Roy Sander’s Commentary


Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for 25 years, writing reviews and commentary for seven print publications—most prominently Back Stage—and for Citysearch on the Internet. He appeared monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS-TV and weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He is a member of the Bistro Awards Committee and Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC, and he was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. He currently writes reviews for and is the site’s Reviews Editor.

To contact Roy, send an email to  [email protected].


Common Mistakes

Common Mistakes

by Roy Sander

For this first column, I’d like to talk about mistakes I’ve observed many singers making over the past few years. They fall into two categories: (1) dropping focus and control, and (2) piano bar missteps.

Dropping focus and control

I’m not talking here about the demanding art of song interpretation. I’m referring to easy-to-correct errors made by singers at all artistic levels.

For example, do not take a sip of water during an instrumental break in one of your songs. This shifts the audience’s attention from your artistic interpretation to your physical needs. You should maintain full focus and control from beginning to end. Even when you are not singing, you are still performing the song.

What should you do during an instrumental interlude? You could turn and watch the musician(s). This is a bit of a cop-out, but it’s OK. Better, but far more difficult, would be to continue facing the audience and show us what you, the teller of the story (i.e., the song), are thinking and feeling—the emotional journey your are going on from the last word you sang before the instrumental break until the first word you sing afterwards. If the musical arrangement supports your artistic vision of the song, as it should, the instrumental solo will reflect that journey. (If by chance the accompanist goes on a private musical trip instead, you should disabuse him/her of this self-indulgence while you are putting the show together.) Be aware that silently revealing your thoughts and emotions during the break is tough to pull off without seeming hokey; be very careful of overacting. If you cannot master it, you’d be better off watching the musicians or, perhaps, looking down or aside. But never leave the song.

Do not introduce your accompanist(s) in the middle of the song—for example, at the beginning or end of an instrumental solo. If the pianist’s (or bassist’s or whoever’s) work in that song is especially fine, you might want to acknowledge him/her right after the number. Note that some up tunes might allow for mid-song introductions or acknowledgments, especially those that are based on a playful exchange between the singer and musicians. Also, because some forms of jazz have a different esthetic, jazz can frequently support mid-song intros. Even granting this distinction, however, I think that many jazz vocalists need to give more thought to the way they acknowledge their musicians.

While I’m talking about introducing musicians, do try not to refer to them as your partners in crime. While that was cute at one time, it has become such a cliché.

Finally, on ballads or serious songs, don’t sing directly to a specific person in the audience. It shifts focus to that audience member; others then becomes acutely aware of your target’s reaction—or discomfort. (Yes, I know that Andrea Marcovicci does this, but she sets up a dynamic with her audience that is quite marvelous but most particular. I do not suggest emulating her approach—at least not unless you know exactly what you are doing.)

Piano bar missteps

As is fairly widely understood, getting up to sing at a piano bar can yield a number of benefits. For one, it gives you a chance to sing—and if you’re diligent and serious about your craft (and, oh yes, talented), the more you sing, the more you will learn and the better you will become. The second principal benefit is that it gives others an opportunity to hear and see you; if they like you, they might come to your show. I have seen so many good singers mishandle this opportunity, that I thought I’d offer some do’s and don’ts—even though they are all basically simple common sense.

Know what you want to sing. Once you’ve expressed your desire to sit in, don’t take forever to deliberate on what song to do. You will waste the audience’s time and come across as unprofessional.

Have your music with you. Note that not all pianists are adept at sight-reading charts; therefore, know a few standards that most pianists are likely already to have in their repertoire. And know what key you sing each song in.

Know the lyrics…cold. It’s dismaying how frequently people stumble over the lyrics of the very song they’ve chosen to sing.

Be dressed appropriately—not necessarily as nattily or purposefully as you would if you were doing a show, but don’t look as though you were in the middle of doing your laundry. After all, while you may not be the star of the evening, you’re still on stage. And you never know who might be in the audience.

If the pianist doesn’t know you and, so, asks your name, give your full name. Giving just your first name creates the impression that you’re an amateur. Besides, you want the audience to keep an eye out for your future engagements or perhaps tell others about you; unless your first name is wildly distinctive, it, alone, won’t do the trick.

