Local producer finds cabaret delightful, de-lovely

Marilyn Levinson may be descended from San Francisco’s Jewish “royalty.” But that’s not the only thing in her blood. Music — especially the sultry sound of cabaret — is Levinson’s main passion.

As the founder of Bay Area Cabaret, Levinson has been at the forefront of the local cabaret resurgence. Since 2004, she has produced a series of concerts that, she hopes, might redefine the art form and bring it into the 21st century.

Bay Area Cabaret’s new season begins with a Nov. 12 concert from singers Amanda McBroom and Sony Holland at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco.

Levinson counts three famous Bay Area Jewish families in her ancestry: the Fleishhackers, the Dinkelspiels and the Schwabachers. She grew up in the Congregation Emanu-El community of San Francisco and remains a member (though she now lives in Larkspur). She’s also an experienced corporate attorney and mother of two young children.

But put her at a table in a darkened wood-paneled room, with a singer and pianist on a bare stage, and she’s halfway to heaven.

Why cabaret? Says Levinson, “[Cabaret] performers make you feel that you’ve made a new friend. There’s no fourth wall.”

For the first two seasons of Bay Area Cabaret, Levinson booked artists like Ann Hampton Calloway, Barbara Cook, Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley. Other stars set for this season include Karen Mason and Maureen McGovern.

Though divas like Cook and Calloway are always welcome, Levinson also likes to book younger artists like Holland, who push the boundaries of the form.

“I don’t believe cabaret always has to involve a history lesson,” she says. “While I respect the earlier entries in the Great American Songbook, I believe it needs to be updated.”

Not that audiences will ever tire of Gershwin, Porter and Kern. But last season Levinson produced an evening dedicated to the music of Stevie Wonder. Her first show features Amanda McBroom, a new breed of cabaret artist who writes her own songs (she’s best know for her hit “The Rose,” made famous by Bette Midler).

Levinson’s interest in cabaret took off when she lived in New York while in her 20s. She haunted West Village clubs and saw the best of the best, night after night. Her interest in music, however, dates from her earliest years, when her mother, the late Marie Louise Rosenberg, served as executive coordinator of Best of Broadway (the precursor to the Civic Light Opera).

Her uncle, the late James Schwabacher, was active with the San Francisco Opera and founded the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, now in its 24th year.

While still in high school, she got her feet wet in the entertainment world working for the late Steve Silver (creator of “Beach Blanket Babylon”). Out of college, Levinson moved to New York for a theater career. She worked for legendary producer Joseph Papp as well as actor Yul Brynner during his final tour starring in “The King and I.”

With her Stanford law degree in hand, Levinson became an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles before returning to the Bay Area to become an attorney with Sun Microsystems. It was job she enjoyed for 20 years. She still takes on occasional legal assignments, a vocation she calls “calming.”

That so many songwriters from the golden age of American song — from Gershwin to Bernstein to Sondheim — happen to be Jewish is commonly known.

Levinson doesn’t claim to know why, but she easily explains her own personal link between her Jewish roots and her love of this music.

“There’s a connection between my Jewish identity and my love of cabaret,” she says. “One thing I admire about Jewish culture is the search for emotional truth and the desire to communicate, to find new ways of expression. For me that’s what cabaret is all about.”

Bay Area Cabaret presents Amanda McBroom with Sony Holland at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Commandants Ballroom of the Marines Memorial Club, 609 Sutter St., S.F. Tickets: $40-$45. Information: (415) 392-4400 or online at www.bayareacabaret.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.