There is nothing quite like a good cabaret: nothing else in the pantheon of performing arts hits quite the same and with the same impact. They can explore almost any topic and flit between different styles, themes and emotions with ease. They can be camp, crass, funny, tragic and refined; they can be performed in character, or simply as the artist themselves. Regardless of content, a cabaret is an art form that strives to make a singular, intimate connection between artist and audience. You perform to somebody. Somebody performs to you. If you are an artist who counts acting and singing among your talents, writing and performing a cabaret might sound like a worthwhile (if slightly daunting) task. If you’ve something good in mind—or, at very least, the drive to work hard until something good turns up—this article will talk you through the process from first idea to first performance.
“The audience want to have a connection with the performer/song on a personal level.”
Themes and Ideas
What are you passionate about? What topics, ideas and themes move and interest you? Look to answering these questions as your starting point. Of course, this kind of thinking and questioning is vital to all writing; with that being said, it is perhaps doubly necessary in a cabaret context because of that all-important audience/artist connection. We spoke to UK-based performer Samuel Morgan-Grahame—currently starring in Amelie on the West End—who discussed the value of establishing this personal link: “The best advice I was ever given is: the audience want to have a connection with the performer/song on a personal level. It’s less about “here’s a song I like”, and much more about what this song has meant to you, how it has shaped you, how you have shaped it.” We need to feel as though we are getting to know you through the course of your act—no matter the content or the tone of the show itself.
Like any other type of performance, a cabaret needs a through-line and an arc. Once you’ve thought of your topic, think about how your audience’s understanding of that topic (and your relationship to it) will change or deepen over the course of the show. Some performers feel as though this is a step they can skip—especially if their desired topic is “a cabaret of songs I can sing well to show how well I can sing”. There’s nothing stopping you from doing ten great musical theatre numbers with some banter in between … but ultimately, it’ll feel hollow. If an audience can’t sense your connection to the material, they will eventually switch off. No amount of talent can stop that from happening.
For some of you, this will be the easiest, most exciting part of the process. For the rest, you’ll likely find yourself scrambling for cohesion as choices compound and your list of potential songs grows longer and longer. Relax—his is part of the process. And besides that: whatever camp you fall into, you have some serious work ahead. There is no exact science to picking songs for a cabaret, no formula we can offer you to guarantee success. What we do have are the following points that should guide you towards at least the first iteration of your set list.
- Each song should be a good fit for your voice. Make sure it suits your vocal range, and is in a style you’re comfortable performing. When it comes to your musical ability, don’t overreach and think your acting will sell it. If you have access to a musical director or equivalent (see “Build A Team” below), they can make adjustments to the key/arrangement; many online sheet music stores also allow you to pick the key most suited to your range.
- Each song should be a good fit for who you are. Just as you might balk at playing King Lear in your early twenties, avoid songs you won’t be able to convincingly sell to an audience as being suitable for you: consider your age, your lived experience and steer well clear of material from cultural backgrounds you cannot lay a genuine claim to. If an audience doesn’t buy your connection to a song, your best case scenario is to look unconvincing. Worst case: you come across as the child at an eisteddfod whose mother forced them to sing “The Ladies Who Lunch”.
- Make interesting choices… A cabaret is the perfect opportunity for you to showcase songs you might think are under-performed or underrated. Make some interesting, unexpected choices—especially if you are working to a broader theme or exploring the work of an artist whose songs we all know. How might you surprise or challenge your audience? How might you delight them?
- …but find a balanced mix. That said, the audience will feel lost without enough numbers they know, or expect to hear in a cabaret that deals with the material of a famous artist. Find a middle ground that incorporates some classics and crowd pleasers alongside the songs you may have to fight a little harder for an audience to love.
- Work to your theme/story. Look to the topic of your show as a source of inspiration for potential songs. Sometimes this will be easy: “The Poetry of Joni Mitchell”. Other times it will be harder: “Late Night Taxi Rides With Ex-Wives”. But returning to the bigger ideas that drive your cabaret forward should at least help you pick which songs not to feature. This is especially helpful when you have to pare down your set list: which songs are less effective at conveying the essence of your cabaret? They might be good songs, you might sing them well … but thematic relevance is a highly effective tie-breaker.
