Features

What IS A Cabaret Musical Director

By: Alix Cohen

July 11, 2023: The Oxford English Dictionary definition of this invaluable collaborator is, to say the least, simplistic: The person responsible for the musical aspects of a performance, production, or organization, typically the conductor or leader of a music group. I went directly to the source asking several of our best and a couple of their clients to answer the same questions. Whether you’re in the business or just curious, responses are illuminating. In alphabetical order:

By: Alix Cohen

July 11, 2023: The Oxford English Dictionary definition of this invaluable collaborator is, to say the least, simplistic: The person responsible for the musical aspects of a performance, production, or organization, typically the conductor or leader of a music group. I went directly to the source asking several of our best and a couple of their clients to answer the same questions. Whether you’re in the business or just curious, responses are illuminating. In alphabetical order:

MD Christopher Denny

Photo by Michael Bernhaut

How long have you been doing this?  43 years

Do you also write/compose? I don’t, as a rule – I find that my arranging work seems to satisfy that creative side of me. That said, I do have one song which I wrote in 1991 and never really intended to have see the light of day, but which as of this year has now been recorded four times. Crazy.

In your opinion, what are the responsibilities of an MD? A musical director is responsible, at a minimum, for teaching/rehearsing and then conducting performances. He or she is the musical link between a director, other musicians, and crucially, the singer; helps to choose material and to structure the show; creates arrangements tailored to the star’s taste and strengths; and coaches the singer through any acting/singing or even vocal problems. A skilled accompanist  must have the ability to follow and musically support a singer, the acid test of a good musical director.

What have you learned over the years? There are many musical and technical skills gained over several decades of work, but I’ve learned the greatest musical skill is to listen, and to know when not to play. Every arrangement is like a three-act play. You have to start at some kind of zero – musically and dramatically – in order to have elements to add as you build from beginning to middle to a satisfying end. Many times, particularly when working with great singers, the more you do, the less it matters.

The only point of any performance is to touch people, to make them really feel something; it’s not nearly enough to merely impress. I’ve learned to trust my instincts, as long as they serve the song and especially the singer. I’ve learned that collaborating with talented people is much more fun than working alone. I’ve learned to treat every singer with the same respect at whatever level you find them.  

A rewarding experience: What’s arguably most rewarding in this business is the longevity of relationships. Last August, my dear friend Karen Mason and I celebrated the 30th anniversary of our very first show together. It seemed as though everyone we knew was there, from all areas and eras of our lives. I can’t really describe the feeling except to say that it was probably the most powerful personal experience I’ve ever had onstage in a cabaret or theater.

A challenging experience: Once I arrived at a venue in Philadelphia to do a late-night show with a singer, and it turned out that I’d be playing a keyboard, not a piano… which was okay, until I tried to play it and found that the sustain pedal had shorted out and was functioning in reverse – it sustained every note unless you depressed it. It was too late to get anyone from the instrument rental company to help. I had to forget about any musical conceits and somehow get through the show reverse-pedaling for an hour. 

Karen Mason on Christopher Denny
We met at a reading of a musical called One Tough Cookie at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd St. in 1999, I think. Chris came backstage to say hello to the composer Brian Lasser.  He then asked me if I would be interested in singing for Hearts and Voices, an organization that brought shows into AIDS wards at hospitals. Of course I said yes! Our first actual gig together was at The Russian Tea Room August 1992….so 31 years. Chris and I have similar story-telling skills and instincts.  When we perform, we listen to each other.  So there is always give and take. I love that. He makes me laugh very hard!  And takes his music seriously.

Once at a show out of town, Chris forgot his music.  He didn’t tell me…cuz he didn’t want me to freak out. So, he wrote down all these little notes to himself about keys, changes…I never saw anything but pieces of paper in front of him on the piano!  I thought it was the charts and all fine. He played a great show! I never knew until much later what happened!  Yeah, I would have freaked out a little.  Smart man!

Karen Mason by Gene Reed; Jason Henderson by Matt Simpkins

Jason Henderson on Christopher Denny
I met Chris at the 2017 St. Louis Cabaret Conference, where he accompanied in some of the master classes I took. We first worked together in 2018 on a show built around songs of Noël Coward. I’ll never forget my delight at arriving at an initial rehearsal with him. Before we started, he asked something like “what do you want this song to feel like?” or “what would you like this song to do?” I’d never had a question like that before. This was an opportunity to fully customize a song and its accompaniment to the scene we were setting.

