Do You need a theme for your show?


Things are changing on cruise ships and it is becoming more important to have a strong theme for your show. This is for two reasons:

Getting the Gig

To get the gig in the first place you have to catch the attention of a booker - that’s the poor beleaguered soul who is bombarded 24/7 by entertainers desperate for a chance to work on the world’s largest cruise ships. Imagine that. They sift through 100s of showreels asking themselves three questions: What is it? Is it good? Do I need it? They probably allow about five seconds to answer each question. If any of them is a “no” it’s on to the next one. The more strongly themed your show is, the clearer it is to the booker what you are selling and if they like it, and need it, they‘ll book it. The stronger the theme the better your chances. 

Getting an Audience

Cruise ship entertaining is changing. It used to be simple: while half the guests were eating dinner, everyone else would watch the show (and there was only one show to see). Later, the same thing would happen in reverse. As cruise ships get larger, guests are given more options. They can eat when they like and instead of seeing the main show they could do maybe half a dozen other things. Just like on land, you’re now competing for an audience. If your show title doesn’t grab their attention, you’ll lose out. You can supplement the title with a more detailed strap-line, but let’s get the title right first.  

Let’s take the example of a female singer (the very talented Sarah Smudge) with an act of various well-known female stars. I will rate the strength each theme low, medium or high. 

1. An Evening With Sarah Smudge 

This is the kind of thing you used to be able to get away with. If you’re a star and everyone knows what you do, fine, otherwise this sort of vague title means nothing. She could be a juggler for all we know. 

Theme rating: low 

2. Diva! Sarah Smudge sings the greatest female hits of all time. 

Better. At least we know she’s a singer. 

Theme rating: medium

3. Evergreen. Sarah Star sings the hits of Barbra Streisand. 

See what I did there? If you want your show to have the highest chance of getting attention, you might decide to change what you’re doing and focus on just one artiste. It can’t get more specific than that. If you can’t go that far you might focus on Broadway, 90s rock, big band stars of the 50s.

Theme rating: high


The rub with themes is limiting your choice of material. Theme more specific the theme, the fewer songs you’ve got to choose from. If you’re an Amy Winehouse tribute you’ll have to lose your Les Miserables bit and if you’ve got a Broadway show you might have to ditch your Elton John Meldey. If you can specialise without too much comprise you could be onto a winner.

Review: Critical Writing by Ben Walters

Okay, I've just finished Ben Walter's guide to Critical Writing so let's see if it works... As part of the Guardian's '60 Minute Masterclass' series this little ebook gives us the basics of what critics do, how we can do it ourselves and (possibly) get paid for our trouble.

Walter's is well qualified for the job. A respected critic himself (I've been the subject of his attention on more than one occasion) and largely admired for his nurturing approach, he's the ideal guide. He sees his work as a vital part of the creative process, considering artistes and critics as bedfellows rather than opponents.

It's a quick read (as the series title suggests) but there is enough to get you started. When reviewing a show he suggests we ask ourselves, “What is interesting about this work?” Just saying I don't like it isn't good enough. He says, “An opinion can be shrugged off, an argument must be rebutted.”

We've all got an opinion. With blogs, Twitter and Facebook there is no shortage of forums to voice it. If you want that voice to be more coherent and constructive read this book. It's one hour very well spent. If I didn't know better I'd give it 5 stars.

Click here to find it on Amazon.

Harry Connick on when not to lick

Here is the wonderful Harry Connick Jr telling American Idol contestants how to sing. He articulated exactly what I (and surely many others) feel. When singers mess about with the written notes and riff for no reason it's plain silly. When I'm asked by singers about this I simply say, "Why are you doing that?". If it wasn't so tiresome to hear it would be funny.

Michael Bublé, the lucky fisherman.

Here's the inspirational story of how Michael Bublé made it. It's so easy to see someone or something that's a huge success and say, "It was always bound to happen. It was fate," but I don't believe in fate. Fate is something people use to make sense of bad luck, or excuse their laziness. I believe in hard work, focus and determination. And, as you'll read, I'm not the only one. Michael Bublé has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. Adored by the critics (mostly) and public alike, he is considered by many to be the world's number one entertainer. It's easy to join in the praise, but it's a miracle Michael Bublé ever made it. Where it not for a series of fortunate events and his determination, chances are he'd be a fisherman like his dad. So how does someone get from a nobody to major star within a few short years?

