By Eric Brown
As you may have determined by now, the competition to actually get into a musical is pretty tough, especially if you’re in a major city such as New York. However, there are ways for you to get up in front of an audience and sing songs from musicals (just about to) your heart’s content…
…at “open mic” nights at any number of nightclubs or cabarets, or at most any piano bar. Most piano bars welcome guest singers (especially if the singer has a decent voice, or at least knows what they’re doing), and the backbone of any piano bar player’s repertoire comes from musicals.
I have been a piano bar player for over 30 years. (How did that happen?) I have developed a reputation of being a “singer’s accompanist”: I not only try to “follow” any singer who may be singing with me, but I can usually transpose songs to the singer’s optimum key. You may find a piano player like me but others are only able to offer the arrangement, tempo and key that they know. So it doesn’t hurt to get ahold of standard sheet music, so you know what’s out there. [Find Broadway Sheet Music]
Winning an Audience – Song Choices
Unlike choosing songs for an audition where the off-the-beaten-track number is usually appreciated and can stand out, that is not the case at most piano bars. Sure, every once in a while, if there’s some obscure song that you know that either the piano player also happens to know or else you hand him the music and he (or she) can read it, you might score with the right delivery and a receptive crowd. But for the most part, the crowd at a piano bar is far more appreciative of the tried and true, the familiar. They almost don’t care if it’s done badly, as long as it’s a song they know and love. Of course there are those piano bars, or more properly piano bar players, who pride themselves in knowing the most obscure of songs: songs cut from hit shows; songs cut from shows that never reached Broadway; some song by the likes of Cole Porter that was unearthed in a trunk where he had buried it. But for the most part, people want to hear the songs they know, no matter who sings them. The following is a primer of those songs that seem to get the most mileage with any crowd.
Note that the following are my suggestions. Don’t howl if I leave out your favorite song or some obvious all-time great standard – but perhaps some songs on this list will spark your interest.
Kander and Ebb
I have to start with Kander and Ebb. Why? If you ever want a sure-fire way to get a crowd’s attention and get them in a good mood, there’s no surer way than to sing any of several of their best-known numbers. “And All that Jazz” (from “Chicago”) is chief among them. From the moment an audience hears that opening riff, the entire room will light up and be with you. The same is true of the opening strains of “The Theme from New York, New York.” Rousing song. “Cabaret,” too, gets an audience cheering and in great spirits. “Mr. Cellophane” (also from “Chicago”) is also a huge favorite.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Of course, just about anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber. “Memory” from “Cats” is much beloved. The same with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from “Evita.” Or most popular of all, “The Phantom of the Opera” (pick one; any one), is always good. People also seem to like “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look” from “Sunset Boulevard.” Conversely, just about anything from “Starlight Express,” “Song and Dance” (even though “Unexpected Song” is sterling) and even “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will mostly be met by polite response or blank stares. So will any other song from “Cats” other than “Memory.”
A Chorus Line: Music: Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics: Edward Kleban
Anything from “A Chorus Line” is sure to get a favorable response, especially “What I Did for Love,” “Dance 10, Looks 3,” and “One” (and if you can come up with someone to sing the descant, so much the better).
Jerry Herman has written a whole lot of favorites. His title songs from both “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” are classic, up-beat numbers, and most any song from either show will be certain to get fond recognition, with “If He Walked Into My Life” among the most loved. “I Am What I Am,” “The Best of Times” and “Song on the Sand” from “La Cage aux Folles” are great. “Wherever He Ain’t” and “I Won’t Send Roses” from “Mack and Mabel” will impress most any crowd.
“Jekyll and Hyde” gave us a song that never fails to elicit a great response when sung at all well, “This is the Moment.” It’s a showy number and definitely demands a big delivery. If you’ve got the chops for it, audiences eat this one up. Hint: Please don’t sing the original lyrics on the initial concept album as sung by Colm Wilkinson; there’s a reason why the lyrics were revised, as found on the 2-disk studio recording or the original Broadway cast recording.
And then, of course, there are The Giants: Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers (no matter who he wrote with, even himself), and Stephen Sondheim. The list of songs of theirs that are crowd favorites is long. That being said, this is but a short list from each that are just plain undeniably among the top songs ever written and will always be appreciated when done well.
