Advice from Alison Fraser

July 15, 2011

Alison FraserAlison Fraser is featured in today’s Playbill Diva Talk column.  I was particularly struck by her talking about her teaching:

Question: The last time we spoke I know you were still in school. I’m wondering if you are still in school or if you finished.
Fraser: That’s done—but I teach there now. I thought about going for my MFA, but all of these shows came up, and I thought, “Well, you know what, I think I have to really take advantage of the fact that I’m wanted right now,” so I had to put that off, but the schooling experience is so fantastic. You can change your life at any juncture of it, and that’s what I did. I turned my life around four years ago by deciding to go back to school, and now I’m a professor at Fordham. I teach a course called “Song as Scene,” and what I get to do is I get to talk to these wonderful students about my philosophy of performing, of conversational singing, of making sure that there’s honesty behind every syllable, of making sure that you’re not just singing for the sake of making noise, which I see so often, especially on things like “American Idol.”… I just say, “When you are in my class, I want to know exactly why you are singing it,” and that to me is much more important than vocal-pyrotechnics, even though vocal-pyrotechnics I admire tremendously—I wish I could do it—but my proudest moments are when I have kids that walk in that think they can’t sing, and I’m like, “You know what, you can sing and this is what we are going to do for you. We are going to choose exactly the right material, and we’re going to make sure that you understand every syllable of what you’re saying. We’re going to make sure that you are comfortably musically—if it’s too high, we’re going to take it down. If it’s too long, we are going to shorten it. We are going to find you a beginning, we are going to find you an ending, and we are going to make damn sure that the urge—the need—that you have to sing this song is evident, that your intention is completely clear.” Matthew McGuire, the head of the theatre department at Fordham, just gave me this wonderful opportunity, and I’ve taught three semesters now, and I’m really having a great time. I’m going to be teaching again in the spring, and that’s daunting, too, because that’s on my plate, so it’s more difficult for me to go out of town, but I really feel strongly about teaching and I feel like I have a peculiarly individual approach to it… This young girl came in singing “Everything’s Coming up Roses,” and she’s a spectacular singer—a great, great singer—and a beautiful young girl. But you have to say, “This isn’t a happy song. This song is not happy, and I have some background here. I sat in rehearsal for many, many weeks, and I know what this song is about, and I know how Arthur Laurents directed it, and I know what he meant when he was writing it, and I saw what Patti LuPone did with it, so let’s try this one again.” If they come in with something that I have a personal relationship to, it’s fantastic. I think I had two kids sing “Hold On,” and I can say, “Well, I know that last note is really hard, but here is a way of approaching it.” Bringing my personal experience to the classroom is fun, but also, I love it when the students bring in material I had no idea about, and one of my other things I say is, “Make sure that the singer is worthy of the song.” For example, if you are not a particularly skilled singer, don’t come in with something that was written specifically for Kristin Chenoweth because there is one of the great voices of our time. Pick something that is a little less vocally challenging. Also, make sure that the song is worthy of the singer—don’t come in with a minor song and expect me to be impressed, unless you really knock my socks off. Start with a good song. Make sure the singer is worthy of the song and that the song is worthy of the singer.

Unusually, “As Usual”

June 27, 2010

OK, I’m a sucker for more-literal English translations of foreign-language songs that have better-known English versions. 

Here’s a great new one.  Deborah Boilly has written and performs the song Comme D’Habitude (As Usual) that we usually know with the Paul Anka “My Way” lyric with her more literal translation.

Oh, and here’s one of the top Japanese stars of the last century, Hibari Misora, doing her version.  (I can’t vouch for whether the Japanese lyric is based on Comme D’Habitude or My Way or something else.) 

Oh, and for what it’s worth, my favorite version of My Way is by Eartha Kitt.

Matt Howe on Publicity Challenges

March 22, 2010

Publicity Counts … If You Can Get It

by Matt Howe

I am in a reflective mood after presenting my first solo cabaret show. “Happy Endings” played at the Sitar Arts Center Friday and Saturday night, March 19 and 20.

