Five Things I’ve Learned in Nearly Thirty Years of Cabaret

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.

Shameless plug here.

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.


Even-Handed Agitprop

What better subject for a brand new song than Australia’s recent spectacular success with asylum seekers? It’s been a triumph, obviously, but I did a little research, and found there’s a rich, happy history to all this success.

PS You can tell it’s a brand new song, because the lyrics are propped in front of me. I almost never allow that.

PPS Recorded last Friday, September 26, at Eastern Riverina Arts, where they host occasional, tiny “office gigs”.

Southern Hemisphere Love

Many years ago, I started writing a song.

It’s a song about how love is not, as songwriters would have you believe, a purely above-the-equator pursuit (“the lusty month of May”, “as cold as Christmas”, “the leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September in the rain”, “Summer, you old Indian summer, you’re the tear that comes after June-time’s laughter” etc. etc.)

Last week, I finished it:


And by “finished it”, I mean I did up a nice shiny piano-vocal chart too. It’s here.

A New Song, Both Charming and Scurrilous

Like many of our mothers, mine thinks I’m cleverer than I am. So when she lent me the CD sets pictured below …

highly recommended

… it was with the words “You probably know everything on there anyway.”

I did not. And sometimes I knew things, but Professor Bill Messenger put them in a different light and made me slap my forehead for not seeing them that way myself.

For instance, he points out, while covering the period beginning in the 1890s, that “in Tin Pan Alley, mother songs fell to the earth like ivory snow”, but that “to my knowledge not one mother song has been written during the past fifty years”.

So I thought I’d write one. A modern one. Yes, I’m aware that my own mother’s generosity has led me to writing the following. Like many of our mothers, I think she’ll forgive me:

Oh, you want the sheet music? For piano and voice? Right here.



On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part Two (11 o’clock Numbers)

In the last post, I proposed this:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I think it takes a book number to establish a great main character. The only exceptions I can think of are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly – and I think there is a problem with Velma, which I’ll write about in the next post. But, in short, it’s this:

If you haven’t been established, you haven’t earned an 11 o’clock number.

A brief matter of terminology: to put it mildly, you’ll encounter some debate as to the definition of an 11 o’clock number, and this is because the meaning of the term has shifted. According to legend, a wardrobe person backstage noticed that the song “Oklahoma!”, in the show of the same name, always happened at 11pm – this is from the days when the curtain rose half an hour later, at 8:30pm – so “11 o’clock number” originally meant a big song just before the finale of a show, something to wake an audience up and send them home humming.

But nowadays the term is more often used to describe a central character’s emotional peak for the evening, a moment of great realisation or catharsis, just before the resolution of the plot. This would normally happen at around the same time, near the end of Act Two, and involve a satisfyingly big sing for the star involved.

Obviously (and thankfully), not every show has such a number, but these big solo payoff numbers often counterbalance an earlier ‘I Want song‘, used to introduce the main character to the audience. Hence:

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Rose’s Turn, in which it becomes clear that the desperate ambition we learned about in Some People has led to a complete breakdown.

Elphaba (Wicked) – No Good Deed, in which all of the grand plans and optimism of The Wizard and I have turned to shiz.

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Superstar, in which Judas (who spent Heaven on Their Minds calling Jesus a mere man) admits that Jesus is a god, but strangely crap at his job.

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – So Long, Dearie, in which an angry Dolly discovers that her breezy meddling, announced in I Put My Hand In, has lost her the man she loves.

But what about the characters who are performers? Are their 11 o’clock numbers ever prop songs?

Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat, led by Nicely Nicely Johnson. Some people think Marry the Man Today, which Adelaide sings with Sarah Brown, is an 11 o’clock number. These people are mad. In any case, neither is a prop song.

Christine Daaé (Phantom of the Opera) – I don’t think Phantom has an 11 o’clock number. Its dramatic climax is scored with reprises, as is Lloyd Webber’s (and many an opera’s) wont. Some will insist that The Point of No Return is Phantom’s 11 o’clock number (and it is a prop song), but I think there is far too much plot (and music) left to go before the curtain.

