The great saloon singer Hugh Shannon performing live in Manhattan. I adore his voice and piano playing, and seeing these videos of him performing live is just delicious! He has selections included in the three-disc anthology called The Erteguns’ New York: New York Cabaret Music. Other albums of Hugh Shannon music include Saloon Singer and True Blue Hugh, and there is a VHS video of Mr. Shannon performing live, entitled Saloon Singer. He uses “You Better Go Now” as a perfect show closer in this VHS video. The New Yorker magazine also did a profile of Mr. Shannon back in 1977.
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]gmail.com. Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.
Today’s question is this: How do you write patter for your cabaret shows?
Usually, when we are working on a new show, I start by working with KJ to put together a potential, first-draft song list. Then I start thinking about patter. Usually I write the patter, but it inevitably gets changed, and for the better, as KJ adds some great new parts to it, and as we rehearse the songs we think of funny things to say that relate to the music or the theme of the song or something going on with us. If the songs change, the patter will change with it.
I definitely don’t think there’s only one right way to write patter. And some people, geniuses, are able to do patter off the top of their heads. My preference is to have it all written out in advance, have it memorized and so well-rehearsed that it seems to be spontaneously delivered to the audience. I find if I don’t, we tend to ramble too much, and rambling can lead to boredom in the audience very quickly. I do like patter that sounds natural, like someone who is just talking with some friends at a party. Partly that is done by how you say the words, but it also comes down to the specific words that you choose to say.
I think patter should be concise. It can show a connection between the previous song and the new one. Patter works to also transition to new ideas about your theme, if you are doing a theme show.
One of the early steps I take is to research all that I can find for every song that we are going to perform. I look at the sheet music itself, the biographies where available for the composer and lyricist, and references to who originated the song, as well as major recordings or performances of the song. You can never know too much about the history of the songs. There is no real set way that I do this, but there will be a thought, or a line, or a quote that will jump out at me, have significance for me, and hopefully be universally significant as well. Those are the gems that you want to include in your patter.
You want to give the audience enough information that you pique their curiosity about what will come next, get them to lean forward in their seat in anticipation of what you are going to do. I also like to find anecdotes from the composer and lyricist about creating the song, if available. I think about the lyrics a lot, and try to find a subtext for the song that will also color the patter that I give before or after the song.
You don’t need patter in between every song. You can cluster two or more songs together, and create a storytelling/acting arc from the lyrics alone, which is very effective when done well. Remember from musical theatre–there is the dialogue, and more dramatic are sung lyrics, and the most dramatic are the dances. It is just a build-up of emotion to sing, and you may not want to break the mood you created, via the song, with patter in between–your creative call on that one.
Not having enough patter is sometimes a problem. Patter is the entertainment of your show. If you don’t check in with your audience now and then to make sure they are following your line of thought with the songs you are presenting, it becomes more of a concert and less of a cabaret performance. If your theme is subtle, some well-placed patter can mean the difference between an audience getting what you are doing, or an audience who can’t figure it out and are confused.
If you do a big build-up for a song using patter, it helps to tell the audience the name of the song to which you refer. There will be some people in the audience who will not know the song, or not remember the title, and they will be frustrated if you build up the song and then leave them hanging.
If your audience is really with you and enjoying your performance, there may be times when they chime in. You need to be comfortable breaking away from your prepared patter to do some off-the-cuff comment, keeping it light and not offensive, giving the audience a little laugh while bringing the patter back to your prepared statements. This is what makes cabaret so much fun–the audience really with you. If, in your patter, you decide to ask the audience a question, or decide to work the room by going out into the audience to schmooze with them during or before a song, be prepared for any type of answer they might throw at you–practice different scenarios in rehearsal, so that you can learn to think on your feet and be ready for an actual performance. Improvisational acting training never hurt the cabaret performer, let’s just say.
I find that I can get a rough draft of patter ideas down on paper on my own, but it definitely requires working with others to hone and smooth it all out. Your performance partners are a natural choice with this, as is your director and music director if you have them. Mentors who have seen or performed a lot of cabaret are also very helpful if you have access to such people–if you live away from major cities, try to join cabaret associations and meet up with people, either in person or online, who have gone to the Yale Conference, or performed at some of the larger cabaret rooms, and pick their brains as much as they will allow about patter writing.
So these are some of the steps that I take when I write patter–what about you? How do you like to write patter for your cabaret shows? I truly look forward to your comments, and any help or suggestions you have on this topic! 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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