Last month, after not having done new solo shows for a while, Lucille Carr-Kaffashan and Maureen Kelley Stewart unveiled their latest offerings. Making welcome returns is not all these vocalists have in common. Both are in top form and giving very strong performances in excellent shows with marvelous arrangements and exceptional instrumental support—and both are MAC Hanson Award winners (Carr-Kaffashan in 2005, Stewart in 2008).
Each show had too short a run—and since I hope these talented women bring them back for more performances, I’ll discuss them in the present tense.
An interesting difference in their shows is that one consists exclusively of 21st century songs, mostly unfamiliar to cabaret audiences, whereas the most recent song in the second show dates from 1978, and all but one of the other selections in that program are from the ’30s and ’40s and extremely familiar. After I comment on the shows individually, I’ll share my thoughts on what you should consider when contemplating doing an evening of mainly unfamiliar material and when you’re performing thrice-familiar songs.
I’ll close with another of my pet peeves: inaccurate and perfunctory song lists.
Lucille Carr-Kaffashan’s show, at Don’t Tell Mama, was titled “Unwritten – Celebrating 21st Century Female Singer-Songwriters.” Focusing on such a recent (by cabaret standards) crop of songwriters and catalogue of material, most of the usual (albeit wonderful) suspects whose songs one might expect to hear in cabaret (Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, et al, and some perhaps less obvious, like Kate Bush and Laura Nyro) are absent. Instead, we have a strong, varied, and interesting program of what, to most of the audience, will be mainly new discoveries, performed persuasively, with commitment and conviction.
The show opens with a cogent pairing of its title song, Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” which uses a blank sheet of paper—which every songwriter must confront—as a metaphor for life’s possibilities, and Sara Bareilles’s “Chasing the Sun,” a heartfelt exhortation to be fully alive, with a lyric that includes references to the songwriter’s tools (viz., words and music) as the means with which to communicate this impassioned message. The show closes with a reprise of “Unwritten,” and it’s clear that what is to be written is the story of one’s life. This is nifty—and smart—programming.
Carr-Kaffashan delivers a dramatic, self-assertive performance of “Turning Tables,” an I-won’t-take-it-anymore song by Adele. Her rendition of Colbie Caillat’s “Try” delivers the song’s message of affirmation from somewhere deep inside the singer; such internalization, long a characteristic of Carr-Kaffashan’s approach, contributes to the persuasiveness of her interpretations. She is quite affecting on “My Father’s Daughter,” Jewel’s celebration of her family and her role in its history, and a pairing of Tracy Chapman’s “Change” and Annie Lennox’s “A Thousand Beautiful Things” has an expressive, brooding quality. She brings a strong emotional dimension to Sara Bareilles’s “She Used to Be Mine,” from Waitress; Jessie Mueller, who sings it on Broadway, should watch Carr-Kaffashan’s performance to see how to mine the song’s emotional depths.
The evening has many up, light, or comic numbers. Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband” is a catchy song that takes a benevolent view of both the stereotypical image of woman and the modern, more independent one; it’s paired with Ingrid Michaelson’s dear “The Way I Am,” and the combination makes an appealingly good-natured statement. On Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” we get a looser, more playful Carr-Kaffashan than in prior outings, and in her delivery of Susan Werner’s “Movie of My Life,” she displays a surer sense of comedy than heretofore, doing more with the lyric’s comic contrasts than is usually done, and delivering what might be the funniest interpretation of this near-standard I’ve yet come across. (In fact, throughout the evening she seems more assured, more commanding than in the past.) And her winning rendition of Werner’s plucky “Kicking the Beehive” is enhanced by the bluesy bluegrass instrumental accompaniment performed infectiously by the band.
Indeed, the only number that is in any way deficient is Sara Bareilles’s “I Choose You,” written with insistent high-pitched vocal riffs and melisma; the device is annoying because it comes across as just a device, neither illuminating nor expanding the meaning.
As the encore, Carr-Kaffashan performs Susan Werner’s “May I Suggest,” a song brimming with warmth, encouragement, and benevolence. It was as gorgeously sung as it was touching. What lovely sentiments to end the evening with.
