Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–What Is Subtext And How Does It Apply To Singing A Cabaret Song? Join the Conversation!


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Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret will post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers.


The questions will have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects. The question may take the form of a poll, to which we encourage you to respond, or it may be a question posed to the cabaret community, to which you can leave your response in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


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.


Today’s question is this: What is subtext and how does it apply to singing a cabaret song?


Subtext is a term that comes from acting, and since as cabaret entertainers we have a primary focus to act our songs for our audiences, subtext most definitely plays a part in how we communicate the meaning of the lyrics to the cabaret audience.


Subtext is what is going on below the surface meaning of the words being sung or spoken.


For example, take the simple sentence, “I love you.”  I could say those three words in such a way that you would know that I wanted to rip your clothes off and jump into bed with you, or I could say them so that the message would be I love you, I love my dog, I love chocolate, you are important, but you are not the most important thing in my life.  I could also say those words with incredulity or contempt, and shade them to mean the opposite of how they could be taken at face value.  These are all different examples of subtext, and how the subtext can change and shape the meaning of the words that you say or sing.


This is where your creativity as an actor of lyrics comes in.  By using your choice of subtext, you can bring fresh meaning to any of the songs that you choose to sing.  This is why, in the hands of a good cabaret entertainer, a song that you might have heard many times over in the past, a jazz standard, a Broadway classic, a song from the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, can still ring fresh and true, based on the subtext that you use to present the ideas in the lyrics of the song.  This is also why the same song can be performed so differently by two different entertainers–it becomes fresh for the audience because the entertainer is giving you his or her take on what the song can mean.


Here is an example of the same song, sung by two different and brilliant entertainers:  Julie Andrews and KT Sullivan.


Julie Andrews--Source: BFlatOctava at the English language Wikipedia


Here is Ms. Andrews’ rendition of “Crazy World,” written by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse, performed by her in the movie Victor/Victoria:


And now here is KT Sullivan’s version of “Crazy World”:


The notes of the song stay pretty much the same for each singer–they both seem to be staying true to the music as written.


It is the subtext, including the phrasing that each woman uses, the pregnant pauses that they incorporate, the emphasis they bring to certain words all differ a little bit, which makes each rendition personal to each performer, and ultimately interesting to the audience.


For example, near the beginning of the song, Ms. Andrews holds the second “try” a little longer, to emphasize the effort that it takes for her to “hang on,” whereas Ms. Sullivan doesn’t hold on to “try” as long, and instead smoothly comes down to emphasize the word “hope” at the end of the line instead, sharing her take that she wants to hope that things will work out.  It is all of these little, subtle twists and turns that the entertainer puts into his or her rendition that makes the song unique for that person to sing, and special for the audience to hear.


So this is your cabaret homework for today:  Pick your two favorite recordings of the same classic cabaret song performed well by two different singers, and notice how they vary from each other in terms of subtext and the related ways that subtext are shown in songs–phrasing, pauses, emphasis.


So how do you use subtext, and how do you apply it to your cabaret songs?  Let us know down in the comments section! 


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.


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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3 Responses to Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–What Is Subtext And How Does It Apply To Singing A Cabaret Song? Join the Conversation!

  1. Lisa Smith says:

    Great post today…I think so many singers tend to forget just how important the lyrics are…and depending on the song, they are sometimes the MOST important part!! Well done! :-)

  2. William says:

    It’s always about the story–the lyric. Because it is about the story and feeling(s) the story-teller is trying to bring to us it’s not necesary for the singing sound/voice to always be big and beautiful/pretty . Mable Mercer, Noel Coward, Marlene, and lesser-known talents told us the story and we felt it.
    A big beautiful voice is wonderful and a glory to hear. But I still want to know what the big and beautiful voice is telling me.
    Great site you two. Thanks for bringing cabaret to this slice of the Northwest.