When you’ve finished the song, don’t be so self-effacingly quick to announce the pianist’s name. He/she will be getting applause all evening; this is your moment. Take the applause—it was meant for you. Then thank or acknowledge the pianist.

If people come over to you afterwards and compliment you, ask whether you can have their names for your mailing list. If you have a web site, offer them a card that has the address of the site. Finally, if you are in the middle of a run, or have one coming up soon, have your flyers with you. (I threw this last one in—I’ve seldom known performers to leave home without their flyers.)

It’s Not About You

Time was when cabaret was a performing arts form in which audience members sat at tables and the people on stage had a job to do: to entertain the audience. Period. Rather simple, eh?  Alas, at some point during the past decade or so, cabaret took a wrong turn. Today, a growing number of people, especially recent entrants into the field, seem to think that cabaret is something else—some kind of mushy, touchy-feely group-therapy session, in which we are all there to share in the performer’s life and feelings. I won’t take time right now to examine the causes of this regrettable development; I think it’s more important to focus on quashing it.

The most common manifestation of this misconception is the inclusion of autobiographical information in cabaret shows. A few months ago, a singer explicitly expressed this vision of cabaret when she said to her audience at the end of her act, “This is cabaret; you’re supposed to leave having learned something about me” or words to that effect. How presumptuous. Why on earth should singers think that the audience is interested in their lives A more apposite statement would have been, “This is cabaret; you’re supposed to leave thinking that your money was well spent.”

To the best of my knowledge, no formal job description has ever been written for the position of cabaret entertainer. If one were, the objective of the job would be expressed in terms of your obligation to the audience: to please, to move, to amuse, to inform. The objective would not mention you. In describing how you should accomplish that objective, the job description would talk in terms of the material: understanding and interpreting it, and communicating that insight to the audience. And it would identify the skills needed to do this effectively.

Where do you come into the picture? You select which songs to sing, it is you who determines what point of view to give each song, it is your sense of life that informs your interpretations, and it is your talent that is required to put it all across. I submit that these elements give the audience a much more intimate and revealing view of you than it would derive from learning where you grew up, why you moved to New York, or what a particular song means to you.

Mind you, this does not mean that under no circumstances may you include such information. A line of autobiographical dialogue can help to set up a song—but note that this device is effective not because it tells us about you, but because it establishes a context or creates a subtext, thereby tuning the audience’s antennas as it were. And remember, if your song interpretation is artful, setup may not be necessary; if it isn’t, no amount of introductory material can compensate. In general, autobiographical patter should have at least one of the following attributes: (1) it is insightful, making observations that have resonance beyond your own life and experience; (2) it is uncommonly well phrased and, so, qualifies as spoken literature; (3) it is funny.

There are other manifestations of this same phenomenon. A singer recently said out into the audience: “(her husband’s full name), I love you.” Though she did this as part of the setup for a song, it was downright icky and cringe-making. At the end of her show, she thanked friends who’d traveled considerable distances to see her show—and to make matters worse, she named them individually and identified the origin of each friendship. Both of these choices might be appropriate when performing for an audience solely of friends and relatives, who could reasonably be expected to be interested in her love for her husband and in knowing about her friends. In other words, it is unprofessional. When you are performing a show, you should assume that no one in the audience knows or cares about you. As you write your patter, repeat this mantra: “No one knows me, no one cares about me. No one knows me, no one cares about me.”

Speaking of thank you’s, I will go so far as to suggest that they don’t belong in cabaret shows at all. Of course, you should acknowledge the onstage musicians so that the audience can applaud them—but that’s different from a “thank you”; similarly, it might be appropriate to acknowledge the person running lights and sound. But that’s it. If you want to thank your director, your vocal coach, the person who did your flyers, the booking manager, the wait staff, whomever, then do so—after the show. Do you realize how annoying it is for the audience to be asked to applaud after each name you recite as you perform this misguided ritual? During their curtain calls, do theatre actors and actresses thank her dressers or the theatre ushers? Why do you think the audience gives a damn about to whom you are grateful?

Indeed, the only people you should consider thanking are the audience—the people who left the comfort of their homes and paid to see you. (An exception can be made on special occasions, such as closing night of a long run. Because a different dynamic prevails at such events, the audience would be more receptive to personal thank you’s.)

