, but even to someone with a very limited knowledge of the language, the performers are so impressive in their sincere expression of emotion that we found ourselves laughing, clapping, and singing along.
The atmosphere is authentic, though they have eliminated the smoky haze of yesteryear. The small, dark, cave-like venue (probably 20×30) is jam-packed with benches around the walls, narrow tables and small low stools. The performers beguile you from the beginning with the intimacy of the space; indeed they come in with the rest of the audience and are sitting at one of the tables in the center of the room; no stage, minimal lighting, just an old, upright piano along one wall.
Once you are seated and served the traditional drink of the house (a delicious 2 oz. glass of cherry liqueur with a couple cherries in the bottom), the piano player comes in, strikes up a tune and the fun begins! The group of performers at the table sings traditional French standards, love ballads, sea chanteys and encourages the audience to join in. Eventually, individuals from the group get solo time for their specialties. Especially memorable was the raspy-voiced woman who played the accordion and sang her heart out.
Each performer was special, and as soon as one performer finished, another began. The piano accompanist was amazing at effortlessly matching the vocalist’s mood, timing, etc. Then he himself played a couple of pieces that showed his extensive and effortless talent.
Speaking of regulars, over the years this place has had some legendary ones such as Aristide Bruant, Pablo Picasso, George Sand and Gertrude Stein, Utrillo, Modigliani and the list goes on and on. Their guest log is also legendary. There’s a note from Eleanor Roosevelt; Leontyne Price actually sang “Summertime” there when she was here on tour with the NY Met singing the lead role in Porgy & Bess.
And speaking of legends, when Picasso and his friends were regulars there before they became famous, he painted a picture of himself as a harlequin with the owner, Frédé, in the background. He gave it to Frédé in 1905 to settle his bar bill. It hung in the cabaret until Frédé sold it in 1912 for $20 . In 1989 it was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $41 million and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art! A copy now hangs on the wall at the cabaret!
If you go to the Au Lapin Agile website you will find lots more info about this incredible place and it’s remarkable history: www.au-lapin-agile.com