An Interview with Richard Holbrook
Vibrant Cabaret Singer and Magnetic Raconteur
Advice for Aspiring Cabaret Artists
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 3, 2016
REZ: Why did you choose Richard Rodgers as the composer for your recent cabaret event at The Metropolitan Room?
RH: I thought about performing the songs of Richard Rodgers as far back as 2009, when I was in the midst of doing my Burton Lane cabaret tribute. I thought that would be a very interesting and challenging project for me to take on because I would not do the obvious Rodgers repertoire from “Oklahoma”, “South Pacific”, “The Sound of Music”, etc., that audiences had become used to. I wanted to concentrate on songs that either audiences had forgotten he wrote, or songs they didn't know he wrote. Also, I wanted to focus not only on Rodgers’ collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein, but also on lyricists like Lorenz Hart, Stephen Sondheim, and Rodgers, himself (he wrote the words and music for "No Strings"). I also wanted to show that his music adapted and fit each of their different styles.
In addition, I wanted to highlight his waltzes and the fact that he grew up loving not only the waltzes of Johann Strauss, but also the waltz melodies of Jerome Kern (who was his idol). Rodgers was challenged with a similar illness and surgery that I had, and we both recovered quickly to resume our passion - Rodgers in writing music and myself in singing. I felt a true affinity to this man and to his music as well.
REZ: As this interview will be included in my Arts and Education column, I'd like you to speak to vocal students about your study and background. Please comment on your recommendations for those interested in a cabaret career or 2nd career, including how to choose a voice coach, bandleader, audition songs, event themes, etc.
RH: You know, I've been singing ever since I was a child. I've always loved to sing, but never thought I could do it, until I was in high school and started singing in my church choir as well as high school musicals. It was during that time that I met an actor who was also a voice teacher, Harley Streiff, who taught me how to use the diaphragm in singing. Before, everyone complimented me on what a beautiful voice I had, but I was singing using my throat with no proper support. Harley taught me the correct way to sing, and I soon sang the role of Freddy in “My Fair Lady”. I also studied voice with William Flavin, an opera singer, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. After that, I had two years of coaching with Shirley Anne Roos in Rockland County, New York, and then I started concertizing and presenting cabaret shows in New York City.
In choosing a voice coach, find someone who you feel comfortable with and trust. Go on the internet and check out voice coaches and teachers in your area. One thing I learned very quickly is that in cabaret, the singer does not make money. The old days, when a singer was paid at The Copacabana, The Persian Room in The Plaza, or The St. Regis Hotel, are no more, unfortunately. These days a cabaret performer must wear many hats – as band manager and public relations-social media-publicity manager. And it’s the performer’s responsibility to follow up - not the venue’s - to fill seats in the clubs. The performer also pays the musicians and tech person before the performance. I recommend contacting The Actors Fund. They have seminars and programs designed for artists on how to make a living inside and outside the business.
Ask yourself, "Did you choose this or did this choose you?” If you think the latter, then do it, because this is your passion. Find your favorite genre - Broadway, popular, rock 'n roll - and choose it. Stick to songs close to your age. If I were twenty-one years old and starting out as a singer, and I loved the Great American Songbook, I would not choose to sing "Last Night When We Were Young", by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, or Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here". They’re marvelous songs, but not for someone in their early twenties – maybe twenty years later. For themes, compile a list of songs that fit you comfortably and work with your pianist. You can add more musicians to your act, that's up to you, your director, your musical director, and your budget. In choosing a director, I would pick someone who can look at your show and see it in the audience's perspective.
REZ: How many different composers have been the focus of your career cabaret events? Among those, please note several of your favorite songs with composers, and how you chose the related orchestrations for them.
RH: I've done shows saluting the songs Fred Astaire introduced in his films, the Burton Lane show for five years; and now, the Rodgers show. With the Fred Astaire show, my favorite songs were "They Can't Take That Way From Me" by George and Ira Gershwin, which was a great collaboration between me, Tom Nelson, and my director Dick Barclay. It starts out as a ballad and then, thanks to Tom Nelson, gets jazzy, slows down, then gets progressively quieter as the song ends. I love it. There's the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner song called "How Could You Believe Me, When I Said I Love You, When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life?" that was so typically vaudevillian and Damon Runyon-esque. I had Tom and the trio arrange it similar to the Jane Powell-Fred Astaire film, "Royal Wedding." It was fun, using a Brooklyn-esque "dees, dems, dose" accent. In doing the Rodgers show, I got to fulfill my ultimate dream - to sing and act the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel", Rodgers’ favorite musical. Tom arranged it from the score, although he had never heard it before. I end the show with it, a lifelong desire.