This splendid show was directed by David Hilder. Accompaniment is provided by music director Jeff Cubeta on piano, Sean Harkness on guitar, and Matt Scharfglass on bass; they are a constant joy to listen to. A few additional words about Cubeta: His piano accompaniment is lush and robust, while at the same time exquisitely precise and never overbearing—a rare combination. And he supplies the sweetest backup vocals.
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In her show “The Wizard of Words: E.Y. Harburg,” at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, Maureen Kelley Stewart pays tribute to one of the lyricists who helped make the Great American Songbook great.
I don’t believe Stewart ever sings a song without first having decided on what her point of view is—what she wants her interpretation to convey. If she has ever merely sung the words and music, I have yet to hear it. Not that every rendition is highly conceptual or stylized; on the contrary, the point of view is sometimes subtle, but it is always clear, always specific. Thanks to this quality, in her hands, even the most familiar song seems fresh because it is likely the first time we’ve heard her particular message. This serves her especially well in this program of classic material.
With deceptive simplicity, she gets directly to the romantic heart of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (music by Harold Arlen). We can feel the singer’s depressed disillusionment on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (Jay Gorney)—her reading of the line “just waiting for bread” is heartbreaking. In her chipper rendition of “Fun to Be Fooled” (Arlen; lyric co-written by Ira Gershwin) it is clear that she’s delighted to be taken in again by love, and she appears to be enjoying “If I Only Had a Brain” (Arlen) as much as we are her charming performance.
Her take on “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (Arlen) is sweetly introspective, and she brings great sensitivity to her lovely, rueful rendition of “Last Night When We Were Young” (Arlen). A beautifully sung pairing of “Then I’ll Be Tired of You” (Arthur Schwartz) and “Right As the Rain” (Arlen) is a confident declaration of a love that admits no doubt. The show’s one rarity, “Where Has the Rainbow Gone?” (Sammy Fain), delivered by Stewart with quiet disenchantment, deserves to be heard more often.
The evening’s highlight is “April in Paris” (Vernon Duke), which Stewart infuses with a palpable sense of longing enveloped by a mantle of tristesse. This is hands-down the most emotionally potent interpretation I’ve ever heard—partly because she includes the rarely-if-ever sung verse [this is New York—no one should cut the verse] and partly because she is that good. What’s more, the emotions develop as the song progresses. It is a revelation.
Stewart has a sweet, pretty voice, but it is also capable of considerable strength—which she displays selectively and purposefully. I wish that many singers who have powerhouse voices would be as judicious in showing off what they can do. Tedd Firth is the show’s musical director/pianist, and as usual, his work is masterful.
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Thoughts on performing unfamiliar/very familiar songs
Conventional wisdom suggests that you’ve got to give ’em songs they know, otherwise the audience will view your show as more of a chore or challenge than an entertainment. That’s probably sensible advice if you’re performing on a conventional cruise ship or a typical retirement home in Florida. However, I believe that the more sophisticated/knowledgeable the audience, the more that prescript is bunk.
However, you can’t give them just any new material, and there are conditions on how it should be presented. A key fact to bear in mind is that for most people, music is more difficult to evaluate—or just take in—on first hearing than are lyrics. Unless a song has an infectious rhythm or a ravishing melody, it is the lyric that will bear most of the weight of winning over the listener. (Mind you, irredeemably bad, annoying, or dreary music can trump a good lyric. And sustainability over time requires that both music and lyrics be worthy—again, gorgeous music and irresistible rhythms excepted.) So, the audience should not be subjected to unfamiliar material with badly crafted or uninteresting lyrics. (Then again, neither should you do familiar songs with inferior lyrics—but in that case, the music might stand a better chance of compensating.) In addition, your interpretive approach should honor the lyric and communicate it to the audience; if it doesn’t, you’ve blown it.
