Tailoring a Song for the Perfect Fit

May 17, 2020 | By

Interpretation, not imitation!

Article #4 in this running series.

Most of the time and, in most performance situations—particularly in cabaret, you’ll want to give every song you perform your own stamp. Why? If you’re trying to find your own voice as a performer and an interpretive artist, the last thing you want to do is try to sound exactly like the original recording artist or any famous interpretation of the song. That is imitation. Cover bands imitate famous artists all the time, and now with karaoke tracks it’s even easier to imitate someone else’s vocal style and interpretation of a song. In cabaret, the voice and perspective people come to hear is yours. While this can be explored through the feeling and phrasing that you bring to the melody and lyric, it can be also be the most thrilling adventure to explore a great deal more. 

First of all, you need to learn the song as it was actually written. Even if you fell in love with a song because of one artist’s version, find the original sheet music and learn the song right, both words and music. If you can’t read music or play the melody on an instrument, have someone do it for you. Even if your interpretation is greatly influenced by the version you first fell in love with, this process will make your interpretation both more authentic and more informed.

Just about every song can be re-arranged, and discovered or re-discovered as you do. Changing the key itself can change the color of a song greatly, but there are other ways to play with how a song is performed. Jazz singers and musicians immediately change the tempo of many 4/4 songs by playing them in a shuffle (where every quarter note becomes a triplet). I have done arrangements of “I Feel Pretty” (Bernstein/Sondheim) as a sultry jazz tune, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (Beatles) as a jazz waltz, and “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is” (Chicago) as an increasingly frenetic and desperate plea. (If song re-arrangement is new to you, at the end of this piece are a list of some diverse interpretations of songs from many different genres so you can listen and discover what is possible.)

You will be making a number of decisions about every song that you sing. Here are the essential elements that you will need to consider: Feel/Genre, Key (including key changes), Time Signature, Tempo, Accompaniment (instruments and their parts), Vocal Arrangements (additional singers and their parts).


This may be the first choice you will make about any song. Are you going to keep it in the genre in which it was written (for theatre, pop, jazz, R&B, folk, blues, rock, rap, etc.), or are you going to move it into another genre, or even a hybrid of genres? Some of this may be determined by the theme of the show, the kind of instrumentation you are using, and if there are one or more singers, but experimentation can always be a joyful part of rehearsal, and lead to some truly surprising discoveries about what is possible with any given song.


Each of us has a different vocal instrumentation, and no two voices are exactly the same. Just as with different instruments in the band or orchestra, those different vocal instruments alter in tone and timbre (the character and quality of the sound) based on where a melody sits. The lower register (or chest voice) gets brighter and edgier as you get higher, in the way a trumpet does. The top of the lower register is often called “belting” because of its bright, brassy tone. This is the sound at the top of Patti Lupone’s voice when singing Evita, or Idina Menzel as Elfeba in Wicked. It’s also the sound at the top of most men’s voices, although that is not as often called belting. The upper register (or head voice or falsetto) gets lighter and more ethereal as you go higher. This is the classic soprano sound in Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals as sung by Shirley Jones and Florence Henderson. A good blend of registers can get many different qualities in both women’s and men’s voices, but these, too, will change in tone as you go higher and lower. Try a song in two very different keys and you will see how—even if you can easily sing it in both keys—it has a quite different tonal quality. 

Key changes increase the drama in a song. They can be led into by the accompaniment and/or the vocal line, or they can come from nowhere. They are often a half-step up, but can be much more. Sometimes, but rarely, a song will change key lower, for a different effect, or to allow for the end of the song to rise. The less the music leads into the key change, and the greater the leap to the new key, the more complicated the vocal leap. That can be difficult, but also very exciting musically.

Time Signature

Add a jazz shuffle under a typical 4/4 ballad and you’ll feel how sensual it immediately becomes. 4/4 is how the song “But Not For Me” was written by George and Ira Gershwin, and sung by Judy Garland in Girl Crazy and Jodi Benson in Crazy for You. The jazz shuffle underneath can be heard in the recording by Sarah Vaughan (when in rhythm, in the refrain). You can also hear it with a more uptempo shuffle sung by Billie Holiday. This is also called “swinging it.” Play that same song in a rhythmic 6/8 and it will just as quickly have a driving R&B feel. 6/8 is the feel of so many R&B ballads, such as “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” (Randazzo/Weinstein/Stallman) and also “The Worst Thing I Could Do” from Grease (Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey), once it goes into rhythm.  You need to either be (or be working with) an accomplished musician to do deep dives into alternative time signatures, but even shifts like these can make a huge difference in how a song feels, and, therefore, how it feels to sing it. Jazz singers and musicians do this as a first step in interpretation. There is much to learn from jazz artists about arrangements, and it all translates to other genres. 


Every bit that you take a song faster makes it that much more driving and dynamically forceful. This can make it feel more bouncy and jubilant, or more frustrated and angry. Every degree that you take a song slower makes it more reflective, which ups a different kind of intensity. Going slower can make a song feel more sad or mournful, but it can also make it more sensuous and loving. Play around with slight and extreme changes in the tempo of any song on which you’re working and you will discover how it affects the feel of the song and the way you sing it.


Many cabaret acts are one voice and one piano. The pianist is often the musical director, and the piano arrangements are improvised or written by them based on all the qualities we’ve already discussed: genre and feel, key, time signature, and tempo. If there are additional instruments, their place in the song can be predetermined by the musical director or an arranger, or experimented with and set in rehearsal. Listen to favorite recordings and start to notice where additional instruments have been added to create additional colors to the musical arrangement. If you have a bass player, try them playing arco (with a bow) on one tender ballad, or a percussive slap bass on a playful uptune.