Another nearly always ill-advised practice is articulating your personal philosophy of life in your patter. Though I’ve seen this done many times, never has the wisdom expressed risen above greeting-card banality. And when the speaker giving us advice on how to live is in his or her early 20s, it is especially ludicrous. While I’m at it, let me caution against making gratuitous political remarks; you risk alienating a significant portion of your audience. (Note that I said gratuitous; if political commentary is integral to your show, it might be appropriate.)

Why is all of this important? Because if cabaret is to be taken seriously by the general public, not just by the insular world of cabaret aficionados, its practitioners need to treat it professionally, and not as some sort of informal get-together, encounter session, or journey to self-awareness.

Feedback and follow-up

I received a few comments on my first column that I think are worth passing on. (I quote them below with the commentators’ permission.)

Rich Siegel offered the following additional counsel regarding my suggestion that singers know what key they sing a song in when they sit in at a piano bar. (I don’t have sufficient technical knowledge of music to take a position on his advice, but I hope you will find it helpful.)

     When asking a pianist to transpose, make it as easy as possible. Most singers don’t consider that there’s a difference between an easy and a difficult transposition. You can make it as easy as possible by picking a key that’s closely related to the original key. This is difficult to understand for those who don’t know music theory inside out. Closely related does not necessarily mean close by. For example, transposing a whole step up or down, or a fourth or fifth away is much easier than transposing to a tri-tone or to a third, and if you only want to transpose to a half-step away you really don’t need to transpose at all. Also, it can be a big help to write the chord symbols of the new key above the staff, next to the chord symbols of the old key. Again, knowledge of music theory helps, and doing this writing exercise is not essential, but if it’s possible, it gives the musicians the new key in chord symbols even if the “dots” (the musical notation) remain in the old key.

Philis Raskind made the following comment on the issue of what a singer should do to hold focus during an instrumental interlude:

I am reminded of Peggy Lee’s attitude during musical breaks in a song. She turned to give rapt attention to her piano player (or drummer or bass player). Her very stillness made the audience aware of both singer and “player”…just another take on that situation.

I think that this approach is excellent for a relatively long instrumental solo. I agree that it can heighten focus—especially if the interlude is an integral part of the artistic vision of the interpretation. Also, it can avoid the uncomfortable alternatives of having the singer just stand/sit there trying to act, or simply standing like a lump. However, I think that for a short solo, it risks breaking focus.

Rich Siegel also weighed in on maintaining focus; I completely agree with his point of view:

The tradition in jazz of applauding for solos and introducing musicians after solos always bugged me, and bugs me just as much as it insinuates itself into the cabaret world. To me, a piece of music is a whole work, and should not be interrupted at all. In going from vocal to instrumental solo and back to vocal, or, if instrumental, going from melody to solo and back again, the transitions need to be part of the artistry. This is obscured by applause and/or introductions. I particularly hate it when applause covers up the beginning of an instrumental solo or the opening line of a vocal, as the first statement is a very important part of a presentation

On Directors

On Directors

by Roy Sander

A singer asked for my comments on directors. I’m happy to oblige.

The first question is whether cabaret shows need to have a director. An analysis of the thousands of shows I have attended yields no simple, single answer. In the terrific-show category, I have probably seen just as many offerings that were director-free as shows that carried a directorial credit. The same can be said for mediocre shows and, for that matter, for perfectly dreadful enterprises. I have seen people whose work showed considerable improvement when they began working with a director, and I have seen performers whose work suffered when they changed directors. (The person who raised this issue noted that she has been working with a director for the past year and has found that it made an enormous difference for her.)

So, the first question actually becomes whether you should be working with a director. When developing a new show, nearly everyone, no matter how talented or how experienced, can benefit from having a third eye present at some point in the process. Mind you, that role need not be fulfilled by a director; feedback from any knowledgeable person could do the trick. (Such assistance could be credited or anonymous, depending on the particulars of the situation.) Or it could be that your musical director (or in some cases, your voice teacher) is providing whatever collaboration or assistance you need.

However, directors can do a lot more than serve as a third eye. They can assist you in finding and selecting material, help develop your interpretations, work with you to sculpt your show, help you develop a theme (if you choose to have one), do the blocking, make suggestions on the use of props, help you with your patter, or perhaps even write your dialogue.