Nancy (Oliver!) doesn’t get the 11 o’clock number: that’s Reviewing the Situation, sung by Fagin. By this point, poor Nancy is dead. Nancy’s last big sing is As Long As He Needs Me, which is not a prop song.

In fact, 11 o’clock numbers are almost never prop songs, and with good reason: this is not a time to keep an audience at a distance, with a contrived, rehearsed performance that is, within its own dramatic context, already a contrived, rehearsed performance – a double act, if you will. No, this is the time to make an audience forget that they’re watching a manufactured thing. I know of two and a half exceptions: Fanny Brice, Sally Bowles and (the half) Velma Kelly.

Fanny and Sally both succeed because of dramatic irony, and both of them, upon later consideration, make no sense. Velma makes sense, but I don’t think she quite succeeds.

Next post: Fanny, Sally, Velma and ‘Smash’.

(Yes, it has taken me this long to get to ‘Smash’, the second season of which has debuted to disastrous ratings. I’ll attempt to write about it before it goes off the air.)

On ‘Smash’, By Way of a Preamble … Part One

I think Bob Fosse started it all when he cut the book numbers from the movie version of Cabaret.

Cabaret the stage show has, of course, book numbers – those non-diegetic numbers, the ones that spring out of nowhere – the kind chiefly responsible for audience members who groan, “Oh, no, it’s a musical.” In Cabaret‘s stage version, they’re Why Should I Wake Up, Perfectly Marvellous, What Would You Do?, and so on – all cut from the film.

Non-book numbers, diegetic songs, or (useful term, this) prop songs, are much easier for those groaning audience members to handle. After all, there’s the band, and that girl is really singing, for real. The onscreen audience hears her just as you, the viewer, do. And the dialogue usually has subtle set-up lines like:

Perky Guy: Hey, remember that number we used to do in the old days?

Perky Girl: Oh, that old thing? Nobody wants to hear that

Assembled Throng: Yes we do, go on, oh please etc.

Once the song’s real nature has been established, audiences are usually prepared to forgive all sorts of unreal things: where did those strings come from? How does the band know the chords? Anyone who worries about this sort of thing too much shouldn’t be watching musicals, just as pedants about the laws of physics should avoid action flicks.

Jerome Robbins, after seeing a final rehearsal of Cabaret onstage, apparently suggested that all the numbers outside the Kit-Kat club be removed. Fosse, smart man, did almost exactly that for the film, and the new songs written for the film (Money, Maybe This Time) were prop songs too. The only number outside the Kit-Kat club is Tomorrow Belongs to Me, which was always a prop song.

Three years after the film of Cabaret, the stage version of Chicago (Kander, Ebb and Fosse again) was originally presented as a vaudeville, complete with A Master of Ceremonies to introduce each act. When Rob Marshall staged the movie version as Roxie Hart’s fantasy, he sidestepped the groan-problem with the original show’s book-numbers-done-as-vaudeville-turns by making them all prop songs, complete with proscenium arches and lighting changes, all taking place inside Roxie’s head. How does everyone instantly know their lyrics and dance moves? Because Roxie is imagining this as a song, and Roxie is cuckoo as a Swiss clock, that’s how.

So far so good, except for one thing which hit me at the start of the year, while I was watching the first episode of Smash:

The greatest numbers in the history of musical theatre are non-diegetic.

or, put another way:

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

I can think of only two exceptions, and they are Sally Bowles and Velma Kelly, from – natch – Cabaret and Chicago.

Allow me to demonstrate, with ten great (as in hugely successful) musical theatre characters, in no particular order, and the songs that make them great. Often, these are the songs that introduce them to the audience:

Fantine (Les Miserables) – I Dreamed a Dream

Prof Harold Hill (The Music Man) – Ya Got Trouble

Maria (The Sound of Music) – The Sound of Music

Erik, the Phantom (The Phantom of the Opera) – The Phantom of the Opera

Mamma Rose (Gypsy) – Some People

Elphaba (Wicked) – The Wizard and I

Judas Iscariot (Jesus Christ Superstar) – Heaven on Their Minds

Mrs Lovett (Sweeney Todd) – The Worst Pies in London

Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!) – I Put My Hand In

Tevye (Fiddler on the Roof) – Tradition, or If I Were a Rich Man

Not one of these is a prop song. But then again, not one of these characters is a performer. What about characters who are singers?

