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Critically Speaking: An Interview with Roy Sander.

ROY SANDER IS THE CABARET INDUSTRY'S most ardent fan and esteemed critic. A fixture on the New York City cabaret scene and known as the "Chairman of the Board," he is one of the industry's most prolific writers, having penned reviews, articles, and columns on the craft of cabaret for more than thirty years, including an eleven year stint at Back Stage covering cabarets/clubs as well as Broadway and off-Broadway theater. Sander has reviewed cabaret and theater for the New York Theatre Review on PBS, WLIM radio, and, and was a voting member of the Drama Desk. He has written columns of advice and commentary for the Manhattan Association of Cabarets (MAC) and has participated in numerous panel discussions on various aspects of cabaret performance and the cabaret scene. Sander was chairman of the judges for the MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room during the ten years of the contest's existence. He has coached several cabaret performers privately and has twice been a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. He has received two Bistro Awards in recognition of his contributions to cabaret. Sander is currently chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC and review editor of, where he writes reviews and commentary, serves as a member of the awards committee, and is associate producer of the annual awards ceremony. Additionally, as a trusted writing mentor, he has guided author David Sabella as both a cabaret reviewer and in the publication of the book So You Want to Sing Cabaret (Rowman & Littlefield), coauthored with Sue Matsuki. This article is excerpted from the aforementioned book.

David Sabella: Roy, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. Some people we've interviewed have suggested not calling the book So You Want to Sing Cabaret because the word "cabaret" may have some strange and negative connotation. Do you feel there are misunderstandings about the word "cabaret"?

Roy Sander: The term is interpreted differently in different countries and even in different parts of this country. In some places, people think of a floor show with dancing girls. In Germany, there's Kabarett, which frequently refers to an evening of satire but can cover other types of entertainment, and then there's "chanson," which is a program of songs. So, looking at the cabaret scene in New York, I would define cabaret first as a venue, perhaps as a performance space in which people--the audience--sit at tables and chairs instead of in rows of seats. A term that I think is more descriptive is the term supper club, which we used to use to suggest intimacy. "Supper club" suggests a certain degree of focus and sophistication--not sophistication that comes from having money, but from having taste. However, so many cabarets don't serve dinner, or maybe they serve only peanuts, so it would be tough to use that term.

DS: As far as the art form goes, not the venue, do you feel that cabaret has a specific definition?

RS: Cabaret singing? Yes. While you can do anything in a cabaret, cabaret singing focuses on words and the communication of the meaning of the song. That doesn't mean it has to be a song written long ago, for example, songs from the Great American Songbook; it just means that one's interpretation clarifies and illuminates the meaning of the song based on one's own artistic vision and personal interpretation. A cabaret performer isn't merely doing a "cover"--it is much more than that. If a singer has a good voice, maybe she or he can get away with a so-so interpretation that isn't necessarily illuminating the lyric. It'll sound good, but in cabaret, being good enough isn't good enough. The essence of cabaret is deciding on the meaning of the song, and then--unlike performing in music theater, where the director is in charge--it is the singer's personal vision that must be realized. In cabaret, the singer makes the decisions. You are the star. You are presenting your point of view. So, that's a significant difference. Cabaret is all about point of view and illumination of the lyric.

I think that having a good voice is about five percent of what singing is about, except for opera perhaps. But that statement is certainly true in cabaret. Of course, one doesn't want the voice to be painfully bad or the singer to be off pitch, but beyond that it's not about the quality of the voice. My favorite cabaret singer in the world, ever, was Julie Wilson, and for the last twenty or thirty years of her career, it wasn't the voice that we went to hear--it was what she did with the song.

DS: Can we discuss the intimate nature of cabaret performance?

RS: When I saw Lena Horne on Broadway it was in a theater that seated at least one thousand people, and her performance was intimate. Therefore, intimacy in cabaret is not related to the size of the venue. I think intimacy has to do with what is in the artist's mind, the realization that the performance is not a recital and therefore not presentational. Rather, you're talking to the audience. It doesn't matter if the audience is one thousand people or only forty people--you're talking to them.

