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Cabaret By the Book

Brian Scott Lipton reviews a book of the late critic BOB HARRINGTON's advice on what to do (and what not to do) when putting on a cabaret show. logo

Those of us have sat through bad cabaret acts--and we know who we are--have often wished that, post-show, we could give the performers a sort of cheat sheet telling them what they did wrong and how to do it better next time. (That, is if they insist on there being a next time).

To the rescue comes The Cabaret Artist's Handbook (Back Stage Books, $18.95, soft cover). This is a worthy compilation of advice-driven columns by the late Bob Harrington--the one-time dean of cabaret critics whose, whose Bistro Bits column in Back Stage was essential reading--chosen with obvious care by the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Sherry Eaker. A foreword by cabaret legend Julie Wilson, an intro by Eaker, a slew of pictures of cabaret stars (randomly and somewhat distractingly strewn throughout the book), and two epilogue sections on CDs by current Back Stage critics John Hoglund and Roy Sander complete the 176-page package.

Although some readers might think Harrington's words obvious, or at least too commonsensical to need to be preserved in book form, frequent cabaretgoers know just how much of this good advice goes unheeded. For example, both newcomers and veteran performers often underestimate the importance of attractively designed fliers, the creation of appropriate patter, and the hiring of a director in addition to a musical director.

Vital reading is "Hitting the Notes," a section which not only explains why performers must take that extra step to discover new (or, at least, under-performed) material, but tells where and how to find it. Though the titles have changed in the decade or so since Harrington (who died in 1992) wrote his list--I haven't heard anyone sing "Feelings" in years--the concept remains the same. No more "This is the Moment," please!

Naturally, cabaret neophytes will benefit most from Harrington's experience. Those making their first foray into the field should definitely check out the sections on appropriate cover charges, the use of performer comps, audition tips, whether or not a press agent is needed, and--my personal favorite--the right time to invite critics to your show.

As for that cheat sheet idea, just earmark pages 115-118 of The Cabaret Artist's Handbook, pithily subtitled "Performer No-Nos." If everyone would pay attention to these pearls of wisdom, cabaret would be a much happier place for all.

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