If you conclude that you wish to work with a director, you must ask yourself why you are looking for a director, what is it that you want a director to help you with. There are several fine directors on the cabaret scene, but they are not equally good at all things. Some are masters at finding clever material, structuring an act, or writing patter. Some are strong at staging and blocking. Some are skillful in helping singers to penetrate their material and bring depth and texture to their interpretations. A very few are good at all of the above.

In cabaret, the most crucial attribute for a singer to have is strong interpretive ability. This is a complex issue, entailing a number of technical skills (vocal technique, hand and body language, acting skills, etc.) and emotional factors. Until you have mastered this ability, you should concentrate your efforts in, and seek help with, this element. Mind you, I’m not saying that all other issues are insignificant, just secondary. I have seen many—no, make that many, many, many shows that were well constructed and blessed with intelligent, funny, informative patter, excellent choice of material, splendid arrangements and accompaniment—indeed, with everything but rich, illuminating song interpretations. As a result, despite their virtues, these shows were ultimately unsuccessful—like an exquisitely crafted bracelet with bits of base metal where diamonds and rubies ought to be. Making a general observation, I would say that many people are worrying too much about theme, structure, and other less critical elements, and not enough about the more crucial interpretive dimension. If interpretation is not a problem for you, you can focus on the other elements that contribute to presenting a successful show.

Now, how do you know which directors have the skills you need to augment and complement your own strengths? See the work of as many directors as you can. Observe which ones are skilled in the areas you are looking for. But note that it is nearly impossible to discern the extent and nature of a director’s contribution from a single show. When someone is credited as director, you do not know whether he/she participated actively in the development of the show from the outset, or was brought in as a third eye after most of the choices had already been made. I can’t tell you how often I have criticized in my own mind what I was certain was a directorial decision, only to find in post-performance discussion that the director had no say in the matter whatsoever. Accordingly, try to see several acts by each director and look for a pattern. If you know the performers and you are comfortable with this, you might ask them for their opinions.

Meet with each director whose work impresses you. Make certain that he or she understands your talent and your needs. Consider running the same idea in front of different directors and comparing and evaluating their responses. Remember, the director’s job is to help you realize your artistic vision, not to provide you with one. You are the one on stage. I have seen many acts fail because of choices that were dictated by the director but personally uncomfortable for the performer. And if you don’t have an artistic vision, the more fundamental question to ask yourself is whether you are ready to perform at all.

By the way, the singer who asked me to comment on directors also asked for my opinion of encores. This practice, which I consider a stupid and mindless convention, is one of my pet peeves; I’ll address it in my next column.

Feedback and follow-up

I received a comment on my last column from Maryann Lopinto that I think is worth repeating and commenting on. (I reference it with her permission.) Observing that many performers spend time after a show speaking with their friends, she suggests that instead you concentrate on greeting audience members you do not know, people who might become your new audience. In general I agree with her. If the venue permits you to linger in the show room, you might stop by each table of strangers and thank them for coming. You could also ask whether they would like to be on your mailing list. If you are required to greet people outside the room, don’t get tied up with your friends and relatives while your new fans are left to cool their heels in the receiving line. But while you certainly want to make yourself available to your audience, don’t position yourself in such a way that people are obliged to wait in line just to make their exit. Make it easy for people to speak with you, but don’t force them to.

When Enough Is Enough

When Enough Is Enough

by Roy Sander

I’m delighted to have been asked to comment on encores. If I can help put an end to this silly convention, my life—or at least this afternoon—will have been worthwhile.

I long to return to the days when encores were reserved for those very special occasions when audience applause is so extraordinary that it would be ungracious for performers not to give their adoring public yet one more. I remember a concert many years ago in which Beverly Sills told an audience that would not stop cheering that she honestly did not have another number, then proceeded to repeat an aria from the first half of her program. Now, that was an encore. Over the last several years, alas, the encore has become an all-too-predictable ritual devoid of any meaning.

First, please realize that encores are not obligatory—any more than are the tedious litany of thank you’s and those annoying exhortations to tip the wait staff that have become commonplace. Julie Wilson, the greatest cabaret artist I have ever seen, does not do scheduled encores. When her show is over, she has the good grace to leave the stage and not play foolish games.