In cabaret singing there is an essential question that every performer must consider for each song he or she sings, "Who am I talking to?" There are so many possibilities! Am I talking to someone? Am I being introspective? Am I talking to the universe? Is the song addressed to some imaginary person or to some specific character, for instance, one's spouse? The answer to this question shapes the entire presentation. First, it will inform the physical performance, for example, where you look. It will also inform your interpretation in very subtle ways. These choices are unique to cabaret. In theater, you always know to whom you're singing the song, because it's dictated to you by the script. For example, I've heard, "It Might as Well Be Spring" sung in different ways with different answers to the question, "Who am I singing to?" There is never only one way to perform a cabaret song.

DS: To prepare for a music theater performance, the actor goes through that same kind of process, deciding what their own subtext might be. But in cabaret it almost seems like the subtext becomes the primary text.

RS: In cabaret you quite literally have to invent the subtext from scratch. In music theater, the setup allows for options, but only certain options would be appropriate. For example, you must consider whether your choice is appropriate for the character at this point in the drama, in this setting, and with these other specific characters on stage. In cabaret, on the other hand, you only have the song that you're going to sing--that's it! You start from a blank page. There is no guidance. Now, if it's a selection in a show, part of the guidance might come from its position within the flow of the show, and there might be a reason to choose one answer to the question over another. But there are so many more options in cabaret.

DS: In addition to songs from the music theater canon, I have also heard cabaret renditions of very recent Top 40 songs where performers were incredibly attentive to the lyrics, in addition to singing the songs in a non-pop way.

RS: Right. Very often just taking the beat out of the song...

DS: It almost sounds to me like the cabaret approach--or cabaret technique--may require a very different use of voice. In cabaret, the voice is not upfront, but rather, in service to the lyric. Therefore, it sounds to me like big voices may actually get in the way when singing cabaret.

RS: A bigger voice can be used judiciously and selectively. For example, when the interpretation calls for a swelling of emotion, there are a lot of different ways to swell. One of them is volume, but another is to use a "fuller" sound with more color. So... no, a big voice doesn't necessarily get in the way. But, I often say, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." There's a singer on the scene now who has a glorious voice. Unfortunately, that's what her performances amount to now. You hear glorious music and a glorious voice, but there is nothing else going on. There's no coloration, no nuance, no contours, nor any contrasts.

DS: Some people may have a misunderstanding of cabaret repertoire--historically coming from music theater and the Great American Songbook--and think that it is little more than a recital-style music theater performance in which the singer is standing in the crook of the piano. But cabaret is something uniquely different than music theater, can you talk about that.

RS: Alright, first up, you just used a term that I don't like to use. I have been known to use it, but I don't like it: Great American Songbook. First, it's not all American. It's largely American, but I prefer "classic popular song." For example, Noel Coward is not American at all and his songs are great--among the greatest ever written. And there are people today writing songs that are as good as the great ones that we all remember from the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, or whenever. They're literally writing classic American popular songs in that idiom.

Also, I should say for the record that it is possible to do a successful cabaret show that doesn't even employ cabaret singing; rather, it honors other aspects of cabaret performance. A few years ago, someone did a wonderful show about Motown. What made it great is that she didn't rethink the songs in a higher class idiom--she just did them in the Motown style, and very, very well. The show was fun and spirited, had great rhythms, and was very successful. Perhaps most important, she respected the intimacy of the room and "talked" to the audience in a personal way while she sang. Everything about the show was addressed to the audience. That is the main difference between cabaret and music theater.

DS: There is no "fourth wall" in cabaret. You truly connect with the audience. In the performance of a song--the same song--in Motown versus in a cabaret setting, or in music theater versus a cabaret setting, do you think that there are specific stylistic choices that need to be made so that one "honors the room," as you said? And specifically, how does music theater differ from cabaret in this regard?

RS: I think there are a few key differences. Like I said before, in cabaret you are free from the constraints imposed by the book of the musical and the character that you're playing. Instead, you invent the character that you're playing that night and you get to choose the style. It could still be sung in a Motown style if you wish, but you could also rethink it, especially if the lyric is good enough. And if the lyric isn't good enough, then it may not be a good choice for a cabaret, unless it fits in with some other agenda such as, "Here's some Motown and we're going to have fun with it and it will be really well done."

In other words, cabaret sets you free because you get to make all the choices. I think that's the main difference. In music theater you have some room for creative interpretation, but you aren't free. And then of course there are also eleven o'clock or "big" numbers in musicals that are accompanied by a full orchestra, so you have less of an opportunity to "bring it in" like you can when you only have a pianist. And then there are the "let's have fun" rhythm pieces that can be great palate cleansers in a big musical. But, if that's your whole show in cabaret, it can get a little boring, even if you're really good. A whole show of just lines of rhythmic music with no substance or content is certainly not for me, and it's certainly not cabaret.

