Ask A Cabaret Question at McElrath Cabaret–When Should You Stick To the Melody and When Can You Take Liberties in a Cabaret Song? Join The Conversation!


Welcome to McElrath Cabaret–We hope you enjoy our cabaret blog!

A lovely little clip of Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar, with their show called Easy To Love:  Andrea Marcovicci and Jeff Harnar Sing Cole Porter.  Andrea Marcovicci’s official website, and Jeff Harnar’s official website–enjoy!


Hi!  Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers.  The questions have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects.


We encourage you to send us any cabaret question that you have that you would like us to pose to the group! You can leave a question in the comments section below, or you can email it to us at kjandathenacabaret [at] Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.


This week’s question is:  When should you stick to the melody and when can you take liberties when singing a cabaret song?


There are some basic guidelines that apply to this question that come to us from the world of jazz music.

In jazz circles, it is considered good practice to play and sing through what is known as the “head” of the song as written in the sheet music; in other words, play and sing the song as written the first time through the form.  After that, you can take solos and play with the melody.  This is a good practice, in general terms, for cabaret singers as well.  It is frankly rude to the composer to take a song and perform it in such a way that it bears no or little relationship to what the composer wrote and what is published in the sheet music, because in essence the singer is giving the message that they can write a better melody than the composer.  If you are talking about a master composer, such as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, that is rarely the case.

However, it is usually expected in jazz performances that improvisation will take place, because it is a key tenet of what jazz music is all about.  You can keep everyone happy and understanding what is going on in the music if you introduce the melody as written the first time through the song, then come up with interesting variations for repeated choruses.  Not everyone in the audience will be as familiar with the song as you are, and they need to be set up for the experience of hearing the variations by being introduced to the original melody at the start, so their ear and brain have a way to compare each version of the song that they hear.  This will help them enjoy the listening experience much more fully.

And there is nothing better when you are listening to a jazz artist who understands the song and understands the composer and the time period and the scope of that writer’s work, and brings all of the knowledge to bear, mixed in with the joy of entertaining and a little sense of humor, in the variations that he or she comes up with.  One of my favorite jazz performers who does this admirably well is bassist Chuck Israels.  He plays songs I’ve heard hundreds of times, and always brings something new and fresh to the variations he creates for his band to play.  Every time I’ve heard him perform, I’ve learned something new about the song he played.  If you want a lesson in thoughtful and artistic improvisation in classic standards, singers included, do listen to his body of work–you will learn a great deal.

In cabaret performance, you also have to think about primarily the lyrics of a song.  If you have a vocal instrument such that you can sing a wide range of notes with different sounds and tones, it can be tempting to run through your full range every time you step up to a microphone.  If you do this at the expense of the lyrics, however, in a cabaret setting you will lose the audience, because they are there primarily to hear you tell the stories that are held in the lyrics of the songs you’ve chosen for your show that evening.  I think of this as the American Idolization of a cabaret performance–lots of sound, often pretty or striking ones, admittedly, and lots of vocal gimmicks to give the impression that the singer is feeling something, but no real substance in terms of actual acting of the lyrics.  Those vocal gimmicks and even a big amazing voice can be a way of hiding yourself from the audience, because you have to be willing to be vulnerable to an audience if you are going to succeed as an actor and as a cabaret entertainer, and not everyone is willing to do that.  Often I find while listening to someone who falls back on using a vocal gimmick in a repeated chorus of a song, it’s because they have not thought through another acting choice for that chorus to make it interesting without the vocal gimmick.  If the singer has chosen a three-chord song with lyrics that have nothing to say in terms of telling a story, then the singer’s only option is to rely on vocal gymnastics to try to sell the number to the audience.

Because of the focus on the lyrics found in cabaret, there are some fabulous entertainers that found success by mostly sticking to the melody as written.  Judy Garland comes to mind, as does Mabel Mercer, for a small sampling of some giants in the field of musical entertainment.

So how do you take an old chestnut that’s been performed by everyone, and make it your own?  Do you do it by changing the melody all around?  You can, but it kind of defeats the purpose of performing a song that is considered a standard and is one that the audience really wants to hear as they remember it.  Instead, you will want to find out how you relate to the lyrics–something drew you to the song, so what was it?  What in the story of the lyrics touched your heart, or made you laugh or cry?  In what ways do you relate to the speaker of the song who tells their story through the lyrics?  When you can connect with that, and then share your thought and feeling with the audience, you will have created your own unique version of the song, without the need to change out the melody in wild ways, and can then go on from there to offer thoughtful and fun improvisations as the icing on the cake should you choose.

Do you have any other tips for when to use the melody and when to take liberties with it in a cabaret song?  I can’t wait to hear what your responses are to today’s question, so let me know down in the comments here. 


You can also leave a comment on LinkedInGoogle+Facebook or Twitter.  And you can always feel free to drop us a line, either in the comments below or send us a direct email, and let us know a cabaret question that you would like us to ask, and we’ll do our best to include it in an upcoming Wednesday post.


I truly look forward to your joining the conversation with your comments! We value each of our readers very much, and hope to entertain you and give you a place to come and learn more about cabaret.


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We appreciate your support!

Till next time, 

ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party is still going strong–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or cabaret website link from now through Thursday.  Link is below.


Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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