Broadway critic Michael Riedel on what makes a great cabaret performer


Michael Riedel is the last of the Broadway columnists in New York and one of the few theatre critics around with any real influence. He’s the co host of Theatre Talk on PBS, writes a controversial theatre column for the New York Post and Producer Liz McCann said “he’s like Rumpelstiltskin – always stirring the pot”. “Show-business,” Michael told me, “is a breeding ground for gossip and that’s what I specialise in”. Rich with an encyclopedic knowledge and wonderful anecdotes, he doesn’t take himself too seriously but make no mistake, his work is seriously good.

We discuss whether Broadway and West End singers can do cabaret and how we can keep a critic like him engaged. He likes to be surprised. Avoid obvious song choices he told me, especially songs next to each other that are too obviously related. Use programming creatively as a chance to juxtapose songs that create a surprising result.

As Rosemary Clooney told him, “You have to approach the songs from the Great American songbook as one act plays”. They are character driven, there’s a story in them and that’s what you have to put over. Sinatra was right when he said said, “sing the lyric not the notes”. The secret of a great cabaret singer is individuality. Why not take a song that everyone’s heard a million times and make it sound completely fresh. Take a lyric that gone stale and breath new meaning and life into it. How about this example from the Berry Sisters… My Way in Yiddish 😉

Michael is ambivalent about patter – the stuff singers say between songs. It should be self deprecating (better you say it before we get there) but avoid light hearted chatter, giggly laughter and bad jokes. Instead, try doing some research to find the right biographical note about the songwriters: a taste of their triumphs or tragedies can be a great way to put a song into context and add impact.

And what about the job of a critic? Does a polite, balanced critical review make for boring copy? Should reviewers stick the knife in just to boost readership? What do you think? There’s a lot in this Podcast to enjoy.

Record in Barbados 14th April 2014.

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