Looking for good repertoire for your upcoming cabaret show? Let’s start with all the best songs to avoid in your cabaret set list…

Far too often it seems that cabaret performers forget the point of putting on a cabaret show is to entertain their audience, not indulge themselves and their theatrical egos by loading their act with a set list of trite, overused, sentimental show-stoppers. You should certainly choose songs for your cabaret repertoire that are meaningful to you, and that you are passionate about singing. However, you should avoid anything that you’re likely to perform badly, that your audience are bound to be bored with, or that appears on the following list…

Cabaret (Cabaret)

The song “Cabaret”. From the musical Cabaret. In your cabaret. That’s already moved beyond clichéd and become a clear definition of redundancy, right there. You cannot possibly pick a more obvious, hackneyed and overblown number for your show. Unless you’re actually playing Sally Bowles or doing a Minelli tribute, this song (and pretty much anything else from that musical) is a huge and emphatic NO.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Wizard of Oz)

We know you think you can bring something new and poignant to Judy’s signature song, but chances are that you can’t. The little ditty that was nearly cut from The Wizard of Oz has since been reworked wonderfully well so many times that your audience are likely to have heard it far too often to enjoy again. Plus they’ll be comparing you to their favourite version the entire time you’re performing…

Defying Gravity (Wicked)

Damn, that’s a great sing. Stephen Schwartz has a particular talent in writing for singers: his music sits well and feels good, and we enjoy the sound we make when we sing it. However, such big and obvious triumph songs can get very trite in cabaret generally, and this number in particular is guaranteed to show up any technical or vocal flaws you’ve spent the whole show trying to hide. Perform it at your own risk.

I Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables)

Susan Boyle’s performance of this was a careful emotional and theatrical creation on the parts of clever TV producers. The construction of this naïve artist as the adorable underdog, and the manipulation of us as a worldwide audience was simply brilliant. Thing is, the song itself does not survive as a mere ‘pretty sing’ – it’s a dark, gut-wrenching tragedy of a piece. Most performers overdo it or underdo it, no matter what the context – and there’s always been far too many of them doing it, anyway.

New York, New York (Frank Sinatra)

Since Buble and Connick Junior et al made crooning sexy again, everyone wants to be ol’ blue eyes and sing Sinatra. However, the tessitura of this particular iconic song is rather exceptional – in other words, it’s usually both too high and too low for a singer’s normal range. Sure, you can change the arrangement, but people want to hear it like Sinatra. So it’s best to avoid this song unless you have a sensational vocal range – and the big band to back you.

All That Jazz (Chicago)

Hear, or better yet, see contemporary cabaret superstar Ute Lemper perform this song. When you can bring the grit and surprise and fierceness and seduction to it that she can, then you’re allowed to sing it. Maybe. Once.

Mack the Knife (Kurt Weill)

Although Weill’s music has really become synonymous with the Weimer Berlin cabaret-style, it was actually quite a late addition. “Mack the Knife” has crept into standard repertoire as that smooth jazz crooner number everyone loves. However, with cabaret, every word is important: lyrics are simply not dispensable. So listen to this song again, and really decide if what you’d be singing about is suitable material for your show concept…

Non, Rien de Rien (Edith Piaf)

This song lived and died with an amazing chanteuse. Songs like this usually expose all the toe-curling embarrassment of an amateur singer’s poor pronunciation of a language they probably learnt at school or by rote from a recording. The power of this song is in its simplicity and honesty – if you can’t say it properly and know exactly what it all means, you simply can’t sing it.

Part of Your World (Little Mermaid)

For some odd reason, this Disney classic surfaces in cabaret far more often than it should: something about the wistful longing of the lyrics, and the lyrical loveliness of the wishes, perhaps. Mostly, however, this is trotted out as a sweet and sentimental counterfoil to melodramatic power ballads – and it rarely works. Moreover, the amount of rewriting it takes to make the lyrics applicable out of context outweighs the impact of the song anyway – there are far more elegant and sophisticated song choices out there to express this kind of feeling.

The Rose (Bette Midler)

The all-time most appalling encore song ever. All you need is those opening chords, and the audience is already groaning. Sorry to say it, but this is a dull, repetitive and extraordinarily awful song that does not deserve to be as well known as it is. Let it die in peace. Please.

Generally, the rule is – if everyone knows it, has already sung it, and is still using it now, it’s a poor choice as cabaret repertoire. You’re looking for creative and unusual repertoire to engage your audience – and if you don’t know what is old and cliched, you’re clearly not getting out and seeing enough cabaret.

However, this previously unspoken cabaret law has a definite proviso. If you can present one of the songs listed here in a remarkably creative and surprising context, arrange it in a new and innovative way, and perform it competently and meaningfully enough that your audience will actually enjoy listening to something they thought they’d never want to hear again – then all the rules are off. Go for it. Cabaret is about exploring the unexpected, and pushing the aesthetic and musical boundaries, so occasionally – just occasionally – there is still room to remake an old cliché. Good luck.


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