When I saw Lucille Carr-Kaffashan’s show, I was hearing 80% of the selections for the first time. Nonetheless, that bevy of unfamiliar songs held my interest. The main reason is that the lyrics had something to say, and even more important, Carr-Kaffashan said something with those lyrics. Yes, the music on most of those songs sounded quite attractive on first hearing—and that certainly helped, as did the fact that she has the voice and technique to do it justice—but if the lyric interpretation hadn’t been as strong as it was, my interest would have waned. I’ll illustrate this point with two examples. When I saw Waitress on Broadway, I was bored by Jessie Mueller’s performance of the song “She Used to Be Mine,” whereas I found Carr-Kaffashan’s rendition engrossing. Ironically, Mueller’s turn should have been the one with greater impact because the musical’s story up to that point had established her character and dramatized situations that are referred to in the lyric—all of that had been handed to her before she sang the first note; by contrast, Carr-Kaffashan had to do it all from scratch, relying on just her artistic skill to give the song depth and meaning.
The second example is another Sara Bareilles song, “Chasing the Sun,” which has a fairly complex lyric. Carr-Kaffashan’s interpretation drew me into it—I hung on every word. On YouTube, I watched Bareilles perform it on “Live from the Artists Den.” Sara Bareilles the songwriter should fire Sara Bareilles the singer, along with whoever is responsible for that fatally inappropriate arrangement. We get vocal gimmickry and elephantiasis of the drumbeat. It’s all for effect, and though it’s aurally catchy, if you weren’t familiar with the lyric, you’d have no idea what the song is about. Go ahead, google the lyrics, then watch that video clip. This takes me to a related point: It’s crucial that your musical director/arranger be sensitive to your vision of the song. You and the lyric may have something to say, but if the arrangement doesn’t support it, it’s no-go.
Now we get to songs that have been performed so often that people may refer to them as overdone—or done to death. While that’s disastrous for a steak, it doesn’t necessarily sound the death knell for a song. (Interestingly, some of the guiding principles here are similar to those for unfamiliar songs.) Not all songs merit perpetual repetition; very good-to-great songs are certainly contenders. In addition, your interpretation should reflect your particular point of view—what you want to say with this song and how best to express it. This will make even the most familiar song seem fresh—and a fresh take can save even a merely good song. Your interpretation needn’t be eccentric or completely unlike what others have done; rather, nuance, a slight change in phrasing or emphasis, a particular subtext, etc. can make a standard seem first-time fresh.
Maureen Kelley Stewart’s approach is a good example. Eighteen years ago she performed a Gershwin show. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with her work, and as much as I appreciate and enjoy Gershwin, the program didn’t strike me as especially compelling. However, after seeing it, I wrote, “Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Stewart and Gallagher [her music director, Dick Gallagher] is that even though I’d heard the songs in this show several million times before, each one held my attention.” Now, her current Harburg show illustrates the point. With one exception, I’d heard every song in the show many, many times before—and most of them many more times than that. Yet, as I wrote in my discussion of the show, “in her hands, even the most familiar song seems fresh because it is likely the first time we’ve heard her particular message.”
Mind you, with a great song, simply doing it extremely well might suffice, or if a song has gorgeous music and you have a beautiful voice, the result can be satisfying—though in neither case will it be as fulfilling as if you and the lyric also had something to say. But if you choose a mediocre song and fail to make it special, you can’t blame someone who takes you to task for hauling that tired song out again.
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Song lists (grrr!)
Nineteen years ago, fed up with time and time again being given woefully inaccurate and inadequate song lists, I set fingers to keys and wrote about the problem, setting forth what I considered to be the requirements for a proper (and useful-to-reviewers) song list. Well, nearly two decades have passed, and if anything, the problem has gotten worse. With increasing frequency, I and my colleagues are handed merely a set list—sometimes the one that is used by the tech director to run the show—giving not the actual song titles, but most of the words in each title, on occasion accompanied by partial writing credits, other times with none. And sometimes we’re not offered anything. And when we are given what has the outward appearance of a real song list, before the show starts we can play “how many errors can you spot?” It makes no difference whether the artist is a newcomer or a celebrity, whether the show is being presented in a small informal club or a major posh one, or whether the song list is printed on plain stationery or on the letterhead of a high-profile press agent, you can safely bet a bundle that it will contain at least one error or omission, and more likely several.
