A Great Show Tells a Great Story

May 28, 2020 | By
Article #5 in this running series.

A key factor to creating a successful cabaret act or revue is to give the show an emotional throughline underpinning it.

The classic notion of choosing a bunch of songs that you like, and then alternating uptempos with ballads, can create a haphazard and unfocused experience, even if it has a few beautiful moments within.  

A good show has a single thread to weave the songs together, even if no one in the audience consciously knows what that thread is, or even that it exists. 

Each one of the songs that you sing creates a moment, a mood, and possibly tells a story, affected greatly by the character who is conveying that moment. When you put all the songs together, they are also affected by each other, and their order, and they then tell a larger story. This all happens whether you intend it or not, and whether or not you are conscious about how it works.

I’m not saying that a solo show or revue needs to have the same kind of narrative structure as a play (although some cabaret acts and revues do just that). What I’m saying, is that once you create a song order, you are telling a story with that song order, taking the audience on a journey, and the more conscious and artful you are about constructing that journey, the more your audience will be willing to go with you on the ride.

The Elements of Narrative Structure

It may help to take a look at classic narrative structure to understand this better, even if you don’t adhere to it consistently.

In a story, the first most important thing is to find out where we are (the setting), when it is occurring (the moment in time), and who our protagonist is. The protagonist’s view of the world will be the perspective from which we will view whatever is set before us. The protagonist always has a want or need that is set up at the beginning of the story. At the same time, or soon after, we discover the issue, or conflict that is impeding the protagonist’s objective.

Over the course of the story, one or more ways of addressing the conflict are tried. Things usually get more complicated—there are failures, mishaps, and additional problems. Then there is some kind of breakthrough. This can mean our protagonist being victorious—through luck, persistence, fate, or chance. But it doesn’t have to be a victory. There may not be any physical or circumstantial change at all. It may be a discovery, something that is found or learned. That brings us to where we are at the end, which—in a good story—is in some new place, whether figuratively or literally. Look at almost any play or movie—be it drama, comedy, or musical—and this is most often the essential structure.

Let’s look at some cabaret acts that have utilized a basic narrative arc told essentially through song:

  • A young woman believes she is all-American until her family’s country of origin is struck by disaster. As she struggles to come to terms with how the country has been decimated, and how little America cares for it, she discovers how much her cultural homeland is a part of her. 
  • A young man takes a bumpy path from being a closeted gay theatre kid in Kansas to making his own way in New York City. The path includes struggles with family and friends, and the life he makes is not the one he expected, but he finds acceptance, and, even more importantly, acceptance of himself.
  • An artistic couple—both of whom have day jobs—have a child. They try to maintain their work lives, artistic lives, family lives, and personal lives, with varying complications and degrees of success. In the process, they learn about love and how to love–themselves, each other, and the child–in a whole new way. 
  • An older woman played ingenue roles because that was how she was cast, and she sang the songs those characters sang. After being retired because she was no longer an ingenue, she found herself and her voice, and now chooses songs that speak her truth, also discovering new truths in those first songs through the eyes of who she has become. 
  • Three people in their 20s believe the world is open to them and discover quickly all the norms and pitfalls that get in the way of their finding love, ultimately finding a way to make peace with that and find hope again that there will be love in their lives, whatever form that takes.

This last is the story arc of Starting Here, Starting Now, which is a perfect example of being able to tell a story without a word of dialogue. As a director, Richard Maltby, Jr. is the master of telling story and revealing character through song and only song. His revues—from Ain’t Misbehavin’ through Closer Than Ever—have essentially no spoken text at all, and yet always have a beautiful underlying emotional arc from beginning to end, as well as the songs telling individual stories.

Isn’t Changing Tempos Important?

Of course. Can you do two ballads in a row? Absolutely, especially if they are not in the exact same key, tempo, genre, and musical feel, and most importantly, that both songs don’t go to the exact same emotional place, taking the same perspective on the same idea. This can wear on an audience, not just with ballads, but also with mid-tempos and even up-tempos. Two comic patter songs in a row can be just as exhausting as two sad, aching torch songs.

