Back in the day, when I wrote for Stu Hamstra's Cabaret Hotline On Line, I would periodically post a column, a review, using all the "do not do this" things that I had been noting along the way of having seen many shows that month. Some of these things made it into the actual review of the show in a kind, constructive way of course, but many of these things I keep seeing again and again, so I think it's time to re-visit this column. You can also re-read my blog "Things NOT to Say or Do" which offers a few other observations and also reiterates a few of the suggestions below.
I also think that because I mostly only review Cabaret debut shows and new singers (unless otherwise asked to cover a show by the artist or the club) I don't always want to blast this new person with negative comments at a time that they are most vulnerable and really only wanting to do a great job. If they read this column and see themselves in any of these comments, they can consider them and say, "Oh, I did that." or "I disagree." But, at least they can choose to learn and grow or ignore the advice. Some won't ever see themselves!
So, I know what I like and what I don't like when seeing a show and it's not what other reviewers may like. For example, I'm not partial to a ballad heavy show. As a matter-or-fact, I only do 2-4 ballads in my own shows (with other medium or Latin feel tunes to break it up a bit). I do this because I want the ballads to stand out. If you do too many back-to-back ballads, especially if they are what I call "stranger" songs (esoteric or originals) you risk losing people. They drift off. Songs that have a similar feel and/or story are also risky back-to-back.
There are definitely ways to pull this off and many have. Bob Diamond did 4 medium to ballad feel songs back-to-back in his show and I was completely there in every single one. Aside from being a good enough actor to pull it off, he also smartly sandwiched the lesser known tune between two very well-known tunes. This allows the audience and the ear to stay alert and present. We are a much more sophisticated audience here in NY because we know what Cabaret is and our expectations are high but when taking a show out of town...the "stranger" song or too many of them can be your worst nightmare.
Again, this is my preference when seeing and reviewing a show but I am always happy to be shown otherwise and proven wrong when I see someone like Mr. Diamond show me how it can be done right.
When working out of town, know your audience and the demographic...what is the median age of the house? Are they "standard" people, "Broadway" people or "top 40/Wedding Band" people? Take that information into consideration when putting your show together.
Medleys are wonderful. I love the clever medley or what the kids are calling "Mash Ups" these days. A medley/mash up is usually two songs interwoven in a way where you may take the verse of one tune to open it, go to song #2 then back to song #1 on the bridge and then back to song #2. It could be starting with song #1 and going into song #2 but here's the thing...there's got to be a reason to do this besides you just liking the 2 tunes! Do they really mash up? Does one finish the thought of the other? Does song #2 finish off where you left off in song #1. Make smart choices and make them work but again, 2 medleys in a show is enough. The most clever medley is the one where you don't even realize that it's two different tunes because they "mash up" so seamlessly.
Recently, in two shows I've seen there were 5-7 medleys in the set. The song list showed 15 spots but there was 20-22 songs in a 1 hour program which, guess what?, is no longer a 1 hour show! Of the 5-7 medleys, I felt as a reviewer, that in as many as 3-5 of these medleys, these folks clearly could not edit and wanted to do all these tunes so they figured out a way to get them all in the show. Not a good idea. Really look as your script and show flow and edit.
What is the theme of your show? Do both of these songs fit into that theme? Are you staying on theme or are you wondering off? Have you checked-in on the theme throughout the show or have you and your song choices made it absolutely clear that you are, in fact, still on theme?
Sometimes making 2 songs a medley actually does a disservice to each of the 2 tunes. Some songs are just stand-alone gems that have earned their solo time in the spot light.
Again, I will play my own devil's advocate and say that those who do put together clever medleys that do exactly what I stated they should do and be above, will win me over big time. The ultimate compliment from another singer is for that person to say, "Man, I wish I had thought of that!" I call this "Chart Envy". Julie Reyburn and Mark Janas...I admit it, I have Chart Envy of a few of your charts in your recent show.
That's another thing...respect someone else's brilliance. I have seen a very popular singer become famous (as much as that means in this genre) doing the exact chart of another really famous singer with no credit or nod to that person. This person's MD basically took this famous chart and made a few changes and they now present it as their own idea. For those of us savvy enough to know this, it plays really, really poorly on that team. Even when doing my Ella show and presenting her exact scat run, I credit her for it and would never presume to take credit for what she created. Don't do this. Create your own brilliant idea please and let me have Chart Envy over your work!
When a show runs long is it usually because:
- You have too many songs in your program.
- You have abused the medley...15 songs really = 23 songs.
- You talk too much or you've gone "off script".
- You may have too many band solos! (Hey, I resemble that remark!)
- The BEST reason is that you have your 15-16 songs and have timed your show but the applause after each song now delays the show....BRAVA....BRAVO....this is out of your control BUT..
It is still your job on stage to watch your audience. Yes, there could be the occasional idiot in the house that yawns or looks at their watch but if several people are shifting around or looking at their watches or cell phones, it maybe time to call it a day. I have cut a tune or two when running late on stage because I personally, always want to leave them wanting more. This point also goes back to putting too many medleys in one show...there's always another show...save something for later.
An easy fix (for the usual Cabaret show) is to simply time your show inclusive of your patter runs and come in at 55-60 minutes allowing for another 5-8 minutes of applause. If a club hires you to do a 75 minute set, come in at 70 minutes inclusive of the encore to allow for the final applause.
Musical flubs happen to us all but as a general rule, know your lyrics. It's your job. Using a music stand in most case is not cool. However, we have many wonderful, older folks working in Cabaret and I am not, at all, upset if they have a cheat sheet on a stand. I'm 60 and have a hard time remembering the lyrics of 15 songs...I can't imagine what it is like at 80 or above. Forgive this. I'd prefer that a person of a certain age use the cheat sheet rather than having the MD have to scream words to them every 5 minutes. THAT's distracting and points out the flub more-so than just moving forward. You can read my blog called "A Deer in the Headlights" to see what happened to me when I dropped some lyrics and to also see how I work when studying a new tune. It could help!
OK...that's plenty to mull over for now. As always, I do not claim to be an expert on all things Cabaret but I am a 35 year veteran in this industry who has strong opinions on what I like to see on stage. Please, just use what you agree with and continue to create great work!