Cabaret in the Netherlands is not the feathers and sequins of cabaret elsewhere in the world. Nor is it the same as stand-up comedy. It is a solo artist or group commenting on the state of the world in songs and dialogues, often by telling one long story with numerous asides. Here is the history of Dutch cabaret in eight steps.
1 The father of cabaret
Eduard Jacobs (1868-1914) was the first Dutch cabaret artist. He was also known as the ‘minstrel of the compost heap’ for the content of his songs. He moved to Paris around 1880 where he stayed for four years working as the pianist at the Moulin Rouge. It was here that Jacobs discovered a new form of entertainment: cabaret artistique with songs about the life of the poor. On his return to Amsterdam, he began appearing in cafes, singing about the prostitutes, pimps and other low lifes of the city and the problems faced by the working class. Although never a huge success, probably because audiences were not ready for his saucy songs, he paved the way for those who followed.
2 Cabaret takes root
The development of cabaret was carried forward by three main artists: Koos Speenhoff, Jean-Louis Pisuisse and Louis Davids.
Jacobus Hendrikus Speenhoff (1869-1945) was given the nickname Koos by his adoring public. This son of a Rotterdam businessman made his debut in 1902 singing self-penned songs about the lot of the working classes. His use of words such as ‘whore’ and ‘bum’ in his songs brought criticism, particularly from the Catholic church which considered him immoral and degenerate, no doubt adding to his popularity.
Jean-Louis Pisuisse (1880-1927) worked as a journalist in Amsterdam and took to the stage as a joke in 1907 with a colleague. The duo disguised themselves as Italian street singers and performed songs about the working classes. They were so successful they toured the world with their act until 1913. Pisuisse then left journalism to set up a cabaret group, basing his material on what he had seen in Paris and becoming very popular. He was shot dead on November 26 1927 on the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam by the former lover of his third wife. She too was killed and the lover then turned the gun on himself.
Louis Davids (1883-1939) was the most versatile and populist of the three. He came from a poor Jewish family and his father was a comic and cafe owner. Louis sang at fairgrounds from the age of eight and later gained theatre experience as a magician’s assistant in revue shows in England. He scored considerable success with two duos but it was after he met the English artist Margie Morris that his career really took off. Margie moved to the Netherlands in 1913, smartened him up, accompanied him on the piano, composed the music to many of his songs – including those for the musicals he wrote – and charmed reviewers with her English accent. One of his most famous songs lists the way in which the ‘little’ man is always ground down by those above him. Louis died unexpectedly at the age of 55 from asthma but his influence lived on into the next generation of cabaret artists.
3 Cabaret begins to split
The next generation also had three major artists each with their own very distinctive style. There was a clown, an entertainer and a traditional cabaret artist and they are known as the ‘Big Three’.
Wim Kan (1911-1983) was the first cabaret artist to do more talking than singing. The son of a civil servant, he began with puppet theatre at the age of seven and was soon imitating the neighbours. He began his ABC cabaret with his wife Corrie Vonk in 1936. In 1939 Wim and Corrie began a tour of the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) and were stuck there when World War II broke out. When the Japanese invaded, they were sent to separate concentration camps, something Kan used in his later programmes.
The couple finally returned to the Netherlands in 1946 and reformed ABC, a company that became a springboard for some of the biggest names in Dutch entertainment. Kan was the first cabaret artist to bring his New Year show first to radio in 1954 and later to television in 1973. In these shows, he reviewed the year in satirical form, keeping his toughest comments for the politicans of his day. The New Year show became a tradition for which most of the country stayed home and continues to this day, with cabaret artists vying for a slot on one of the many channels. There is a statue of Wim and Corrie in the seaside resort of Scheveningen. Sadly, it reduces this giant of the genre to the size of a gnome.