Chris is an extraordinarily responsive accompanist. I feel remarkable freedom to respond to the moment and adjust how I am singing knowing he’s is right there with me. He’s a singing actor’s dream. I like his musical sensibility. He’s also masterful in selecting what he does not play. As I continue to develop and mature, I realize that editing and clarifying are markers of distinguished work.

I like to be quiet and calmly focused pre-show. I appreciate that Chris is an ally of calm midst the hubbub. I don’t know that anyone who has interacted with him would be surprised to hear that he is kind and generous, but the extraordinary extent of his care is something that has continued to reveal itself more and more over the time I have known him.

MD Alex Rybeck

Alex Rybeck by Andrew Poretz

How long have I been a music director? Easily more than fifty years. Started in junior high, then working professionally in theaters around the DC Beltway at 16 or 17. 

Do I write/compose? Yes. I’ve written songs, piano solos, chamber music, choral pieces, musical theater scores, a one-act opera, and a film score.  As an arranger, I’ve arranged for cabaret acts, albums, stage shows, benefits. 

My responsibilities as pianist/MD: Everything pertaining to the music-making of the act: helping choose songs (also fast or slow, big ending or small …) and unless playing from existing arrangements, tailoring arrangements to fit the singer; helping choose instrumentation and often creating an orchestra. Some charts allow for (or require) varying degrees of on-the-spot improvisation, and will be slightly different every time they’re played. Final responsibilities include rehearsing the instrumentalists, and playing/conducting the performance. 

I’ve written patter. I’ve staged numbers. I’ve done publicity, writing press releases and designing flyers. I’ve written lighting notes. These are outside the usual domain of what an MD is expected to do, but I’m happy to do anything that serves the show, as long as (1) the involvement is needed and there’s no one else to do it, and (2) I feel qualified to fulfill that need. As opening night draws closer, tensions, nerves, and insecurities are inevitable. At the very least, I’m an ear into which the singer pours his/her fears, dreams, frustrations. Inevitably, the singer-MD relationship is a collaboration, ideally a close one based on trust and respect.

What have I learned over the years? To stay as loose and open-minded as long as possible during the gestation of a show. I avoid making hard decisions about anything until decisions MUST be made. If disagreements occur, my concept is rooted in what I think is going to best serve the singer, or help the audience receive the song more effectively. The singer makes the final choice, but I trust my instincts. I can safely say I’ve learned something from every singer I’ve played for. I’m still learning. At this point in my career, I enjoy doing material that is “tried and true,” the comfort of performing stuff I know which is “sure-fire” with an audience; to concentrate on perfecting nuances, finding variations. I like the synchronization with a singer that can only take place after years of working together. 

Funny incident: Many years ago, I played a corporate gig at The Breakers, the famous hotel in Palm Beach, with Valerie Lemon. We arrived to find our sidemen were all of very advanced age, barely able to see or hear. The one song they knew and played well was “What I Did For Love”, so at least we’d have a strong finish. Or so I thought. Come the actual show, just as we started the intro, the bass stood up, murmured to me he needed to use the bathroom, and slowly shuffled out of the room! I bit my tongue and kept playing, while Valerie sang her heart out.  As we were coming down the home stretch, I saw the bass player out of the corner of my eye, returning to his chair in time to sit down, pick up his instrument, and play the last note. 

Jeff Harnar on Alex Rybeck
Alex Rybeck and I just celebrated the 40th anniversary of our first show together. I was referred to him by Stephen Flaherty, then a music director himself. After 40 years we have the irreplaceable gift of synergy. If I suggest a song, he not only knows what key(s) might be best, but he can intuitively suggest a setting or texture for how that song might come pouring out of my heart.  

Each session with Alex is a mini master class. His instincts are acutely spot on. However, it can make him a prickly collaborator, because his opinions can come out abruptly. I have learned to always listen, even if it takes some space for me to hear the wisdom.  With such a wide variety of artists and audiences, he is seasoned to wise and wonderful perfection.  