Cole Porter: “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Miss Otis Regrets,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “You’re the Top,” “Let’s Do It,” “So in Love,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor,” “Easy to Love.”
The Gershwins: “Embraceable You,” “Love is Here to Stay” (somehow this one gains new resonance when you know it was the last song written by George), “They All Laughed,” “‘S Wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “The Man I Love,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
Irving Berlin: “Isn’t it Romantic,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Always,” “What’ll I Do,” “Blue Skies.”
Richard Rodgers: “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “If I Loved You,” “My Favorite Things,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “The Sweetest Sounds.” In fact just about anything he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II or Lorenz Hart is sure to be met with appreciation, even some of the more obscure songs. [Rodgers and Hammerstein on CD Rom 122 Songs From 11 Classic Musicals CD-Rom Sheet Music]
Jule Styne gave us an impressive array of beloved classics: “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” “Just in Time,” “Time After Time,” “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” and “Let Me Entertain You.”
Sondheim is in a class by himself. It’s not as if he has written a slew of what we would call standards (although “Send in the Clowns” is undeniably in that category, a word of warning: the song is deceptively hard to sing well, so proceed with caution). However there are many Sondheim songs that are gems and invariably are recognized as such. “Follies” has several outstanding songs: “I’m Still Here,” “Broadway Baby,” “Losing My Mind.” “Company” gave us “The Ladies Who Lunch,” “Another 100 People,” and “Being Alive.” “Not While I’m Around” and “Johanna” (from “Sweeney Todd”); “Children Will Listen,” “Stay With Me” (“Into the Woods”); “Not a Day Goes By” (“Merrily We Roll Along”).
Stephen Schwartz has also written some favorite crowd pleasers: “Day By Day” from “Godspell,” “Corner of the Sky” and “Magic to Do,” both from “Pippin.” He also wrote one of the most glorious songs for “The Baker’s Wife,” “Meadowlark.” This is one of those songs that can really showcase the right voice (usually soprano, but I’ve known tenors and baritones to sink their vocal chops into this one). It’s a magnificent song that demands an audience’s attention and a singer’s full investment in the lyric. I usually prepare an attentive crowd with the disclaimer that the song is an epic song; that if it were any longer, it would have to have a dinner break. I find if I prepare them for what is a long song, they stay with me. It’s not a song that can be done often, but when the occasion seems right, it’s a stunning number. [For all Schwartz sheet music see http://www.musicalschwartz.com/schwartz-sheet-music.htm ]
Other stalwarts include anything recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra (“My Way” is one of the all-time crowd favorites), Tony Bennett (the ubiquitous “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and “Fly Me to the Moon;” though neither came from musicals, they’re still money-in-the-bank songs), Judy Garland (“Over the Rainbow,” arguably the most beloved song ever written, and “The Man that Got Away”), and Barbra Streisand (definitely “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”).
Have I left anything out? Certainly. Just about anything from “My Fair Lady.” Cy Coleman also wrote some real crowd pleasers (“Hey, Big Spender,” “If They Could See Me Now,” both from “Sweet Charity;” “Nobody Does it Like Me,” from “Seesaw”). “West Side Story” produced a slew of perennial songs (“Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “Something’s Coming,” “Maria”). Likewise “Les Miserables” (“Bring Him Home,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own”). “Show Boat” has some classics (“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Old Man River,” “Make Believe,” “Bill”). Jerome Kern gave us some other lovely numbers (“The Way You Look Tonight,” “All the Things You Are”). “The Impossible Dream” from “Man of La Mancha,” though some deem it tired, still never fails to get universal recognition, and when done right can still get a crowd cheering. Hint: take your cue from the arrangement as done by Brian Stokes Mitchell in the 2002 revival; it breathes new life into the song.
There’s a reason why certain more recent Broadway fare is not represented here, mostly because songs from the recent crop of writers have yet to actually make it to classic or standard status. Certainly there are a slew of songs from these shows that are enjoying well-received renditions in piano bars, most especially in New York, but they have yet to find their way into the more widely popular repertoires.
Guaranteed, if you can do any one (or more) of the songs mentioned here at all well, you’ll be a hit with any audience, and with any piano bar player for that matter.