Vocal Arrangements

If one or more of your musicians also sings, or if you have backup singers or onstage guests, there is also the possibility of harmonies. Vocal harmonies can be thrilling onstage. Possibilities include backup harmonies (everything from oohs and aahs to elaborate interweaving), multi-part harmonies  (e.g., the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, and Manhattan Transfer), duets, counterpoint melodies (two songs that work together and can be sung over the same chord structure), and voices themselves as accompaniment (e.g., Rockapella and Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra). 

Now, of course, most probably you will not be doing all of this by yourself. Your director and/or musical director may be doing this with you or for you. But it’s so valuable to understand all the choices that are possible and how they affect the material. The more you know, the more you can have a part in making all these decisions, also ensuring that the choices made work together, and work for the character you are portraying onstage.


How the song ends is one of the trickiest choices made in an arrangement for cabaret. In recordings, songs often fade out on a repeated phrase. This is not always practical live (although it can be beautiful with multiple voices doing a live fade). Usually you want a more dramatic, pointed ending. Where a theatre song is more likely to already have a dramatic—even flourishing—finish written in, many wonderful songs do not. Just ending the song because you got there, or repeating the last line exactly the same as you just sang it, can be lazy solutions to ending the song. You can experiment with different ways of making the ending clear and satisfying, with changes in chords, timing, and/or the pitch and duration of the last note. You can also let the music finish the song, as long as you hold the moment, and don’t dramatically or emotionally disappear.

Altering the Lyric

Let’s talk for a moment about lyrics. Unless you have the permission of the writers, it is almost invariably not a good idea to try and change the words of a song. First, there are issues of copyright. But—even more importantly—unless you are an equally accomplished lyricist, you are going to have enormous problems creating an equally elegant scansion (the rhythmic lay of the line) and rhyme (not sounds-kind-of-like-a-rhyme, or any kind of imperfect rhyme, but actual rhyme). There are exceptions to this, but not nearly as many as the examples of those songs which have been altered poorly, or without an understanding of the essential nature of the lyric. (This can even be a problem for the original lyricist of the song. When the character of Joe in Waitress was played by a woman for a few months, Sara Bareilles had enormous trouble coming up with a satisfactory revision for Joe’s song, “Take It From An Old Man.” The night I saw it, she sang “Take It From an Old Gal.” It did not work well and was changed again immediately after.)


We’re going to get into the details of song analysis, text, subtext, and context in an upcoming article, but for now let’s say this: When you sing a song, you are singing words that are sitting on notes that have pitch and rhythm, but you are also saying those words, and those words have meaning. If you have—or create—a context in which those words have meaning for you, they will lead you to experience the song anew each time you sing it. Depending on how perfectly the arrangement of the song melds with your interpretation of the lyric, that difference may be very slight, or, as compared to the original recording of the song, it may be wildly different. That is the essence of cabaret performance: the artist’s interpretation. 

Here are a few listening exercises to think about how a different arrangement of a song can completely change the feeling and your experience of it. There are a gazillion examples (many not professionally recorded and only existing in the memories of audiences who got to experience them live), but this array will show you some stellar examples across a number of different genres. 

  • “Summertime” (George and Ira Gershwin) sung by Anne Brown in the original production of Porgy and Bess. Interpreted by Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross (based on Miles Davis’ interpretation on his “Porgy and Bess” album, itself a master class in musical interpretation of song).
  • “Walking Blues” written and recorded by Robert Johnson. Interpreted by Muddy Waters, also Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
  • “Women Be Wise” written and recorded by Sippie Wallace. Interpreted by Bonnie Raitt.
  • “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (George & Ira Gershwin) sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movie Shall We Dance. Interpreted by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein) sung by Gordon McRae in the original production of Oklahoma!. Interpreted by Blossom Dearie.
  • “Some Enchanted Evening” (Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein) sung by Ezio Pinza in the original production of South Pacific. Interpreted by Jane Oliver.
  • “Superstar” (Bonnie & Delaney Bramlett and Leon Russell) original recording by the Carpenters. Interpreted by Bette Midler.
  • “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” written by Smokey Robinson and recorded by the Miracles). Interpreted by Laura Nyro and LaBelle (starts similarly, but note particularly the vocal arrangement in the second half and the live vocal fade at the end).
  • “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (Carole King & Gerry Goffin) original recording by the Shirelles.  Interpreted by Carole King, also Roberta Flack.
  • “Tom Cat Goodbye” written and recorded by Laura Nyro. Interpreted by Audra McDonald.
  • “Madman Across the Water” written and recorded by Elton John. Interpreted by Bruce Hornsby.
  • “Isn’t She Lovely” written and recorded by Stevie Wonder. Interpreted by Keb’ Mo’, also Livingston Taylor.
  • “Changes” written and recorded by Tupac Shakur. Interpreted by The Script.
  • “Losing My Religion” written and recorded by R.E.M. Interpreted by Tori Amos.
  • “Mad World” written and recorded by Tears for Fears. Interpreted by Gary Jules.

Here are two more to listen to how an artist can evolve with the same song, as they themselves change and season over time:

  • Frank Sinatra singing “One For My Baby” (Arlen/Mercer) as a young man and how it changes over the years.
  • Joni Mitchell singing her “The Last Time I Saw Richard” on her most famous album, “Blue,” then live a few years later, and then the orchestral arrangement for her more recent album, “Travelogue.” 

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

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