DS: What do you think is the most important aspect of a cabaret performance technique that every young performer should try to embody?

RS: The first thing is to be sure the lyric says something that you want to say, even if you might not agree with it. You must find something that you can sink your teeth into. So, make sure it's something you can connect with and understand.

And, when talking about a cabaret technique, learn the words of the song before you sing it. Recite it. Get them down cold so you know what you want to say, which lines are important, which words are worth emphasizing. That foundation will inform your performance when you later add the music. You may not be able to emphasize it as much as you might want to because the music might fight that reading, but there's still a wide range of what you can do. There are other ways of expressing the text other than what the music might call for. Remember, you're telling a story, you need to start from that perspective.

DS: Music is notated with dynamics, tempo, and other indications of the composer's intent. If, during the process of rehearsing a song, the singer feels led to do something other than what is notated, that interpretation changes intention. For example, if he/she sings pianissimo where it says to sing forte, is that acceptable in cabaret?

RS: Oh, absolutely--in fact, it's preferred. Changes should not be arbitrary, but to sing a song the way everyone else sings it is likely not going to be terribly interesting. No matter how good the song is or how good your voice is, you need to make it your own. We've all heard the recording. Have a point of view that might surprise us. Take, for example, Barbra Streisand's famous recording of "Happy Days Are Here Again," where she sings it slowly even though it's an up-tempo song. That works, not because it's different--though that certainly gets our attention--but because she gives you another perspective. It's the perspective of somebody who is so weary that she's wary of the good news, her optimism is really guarded. Therefore, it becomes a valid perspective on the song even though it is nontraditional.

It is very important, however, that you're not arbitrary in your decisions. I have seen situations in which the changes are nothing more than the musical director choosing to be different for the sake of being different. I observed a very, very good singer say to his musical director, "Oh, do something different with this," and I thought, "No, no, no! You! It has to come from you." The singer needs to decide what he or she wants to say, and then communicate that to the musical director. They can then work on it together, but it should never be simply, "Do something different, because I don't want to sing it the way everyone knows it." No, that is unacceptable.

DS: In your experience as a reviewer and a cognoscente of cabaret, what do you believe are the hallmarks of a great cabaret performance? And, specifically, without naming names--unless you want to--give an example of an amazing experience you have had in a cabaret show and why it was so great. And conversely, perhaps you can give us an example of an experience you had that could have been better and why.

RS: I'll start with ones that could have been better, and there have been many. For a show to be terrific, it must hold my attention and interest. If it's just nicely sung but vapid, then I am not interested. As both an audience member and as a critic, it's not enough. I want to feel entertained, or wooed, or informed, or just simply involved for my interest to be held. If you are singing to me, I want to hear more of what you have to say. Some singers wear out their welcome with me after three songs. However, if you're talking to me through your singing and I am intrigued by what you have to say, then I remain interested. You must present an intelligent, informed, and sometimes very emotional point of view. Cabaret singing is about connecting with the human experience in addition to offering an enriching performance and interpretation. That's the kind of performance that will engage my mind, and of course my emotions. It's about digging deep into a lyric.

I'll give you an example of someone who did that. There is a song that begins "I've got the world on a string, sitting on a rainbow..." Now, that's a song we've all heard hundreds of times, if not more. When Julie Wilson did it at the Algonquin, I cried, which I may end up doing now. She found so many layers of meaning. It was an extraordinary experience to hear her sing that song. There was such emotional depth and perception in her interpretation. With Julie there were many experiences like that. And Mabel Mercer, her interpretations were wonderful as well, and it certainly wasn't the voice in her case, especially toward the end of her career. I saw Mabel several times, and it was her interpretations that mattered. She just sat in a chair--which seemed to become a throne because there was a majesty to her--and talked to us. Her interpretations were brilliant because they said something. There are other examples of people I think are great exponents of illuminating a lyric. This is my favorite kind of cabaret work. Andrea Marcovicci and Steve Ross come to mind. Steve plays the piano at the same time too! His song interpretations are extraordinary, and he digs down many layers. He takes songs that I have previously not liked, and he finds the meaning. Julie did that too, and more recently Amy Beth Williams--whom I consider to be one of the greats--Barbara Brussell, and Lauren Fox. I am leaving out a lot of others who also do it very, very well. And then there are people who straddle two worlds, like KT Sullivan and Karen Mason. They can get deep into a lyric, but they also can be "performers," never overstated, of course. Sharon McNight is an interesting example also. She can be outrageous and do a club act, but she can also do a ballad and really get into the lyric. That's not what she tends to specialize in, but she certainly has a foot in whatever camp she wants to put a foot into.