Alas, what I wrote in 1997 is still valid today, so I repeat it below in its entirety, with a modern-day insertion that you’ll easily spot, and a new coda.
Song lists are a standard part of cabaret press kits—so routine that you might think that what constitutes a proper song list is common knowledge. Not so. Since the majority of lists I receive are deficient in one respect or another, I thought I ought to document what a song list should contain. (While I can’t presume to speak for other critics, I would be surprised if most of them did not agree with me, at least in large measure.)
First of all, a song list is not simply a list of the songs you are doing in your act. (I have been given such lists on several occasions.) As a minimum, it should include the names of the writers–the full names, not just their last names. I recall one list that gave a song’s writer as “Smith”–what can anyone do with that? (Robert Lissauer’s Encyclopedia of Popular Music in America lists 74 Smiths.) And not just the first initial. I will not state in a review that a song was written by C. Smith (there are seven C. Smiths in Lissauer’s book); doing so would make me look ignorant—and that simply will not do. Of course, you can get away with simply “Sondheim” or “Kander and Ebb.”
You should list both the composer and the lyricist, and indicate which one wrote the words and which the music. It is unacceptable to credit a song only to Burt Bacharach or Johnny Mercer, even though he may be the more famous half of the creative team of that particular song. (This error is made with dismaying frequency.)
This last precept carries over to spoken intros. When I hear a singer say, “here’s a song by Harold Arlen,” I wince. (If you are doing a medley of songs with music by Arlen, you can properly say something like, “here are several songs composed by Harold Arlen.”) Jazz musicians commonly refer to songs as tunes. While I’ve never liked this—I think it trivializes the songs—it is somewhat understandable in that jazz focuses on music rather than lyrics; however, I’ve heard more than one non-jazz singer refer to a song with lyrics by the Bergmans as “a Marilyn and Alan Bergman tune.” Now, that’s too silly for words.
You should get the title exactly right. The Irving Berlin standard is “How Deep Is the Ocean?”, not “How Deep Is the Ocean”; however, Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis’s “How High the Moon” does not end with a question mark. Does a song’s title begin with “The” or not? And please check all spellings.
These are the minimum requirements for a song list. Other useful information you might provide are the date a song was published and, when applicable, the name of the show or film for which it was written.
All of this means that you may have to do a bit of research. The aforementioned Lissauer book is invaluable. You can also call the public library’s telephone reference service, or the Information department of the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I have found both extremely helpful. [I don’t know whether the library services I mentioned are still available, but I do know that today you would first check the Internet—that’s what I do. But be wary—the information you’ll come across will often be incorrect. Wikipedia is usually pretty reliable, but some of its “facts” are inconsistent with others on the site. The same is true of allmusic.com. You’ll probably have to consult several sites, and use your judgment about which information is accurate.]
A final comment. While I would never let an incomplete or sloppy song list affect my review of a show, a thoughtfully compiled song list could influence me to see an unfamiliar performer—it tells me that the performer takes what he or she is doing seriously.
Well, that was my final comment in 1997. Today I have one thing to add. I’m not being so finicky out of fuddy-duddiness. There are two reasons I consider this an important issue; the first is a matter of principle, the second a matter of time. If you think so highly of a song that you choose to sing it, the people who created the song deserve your respect and credit for their achievement—and that includes referring to each song by the title its writers gave it and getting their names right. The second reason is that when we reviewers can’t rely on the accuracy and thoroughness of a song list, we have to spend a lot of time ferreting out the actual titles and writing credits. It’s true that not all reviewers or outlets are as concerned about this issue as I’ve indicated. However, some are, and you may have noticed that it is our practice at BistroAwards.com to give the writing credits for every song; this can mean devoting an additional 1 to 3 hours on each review just to get information that should have been provided by the artist or his/her management.