Miss Adelaide (Guys and Dolls) – her first song is a prop song (Pet Me Poppa or Take Back Your Mink, depending on which version you’re watching – [EDIT: please see gentlemanly correction from Richard Biever below]), but it’s Adelaide’s Lament that establishes her character. A great character, too.

Christine Daaé (The Phantom of the Opera) – her first song is Think of Me, a prop song, followed by Angel of Music, which establishes her character. Such as it is.

Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) – I’m the Greatest Star, which is not a prop song.

Nancy (Oliver!) – Nancy is given to performing the odd prop song in a pub (Oom Pah Pah), but she is introduced with It’s a Fine Life, which is not a prop song (in the stage show – it became one in the film).

Any male singers in musicals? Not many. An awful lot of actors in musicals, and plenty of writers and hoofers. Joey Evans, from Pal Joey, is a nightclub singer, and he is introduced with a prop song, You Mustn’t Kick It Around (“if my heart gets in your hair” writes Larry Hart, cruelly sticking it to lesser lyricists), but Joey’s character is established with a book number, I Could Write a Book. Hey, a number about books which is a book number!

Where am I headed with all this? Well, I contend that the musicals, historically, do not establish great characters with prop songs. And among the many (many) problems of Smash, about to begin its second season, this is the biggest.

(Musicals also, historically, do not farewell great characters with eleven o’clock numbers that are prop songs. Which is the subject of the next post.)

New Song: I Am Sick to Death of Hearing About the Weimar Republic

A fairly self-explanatory title, with a song to match. Warning: it contains one F-bomb, used as an intransitive verb.


Thanks to @spikelynch for rhyming “poets and whores” with “between the wars”. Once I accidentally rhymed this further with “metaphors”, I had to steal it.

If anyone is too young to find the Weimar Republic thing utterly cliched and trite, give yourself about three years.

A Quick Word Before I Tease Some Fundamentalist Christians

Now, before anyone gets offended, let me make one thing clear:

The religion I’m mocking is homophobic, misogynist, theologically ignorant and intellectually dishonest.

If that does not describe your religion then I’m not having a go at your religion.

On the other hand, if that is your religion, well then yeah, I’m mocking it.

As Bill Hicks once said, “So? Forgive me.”

My Fundy Christian Girl

She likes to sing,
Yes she does.
She likes to dance
All night long.
She likes to paint,
You can tell
From her bedroom walls depictin’ single mothers
Burning in Hell.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

She likes to read
Just one Book.
She likes to hold
Just one view.
She helps the poor
When she can
Thank the Lord their misery is part of His
Divine lovin’ plan.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

God says we gotta wait ’til we’re married.
We wait Monday to Friday and then
We do it like bunnies on the weekend,
Get forgiven and the cycle starts all over again.

My friends say that I must be crazy,
How can I stand to be so good?
And then she does all my cooking and my cleaning
Like her fundy book says a fundy woman should.

She’s my fundy Christian girl

And maybe every band she loves
Can’t play for shit or write a decent tune.
Still, I will love her ’til the end of time,
Which she promises is coming soo – oo – ooon,

She’s my fundamental, tub-thumping,
Homophobic, pick and choosing,
Literal interpreter of laws

She’s very, very big on family,
When she says save the family
She means save her family
From yours …

She’s my fundy Christian girl
(Repeat, etc.)

My Song For The Royal Wedding

I don’t want you to think this song happened because I think Australia’s Head of State should be an Australian.

No, I’d feel sorry for the royal couple, and bemused by the hysterical coverage of their wedding, even if I were a fervent loyalist.

Hence this rueful number, in the style of early Elton John:

Look At Us

Look at us, a modern couple.
A Windsor man, and you so normal.
We keep things semi-formal at our place,
Or at least we try.
I’m just some guy
Mucking in with a girl nine-tenths as privileged as I.