In addition to showing a lack of imagination and thought, the device of exiting and coming back places your audience in the uncomfortable position of feeling obliged to applaud until you return. Worse, you risk the embarrassment of their not applauding long enough. I witnessed such an awkward moment only recently. The singer re-entered to the palpable sound of silence and sheepishly asked the audience whether they wanted to hear one more number. It wasn’t that the audience had not enjoyed her performance; on the contrary, they were quite enthusiastic during the show. It was simply that when she introduced the “final” song by saying, “For my last number,…” they took her at her word”

The lesson here is that you must (1) not lie to the audience, and (2) guide and be led by them. Do not say, “I’d like to leave you with…” or “To close,…”, etc. unless you mean it. (This becomes especially idiotic when you’ve distributed programs with a song list that clearly shows that another song is coming.) If you insist on planning a false exit, be prepared to read your audience and eschew the exit altogether, or to rush back to the stage straight away. Another suggestion is that you discuss this with the tech director ahead of time, and have him/her announce, only moments after you’ve exited, “Once again, ladies and gentlemen, (your name)!”

Encores can serve a purpose. For example, if you end with a rousing number, you might want to use a sweeter, gentler song as an encore so that the audience will leave with a warm feeling. Sort of a one-two punch, with kid gloves replacing boxing gloves for the second hit. But you can accomplish this without leaving the stage. To continue with the example I cited, after your big number, you can remain on stage, acknowledge the musicians and the tech director and thank the audience for coming, then close with the ballad. You can even have the tech director announce your name after your big “ending,” while you stay put. And if the audience continues applauding after you have made your true exit (whether because they really loved your show that much or because they’ve been trained to expect an encore), come back on stage and graciously thank them for their enthusiastic response and wish them a good night.

One other thing: Remember that the various cute things that performers say at encore time have all been said many, many times before. They include—but are by no means limited to—”Make believe that at this point I’m leaving the stage and coming back after your tumultuous applause”; “I’m too tired to go off and come back”; “Yes, we do know one more number”; and “What shall we do? I know, let’s do what we rehearsed.” So, don’t even think of it.

I realize that this issue is not quite black and white, that it is to a large extent colored by local stage traditions and practices. For example, shows in Germany typically include on the order of five planned encores, each with a full exit (the singer as well as all of the musicians). Grrrrrr. And I left one recital in St. Petersburg (Russia) at the end of the ninth encore; I have no idea whether it was the final one. However, rituals and practices can change, and we need not slavishly follow convention. I have been encouraged to see that in the years since I began writing on the subject, an increasing number of performers have cut the false exits from their shows. God love ’em.

Getting It Right… And Other Matters

Getting It Right… and other matters

by Roy Sander

Is it my imagination, or are cabaret singers getting increasingly sloppy with lyrics? I suspect this malpractice has long existed—it’s just that I’ve been growing increasingly impatient with it. I’m not talking about going up in a lyric; anyone can have a momentary lapse. I’m talking about learning a lyric incorrectly and repeatedly performing it that way.

Frequently, it is clear that the performer has not thought about what (s)he’s singing. With “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” one recently sang “howdy neighbor, so long friend” instead of “howdy stranger, so long friend.” The song is about not remaining in one place for very long, so the changed lyric makes no sense. In doing “Losing My Mind,” another sang “…not going left, not knowing right.” Where did that come from? Was he trying to improve on Sondheim? Singing “Gigi,” someone sang “was I out yonder blinking somewhere at a star?” Of course, the lyric is “was I out yonder somewhere blinking at a star?”, with blink rhyming with brink in the preceding line, “while you were trembling on the brink.” The singer had obviously never listened to what he was doing.

Another sang “Love me and leave me” instead of  “Love me or leave me.” Where was his mind? I don’t remember whether he was the same one who, doing that same song, sang “I have today and give back tomorrow” instead of “to have it today, to give back tomorrow.” Or is the correct lyric “to have it today, and give back tomorrow” or some other variant? I’m not sure—I have not had time to research this. However, you can be sure that if I were going to perform the song, I would make time. As should all of these singers have done.