A favorite memory was our performance at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in a Donald Smith Promotion’s Noel Coward gala. After the tech rehearsal, one hour to curtain, Alex opened his garment bag to find no tux pants on the hanger. He hopped on a train to his apartment in Little Italy, found no pants, and then, thinking quickly, went back stage at the musical “Grand Hotel” where he was also a pit musician. They duct taped him into some tux pants; and he ran up to Carnegie Hall arriving just at “places.”  When he reached into the garment bag for his tux jacket he found the tux pants, which had fallen off the hanger and were there all along.

Jeff Harnar by Eric Jacobs Stephens; Liz Callaway by Bill Westmoreland

Liz Callaway on Alex Rybeck
Alex and I met while doing the original “Merrily We Roll Along” on Broadway. I was in the chorus, and Alex was an intern in the music department. We’ve worked together since 1991. I was doing Miss Saigon, and Alex came backstage after a performance. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and asked him what he was up to. He mentioned he was doing a lot of arranging, and I told him that I was about to record my first album and was looking for someone to do arrangements. We got together and played around with a few songs, and I just knew.

In working together for so many years, we have developed a lovely musical shorthand. Alex isn’t just a pianist, he’s an entire orchestra! I often hear arrangements in my head, or have ideas for song pairings or crazy medleys. I tell Alex my ideas, and somehow, he is able to decipher them and create incredible arrangements. We’ve taught a number of master classes together, and he often shares the mantra “you are enough” with the students. I use it myself now before walking out on stage, especially when I’m doing a new show.

One unique memory I have is doing a concert together in Springfield, Ohio. About eight bars into “Meadowlark,” the entire piano peddle assembly disengaged (the screws must’ve been VERY loose!) and fell onto the floor. Trouper that he is, Alex just kept on playing – as legato as possible! When the song ended, he asked the audience “is there a piano doctor in the house?”

MD Tracy Stark

Tracy Stark by Taka Harkness

How long have you been doing this? 35 years.

Do you also write/compose? Yes.

In your opinion, what are the responsibilities of an MD? It varies with the strengths, weaknesses, needs, and type of project that the client/vocalist is doing. Could be any of these things. Help to choose material. Figure out keys. Figure out order of set list. Hire band. Write charts. Vocal coaching. Arranging/orchestrating the music. Playing the shows. Recording. 

What have you learned over the years? This is not a cookie-cutter job. Every artist is unique, and needs something different from me. And their needs will differ from project-to-project. Musically, the most important thing is to listen to every moment and know where I fit in the conversation. That is ongoing, every time I play with someone. Musical conversation may or may not change with each performance.

A rewarding experience: Carnegie Hall with Sarah Dash, in a tribute to Aretha Franklin. Just being on that stage in the Stern Auditorium is thrilling, but the list of performers included on the bill were some of my favorite artists and being backstage felt like another world.   

A challenging experience: For years, I worked with Lesley Gore. We would hire pick-up bands, when we were on the road. In a remote part of North Dakota, the pick-up band was recommended by the producer. In his defense, the band was probably great at playing their own music, but this producer didn’t realize that they didn’t read music. Rehearsal was a nightmare. Typically, I conduct from the piano. But at this performance, I yelled out each key and main chord change before we started a song. I was jumping up and down and utilizing my whole body. It was hilarious, frustrating and exhausting.  After the show, the producer said to me, “THE BAND IS GREAT, AREN’T THEY? I TOLD YOU SO!” Sometimes it’s just better to say nothing. 

Meg Flather on Tracy Stark
I first encountered Tracy Stark at a benefit in 2009. She was hired as the MD for a large group of very different singers. I watched her go from singer to singer, style to style and master what each vocalist needed quickly. She then retained what was rehearsed with each singer during the performance. Not easy! 

Tracy and I talked about our songwriting at a MAC “They Write the Songs” show during which I witnessed her ability to arrange, play and SING anything. The fact that she is a singer/songwriter is key to our collaboration. Her vast knowledge of every musical genre, her arrangement chops, and her vocal range that can blend, harmonize in any key and style is astounding. She has an open mind and courage to try any creative idea. She’s fearless. It is about the work. Period. We have taken many risks together and are now on our ninth show. I end each show with,  “And there is no music in my life without Tracy Stark.” That says it all. 

Meg Flather by Helane Blumfield; Sidney Myer by Albie Mitchell

Sidney Myer on Tracy Stark
I think we met when Tracy was playing piano at Mama’s and started working together about ten years ago. Tracy can play anything and accompany anyone! The lion’s share of my repertoire consists of humorous, novelty numbers and then a sprinkling of obscure, off-the-beaten-track ballads. That, coupled with my unusual sound and style, present a number of challenges to an accompanist. Tracy immediately grasps my point of view on every song – no matter how unpredictable and/or wacky – then bestows the ideal arrangement – quite a feat.