I’m very grateful to the people who bought tickets to see my show. I had enthusiastic audiences comprised of friends (and friends of friends) and family in the 84-seat deLaski Theater.

I am frustrated, however.

I wish I could have reached people I do not know and interested them in attending my show.

Certainly there is a cabaret audience out there in D.C.?

As most anyone who has produced a cabaret show knows, it requires a lot of work behind the scenes in order to get to opening night.

There’s artistic work to be done: song repertoire; keys; arrangements; patter; etc.  Then there’s production work to be done: renting the venue that your show will be performed at; deciding what you’ll wear; hiring someone to do sound and lighting; and managing your audience once they arrive at the venue.  This is enough to keep any cabaret artist busy up to and including opening night!

On top of all that, it’s important to get the word out that your show is taking place so that people can attend. This is also known as publicity. And this is my frustration with the cabaret scene in Washington, D.C.

Let me tell you what I think I’ve been doing right:

In the past, I have publicized shows I’ve participated in by using a few tools: postcards that I handed out or hung on bulletin boards or placed in theaters, bars or restaurants; emails to friends and family; announcements on the D.C. Cabaret Network’s monthly electronic newsletter; postings to Social Network sites like Facebook or MySpace; and listings in local newspapers or online sites.

For “Happy Endings” I asked a friend who writes press releases for a living to help me create one for my show. I partnered with my “cabaret buddy”, Maris Wicker, to share expenses of renting the venue. This also created a “hook” in our press release: We were presenting a “Cabaret Doubleheader” comprised of our two shows.

Two weeks before my event, I sent my press release to The Washington Post, Washington City Paper,, Metro Weekly, Dupont Current, DC Agenda, and several online “event sites” like and

Only Dupont Current listed my show.

If you flip through any of the newspapers I mentioned, you will find local listings for events in music, theater, galleries, and museums.

But no cabaret.

In the past, I’ve had hit-or-miss luck getting the same newspapers to list the cabaret show I was appearing in.

I’ve tried every means of sending my press release: I’ve emailed it. I’ve snail mailed it. I’ve faxed it. And I’ve filled out forms on the newspapers’ websites. (This includes various combinations of all of those means!)

Let me clarify what I’m talking about here. By sending my press release, I am asking the newspapers to LIST MY SHOW as occurring the weekend of March 19 and 20. I am not asking for a review, an interview, a “best pick,” or even a cover story. I am simply asking that they list my show times, venue, and maybe a short “blurb” about the cabaret.

I am hoping a listing in these newspapers could attract audience members I don’t know – maybe a local or visiting couple who enjoy show tunes and intimate singing.

Here’s the problem: How would that couple possibly know I was performing at 9:30 pm on Friday if none of the local papers printed it?

I’ve had this conversation with several D.C. cabaret folks and they all say it is a constant frustration and problem that everyone producing a cabaret show in Washington has. Unless you’re sponsored by a “big” theater like Signature or Arena or The Kennedy Center, the papers seem uninterested.

I don’t believe that a listing in a local newspaper would generate huge ticket sales. I realize that since I am not Barbara Cook or Andrea Marcovicci, most of my audience will be comprised of friends and family.

But my fiscal bottom line would have been better with a half dozen or so extra audience members each night I performed.

And isn’t it true that those audience members who attended my show because they saw a listing in a certain newspaper might come to someone else’s cabaret show listed in that same newspaper?

Most of the local cabaret artists I know produce their own shows with their own money. And who has the funds in their budget to buy an ad in these papers? I priced ad rates, and could not justify running a small $300 to $600 ad in, say, Metro Weekly, for one issue. Would I recoup my expense? Would it generate ticket sales? Probably … but it’s also not in my budget. Unfortunately, we rely on these free listings to help publicize our shows.

Could I have done a better job publicizing my show? Sure! I suppose I could have plastered my postcards all around town (instead of just Playbill Café, Café Luna and a few other establishments). And perhaps I could have telephoned and followed up with the newspapers I sent my press release to. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time.