Must You Always Stay on Course?

Just because there is an underlying story arc to your show, not every song needs to chart the course of that arc or fit neatly into it. If you think about most musicals, there are all kinds of diversions: comic takes, novelty numbers, a breakout number for a different character, or just a very different perspective on the story or, on life itself. After the most dramatic songs—those about loss, profound psychological conundrums, despair—is an ideal place to set such diversions. They release tension and shake up the energy of both the show and the audience. In fact, you will often find that the audience’s applause that occurs after a deeply dramatic song followed by an excessively silly or comedic song, is actually for the excitement created by linking these two songs together, and for the release the second song offers. 

A song diversion can be used effectively in a spot where you fear things have been too similar, or when tension has been built up and there needs to be some shift to relieve it. But there are other kinds of diversions that can break up the similarity of the songs in your show for the audience. Using “patter,” stories, and dialogue between the performers on stage can be extremely effective, but so is singing à cappella. You might also sing with a different instrument accompaniment. If you or one of your musicians plays a guitar, a song with guitar accompaniment can change moods. An upright bass player playing arco (with a bow) can be another auditory shift, and can be particularly beautiful on ballads. Actually, a bass player shifting between acoustic and electric bass can itself change the auditory experience, and so, the flow and feel of the show as a whole.

And What About Medleys?

Medleys can have absolutely brilliant story arcs within themselves, or, if you’re not careful,  be a random sampling of songs that go nowhere. Avoid ever doing a medley if it’s just to put songs together so you can get them into the show somehow. Great professionals can create mediocre medleys, and when they do, no matter how artful the musical connections or how talented the performer, the medley falls flat. The musical arrangement of a medley can make it more thrilling, but it certainly won’t save a poor choice of songs that don’t build on each other. A medley works if, and only if, the juxtaposition of the songs, their connection to each other, and the course they track together works. 

Some songs are a moment; others are a journey. Medleys must take a journey because they are, by very definition, a series of moments. So don’t do a medley unless you have a reason, and make sure that the medley has its own mini-evolution or storyline.

Finally, the Encore!

The show ends with a big rousing uptempo or, perhaps, with a sweet intimate shared moment—wherever your beautiful emotional arc ends. Then the audience yells “Encore!” And so you stay or return for one more song. Remember: this is an important moment. It is what your audience will take away with them when they leave. It does not have to be a part of the storyline. It can be wildly different in tone, tempo, genre, even perspective. In fact, the more it is not a part of the storyline, the more it needs to be very different from wherever you left the show just a moment ago. However, the more your show tells a story and takes the audience on an emotional musical journey, the more you can do whatever you like for your encore. A great show with a great emotional arc will help insure that everyone will happily go with you wherever it is you want to go!


Category: Cabaret Handbook

About the Author ()

Shellen Lubin  is a veteran of both the cabaret and theatre worlds as a director, songwriter, performer, and voice and acting teacher/coach; she has directed the Bistro Awards for the last eight years. She is currently director/dramaturg in development with projects by Lanie Robertson, Stuart Warmflash, Amy Oestreicher, and more. Proud member of SDC and most unions and guilds in the theatre industry; Co-President, League of Professional Theatre Women; Past President, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition; Chair of the National Theatre Conference's Women Playwrights Initiative. She writes a weekly think piece read by thousands called "Monday Morning Quote."  www.shellenlubin.com, www.mondaymorningquotes.com, @shlubin

Comments (2)

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  1. Very informative–I have written a one woman show based on my deceased husband’s writing. He was a poet, playwright, Director, actor…We performed together for 20 years.

    • Thank you. Good luck with it. It is a challenging time to write, as we try to conceptualize when we will be congregating again in theatres, and what that will look like. Onward!