Additionally, she is able to instruct the band members precisely on the ideal instrumental participation which insures we are all on the same wavelength. She is in constant service to the artist and the music – never “going into business for herself” by upstaging. Her unending patience and easy-going manner are a constant. Any problem which comes her way is calmly solved not fretted over or dramatically inflated. What a welcome contrast to so much of the rest of life these days!

MD Jon Weber

Jon Weber (courtesy of Jon Weber)

How long have you been doing this? I first accompanied grownup vocalists for auditions at age 12, and then high school and college choruses and individuals entering vocal competitions at 16.

Do you also write/compose? I do, but rarely is my jazz material sung in performers’ cabaret shows. Accompanying vocalists, I am happy to shuffle the deck on any familiar song helping the artist transform it into his/her own. I scored 1200+ commercials in Chicago (1980s / 1990s), but that was work-for-hire, and I honestly can’t remember most of it – even those which played during the Super Bowl.

In your opinion, what are the responsibilities of an MD? Synchronize your accompaniment to the needs of the vocalist(s), provide honest feedback to performers so they deliver the best expression of their unique artistic statement. 

What have you learned over the years? Always play your best – not just because playing your best is its own reward, but once in a while a VIP may be in the house. Stephen Sondheim waved me over after a 2014 show comprised of his songs. Expecting a brutal critique, before he spoke, I confessed that it was extremely intimidating to perform his music in front of him. To my astonishment, he said, “I love every one of your variations, and I wish that you’d done many more.”

A challenging experience: While working with an extensive roster of artists, it is a challenge to remember everything ever said. I record entire rehearsals so I can hear things that I may have missed initially. 

A  rescued show: In 2015, struggling with double pneumonia, I performed a New Jersey PAC show for PBS from which I cannot remember a single moment. I later saw the film, and everything sounded and looked wonderful. I owe the success of that performance to pure luck or 10,000+ hours of auto-pilot preparation.

Natalie Douglas on Jon Weber
Strangely, we can’t recall precisely when we met, though I’m fairly certain it was thanks to KT Sullivan. I believe it was in 2011 across the piano in her apartment. I had the pleasure of singing with him a few times before our first solo gig, which was in 2012, a little over 11 years ago.

Jon has a ton of gifts. In addition to talent and brains is his deep capacity for kindness, patience, and generosity. He has vast knowledge, experience and chops particularly when it comes to jazz. Since he’s also well-versed in other genres, inventiveness never runs the risk of distorting the original piece.  We’re both such devoted music nerds, we delight in teaching each other new verses (or sometimes intro verses) to old songs. He’s also the most serene and cheerful traveler I’ve ever met. On a flight to Moscow some years ago Jon  settled into his middle seat, leaned his head on the seat back in front of him and remained just like that till we landed almost 10 hours later. AT 6’6”, folding himself into an economy seat is no easy trick.

December 2022, I slowly developed laryngitis during a one night only performance of a holiday show. It was a first. In order to get through it, I had to rearrange the set list in real time. Jon was fantastic. I made it through with his support, flexibility and focus.

Natalie Douglas by Bill Westmoreland; KT Sullivan by Stephen Mosher

KT Sullivan on Jon Weber
I first heard Jon Weber when he was a guest of The New York Pops concert at Carnegie Hall in 2004 and introduced quite grandly by conductor Skitch Henderson. I was impressed with his “jazz chops,” but never thought of him as an accompanist until he was playing at a party of Ervin and Edith Drake’s in June of 2007 and I started singing along. After 20 songs I realized he was a gifted accompanist and could play in ANY key.

I then asked Jon to be the MD on the first of several concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall in 2007. He is the only MD who I could have put together medleys such as “29 Songs By Women” and “29 Songs from 1929.” Both of these medleys include dozens of key changes. In 2015, while attending my husband Steve’s 55th reunion at Hamilton College, Jon and I were asked to put together a medley of 55 songs from 1955 for the class of 1955. Only for Jon would this be easy. A lot of laughs were shared between us and the alums. Jon’s ability to play in any style makes him the perfect choice of music director.

Top photo: Bigstock