DS: We've talked a little bit about how cabaret is not limited to the Great American Songbook. But, rather, a performer can choose any song, even a contemporary song, if it is interpreted putting the lyric first.

RS: Right. The lyrics must have something to say. If they (and you) have something to say, only then will you do it right.

DS: If there is a great lyric in a contemporary song, it's fair game?

RS: Contemporary can mean two things, either written recently or that the style of the music is contemporary. There are people today writing classic American popular songs in the classic idiom. Examples include songs by John Bucchino, Steven Lutvak, and Francesca Blumenthal--she wrote a lot of wonderful songs, I mean really fine. "Lies of Handsome Men" is a classic. In answer to your question, any contemporary song with a great lyric can become a classic.

DS: Those recently written songs are acceptable in the world of cabaret. But, can they be considered new additions to the Great American Songbook or classic popular song?

RS: Of course, if the lyric is meaningful, and the song is well crafted. Classic popular song tends to be well crafted, but not all the lyrics were great. Some were just fun or had a catchy tune or whatever.

DS: It seems to me that the criteria for whether a song becomes a classic song, in the Great American Songbook, depends more on the lyric, than the music.

RS: I think that's right. However, I do think it is possible for a song without the greatest lyric to become a classic. Take "Hey Jude" by the Beatles, for instance. I consider that song to be the contemporary equivalent of Ravel's Bolero. I mean, the arrangement is a masterstroke. The first time I heard it I thought, "This is crap... it just goes on and on and on," and then I listened to the whole recorded version of the song and said, "God, that arrangement!" So, yes, I think it's possible for a song to become a classic if other nonlyrical factors are strong enough. Sometimes you hear a song in a foreign language and the music has such an impact on you that you want to hear it again and again, even though you don't know what the lyric means. Then later you find out what the lyrics mean and you say, "Ugh, really?" However, the song is a hit in that foreign language simply because the music is so stunning. I wouldn't rule out the music altogether. Music is very important. A song that has a really good lyric but really dull music ain't gonna make it. It's very important not to trivialize the music.

DS: Traditionally, voice teachers spend their whole day sitting on a piano bench dealing with voice production, beauty of tone, breathing, resonance, articulation, phrasing, and so on. What would you ask a voice teacher to spend more time on? And, what would you ask them to spend less time on?

RS: I would say let aspiring cabaret singers spend no more than 25 percent of their time receiving that kind of instruction and refer them to other teachers for the rest of the skills they need. If the teacher doesn't know what to focus on to achieve your career goals, then he or she is the wrong teacher for you. There's one singer, one of my favorites of the current scene, who is classically trained and has done a significant amount of opera work. When I first heard her--and I've told her this--I said, "You've got a wonderful voice, but you bored me silly." She continued doing more cabaret work and now she's one of my favorites. She had to change the way she sings, but it is possible. Her voice teacher may have been fine for what her career was at one time (opera), but that teacher was probably not the right one for her now. I don't know what kind of flexibility teachers have and how much they know about what it takes to sing cabaret in terms of interpretation. Tone is a part of it, absolutely, but it is relatively unimportant compared to other factors.

DS: Other than singing, what are some nonvocal requirements or skills that a cabaret performer needs, even in the business aspect? What does a young singer need to know?

RS: True cabaret shows all have "patter," so that's something with which they need to become comfortable.

DS: The talking?

RS: Yes, and there are so many decisions there. How much talking to have, and what to say? Are you going to do just fifteen songs, or are you going to have a theme? To what extent is the theme significant in the show? Is it simply a way of selecting songs--which is fine--do you really have something to say? Perhaps the theme says something that you want to say in addition to the individual songs? Those are things you must consider. There are singers who are wonderful singers but are awkward when they talk. When that happens, I want to say, "Shut up and sing, because you're so good at it and your interpretations are so rich." But it's never a concert, even though some concerts can have the intimacy and the communication with the audience that a cabaret show should have.

