Critical Thoughts: Performers Take Heed! Cabaret Is Back, and So Are Its Faux Pas
After a year and a half of pandemic-induced exile, cabaret performance is at last returning to New York. It has been rewarding to attend a club, imbibe a two-drink minimum and, perhaps, a meal, while being entertained by established performers flexing their long dormant muscles and by newcomers making their long- delayed debuts. I have loved once again being part of that rarefied breed, an audience experiencing that special, intimate magic that only cabaret can provide. As could be anticipated, that return also encompasses the reappearance of those inevitable cabaret faux pas. These mistakes and misjudgments in phrasing, in microphone technique, in focus, and in “furniture moving,” are reappearing with alarming frequency.
I have, in the brief period that the rooms have been resurrected, experienced so many of them (and so consistently) that I thought I should address the most prevalent and distracting of them in this essay rather than in a series of negative individual reviews. The reviews would personalize my observations, but maybe in unintentionally hurtful ways, and the reviews would quickly become awash in redundancy. There are many shows that I have not reviewed at all because these errors in judgement and craft have prevented real communication and real success, no matter how good the actual voice and songs might be.
A microphone is not a prop, and it is not a crutch. It is an unavoidable chunk of metal that singers must hold in front of them. The best performers do as little as possible to call attention to it so that under the best of circumstances it all but disappears. It should be held at a 45-degree angle just at or just below the chin so that it, and the hand holding it, do not block the lower half of the face. There is no need to eat it. One would think that after 18 months behind a mask, people would want to reveal their full face on stage.
Imagine talking to someone while your hand covered your mouth and sometimes even your nose. It would be unnatural to say the least and would hinder actual communication. When a singer is presenting lyrics with which an audience is not familiar, it can become a real problem understanding exactly what is being sung if your mouth is hidden when you’re singing. To get used to the proper placement, as you prepare to sing you could subtly touch the mic head to your chin and move it straight out from there a couple of inches while maintaining the angle until you are comfortable enough with it to forego the chin-touching. It can also prove irritating or distracting for an audience when a singer passes the mic back and forth between hands too often during a song. An audience will read it, if only subliminally, as nerves and a panicked response to what to do with and where to put hands.
The placement and angle should be the same when the mic is in the stand. And about that stand – it will stand up perfectly well without your help. There is absolutely no reason to clutch it with one or (worse) both hands. You will also find that you can stand up perfectly well without hanging on to it for support. When using the stand, it is at best awkward and at worst amateurish to move it. When a stand is not in use it should be placed to the side of, or behind, the performer so it does not block the view or make the stage look cluttered. The famed singer and teacher, Helen Baldassare, used to say that you never want to share the stage with something that slender unnecessarily.
Focus: The Importance of Where You Look
To put it bluntly, focus is where you look. There are three basic types (with lots of gray area to be explored). Single focus is rarely used but it can be extremely effective in part because of that rarity. Usually reserved for a ballad/love song, you pick one point in the room to place the person to whom the song is being sung; it could be an exit sign, a door, a light, a corner of the room. This is primarily effective for a love song, or sometimes it can work for a character comedy song to one person. Ideally, the audience will see the person with whom they would share the story through your eyes. Again, to contrast it to real life, imagine declaring love to someone while looking at the other side of the room from where they are. It makes no sense. Broad focus means singing to the entire audience. The same holds true for internal focus which can appear as an internal monologue in which you reveal your thoughts by singing them out loud. Uptempo numbers also most often fall into this category. But even here, you should change where you are looking and/or move only at the end of an idea or a sentence to ensure the clarity of the line you are singing and the story you are telling.
One of the major concerns about focus is the height of the stage. If the stage is too high, a song, or sometimes an entire show (as seen on a recent visit to 54 Below), can be directed high above the crowd to a non-existent balcony, in effect cutting off a connection with the actual audience. If the stage is low, then the possibility of actual eye-to-eye contact can be very off-putting for many audience members. The ideal focus is on the foreheads of the people in front of you; it gives the appearance of eye-to-eye without the frisson that can accompany it.
Your eyes should always be open. Once again referring to real life, what would it be like to declare eternal passion or important information with your eyes shut? It is not a symbol of sincerity or gravitas; it is a roadblock to real communication. The same holds true for scrunching up your face dramatically and looking like you have just stepped on a nail. None of this is natural; none of this heightens the emotions. In another recent performance, the singer ended each song with arms outstretched as if trying to part the Red Sea while throwing their head back with eyes frozen, dramatically staring at the ceiling. I do not, for the life of me, know why.
Food for Additional Thought: Your Audience, Staying in the Moment, the Story Reigns
I will close with a few bullet points that may well be fodder for expansion in future articles:
- Perform as if the audience is made up of strangers. Don’t belittle yourself or your show by assuming that only people who know you would come to see you and be entertained by you. To be a bit biblical – you should direct your patter, your songs, your show to those that you least know. There is little worse than making an audience member feel like they are not in on the joke and not privy to each element of the show.
- The song starts when the music begins and ends when the music ends. If you don’t start singing with the first note, or you stop singing before the final note, you should keep your focus and energy engaged. Don’t look at the floor or close your eyes, waiting to sing. The audience should be invested in what you’re thinking and wondering what you have to say/sing while the intro is played; they should be sharing the final emotion with you as the music and lights fade. Otherwise, it appears that you were never really invested in the story you expect us to believe in.
- Make sure that the story comes first. I would rather be moved by someone with a tiny voice who can touch my heart than be initially impressed and then bored by empty multiple octaves and decibels used to garner Pavlovian applause rather than emotional weight. I will forever resent Star Search, American Idol, and The Voice for creating a culture in which high notes and runs and trills are applauded like gymnastic feats mid-song.
All of this makes me ever grateful for the majority of cabaret performers and shows that manage to remain personal and offer us a glimpse of the real world, a better understanding of love and life, and a warm and emotional respite for an hour or so.
The glory of good cabaret remains just that….glorious!
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”