Having heard about the legendary Montmartre cabaret Au Lapin Agile (literally, the Agile Rabbit), I decided to take my boyfriend to the the house of "song, humor and poetry" for his birthday, seeking to provide him with an authentic French experience. Once frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Maurice Utrillo, and Toulouse-Lautrec (all of whom have paintings hanging inside), the cabaret has been churning out live entertainment since the turn of the twentieth century, keeping the artistic heritage of Montmartre well and alive.
Arriving at "The Rabbit"
A crowd had already formed before 9 pm. People were sitting outside the iconically pink two-story house on benches woven from nature, or leaning against the outside fence excitedly taking photos. A few minutes after 9 pm, the doors were finally opened by the staff, and the crowd pressed into the tiny, low-hanging entryway of the cottage.
My First Impressions
Upon entering, it was clear that I had made the right decision in making a reservation weeks before-- while we were asked for our coats, those without their names on the list were sharply told to wait outside, and informed that they would only be let in if space allowed for it. We were quickly escorted up a steep staircase to a large room on the second floor, decorated with carved wooden tables and benches, and painting-covered walls. A piano player was already playing a lively tune. We squeezed into a bench next to the piano, and a server handed us glasses of the house special, cherry wine, complete with four wine-soaked cherries.
Apart from a small spotlight on the piano, only two lightbulbs hung from the ceiling, covered in bright red vintage lampshades, while the windows were painted over in vibrant oils to resemble stained glass windows. Straining my eyes a bit to see as much art as I could, I was overcome by sketches, paintings and oil works, attesting to the cabaret's long tenure. Perhaps the most striking work was an oil painting depicting a flapper and a patron sitting next to each other at a bar, gripping their drinks, and gazing longingly in different directions for presumably different reasons. It was Picasso's "At the Lapin Agile" from 1905.
Let the Cabaret Commence
The room was completely full by 9:30 pm, with a crowd seeming to consist mainly of French patrons, with only a few tourists looking on in fascination. The crowd (and no real windows) also meant heat, so make sure you wear a T-shirt as one of your layers-- it tends to get steamy in there. As the show began, I was surprised to see that the "guests" at the middle table knew all the words to the variety of French songs that kicked off the night. After the same guests started doing solos and acting out parts of each song, complete with moments of dog barking and face slapping, I realized this was the group who would be entertaining us for the night. The room immediately took on a familial feel and went back to the time when families would sit for hours around a piano singing songs together. From nostalgic songs depicting the France of old, to tributes to Montmartre and ballads confirming a love for wine, I quickly wished I had a song book at my table to join in. I soon got a chance to jump in, however, during the "oui, oui, oui--non, non, non" portion of "Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde," and a personal favorite of mine since pre-school, "Alouette."
Each of the members of the group seated at the main table were allowed around twenty minutes for solo performances. These consisted of classic French poetry set to music, humorous songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and-- the act that I found the most mesmerizing-- a woman who sang and played the accordion. I was transported back in time as she both excited the crowd with music hall ditties and silenced them with a moving rendition of "A Saint-Lazare," a ballad about the women's prison that once occupied the now modern train station. Between each soloist, the lively, white-haired manager, clad in an all-black ensemble with a red scarf, acted as ringmaster, keeping the singing alive with a booming voice.
While I generally enjoyed my evening at Au Lapin Agile, there were a few less positive points to mention. Make sure you use the bathroom before you take your seat, as due to the crowd and ongoing performances in the small space, it is extremely difficult to not only get up, but head past the dark velvet curtain leading down to the bathrooms on the first floor. I went during a brief change of soloists and upon finishing, was told to wait in the "musician's room" until there was another pause to be let back up. This was fine with me, as I was able to take in some air from the less-crowded space, listen to the musicians discuss the current political situation, and regard the copper pots and pans hanging from the walls. When the time came when I was allowed back upstairs, I was hurried by the staff with pushing hands and a "vite, vite." The tables each feature drink menus where both alcohol and water can be purchased. However, there are no servers working the room, and it wasn't until close to midnight when a guest yelled for a drink, that orders were quickly taken. I was on the opposite side of the room, so I remained parched. After about three hours of nonstop entertainment, we decided to leave in order to both catch the last metro home and breathe in the night air.
NEXT PAGE: Getting in to Au Lapin Agile and Practical Information