One thing I didn’t expect when I started cabaret was how much I would learn about my own voice. After singing professionally for over 25 years, I was pretty sure I knew everything I needed to know about it.
When we first start to sing as part of an ensemble or in voice lessons, we learn pretty quickly what voice part we belong to – soprano, alto, tenor or bass. If we go on to study voice seriously with the intention of performing either in opera or musical theatre, we are further categorized. Opera singers get categorized into a fach – the German system for categorizing voice types – like soubrette, lyric coloratura, dramatic, helden, etc. Musical theatre singers get typed – character actor, ingenue, leading lady, etc.
But in cabaret, it’s a free for all! There are no rules for what you can or cannot sing. Perhaps the most traditional rep for cabaret is the rich catalog of the Great American Songbook although there are plentiful cabarets based on the Broadway shows of classic composers like Sondheim, Bernstein, Kander and Ebb, Loesser and more. But that’s a drop in the bucket to all the music that is out there. There is pop, rock, R & B, jazz, folk, classical and so much more.
I have seen a few cabarets that have used an incredible variety of styles within one show. The seasoned cabaret singer, Julie Reyburn just made her cabaret comeback after a few years away from the stage in a varied and beautifully crafted show entitled Anywhere But Here. In this show she sang “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story (a song normally sung by a tenor), “Saturday in the Park” by the 70’s band, Chicago and “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy among many others. It was an incredibly diverse program, but every song told her own personal story in some way and she owned each and every one.
So the sky is the limit! You can choose any song you want!
You must know your strengths and weaknesses and you must honor them! Show off what you do really well and eliminate what you don’t do well. That seems obvious, right?
If you are an operatic tenor out in the opera world who doesn’t have a great sustained high B, no matter how beautifully you sang, I would never suggest you sing “Nessun dorma.”
When I was first brainstorming music for my show, I didn’t pay attention to how I would sing particular songs. I was paying attention to lyrics that would tell my story knowing that I’d figure out how to sing them later. One song I came across which absolutely fit my story was “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. Now, never in a million years do I have any business belting out Elphaba. My voice does not, has never and will not ever do what is required to sing that song. But I was convinced that I needed to sing the lyric. I sang it for my musical director and he said he wasn’t convinced that I would be taken seriously. Audiences have a very clear sound in their ear when it comes to that song and he felt that it would be distracting for them if I did not deliver what they were expecting. We considered doing a complete rearrangement but in the end decided to ditch it. He was right and we found a perfect replacement.
I have learned that the point of cabaret is we are there to tell a story – it is not about the singing (where have I heard that before?). And if you choose to sing a song that is beyond your range or ability, the audience is immediately taken out of the story you are trying to tell and they start to focus on the voice.
If you were once a classical singer (I was) and that is a major part of your story but your voice is no longer able to handle the demands of that kind of singing, do not program a song that requires that kind of singing. Throw in one operatic high note at an unexpected moment that will thrill the audience but don’t showcase something that is no longer there.
If you are not a Broadway belter (I’m not), do not program three songs that require you to constantly sing those Broadway “money notes.” Doing one song that has a big belted note is fine and can be exciting because it is unexpected. But if you are a Blossom Dearie trying to sing Ethel Merman like Ethel Merman, your audience may be put off.
I have learned it’s not that you CAN’T sing what you want. On the contrary, you can sing ANYTHING you want! But you have to find a way to sing what you want that showcases your story-telling and doesn’t distract from it. Maybe it is just transposing the song so that you aren’t required to reach the outer limits of your range ( I did a lot of that in my show). Or maybe it is completely rearranging the song (changing the time signature, the rhythm, the tempo, the accompaniment) that allows you to make it your own so that the story-telling is the focus.
Because THAT’S the point.
The story-telling is the focus.