Toon Hermans (1916-2000) was the clown of the three. He was the first to develop a one-man show in the Netherlands – Kan, Sonneveld and later generations followed his example. The son of a bankrupt banker, he grew up in poverty in Sittard in Limburg province and began entertaining at carnivals. His first one-man show in 1958 was televised and he was an over-night success. During his shows he performed a huge range of funny characters and sang self-composed songs. One of the most important cabaret prizes in the Netherlands is named after a bird he invented: the Polifinario. Theatre directors said they always knew when Hermans had performed in their theatre because the seats were damp from the laughing. Although he never dealt with current affairs in his shows, he is still counted among the Big Three.’
Wim Sonneveld (1917-1974) was the entertainer. He was a hopeless student and had a series of unsuccessful jobs when he left school. In 1932 he began singing with an amateur group and two years later formed a duo which provided the entertainment for anniversary parties at companies and organisations.
In 1936 he became Louis David’s secretary and was also allowed a small part in the show. He was singing in French cabaret in Paris when World War II broke out and returned to the Netherlands where he took roles in several stage productions. During the war he began his own cabaret company with sketches and songs. In 1960 he began a three-year run as Professor Higgins in the first Dutch production of My Fair Lady. His first one-man show premiered in 1964. He was at the height of his fame when he was felled by a heart attack in 1974.
4 Arrival of the women
Soloists and groups led by one star name had been the order of the day, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s two things happened. Cabaret ensembles became popular and the women involved were not just there to play small roles or sing the occasional song. They were of equal importance to the men and some of them used the opportunity as a springboard to a solo career. And two young men turned the world of cabaret upside down.
The first of the groups to be formed was Lurelei in 1958 with Adele Bloemendaal and later Jasperina de Jong. Both these women went on to solo careers in cabaret, becoming hugely successful with their one-woman shows. Next came Don Quishocking with Anke Groot. When she left in 1985 she was replaced by a series of women until, in 2007, the men, by now in their sixties, semi-retired and only appeared on special occasions. Cabaret Ivo de Wijs was the third of these sophisticated ensembles which tackled the state of the country and taboos such as euthanasia, single mothers and abortion. This one was formed in 1971 with Aggie Terlingen joining the three men, and disbanded in 1980.
The two young men were Bram Vermeulen, a multi-talented sportsman, graphic artist and musician, and Freek de Jonge, a gangly young man who wanted to be on the stage but did not know how to get there. When these two met, Bram suggested putting together a show under the title Neerlands Hoop in Bange Dagen (Netherlands hope in scary days). It was an almost immediate hit and the group, with Bram and a band doing the songs and Freek the monologues, became known as Neerlands Hoop. They were so anarchic and surreal that they wiped away the sophistication of other groups and paved the way for a new type of cabaret artist. Neerlands Hoop disbanded in 1979 when Freek decided to launch a solo career.
5 The women take over
The 1980s saw a shift away from groups to solo artists and three of the biggest names were women. Two of the women came out of Lurelei (see 4): Adele Bloemendaal and Jasperina de Jong. Both began life as actresses. Adele, who was with Lurelei from its beginning until 1960, began her career as an actress on tv and on stage and continued to act even after she began her one-woman shows in the early 1980s.
Jasperina, with one of the best voices in the business, was turned down by Wim Sonneveld (see 3) because she was not a trained singer, but joined Lurelei in 1960, replacing Adele. After she left the group in 1968, she took to the stage in the title role of Sweet Charity and in Fien playing the Dutch actress Fien de la Mar, among other things. She gave her first one-woman show in 1986.
The other woman was Jenny Arean who acted in tv and stage musicals and in a cabaret programme with three men before launching a solo cabaret career in the mid-1980s. She is at the time of writing the only one of these women still occasionally performing.
All three women tackled contemporary problems in monologues and songs. Jasperina and Jenny in particular told one long story with a beginning and an end, peppered with asides covering everything from taboos to politics.
6 The big two
Alongside these three women were two men who began in the 1970s and are still going strong. Both Freek de Jonge and Youp van het Hek produce pure cabaret. They pace the stage alone. They talk about the state of the country in sharp and edgy terms. They sing the occasional song, although neither is a good singer. Both sell out the 1756 seats in theater Carré in Amsterdam for a month at a time. And both have done the main New Year monologue for the national tv channel.