There are reasons beyond professional pride and respect for the lyricist that should give you incentive to get the words right. Quite recently, in doing “Autumn Leaves,” instead of singing “Since you went away, the days grow long/and soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,” the artist sang “…and still I’ll hear…” Mind you, she might actually have sung “…and still I hear…,” but I was so taken aback by the switch from soon to still that my attention was diverted. And that is one of the dangers of not doing the right lyrics: knowledgeable audience members will be taken out of the song and your interpretation. For however brief a period, you will have lost them.

I hasten to add that each of the errors I’ve cited was made repeatedly, so none was merely an accidental slip of the moment. What is more, none of the artists I’ve referred to so far, or the ones I’ll allude to in a moment, is a rookie. All of them are pros, and all of them are quite talented. They have simply not been as diligent or as demanding of themselves as they ought.

Prepositions, adverbs, articles, and conjunctions seem to be especially problematic. Getting one of these small words wrong can alter the intended meaning, sometimes in subtle ways. For example, doing “Witchcraft,” one performer invariably sings “proceed to what you’re leading me to” instead of the original “proceed with what you’re leading me to.” The original preposition suggests a process, a continuation of what has begun, whereas the changed lyric suggests getting it over with. In David Friedman’s “My Simple Christmas Wish,” I have heard a few people sing “while I’m still stuck here schlepping through my life with all of you.” The correct lyric is “…schlepping through my life like all of you,” which is nastier than the erroneous lyric—and lord knows, one quality the singer of that song must communicate is meanness. I even heard one performer sing “…schlepping for my life…” Attention must be paid.

One source of incorrect words is taking lyrics from other people’s recordings, rather than from published sheet music. This is a bad idea. Grave errors have been made by some of the most prominent singers. Jazz Radio in Berlin persists in playing a recording of “I Could Write a Book” in which the artist sings “And the simple secret of it all// Is just to tell them that I love you a lot” instead of “And the simple secret of the plot…” Ghastly. (The only reason I’m not telling you his name is that I’m only 90% sure I remember which famous singer it is.)

Going to the Internet for lyrics is very iffy. The words given frequently reflect the version recorded by a particular artist, so be wary. For example, one Nina Simone web site lists a lyric for “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” as “while that breeze on high, sings a lullaby” instead of the correct lyric, “while the breeze on high/sang a lullaby”. (Cole Porter generally did not make grammatical errors.) Another Nina Simone site would have you believe that the lyric is “While that breeze on night, sings a lullaby”. Pathetic. Regardless of what errors Nina Simone may or may not have made, there is no excuse for your not getting it right.

(By the way, a number of singers tend to substitute “that” for “the,” doubtless in an attempt to be cool or hip. For example, in doing “I’ll Be Seeing You” not long ago, one sang “that park across the way”. In fact, this practice is neither cool nor hip. What it is is tacky.)

Fake books are aptly named; they are not a trustworthy source of lyrics. A singer/pianist recently sang an incorrect word in “Lazy Afternoon”. He told me afterwards that he had gotten the lyrics from a jazz fake book and could tell from the meter of the music that a word was missing from the lyrics—so, he stuck in a word that he thought might make sense. It kind of did, but it was wrong.

Which takes me to the point that even if a revision does not alter the meaning of a song, you still have an obligation to respect the lyricist’s work and talent—even when the lyricist him/herself got it wrong. For example, Joan Osborne wrote “What if God was one of us?” instead of “What if God were one of us?”, and that’s the way it must be sung—though the error is enough to make any decent person shudder.

“Don’t Rain on My Parade” is another case in point. A lyric is “Your turn at bat, sir, at least I didn’t fake it./Hat, sir, I guess I didn’t make it.” I have always regretted that Bob Merrill did not write “…I guess I didn’t make it./…at least I didn’t fake it.”—a more logical progression. However, for better or worse, it is the original lyric that must be performed. (By the way, to do it as written requires an acting choice that I have never seen anyone make. Everyone sings the second line as though it followed the first logically, and had equal weight. Rather, the second needs to be treated as a separate thought, and a step down from the first.) Once I did hear it done the way I would have it: In the 1970s, at the original Ballroom, Estelle Parsons sang “make it/fake it”. I was tickled pink, but I’d like to think she’d first gotten permission from Bob Merrill.

When I was speaking with a singer about the importance of being meticulous with lyrics, he asked whether it weren’t more important to sing a song with passion and conviction. Look, of course a word-perfect but lackluster rendition won’t do—but this isn’t an either/or proposition. You must get both aspects right.