And do I love you?
Yes, of course I do.
Like any man, I stand here, proud,
And pledge this love before the crowd,
To you, the intersection of what I want with what I’m allowed.

And am I happy?
Look, the future shines
With throne and church and suits for free,
And stamps and coins that look like me,
As happy as a doomed and a dying institution can be.

Look at us, we’ll raise our children,
Pay tax and keep grace under pressure,
We smile like cats from Cheshire at the rude
stuff that people say,
And we’ll be praised.
Just for doing the things a thousand couples do each day.

Is there a downside?
Oh, my word indeed:
When every blemish on your skin
Becomes your family’s mortal sin,
Reflect that you could choose, and you knew what you were getting going in.

For England needs us.
And what does it say?
How sad and lonely must the people be
To trot out every useless Earl?
What anguish makes them want to see
This mindless social whirl?
How deep must the feelings of inadequacy go
For them to elevate us so?

Look at us, a modern couple.
Look at us.
Look at all this fuss.

Look at us.

All I Wanna Do Is Conceive With You

Some time ago, I posted that Heart’s All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You (written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange) is an awful and incoherent song.

Then I rewrote the lyric, to highlight its awfulness, and so that the song at least made sense.

Much, much later, I was asked to perform at the Q Theatre’s 2011 Season Launch. I was there because John Shortis and Moya Simpson (in whose show I am to appear) couldn’t make it.

And I had nothing, I mean nothing to perform.

That afternoon, nothing.

As I ironed my shirt that evening, nothing.

Then I remembered: John and Moya’s show is about great lyrics, and great lyricists. Why not pay tribute to a turd?

I practised All I Wanna Do Is Conceive With You in the car on the way out to Queanbeyan, waited in the audience for my bit, explained to the crowd what a dreadful song the original is, and did my version at the piano.

I thought it went OK: big laugh on the kidney line, and then I heard from Moya a couple of days later.

“Well, I don’t know what you did,” she said, “but the sound guys say they pissed themselves.”

So. Pretend that I’m a woman, trawling for man-seed, and strap yourselves in:

It was a rainy night when he came into sight
Standing by the road, no umbrella, no coat
So I pulled up alongside and I offered him a ride
He accepted with a smile so we drove for a while

I tried real hard not to stare, checked his teeth and head of hair
I studied his face, remembered my mace
He seemed pretty stupid, I lied just in case

“All I wanna do is make love to you
Say you will, you want me to
All I wanna do is make love to you
And if you knock me up, that’s OK too”

And so we found this hotel, both ignoring the smell
He made magic that night. Oh, he did everything right
He brought the woman out in me, so many times, needlessly
And in the morning when he woke all I’d left him was a note

I told him I am the compost, you are the seed
Or I’m a tree surgeon, de-sapping your tree
Don’t try to find us, no not at all
If we need a kidney, we’ll give you a call

All I had to do was conceive with you
One fertile night was all we knew
All I had to do was conceive with you
I was ovulatin’ about halfway through

Oh, we made love
Love like parents
All night long
We made la-harv …

And then it happened one day, I slutted ’round the same way, and
He was so surprised to see
I’d brought our bastard with me
I said please, please understand
I’m in love with another man
But we cannot make babies, ho-uh-ooh-oh
So we hatched this ridiculous plaaaaaaaaaan …

‘nd all I had to do was conceive with you
One fertile night was all we knew
All I had to do was conceive with you
Now, do you wanna try for number two?

All I wanna do is conceive with you
Frankly, any guy will prob’ly do
All I wanna do, all I wanna do
Is have unprotected sex with strangers
Like Momma taught me to.
All I wanna do,
All I wanna do,
Is steal your sperm and raise your children
Without asking you.
All I wanna do is conceive with you
All night long,
All night long,
All night,
Yeah ———-

I changed the key of the backing track, which makes the backing singers sound like chipmunks. I think it suits the material perfectly. Oh, and by the way, Ann Wilson, the original singer? A hell of a vocal. Just taking the piss out of her, I nearly lost my voice.