If you believe in destiny you would say there was never any doubt that Michael Bublé would be a professional singer. He told Oprah Winfrey he had dreamed of becoming a singer since he was two years old. After working summers alongside his dad's commercial fishing crew he finally had his first professional singing engagement, aged 16. Were the bookers stunned by his natural talent? Were they clamouring to sign him up on the spot? Nope. He only got the work because his grandfather offered his plumbing services in exchange for young Michael to be given a chance. He persevered, won a talent competition and spent the next seven years schlepping around at every gig he could find: shopping malls, lounges, cruise ships (imagine!), corporate events, weddings and my personal favourite, a singing Santa Claus. Bless him.

Things started to get interesting when he shared a television spot with Diana Krall but by the time he was 25 the dream was fading. Ready to quit and pursue a career in journalism, Bublé's luck started to change.

An aide to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney showed Bublé's self-financed album to his boss. He liked it and hired Bublé to sing at their daughter's wedding. Any performer knows to give their best on every gig, even a run of the mill wedding, because you never know who is in the room. As it happened, that night, multi-Grammy Award winning producer and record executive David Foster was in the room. If you don't know Foster, you will know some of the people he has worked with: Madonna, Josh Groban, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Céline Dion, Barbra Streisand and Andrea Bocelli. Foster liked Bublé but was reluctant to sign him because he, “didn’t know how to market this kind of music.”

Undeterred, Bublé seized the initiative. He moved to Los Angeles with his agent purely to convince Foster to sign him. Eventually there came good news and bad news: yes, Foster would produce an album, but Bublé had to find $500,000 to pay for it. The money was found (in the end Foster covered the bill) and after the nod of approval from Paul Anka, Bublé found a new manager and was on his way.

Of course, Bublé has an incredible talent. So do lots of people. Talent alone wasn't enough to make him a star. From an early age he knew exactly what he wanted to do, he worked hard and seized the opportunity when it came. He couldn't have predicted meeting David Foster, but by taking every gig that came along, self-producing an album, and making friends wherever he went, he increased his chances of something happening. I don't believe Bublé was motivated by fame or money. He found his passion as a singer and in the end the fame and money were the icing on the cake.

Was it just luck? I don't thing so. Luck plays a big part, but as golfer Gary Player used to say, “The more I practise, the luckier I get.”

To read more, download your copy of 'Cabaret Secrets' - the indispensable signer's guide on how to create your own show, travel the world and get paid to do what you love. Sign up to the newsletter on the main page right now for your half-off coupon.

Cabaret Secrets (c) 2013


"Experts" are idiots.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round,They all laughed when Edison recorded sound, They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother when they said that man could fly, They told Marconi wireless was a phoney, it's the same old cry!

There a some things we just can't imagine doing without: Post It Notes, bicycle pumps, Michael Bublé...

The chances are that 100s of household names we take for granted almost never made it. They exist only because of happy accidents and unhealthy obsessions. Some people are so convinced they have a great idea, they ignore years of rejection and make it happen anyway.

I love these people. They inspire me and drive me to be the best I can be. So, I've to select a few great individuals and share their stories with you in a short series of articles called “And The Rest Is History.”

If you've ever believed in anything and been told "No, you can't!" I'm here to prove that means nothing.

As a singer, the most commonly used phrase in my business is: "No thank you", closely followed by "Get lost", and "Exactly how old are you?"

I have many friends who spend their lives trudging from one audition to another only to be sent away because they're too young, too old, too fat or too thin.

Growing a skin thick enough to leave their self-confidence intact takes some serious self-belief. Eventually with enough talent and perseverance, they might get a lucky break and go from a call centre in Cromer to a centre spread in Heat Magazine.

After a fleeting television appearance in February 1995, I sent a brochure and promotional tape to exactly one-thousand entertainment agents. Six months later, the total number of respondents was precisely zero. Only on Boxing Day of that year did someone call me. That single call led directly to my West End break.

This modest success is inconsequential in the great scheme of things, but it was a good lesson learned. I had nine-hundred and ninety-nine nos and one yes. - that's a success rate of 0.1%. Not great odds, but it was enough.

To read more, download your copy of 'Cabaret Secrets' - the indispensable signer's guide on how to create your own show, travel the world and get paid to do what you love. Sign up to the newsletter on the main page right now for your half-off coupon.

Cabaret Secrets (c) 2013


The fear of missing the ship.