Freek came out of Neerlands Hoop (see 4) and began his solo career in 1979. He was in some sort of costume during his early shows but has latterly taken to wearing suits, albeit with something quirky about the outfit such as red accessories. He has also taken to singing a lot more than previously, which is not a good idea.
He is brilliant at nailing the hypocrisy, sentimentality and hysteria which surrounds us these days. As is Youp, who began with the cabaret group NAR in 1973 and went solo ten years later. A short, rotund figure in jeans or a suit, Youp loves the sort of words that got Eduard Jacobs (see 1) into trouble. One mention in his show of the dreadful types who drink Buckler beer and sales tumbled.
Youp also writes columns for the national newspaper NRC which you can read in English on DutchNews.nl.
7 Cabaret begins to split again
If the balance in what’s known as Dutch cabaret was on the side of political and societal satire in the previous generation, the next generation, born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, harked back to the big three (see 3), with true cabaret mixed with entertainment.
Staying with the tradition of Freek and Youp (see 6) is Theo Maassen who delights audiences with his tough jokes and criticism of society. Nothing is taboo and he excels at highlighting the hypocrisy of religions, directing his fire at Christians, Muslims and Jews alike.
Maassen’s 2008 show, Zonder pardon (Without excuse), was filmed and released into cinemas where every showing was sold out. He also did the New Year monologue in 2013 for the Dutch broadcasting company Vara. In 2000 he began acting, appearing in films and tv series and able to portray frightening baddies or sympathetic heroes.
Lenette van Dongen, who made her first one-woman show in 1993, is another who follows the traditional route, although her subject is women and their place in society. In monologues and songs she nails the often ridiculous way in which women are treated or takes pot shots at how women can be their own worst enemy. She trained as a dancer and began her career in musicals, something she is still doing.
Brigitte Kaandorp brought her absurd style to a wider audience after winning the Dutch cabaret competition Cameretten in 1983. While she does aim remarks at various societal foibles, she is more of an entertainer with material that consists of monologues which audiences can relate to and songs which range from hilarious to tender. She’s also a great yodeller. Only Brigitte could begin a show naked except for a towel and spend around five minutes talking about why she was caught naked while keeping herself covered.
If Kaandorp’s style tends towards entertainment, Hans Teeuwen takes absurdity to extremes. He began in a duo which won Cameretten in 1991. When his partner died in an accident, Hans went solo. He opened his first solo show in 1994 by acting a very nervous man who should not have been on the stage. Since then his stream-of-consciousness style has had audiences hooting with laughter and on the edge of their seats wondering how much ruder he will become. The answer is: very. He stopped in 2005 after five shows, but gave a series of shows in England in 2007 to critical acclaim. In the meantime, he has become a jazz singer and film-maker.
The last of the big names in this generation is Hans Liberg, a multi-instrumentalist and comedian who made the finals of Cameretten in 1983. His act is based on that of the famous Danish comedian Victor Borge. Liberg uses classical music, popular songs and themes from films and commercials to make strange and funny combinations which he links with amusing comments. He was sampling before the word was in common usage. He has done international tours and won an International Emmy in 1997 for his show Liberg Zaps Himself.
8 The new generation
The latest batch of cabaret artists are in their thirties or early forties and they are a very diverse bunch, with people from non-Dutch backgrounds joining in. This has led to monologues and songs dealing with countries ranging from Indonesia to Suriname, the problems of integration and the quirks of the Dutch.
It is probably this diversity which has made cabaret cool over the past few decades. It now attracts a huge audience of mainly young people. Even a debut show from a new name can fill a medium-sized theatre.
Leading the charge in traditional cabaret are the Spanish-Dutch Javier Guzman and his brother Emilio, the Moroccan-Dutch Najib Amhali, Roué Verveer from Suriname and the Dutch Sara Kroes and Pieter Derks, the youngest of this bunch at the age of 30. Both Amhali and Derks have done the New Year monologue.
Kroes and Derks are the only ones who sing, but they all share a sharp eye for the pressure points in society. And all of them are excellent examples of the liveliness of the Dutch cabaret scene.