REZ: For those interested in pursuing a career in cabaret singing, how did you organize your band? Did you attend numerous gigs to see how each performed, or did you choose a bandleader with a cohesive ensemble?
RH: Tom Nelson, my pianist and bandleader, and I met through a mutual acquaintance, spring 2000, and he and I have been a winning team ever since. We trust each other's instincts as musical artists, one of the most important aspects in choosing a pianist / musical director. Tom introduced me to the musicians we’ve worked with over the years - Tom Kirchmer on bass and Peter Grant on drums - marvelous, top-notch musicians. Most of the rehearsal time involves Tom and I choosing songs and rehearsing, one on one. For the dress rehearsal, we rehearse with the bassist and drummer for two hours. On the day of the show, we have a thirty-minute sound check, then we're up and running.
REZ: When you plan your anecdotes about the composer and your own related adventures and stories, do you memorize, have prepared notes, or just recall sound bites and expand on them, as advice for aspiring artists?
RH: I go to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where I read biographies or watch video documentaries of the composer. If there’s a song I'm looking to use, that Library is a great resource. I also use the internet, Wikipedia, and YouTube. Then, I prepare a script for my terrific director, Richard Barclay. Dick Barclay is there as director and script editor, absolutely great in giving me anecdotal cues. I don't speak extemporaneously, because you're anxious enough without trying to think of your text. What I do is write a preliminary script, that tells the story of that songwriter, then segue gracefully into the next song. Then I give it to Dick and we work on constructing the show, incorporating the story into the music and cutting and refining it as we go along. You want to enlighten people, but not lecture them or dwell more on the composers’ lives than on their music. Remember, you only have an hour and ten minutes tops to do your show, and you want to keep it moving.
REZ: What should voice students take away from reading this page, in terms of overcoming adversity of negative reviews, difficulty in finding paid club dates, vocal issues, challenges in finding affordable musicians and technical staff, and in putting together new albums?
RH: If you truly love to sing and perform, you will find a way to do it. You may not have the opportunity to start off your singing career with a huge recording contract or to be showcased in a major venue. That takes time as well as money. There are quite a few venues that have open mics where new performers can start singing as well as introduce and try out songs and new material. Some of these venues are Jim Caruso's Cast Party at Birdland, Monday nights, The Salon at Et Cetera Et Cetera, Sundays, both on West 44th Street, and Open Mic at The Metropolitan Room, West 22nd Street, on second and fourth Sundays. Here, performers can network and meet fellow singers, musicians, and arts patrons. You can meet a musician, with whom you'd like to work and then negotiate the terms, or you can collect contact information for a group of musicians. Go see potential collaborators in their shows to see their craft.
Regarding vocal issues, if the song you want to sing is in a higher or lower key than your range, see if your pianist / musical director can transpose the music to a comfortable key. Cabaret is different from the stage, an intimate setting with a microphone, so you can sing strong, but also soft, and still be heard. A performer should not hug the microphone nor put it too close to your mouth, so that it blocks your face. Look at people when you sing, and don’t forget what you’re singing about. For a love song, convey the fact that you're in love. Cabaret is not just about beautiful singing, but also about communicating the intent of the story through the song. When you’re ready for your first act, I would start in a club like Don't Tell Mama in the small room. You should pay your musician (or musicians) before the start of your show. The tech person at Don't Tell Mama will get paid after the show, while at The Metropolitan Room, the performer pays the tech person before the show.
Recording, as we all know, is very expensive. You should check with other singers about recording studios with reasonable, top notch equipment. Make a list of the songs that showcase you to your advantage, choosing from jazz, opera, country music, Broadway, or the Great American Songbook. Try to include a little special material so that you stand out from the crowd. In making your song list, ask yourself why you want to record this album. Also, try not to lift recordings that you've heard from other professional singers. Make each song your own! Prepare a budget on the expenses. And, try to find some people, whom you know as patrons of cabaret, who are willing to invest in your recording. Otherwise, try to save whatever you can and come up with the funds yourself. But you will more than likely need some financial assistance.
I saved this for last. If you perform a cabaret show for the first time and you get less than stellar reviews, don’t let that discourage you, if singing is your passion! Instead of wanting to cry on some friend's shoulder, go back and take a look at those reviews and really try to see what the critics were telling you. If the reviews were several paragraphs, it probably meant that the critics were interested in you enough to take the time. Possibly there are grains of truth in the criticisms, so the best thing is to look at the comments as constructive criticism and implement those points to your advantage in the next performance. But remember, not every critic will love what you do. The important thing is that you love what you do, and as long as you have that passion, it will come through, no matter what.
Richard Holbrook at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, 6/29/11
Courtesy of Roberta Zlokower