DS: And it's also not a recital.

RS: It's definitely not a recital.

DS: Are there other elements that are important?

RS: I think you need to know what your strengths are--what you're good at and less good at. It's not enough to sing a funny song... you must really be funny. Take Sidney Myer, for example, he can take a song that was never intended to be funny, he opens his mouth and he's funny, right off the bat. And then there are other people who sing a funny song and it just lies there because they just don't get it. They just don't have the spark to pull it off.

DS: The funny bone?

RS: Yes, the funny bone, an antic spirit, or whatever; and if you don't have it, then the solution is that you shouldn't do a funny song. Also, there are performers whose voices and bodies are not fluid enough to do up-tempo numbers, which means they shouldn't do an up-tempo number until they get good enough at it. I have also seen people who don't seem to know what's in their comfort zone and what isn't. I saw a performer recently who was fine when she was leaning against the piano, but when she was standing away from the piano she was nervously fidgeting, which detracted from her interpretation. So, stay by the crook of the piano if you must. On a recording, you may not know that the person is not centered physically, but in a live performance it becomes an important issue. Singers also need to learn how to use the stage. Some performers simply move about too much, confusing motion with action. Motion is just motion, whereas action is purposeful. And, in addition to knowing about how to use the stage, there's also mic technique.

DS: Mic technique?

RS: Yes, they need keep several things in mind. For instance, don't cover your mouth with the mic because the audience needs to see your face, not only because it will help us decipher what certain words are (if they are not quite clear aurally), but also, your mouth is part of your communication toolbox. We need to see it. Holding a microphone too close can also screw up the sound.

These are little things that matter other than singing. Another thing you need to know--almost never sing directly to one person in the audience. And, unless there's a damned good reason, don't leave the stage to go into the audience either. That fails miserably much more often than it succeeds. You should be wary of doing that. Certainly, if it's an introspective ballad, the audience will come to you. Don't worry about turning your head to sing to all parts of the audience--they will come to you. Don't turn your head unless it's called for.

DS: The contrast between "we come to you" versus "you come to us" is interesting. How do you know when to do what? Or, is it just a matter of personal style?

RS: When I saw Marlene Dietrich toward the end of her career she spoke to the audience from time to time, but when she performed, we came to her--she didn't come to us. She communicated with the audience, but that wasn't obvious. It wasn't her style then--at that point, she was "empress." However, it was her style when she was younger.

In general, I would say don't move unless it's called for in your interpretation. The other thing you do want to avoid, as we talked about beforehand, is looking stiff, because even when you're talking to one person, if that's your interpretation, you don't look with a determined gaze at that person for two-and-a-half minutes. That's creepy and it's not natural. If it's an "up" number and you really want to perform for the whole audience, do not feel the need to keep turning like an oscillating fan to cover the whole audience. That's another thing that less experienced performers must learn.

Now, about directors.... There are some directors who are very knowledgeable, very smart, very good at helping someone structure a show, helping someone with patter and writing clever patter, doing research, and maybe even writing custom lyrics. However, that kind of director only works well when paired with a performer who really knows how to interpret songs. That person is not so good with people who are newer to cabaret and need help with song interpretation.

DS: I also think there are directors who are the opposite--really good at coaching song interpretation.

RS: Oh, yes, absolutely, and they may also be good at structuring a show. There are a few directors out there who seem to be good at just about everything. The advice I would give to a young singer is this: If you're going to be doing a show and you want a director to guide you, look around at different shows. You won't necessarily be able to tell what contribution the director has made, but if you see other shows that same director did, you might discern a pattern. Also, you should audition directors by talking to them before you hire them. No matter how good a director may seem, you need to determine whether that person's ideas are going to mesh with yours. The artistic vision should be yours--a director shouldn't give it to you. If you don't have one, then you're not ready to do a show. You must have a vision for each song and know what you want to say with each and every lyric. The director or musical director might guide you away from your interpretation and encourage you to do something else, and if you agree, then fine. But, definitely audition the director, maybe via a half-hour interview/conversation. He or she will probably charge you for it, but you need to know that it's the right director for you and your show. Sometimes once you start working with the director it just feels wrong. If that's the case, fire the director and get someone else. Finally, don't be too impressed by famous people that the director has directed. Those famous people might not need what you need, especially when you are at the beginning of your career.

