In 1987, I was 17, and I sang in an a capella group called “Vocal Chords”. OK, shut up, because that was a good pun back then. Anyway, we did six nights over two weeks at the Queanbeyan School of Arts Cafe (a venue that is sadly no more), and that was my first cabaret show of any kind. Since then I’ve done quite a few more cabarets – good, bad, and middling – and right now I’m preparing to do one more, at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival next week.
Since 1987 the following principles have become nearly sacred to me and my usual director/co-writer/patient spouse Carissa Campbell.
(Note I said nearly sacred, because in cabaret nothing is set in stone.)
1. The Second Song Is Crucial
Everyone worries about their opening number, and so they should. But compared with the second number, the opening number is really a bit of a slam dunk: most of us will kick things off with a brash rendition of This Joint Is Jumpin’, or Nothing Can Stop Me Now, or Hey Look Me Over – something of that ilk. Others go against the grain, and ease the audience into things: Try to Remember, maybe? Time in a Bottle?
In any case, once that’s out of the way, then what? It’s too soon for the big ballad (see item number 2), so what should go next?
I’ve seen shows fall apart at this point, and I’ve seen them top their openings in triumph. And I’ve learned from that: the second number is everything. It has to surprise, inform, and consolidate, but not simply repeat. This sounds simple, but it’s remarkably hard to get right.
2. Buy the Audience Dinner First
Pretend the following is my second song, and behold: the beginnings of a bad cabaret act.
Me: “can develop a bad, bad, coooooooooooold!”
Me: Thank you. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen … You know, in 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason …
Personally, I don’t want my show to get serious until the audience knows me. Yes, I know, some shows are serious right from the get-go. Some performers’ entire persona is serious. So I realise there can be exceptions to my rule.
But in general, if I’m creating the kind of show where I’m the best version of myself, and I’m letting you get to know me as a performer and a person, I don’t want to attempt an emotional wallop only ten minutes into the show.
Yeah, I know, Idina or Patti can get away with it. I’m not Idina or Patti.
3. Vary the Humour
This is subtle, but it’s important. If I’ve just gotten laughs with something pattery and Noel Cowardish, I don’t follow that with more clever wordplay. I’ll probably follow it with a dick joke. Really, you’d be surprised how refreshing a dick joke can be.
And the reverse also applies.
Once the song order for a whole act is in place, I look at where the laughs are, and what causes them. Broad comedy goes here … character humour goes here … self-deprecation here, and political satire here. The audience may not even notice consciously, but I think they can feel it. You can tell.
4. Let Them Rest
And I try to give them a breather, by avoiding this:
This is exhausting, and tends to produce ever-more-perfunctory applause. This is better:
Song, segue into monologue, segue into other song
Song, juggling, aerial stunts, joke, launch into other song
Q&A section, bring mother onstage, confessional, Song
5. Patter – it Matters
Tom Lehrer is my model for patter, because he sounds spontaneous, but every word is scripted.
I script my patter.
I learn my script.
Then, of course, I try to be a little free with it on the night, especially if the audience is heckling me.
Patter really matters because songs often live or die on the five words that introduce them. I’ve had songs flop at first, and then rise like a phoenix with no changes at all to the songs – only to the patter leading into them. Needless to say, once I know how important that lead-in patter is, I’m very careful to get it right.
Still, as I said, cabaret’s not a hard science. I hope I see someone at the festival who sticks to one kind of humour, opens with a tragic ballad, and puts no thought into their second song or their patter. If the show still works, I’ll applaud good and loud.