Our cabaret shows are sometimes presented for only one or two evenings. If the newspapers do not list us, our shows evaporate into the air and a potential audience was never alerted that the shows were occurring in the first place.

This is the problem we D.C. cabaret artists face. We all do a great job getting friends and family to attend. But we all face an uphill battle getting the word out to the rest of D.C. that our shows are being performed.

I spent considerable time, energy and money producing my show, “Happy Endings”. I don’t want to sound ungrateful to the people who drove, parked, and paid to come see me. However, I think there is a huge problem with the local newspapers when it comes to listing the genre of cabaret performances in their entertainment guides. And I’m not sure how to solve it.

Here’s some questions that might spur some discussion:

  • How do we build a healthy, solid cabaret audience in Washington, D.C.?
  • What do Chicago, L.A., and New York (all with thriving cabaret scenes) do better than us?
  • What else could we do as performers and directors and pianists to make sure a paying audience knows our shows are happening?
  • How do we get the newspapers to consider us and list our shows?

And here’s some ideas I’ve had to address all of this:

  • Shouldn’t we all print the web addresses for the D.C. Cabaret Network and Michael’s cabaret blog in our programs?
  • Could we call our local newspapers and ask, “Where’s your cabaret listings?
  • Could some of us combine what we know about publicity into a central “database”? For example, a list of local newspapers, their addresses, emails, and websites … perhaps the names of specific people working for the newspaper who successfully listed our cabaret shows in the past?
  • See the cabaret calendar I created, and direct people to it:

I’m hoping this post on Michael’s blog will engage D.C.’s small but vibrant cabaret community to see if we can think of some answers. (And maybe some lurkers from other cities with cabaret communities will have some ideas?)

My new philosophy…

January 7, 2010

I’ve always been an “if life gives you lemons, make lemon curd” kind of guy, but perhaps today’s Speed Bump cartoon has a better approach.

A passing thought…

September 1, 2009

OK, you may be watching too much Food Network when you find yourself narrating your moves whild cooking dinner.  (“… remember after that little swish to LIFT the arugula out of the water bath so the grit stays at the bottom…”)  But you know you’re watching too much when you refuse to make a souffle because you only have three cameras in your kitchen.*

*With apologies to Sue Ann Nivens

Julie and Julia

August 14, 2009

I finally went to see the movie Julie and Julia tonight.  A movie I enjoyed as both a blogger, cook, and someone who once went to a Halloween party as Julia Child.

The film tells contrasting tales of the newly-married Julia Child discovering herself as a cook and Julie Powell, who finds herself while writing a blog about her attempt to make all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1) in the space of one year.

The criticisms I’ve read of the movie generally adored Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child and were (I thought) a bit harsh on the modern story.  Maybe it’s because so many of the elements of the bloggers life hit home, but I found the modern story more involving than expected.  And I think I’ve figured out why Streep has suddenly become more appealing over the last few years — she seems to be letting the audience in on how much she enjoys performing.  Even when she’s playing someone as frosty as the heroine in The Devil Wears Prada, she seems to be having a great time up there.

It was fun to see Helen Carey, who I remember as the glamorous Phyllis when Signature last did Follies as Louisette Betholle.  And Margaret Whiting fans — you’ll hear a lot of her singing Time After Time in the movie.  Could they only afford to license that one song?

Thoughts on music marketing

May 4, 2009

My office neighbor, Mike Gruenberg, has some thoughts on music marketing on his terrific blog on the Jambands site this month: “Sending out the latest advance copies of the newest songs to the radio station is a tried and true method of attempting to get air play. The problem is that the volume of new releases is staggering which makes it incumbent upon the marketing folks to devise even more creative ways for the radio stations and MTV networks to pick up on and listen to their company’s bands and not someone else’s.”

