I like to think of cabaret as the
dysfunctional cousin of Broadway. Musically,
it draws heavily on the American songbook,
show tunes, and Tin Pan Alley, but also
diverges into pop, rock, world music, and of
course, Broadway. A cabaret pianist is
expected to know this vast repertoire, play all
styles, follow a singer, transpose, come up
with intros, interludes, and endings, create
arrangements and charts, and go to way too
many rehearsals. I don’t do cabaret, but I knew
of many gifted pianists who could do it in their
sleep, and I’ve seen some of them in action.
Literally the day after I lost my TV gig
[Conan O’Brien departed NBC after the
network’s Tonight Show flip-flop. —Ed.], I
got called to do a three-night cabaret gig in
a small club in L.A. I took the gig right
away, remembering the mantra “Say yes,
think about it later.” I had some time on my
hands, so I knew I could put in the necessary
woodshedding to pull it off. Plus, I love
a challenge, and for the first time in years, I
really needed the work.
A Cabaret show usually lasts about an
hour, and the set depends entirely upon the
muse and ever-changing whims of the
singer. Some do a revue of different songs
to show depth and chops, some do a retrospective
of their careers, some go as far as
inventing a one-man show around a theme,
complete with scripts, lighting cues, video
projections, and background vocals.
Typically it’s you on a grand piano and
the singer in a gown (or suit) in a too-small
room, a situation seemingly designed to
make you sweat in front of the discerning
crowd. The cabaret audience is a scary
bunch: friends and exes of the singer, performers,
Broadway aficionados, and moneyed
patrons. There’s a good chance that at least
one person in the crowd worked with
almost every composer, lyricist, and choreographer
you’re presenting that night.
They’ve paid a heavy cover charge, and they
want a polished and refined show — a far
cry from blowing through some Real Book
tunes in a jazz club. Everyone takes it very
seriously, so you’d better be on your game.
As I write this, we open tonight in Hollywood.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.