Most of my friends dislike me. They make no secret of it, often telling me over a nice coffee "You make me sick". Travelling all over the world and posting little updates on Facebook (like "On the beach in Tahiti. Too hot.") is a very effective way to foster envy and resentment in your friends. I can though give them one small measure of comfort. Every day I spend in port, whether scuba diving in Australia or sky diving in Africa, is marred by the constant, nagging fear that I will miss the ship. I saw it happen once. A crew member got off the ship in Barbados with a guest and her two kids. The guest's husband had decided to stay on board. The crew member didn't realise that the ship was scheduled to leave early that day and the guest assumed she was in safe hands. They got to the quayside at 3.30pm but the ship had left at 2pm. Worse still, it was doing a crossing so the next port of call was not for four days. Leaving the husband fretting on board, they had to fly to the Azures to meet the ship. Due to bad weather the captain decided to skip the Azures and go straight to Southampton, so again, the party of four had to fly to London to meet the ship in Southampton. The crew member had to foot the bill and I am sure had some explaining to do to the husband on board. Happy holidays!

Just a few weeks ago I was in New York. Wanting to make the most of my time there I did leave it a little late to get to the ship. I got a cab from Times Square all the way to the cruise terminal at Brooklyn, about 45 minutes away. No ship. I panicked. The security guy had no idea. All I could do was to turnaround and go back to the cruise terminal in Manhattan, four blocks from where I just started. Had I read my documentation I would have known the right port all along, but I did not, I just assumed. I would also have learned that I should have been on the ship by 2pm and it was now 4.20pm when I arrived to find the ship, but an empty terminal. As I was being escorted to the ship I heard a radio announcement to say they were pulling the gangway... but there small secondary gang way would be there for a few more minutes. Fifteen minutes to be exact. I was very relieved to get in to my cabin that day.

You'd think I had learned my lesson, but just the other day, I hailed a cab from the centre of St Petersburg. At the port I see two ships neither of them mine. I thought, "Okay, it'll be around the corner," but the driver spoke no English and seemed to be saying, "these are the only two ships here." We asked a security guy at the gate. I showed them the ship paperwork, "Emerald. The Princess Emerald," nothing. I showed them the port details in Russian, "Niet." At that point I figured I must have missed the ship. I had no idea how, but the fact was that I was there and the ship was not. My heart sank and I felt sick. The driver said something else in Russian and decided to drive on to the port anyway.

Then, as we got closer...what's that? Could be another ship behind one I can see? Oh my Goodness, yes, there's my ship! I cannot tell you the relief. It took a cup of tea and large piece of chocolate cake to stop me feeling sick.

To read more, download your copy of 'Cabaret Secrets' - the indispensable signer's guide on how to create your own show, travel the world and get paid to do what you love. Sign up to the newsletter on the main page right now for your half-off coupon.

Cabaret Secrets (c) 2013

A Guide to Musical Arrangements for Cruise Ship Entertainers

A Guide to Musical Arrangements for Cruise Ship Entertainers

I get a lot of questions from singers about how to order musical arrangements for their show. I've been commissioning arrangements for over 20 years and now have had over 500 for all sorts of bands from jazz trio, big band and full orchestra. Most have been for working on cruise ships and I have learned by my mistakes the best way to go about it. Here's how I do it.

Embracing change

Necessity is the mother of invention. So said Plato and numerous leaders since, especially those trying to find creative solutions to win whatever war they might be fighting. As entertainers we have plenty of battles of our own and our creativity is often the thing that gets us through. 

As a Sinatra guy, My Way has been my go-to encore, pretty much since I started singing. It ticks all the boxes: it’s emotive, dramatic and very popular. Too popular, as it happens. On a recent cruise four different acts closed their show with My Way! Can you imagine? Everyone was doing it their way and the audience was sick of hearing about it. So I was politely asked if I could find a different closer. At first I was very reluctant. No way! I need it! But then I remembered a few times in the past when I was sure I couldn’t do without a certain song or a joke, only to be proved wrong. 

Years ago, What Kind Of Fool Am I? was a key fixture in my show. It was the big dramatic belter that set me up for the finale. It was also a pain in the arse to rehearse (tempo changes) and hard on my voice (it’s high), but it was worth it. On one cruise I was told I had to cut ten minutes off my show, so it had to go. I was not a happy bunny. I was worried my show just wouldn’t work without it. As it happened the show still got a great reaction and I realised I didn’t really need it after all. I’ve hardly ever sung it since. 

So after scouring my repertoire for something new, I replaced My Way with another big ballad, and guess what? It worked a treat, I still got a standing ovation, and everyone was happy. 

It takes years to perfect a show and when we’ve got it, we don’t want to mess with it. Why would we? But the truth is that there are endless different ways to make a show work, we just get too comfortable and risk averse to try anything new. Next time, when you’re forced to make a change, embrace it as an opportunity. You may well find a better way. Adversity really is the mother of creativity, and lucky for us, creativity is what we do.