Jennifer Pade on Water Bottles

April 7, 2009

jennifer-padeThe lovely, ridiculously talented,  Jennifer Pade offers an opinion:

Hi Michael, 
Just had to send you this note after attending a cabaret performance at the Duplex in NYC tonight. I would love to see you do a column/post on the current ubiquitousness of plastic water bottles on stage in live performances. From Maureen McGovern to the girl next door, I’m amazed at how many singers swig out of those bottles onstage, as though they’re standing on the street rather than onstage and dressed to the nines. What ever happened to an elegant setting? 
Or maybe a posting about this kind of casualness that has crept into performing in general (and I’m not talking about being salacious or naughty — but rather the same kind of casualness you see everywhere today.) Maybe I’m just getting older, but it seems to me it has no place onstage. 
Just had to get that off my chest. Hope you and Ron are well. And I’m thoroughly enjoying the blog! 
Down with plastic water bottles! 
Jennifer Pade
A celebrity spokesperson offers a rebuttal.

Kind words from a producer…

January 30, 2009

When the Wind Blows South

Dear Michael,

I meant to write you a few weeks ago.  I was doing a “google” search of Philip’s new CD, WHEN THE WIND BLOWS SOUTH, and came upon your Cabaret Update post.  I just wanted to tell you how much I loved what you wrote.  Every time Philip and I start a new album, we always have an image or a metaphor that guides us.  In this case, it was the notion of distances — between places and between hearts: exactly as you surmised.  I just wanted to say how pleased I was that our underlying “theme” came through!



Lonny Smith’s Open Mic Experience

January 11, 2009

Lonny Smith generously shares his learnings from the 2008 DC Cabaret Network Open Mics.  If he inspired you, remember, the next one is Monday at the Warehouse Theatre…

It Takes the Time it Takes

Last year, emboldened in a moment of idealistic grandiosity, I made a New Year’s resolution to attend every DC Cabaret Network Open Mic during 2008. Though I’d never been to an open mic, this seemed like a great way to jump in. Even though my resolution-addled mind cooked up some rosy transformational ideas about what I wanted to achieve, my goal was simply to attend and perform at every Open Mic. If opportunities for fame or fortune intervened, I vowed that I would break my resolution without guilt.

Hollywood didn’t call and Hank Paulson extinguished any hope for fortune, and so I was able to attend every Open Mic last year. There was no moment of transformation – rosy or otherwise – but I made a few humbler observations along the way:

When you meet a bear in the woods, it is just as scared as you are. Last January, as I shivered in a room with twenty people, I saw mostly strangers. Surely, every one of them was a true cabaret artiste and open mic veteran, prepared to ridicule me the moment I stood on stage. Only in retrospect have I realized that we were all playing the same games: ruffling through music, making small talk, having long conversations with the people we did know, and averting the people we did not. By May, there were no shivers, and I knew the crowd a little better. It was room of people simply looking for an opportunity to perform and try out new material. By December, I saw a community of people and new friends who cared as much about each other as they did about their own work.

Clichéd but true: learning comes from doing. I remember a political professor who insisted that if you couldn’t clearly express an idea, you did not truly understand it. Fair enough. Similarly, with performance, if you can’t express what you know, I don’t think you can truly understand it. Over a year of open mics, I began to sense viscerally what it meant to “get” a song rather than to simply explain its meaning and rhyme scheme. Over time, I learned to see this process develop and reveal itself in others.

Repetition does wonders. Doing something hard over and over makes it less hard, and facing fear over and over teaches you to forget about fear. The butterflies finally fly off to greener pastures.

Know what you are saying, and get out of the way while you’re saying it. If there is a silver bullet for cabaret performance, I think this is it. For me, two of the most electric performances of the year were Emily Leatha Everson’s “She’s Always A Woman” (about her mother) and Eileen Warner’s “Leavin’ on A Jet Plane,” one of her late husband’s favorite songs. Both women are talented performers, but what I remember was the palpable connection between the audience and the song – there was no question what these songs were about and the performers didn’t embellish or shy away.
A lot went through my head over the year, and I’ve tried to make some unified meaning out of it all. I haven’t succeeded. I learned some new songs, pulled out some old songs, and witnessed an amazing variety of performances. At the end of 2008, there was no grand transformation – no new life metaphors, no catharsis. I don’t know that I learned anything in particular from a year of Open Mics, but I do know that I experienced a lot.