Another thing I would advise on the business end of things: Don't be too keen on inviting reviewers to your first show. Further, don't invite them to the first performance of your thirtieth show. In the world of theater, plays and musicals have previews. Give yourself a chance to have at least one, two, or maybe even three initial performances totally closed and not open to the press. At that point, if you think everything is working, have another run and invite the press then. You manage the press. Make the booking manager and the staff aware of whether you are accepting press coverage or not. If a press person happens to just wander in, as some of them do, make sure that the staff and the booking manager or the room manager notifies the press person and says, "We appreciate your interest, but this is not for review." In my experience, a major mistake that inexperienced performers make is to oversell themselves by inviting critics to view their work prematurely, they oversell themselves out of sheer enthusiasm.

DS: Well, what if someone is only doing one show?

RS: Well, then that's a decision to make. Sometimes I go just to see what that person is up to, but then I choose not to write about it. I use my judgment. I have often thought, "Well, you know, this is still so raw.... It's not right to write about it."

DS: As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, we find ourselves in a YouTube culture of "post it quick and let's see how many 'likes' I get." The development of craft and artistry via the insular nature of rehearsal is being lost. Nowadays, as soon as a young singer has memorized something, they want to put it "out there" for consumption, instead of living with it a while and fleshing it out. Just because you know all the words doesn't mean that it's ready for prime time yet.

RS: That's certainly true of many beginners, and I've also seen other extremely experienced people who have won major awards be reluctant to put themselves out there.

DS: Regarding "the voice": The voice itself does not seem to be something that critics generally even discuss in their reviews of cabaret performances.

RS: It depends on the critic. There are some critics who know a lot about voice and therefore feel equipped to talk about it. Or perhaps, if they were to rank their criteria, they simply give more weight to voice than I do. I give more weight to interpretation because that is my personal preference. I also know of other situations where the voice was gorgeous, but, if you look at the person while they are singing, the contortions they go through to produce the sound are counterinterpretative. That is not acceptable in cabaret and is something they need to work on.

DS: Counterinterpretative? That's a great word. I've never heard it before.

RS: Really? I use that word a lot, actually. I don't know that it is a word, but I use it. Moving about the stage is counterinterpretative, meaning it undermines interpretation. Moving your mouth a lot, or singing to one person in the audience, is also counterinterpretative because it takes the audience out of what you're doing and makes everyone aware of the person you're singing to, who should be irrelevant. Singing to a particular audience member also makes people think, "God, does that audience member feel uncomfortable with this attention? I would certainly feel uncomfortable." Also, don't acknowledge people in the audience during the show--it makes the rest of the audience, the other people, feel like outsiders.

DS: What about at end of the show, during thank yous?

RS: Well, you could thank the whole audience for coming. If you want to then acknowledge certain particular people and if they are people the audience would know--or should know--then yes. But if they're your friend or someone like that, then no, don't do it.

DS: How about luminaries in the audience?

RS: Yes, that is a choice. It's a choice, and it may work, but don't... And here are a few more pet peeves of mine.

Never, ever, under any circumstances point to the pianist and ask the audience to applaud. Don't do that. If the audience bursts into applause spontaneously, that's their choice. But when you instigate it, it comes off as "I have to show you that he really is wonderful." Remember, it's your show and your moment. At the end of a number, you might point to the pianist and say, "Thank you" or "Don did that arrangement," or something. But never do it in the middle of the song, unless it's a real up-tempo selection and you're using the number to introduce the members of the band. That's a different situation.

DS: I notice that custom very often in jazz.

RS: Yes, but that's a different aesthetic.

DS: It is indeed a different aesthetic than cabaret. There are some cabaret artists who also do a lot of jazz. I believe the primary difference between cabaret and jazz is that in cabaret the lyric comes first and foremost, whereas in jazz it's about the musical information, the harmonies, the riffs, the way the song is arranged, and the solos.

RS: Actually, there are a few jazz singers out there who put the lyric first. One of my favorites is Carol Fredette. Her interpretation is as good as Julie Wilson's, and that's saying something. Once I saw a jazz singer named Sally Stark, who was doing a Maxine Sullivan show. At the top of the show she said, "I would appreciate it if you didn't applaud in the middle of the songs," and I thought, "I love you, whoever you are!" I just think the jazz convention is really annoying--it treats the singer like one of the instruments.