Songs for Showing Off Your Great Voice
There are certain songs, though, that seem to show off certain voices and ranges better than others. If you have the range for it, “Bring Him Home” gets an audience every time. (If you’re familiar with the edition of “Forbidden Broadway” that skewered “Les Miz,” you appreciate the satirical lyric that says, “This song’s too high!” That’s because to sing it right you have to have a good high tenor range. But if that’s what you’ve got, then that’s a winner in the bag.)
The same with some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best known and loved songs: You have to have a pretty good range to deliver the likes of “Memory,” and it would be a mistake to sing it in public if you don’t have those high notes.
Of course, not all piano bar players are able to instantly transpose in order to cater to your particular range, but if you’re lucky enough to latch onto a piano bar player who is willing to work with you in terms of finding what your best key is for any given song, do try to remember it. It will stand you in good stead for the rest of your singing life.
Notes for Baritones and Mezzos/Altos
Baritones and mezzos/altos have a slight disadvantage, because most songs are published in a standard tenor/soprano range or key. I myself am a baritone. That’s how I got to be so good at transposing: when called upon to sight-read a song for myself to sing, I automatically have to transpose it down at least one whole step, often as far as a major third down, sometimes even more. And that’s a good rule of thumb to remember: if you know your range is lower than the standard tenor/soprano, you can expect that a piano bar player will have to transpose a song’s key down somewhere between a whole step and a major third down to accommodate you to best advantage. Of course, when a baritone or alto appears at my elbow, being of the lower register myself, there is a comfort zone built right in. Likewise, if you’re a tenor or soprano and the person at the piano is in that range, there’s more of a chance he (or she) will know your song in your key.
Some Words of Caution
Some words of caution: Every piano bar is different. A number of songs I mention are, in a phrase, done to death. Unless you know you can deliver such a song in some terribly unique way or just plain better than most, you might want to go with one a little less over-done. Similarly, some bars’ patrons love to sing along, especially to the more popular songs, and don’t take kindly to anyone who thinks they’re good enough to sing them as a solo. If you’re new to a piano bar, it’s best to first get a feel as to some of the ground rules of any particular place. Regulars can be very testy when it comes to “newbies,” so step lightly until you get a sense of the prevailing atmosphere.
Also: Please, when it’s your first time approaching a piano bar player and you ask if it’s okay to sing a song, when the piano player asks you what you’d like to sing, do not, under any circumstance say, “I don’t know. What songs do you know?” Believe me, anyone holding forth at the piano is going to know lots more songs than you; that’s their job. It’s going to be much easier for you to mention songs you know and have the piano player say yes or no, than for the piano player to start going through every song in their repertoire trying to find one you’d care to sing. Determine beforehand a number of songs that you can suggest.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to find a player who is accommodating enough to play the song you wish to sing in your key. A mere whole step too high (or too low) can make all the difference in landing that “money note” or totally blowing it. When determining what your optimum key is in any given song, you have to determine what that money note is, and it is usually the highest note in the song, and at the climax. You should sing the song that allows you to deliver that note at your greatest comfort level. It will often be a note that you can nail on good days but will kill you on bad days. That should be avoided, if you can. Or else choose to not do that song when you know your top notes are a bit shaky. However, choosing a key in which you can almost always count on hitting that big note at your best is what you should strive for with every song you do.
Just as important as knowing your key and how to land the big finish is understanding what you’re singing. Unfortunately, all too often you get singers whose voices are certainly pleasant enough, but it’s painfully clear that they have no understanding of the words and feeling behind the song. If you don’t “get” what you’re singing, then do not sing it. It’s not how well you sing a song but how well you “sell” the song, and you can never sell a song without understanding it. When you can both sing a song well and sell it, that’s when you really connect with your audience.
Above all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you’re nervous in front of a crowd, singing at a piano bar on a regular basis is the surest way I know to get over such shyness. If you enjoy what you sing, it is not only infectious, but it outweighs all other aspects of your delivery. You can forget or mangle lyrics, you can crack on your money note, you may not even be an outstanding singer; but if you enjoy what you’re singing and can convey that sense of enjoyment, the people will be with you. Guaranteed.
Now go forth and slay that audience!