Contemporary Cabaret Songwriting
Š 2001 by Dennis Livingston
Many members of this site may not realize that if they are writing songs that are oriented to adults, tell compelling stories, use memorable tunes and turn on literate, well-crafted lyrics, a small, but passionate, market exists for such material: cabaret.
Cabaret is most often associated with the live performance of songs in relatively small, intimate settings, including theaters and clubs with stage settings and theatrical lighting. Food and drinks are usually part of the scene, but a cabaret audience is expected to listen as attentively to a performance as anyone would when attending a play or concert (unlike piano bars, which often share adjacent spaces to cabaret rooms). The cabaret performer, in turn, is someone who, at best, combines the arts of singing and acting to present material straight from the heart in a way that forges a direct emotional connection with the audience.
One other point: cabaret performers invariably rely on a piano for accompaniment and little else, partly as a matter of economics, but also because it is the vocalist who is the star in cabaret. This contrasts with both jazz performances, where a number of instruments besides the singer play equally prominent roles, and the pop mainstream, where singer-songwriters often accompany themselves on guitar. (There's no "rule" against this in cabaret it's just rarely done in a genre rooted in piano-vocal arrangements.)
The kind of songs that appear in cabaret shows are usually drawn from what are called "standards" or the classic American songbook the great tunes from the first half of the 20th century by Tin Pan Alley and Broadway greats like Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein and their peers. But not just them "standards" from the Beatles and others that most of us grew up with in more recent decades, in addition to work by songwriters from abroad such as Coward, Brel and Weill, are also done in cabaret shows. Even more to the point, many of the finest songwriters of our time are working in this arena. If you're into polishing your craft by studying the work of the masters, especially those outside the pop mainstream, take a look at the output of such people as John Bucchino (johnbucchino.com), Craig Carnelia, Carol Hall, Francesa Blumenthal, Tim Di Pasqua, Tom Andersen (tomandersen.com), Tom Postilio (tompostilio.com), Jason Robert Brown, Maury Yeston, Amanda McBroom (amcbroom.com) and Julie Gold, to name a very few.
So where do you hear this stuff? New York is still the world capital of cabaret, containing a few dozen clubs and night spots where shows are presented from early evening into the small hours of the morning. But there are also substantial cabaret communities in Boston, Chicago, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and several cities in Australia, as well as scattered venues elsewhere. On the radio most large cities have some nostalgia outlets for the standards, but contemporary cabaret material is largely invisible except on the occasional college station showtune program. This may improve as individuals begin creating their own "radio stations" on the Internet.
Recordings? Yes, many, mostly covering the older standards. But there are a good number of cabaret singers who will take on new songs. For example, English performer Chris Coleman was daring enough to take an unknown song by an unknown composer and make my ballad, IT'S TIME FOR ROSES, the title track of his first CD (from Dress Circle). There are some compilations of all new songs as well. Among the best: Andrea Marcovicci's NEW WORDS (Cabaret Records); Audra McDonald's WAY BACK TO PARADISE (Nonesuch); and Bucchino's GRATEFUL (RCA Victor, also an accompanying songbook). Several indie labels turn out cabaret recordings, including Jerome Records (jeromerecords.com), LML Music (lmlmusic.com), Ducy Lee Recordings (ducylee.com) and PS Classics (pssclassics.com). Ducy Lee also has a links section on "New Songwriters."
Note that, by and large, making it as a songwriter in the cabaret world does not involve attempts to break through to somebody at the big labels who will like your work. You don't even have to start your own band. The point of contact in cabaret is the singer (or his/her manager), who decides the playlist for shows and recordings.
Finding and contacting performers isn't hard, even if you don't live in a big city. Most people are open to considering new material - assuming you have appropriate songs, some credentials to put on the table, professional sounding piano-vocal demos, readable sheet music and an understanding that no singer is going to drop everything to hear your work immediately. I've listed many cabaret performer organizations on my website that point your way. The largest is the Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets (MAC) (macnyc.com), a group which sponsors annual awards and co-produces periodic songwriter showcases in New York (songs may be submitted to ASCAP at any time for selection). Also check out the links at Cabaret Hotline Online (svhamstra.com), City Cabaret (citycabaret.com) and the New York Sheet Music Society (johnnymercer.com/nysms.htm).
Now for a reality check: Can you make a living at this? Don't I wish. Cabaret is a labor of love for all concerned, which is why most people in the field have day jobs. Of course, it is always possible that a cabaret song could have pop crossover potential but most unlikely, given the mainstream orientation to songs by and for adolescents. If your ambitions are to support a family by songwriting, stay away from cabaret or make it what you do for love. The reward? There is no greater thrill musically then to be in the audience when a singer sells your song heart and soul to an audience hanging on every word.
The cabaret songs of Dennis Livingston have been performed around the country, including presentations at two ASCAP-MAC Songwriter Showcases and similar group shows produced by Sandi Durrell in New York ("Now Songwriters"), the New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative in Boston ("Somethingšs Coming") and the Washington, DC, Cabaret Network ("Stop The Presses"). Dennis drew on his family history for a revue titled FROM TIN PAN ALLEY TO SILICON VALLEY, featuring numbers by himself and by his father, pop songwriter Jerry Livingston. Dennis has also written two childrenšs musicals and launched a website that carries the music, lyrics and sheet music for selected songs (http://www.dennislivingston.com/).