DS: I think that's the goal... what jazz musicians strive for.

RS: That's how it goes, yes, but it also depends on the singer and what the singer is trying to do. My favorite jazz singers are not necessarily "jazz" singers. They have a jazz singer's feel for the music. Barbara Lea is an example of this. I once wrote that I didn't consider her to be a jazz singer, but rather that she has a jazz singer's appreciation for music--and she thanked me. Carol Fredette is also considered to be a jazz singer and that's fair enough. But it's her lyric interpretations that determine her musical choices.

Another exceptional singer associated with the jazz world is the great artist Dee Dee Bridgewater. When her accompanists take solo breaks, they always continue the mood she's set up--it's all one piece. It is never, "Okay, now I'll show off for sixteen bars"; no, it's all one piece. At a concert she gave--I think it was at Town Hall--the drum solo was a very quiet one. I was in tears from the drum solo! I actually wrote, "We've all seen spectacular drum solos, but this is the first one that ever made me cry." But in general, jazz solos too often come off like they are little more than a chance for musicians to show off and show how good they at improvising. That's a different animal--it's not cabaret at all.

Also, to change the subject, don't tell the audience to tip. It's not appropriate for a cabaret artist to teach the audience good manners. Also, don't thank your husband or your lover. Do that at home.

DS: I think the thank yous have grown recently, out of an "award" mentality.

RS: Yes, and if it's an awards ceremony that's okay. Or, as I have also written, if it's the final performance of a long run--then you can thank the booking manager and the staff. But if it's part of a run, why does the audience care to whom you're grateful? I don't even think the director should be thanked. None of these people should be thanked--they should be acknowledged. The musical director... the pianist... the band... they should be acknowledged. They worked for the past hour, and the audience should applaud them separately as you acknowledge them, but that's not the same as thanks. People call it thanks, but it's really an acknowledgement. But thanking anyone personally, like someone who flew in from Chicago to see you? No. Keep it professional and thank that person later.

DS: Right. It's not a "friends and family" show.

RS: Exactly. That's the other mantra. As you are conceiving the show and planning it, say to yourself, "No one knows me... no one cares about me," and repeat it often. Do not have any autobiographical patter in your show, unless (a) it sets the song up particularly well; (b) it's very funny, and you're aiming for humor; or (c) it has broader resonance beyond just your personal life. Maybe it illuminates something about life or it's simply interesting. Other than that, don't do it. You don't matter--your artistry does. When I go to see a show, I don't walk in thinking, "I want to know about this person." However, I may leave thinking, "I want to know more about that person," and typically, it's not because of anything the person said about himself or herself--It's because of what the person revealed about themselves through song interpretations.

Unless it is in fact interesting. Not just to you, but in fact interesting. Don't tell us what a song means to you or why you wanted to sing it. After you sing it, let me be the one who is grateful that you chose to sing it. I really don't care why you chose to sing it. Make me glad that you chose to sing it because you said so much through the song. This is important because there is a lot of crap being written--and believed today--about needing to "reveal yourself as a singer. It's not about you.

That is advice I would definitely give to an aspiring cabaret singer.

David Sabella served as a two term president of the New York Singing Teachers' Association (NYSTA) from 2008 to 2014 and as an executive director of the Broadway Theatre Project from 2013 to 2015. He has served on the voice faculties at Montclair State University, Fordham University, NYU/CAP21, New School Mannes Prep precollege program, and two SUNY Colleges (Purchase and New Paltz). Additionally, Sabella has been a faculty member/workshop presenter at the Voice Foundation's annual symposium and has conducted master classes, faculty training workshops, and music theater pedagogy seminars throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, and South America.

In addition to writing So You Want to Sing Cabaret, Sabella was featured in So You Want to Sing CCM as one of twelve international pedagogues to have put forth a modern vocal technique for teaching contemporary commercial music.

Sabella is the owner and editor-in-chief of, an online magazine and educational resource dedicated to the art and craft of cabaret and small venue performance. He is also a performance reviewer for

As a performer, Sabella enjoys a long and varied career including a costarring role in the 1996 Broadway revival of CHICAGO, network Voiceover work for Disney and FOX TV, and both opera and oratorio performances throughout the US and abroad. For a full list of credits please see

Robert Edwin, Associate Editor
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Author:Sabella, David
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 2020
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