- Enjoy a personal connection. Above all else: pick songs that you love. Ask yourself why you do, and try to articulate that reason to the audience. This can be done through its introduction/spoken word passages in the cabaret, or simply by the way you perform the song itself.
“If you get audience to buy the bit, they will come with you on the journey.”
Putting it Together
Once you have chosen a rock-solid roster of songs, it’s time to start working on connecting them together and giving your cabaret some cohesion. Look back to your original conceit and highlight the themes, the arc of the show and the journey you intend the audience to take. The trick with this step is not to overthink (and, therefore, not overwrite); not every song needs a long introduction/anecdote/hot take—just think about the moments where the audience may need some help understanding the song’s connection to the theme, as well as its connection to you, the artist.
Our expert Samuel Morgan-Grahame elaborates: “[A written passage] helps contextualise what can often be a confusing jumble of songs for the audience … if you get the audience to buy the bit, they will come with you on the journey. And they’ll only buy it if you put yourself into it and you’re confident with the trajectory.” Don’t let yourself be intimidated by the prospect of having to write and perform non-musical material if you identify more as singer than actor. Simply establish your connection to the song, and then let the music speak for itself. The music should always be the primary focus, with everything else there to support.
Build a Team
Do everything you can to find a musical director. This is the person who will not only accompany you on piano during the show, but assist you with music arrangements and the learning of new songs for your repertoire. If you’re planning something with multiple musicians or additional performers, they will help coordinate and run rehearsals so that you can stay in “performer mode” and keep your focus. Beyond the technical, a good MD will also help you interpret the music as written by the composer/lyricist—to tease out the hidden meanings of melodies, rhythms and chord progressions alike. Securing a musical director can be a difficult step for anybody with fewer connections in the music world, but if there is any aspect of your cabaret worth a little extra time and expense: it is this. If you can’t find somebody suitable and are opting for an accompanist-for-hire, plan for multiple rehearsals before the rehearsal date. Invest in a relationship with the person you’ll be sharing the stage with. The music will be far better for it, as will your level of confidence.
Recruiting a director for your cabaret is something of a contentious issue, although the practice is far more common these days than it has been in the past. Our recommendation is to go for it—provided, of course, that the person you choose is a good fit for the material and with yourself. Just as a musical director can help with shaping and improving the songs, a director can pay attention to the overall arc and thematic concerns of the cabaret; they can help you clarify ideas and ensure your intended message to an audience is being properly received and understood. Some performers are reluctant to relinquish any creative control, especially given the personal nature of the medium. But the personal nature of cabaret means an outsider perspective is invaluable: better you hear what doesn’t work from a collaborator than a critic…
“Prepare enough that it looks like you’re doing everything without needing to prepare.”
Rehearse and Workshop
Take the time to rehearse, refine and workshop your show. Perform for your family, friends and creative community: ask for structured feedback and adjust the show accordingly. You may need to do some rewrites and make some cuts; you may even find yourself swapping songs out for choices you had previously decided to omit! Be assured that any and all amendments are going to help you strengthen the material and ensure that your audience/artist connection is as powerful and clear-cut as possible. “Prepare enough that it looks like you’re doing everything without needing to prepare,” says Morgan-Grahame as a parting shot. Good cabaret is intimate and personal, it should feel spontaneous and spoken from the heart. This is no excuse not to be practiced and prepared.
Finally, your cabaret is going to need a home. It may surprise you to learn that this step in the process can actually be far less of a headache than with other performance media: cabaret (especially at the independent level) is generally low-cost to produce/stage and has a wide audience appeal. Look to local theatres, clubs, bars—any place with a piano and a stage—and ask if you can book the place for an evening. For a more curated experience: cabaret, theatre and fringe festivals are excellent places to pitch and showcase your work.
Cabaret can be a big-budget affair. It can attract top notch talent, who play prestigious venues with full support of production and design teams. And yet … that’s never really why audiences go along to see them. Yes, the person onstage might be famous, but people have bought tickets because the medium of cabaret itself promises something different—different to the very same celebrity onstage in a play or even a concert. It’s that cabaret connection: that intimacy shared between artist and audience that people want to experience and can’t experience anywhere else in quite the same way. With preparation and consideration, there is nothing stopping you from delivering the very same, breathtaking thing: in a tiny venue with a loud kitchen, a sticky floor and a spotlight that flickers to each round of applause. It’s almost better that way.