Finally, on the subject of respect for songwriters, don’t attribute a song to a singer who had a hit recording of it. One singer introduced “A Rainy Night in Georgia” as a Brook Benton song. Not so. The song was written by Tony Joe White, not by Benton. Another common mistake is attributing a song to the singer whose rendition was the first you heard; this flaunts the limitations of your own knowledge. After performing “At Last,” a singer said, “That was Etta James.” The hell it was. It is a Mack Gordon/Harry Warren song. What’s more, while Etta James’s 1961 recording was successful, Glenn Miller and Ray Eberle had the original hit recording of this 1942 standard, and Ray Anthony and Tommy Mercer made it a hit again ten years later. If you haven’t taken time to research the background of what you’re singing, that’s OK… but know enough to shut up and sing. (To make matters worse, both of these singers are also songwriters! I wonder how they would feel if people who performed their songs failed to give them their due credit?)

Here, there, and everywhere

Quite a few cabaret artists seem to have a mistaken notion of how the cabaret stage ought to be used—and the larger the stage, the greater the potential for inapt choices. The core misconception is that performing songs from different areas of the stage is either necessary or desirable—that it will add variety to your performance or somehow make your show more interesting. That is so wrong. All it actually accomplishes is to make audience members move their heads or shift in their seats. Variety comes from the range of subjects, emotions, rhythms, and points of view expressed in your material, and interest comes from the quality of both your interpretations and your song choices.

Taken to extremes, this practice can be just plain silly. One fellow, whose show was otherwise quite wonderful, kept popping up in unexpected places: upstage left, downstage right, and various coordinates in between. It became a game: after the lights went down on a number, guess where he would be when the lights came up again for the next one.

Remember, Mabel Mercer sang all songs seated in a chair—and this in no way limited her effectiveness. And Julie Wilson, the greatest cabaret artist I have ever seen, performs from one spot—sometimes standing, sometimes seated.

(I realize that I referred to Julie Wilson as “the greatest cabaret artist I have ever seen” in my previous column as well. I will never forego an opportunity to so honor her. In fact, you can replace all of my columns, past and future, with a single piece of advice: see Julie Wilson.

I would go so far as to suggest that unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, you should sing every song from downstage center. Now, I recognize that such good reasons do exist—sometimes. For example, distancing yourself from the piano and the musicians and singing from, say, stage left, can contribute to a sense of isolation or introspection—especially if the lighting reflects this objective; however, this device can never substitute for your obligation to convey the appropriate mood through your interpretation. Or you might position yourself close to the piano if a number involves interplay with the pianist. For an up-tempo number or a comic song, you might want to move about the stage to perform to different parts of the audience.

And, yes, of course there are other potentially valid reasons not to stay downstage center. The point is that you should know why you have chosen to perform from a particular spot and you should be sure that your choice is dramatically justified. If your director tells you to “sing this one from here,” ask him or her why. If (s)he can’t give you a persuasive reason, put your foot down—or, rather, don’t lift it up.

By the way, in speaking with a singer after her show some years ago, I observed that her interpretations were more centered when she sang nestled in the crook of the piano. She confessed that that was where she felt safest and most comfortable. I have seen similar, if not identical, phenomena with other performers. If you have a particular comfort issue—microphone in hand vs. mic in the stand, seated vs. standing, etc.—recognize it, and until you can work this constraint out, position yourself where you will be free to focus on your interpretations, rather than on combating discomfort.

Don’t cover it up

While it may be admirable to put your money where your mouth is, it is a mistake to do this with the mic. Doing so blocks the audience’s view of one of your primary means of expression and communication: your mouth. It is like watching scenes performed behind a scrim in the theatre; a somewhat frustrating experience. There is another, more practical reason not to do this. Because of a variety of factors—less-than-ideal sound mix, loud instrumental accompaniment, poor enunciation, whatever—it can sometimes be difficult for the audience to make out the words. Being able to see the singer’s lips can help enormously.

Position the mic nicely below your mouth, not in front of it. Pay particular attention to this when you are performing with mic in hand. I have seen several seasoned performers position the mic properly when it is in the stand, only to hold it smack in front of their chops when not using the stand.