Thursday February 2, 2012
I’m at 30,000 feet. Just departed SYD and bound for NYC. I can’t remember being this excited about something for a very long time. I figured that by my age (let’s just say I’m not in my twenties anymore) that I’d be well past feeling the excitement I used to about the Royal Adelaide Show each September, fantasising about the Ghost Train, the Mad Mouse and most importantly, the SHOW BAGS!
So I thought I’d use this time (and I have about 15 hours to kill) to give my NYC trip a little back story. Quite simply, I’m sitting on this aeroplane because about two years ago my best friend Dean Bryant said to me at Fitness First Melbourne Central while we were lifting not terribly heavy weights, “We should do a cabaret together.” I nodded vaguely. We continued our workout and not another word on the subject was spoken.
I’d already been very impressed by Dean’s many cabaret success stories. I was in tears at a dress rehearsal of Newley Discovered, struck dumb by Hugh Sheridan’s talent and Dean’s elegant and sophisticated writing. I didn’t feel like I was quite ready to join his stable of cabaret artists yet. Besides, I was busy in Jersey Boys (I still am, years later!), quite content in the ensemble and grateful to be working.
But a seed had been planted.
Almost a year later, Dean was visiting Sydney and we were having brunch at my favourite local cafe Guilia. That’s when I proposed he and I should do a Madonna cabaret together. I told him I didn’t know how it would happen, but I did know that I have always enjoyed her pop songs immensely. That she is a gifted lyricist and this goes almost entirely unacknowledged. Dean nodded a little unenthusiastically, having recently enjoyed success with his Britney Spears cabaret (starring the multi-talented and gorgeous Christie Whelan) and not in a hurry to re-tread the familiar territory. However, his interest was raised somewhat when I explained I should ‘play’ Madonna but without any attempt to ‘mimic’ her. I’d simply sing her songs (transposed down for my baritone voice) and recount hilarious anecdotes from her triumphant career as the Queen of Pop (and the movies that were a terrible idea right from the start).
We didn’t speak any further about it but Dean must have warmed quietly to the idea because he pitched it to David and Lisa Campbell without me knowing.
I got a phone call from Dean just before Christmas 2010 saying, “The Adelaide Cabaret Festival wants your Madonna show.” I was completely stunned and responded with something like “WHAT Madonna show?” but Dean convinced me that it was a great idea, that he’d write it and I should do the musical arrangements. I said, “NO, I want James Simpson to be my pianist and musical director.” I’d seen Dean’s cabaret show Experiment with Alex Rathgeber and had been blown away by James’ arrangements; he is a very special talent. Dean, however, insisted that I accompany myself and it was the only way the show would work (it was all the budget would allow for, but that may have been kept under wraps for the time being).
I recall us having a mild argument about it. I was certain I wasn’t up to the task of playing for myself for an hour and was concerned at the massive commitment and undertaking this would require. But Dean was quietly confident I’d be fine and we’d be fine so all that was left was to do was organise a week off from Jersey Boys in June and begin writing our little show.
The Cabaret Festival wanted a title quickly and the first idea I had was IN VOGUE: SONGS BY MADONNA. We tossed around a few other ones but kept coming back to that. I liked the way it referenced her songs, as opposed to it being a tribute or drag show. I also liked the way it incorporated a song title (“Vogue”) but in a different context. One could argue that being ‘in vogue’ has been an integral part of her career and that she has always had an uncanny knack for tapping into the zeitgeist.
We scheduled a get together in Melbourne early in 2011 to sit down at the piano (funnily enough, at fortyfivedownstairs where we just bumped out our Melbourne season!) so I could play through some early musical ideas and run through a potential song list. It also gave me a chance to see the ten year return of Dean’s Prodigal written with his partner Mathew Frank, which I adored. These were primitive musical doodlings but it gave us both a taste of how her songs would sound stripped back at the piano and with a male voice.
I remember singing “Borderline” (not terribly well), “Rain” (worse still), “Where Life Begins” (no comment) and not much else. Dean sat quietly taking notes and I was a little embarrassed about sounding croaky and playing the piano with little accuracy or finesse. Dean was encouraging though, and we sat down and talked through a list of mostly comic ideas I had for the show, one of which was a ‘show and tell’ with the notorious SEX book but in the context of it being a photo album of happy snaps from home.
With our first ‘meeting’ adjourned, we set about collaborating from afar for five months, me sitting at home and recording little ideas at the piano on GarageBand and emailing them off to Dean wherever he was in the world, trotting about here and there with Priscilla and it’s international demands.
And that’s how we proceeded to write IN VOGUE – sending emails back and forth, until we scheduled an intensive weekend in Sydney about two weeks before its World Premiere at the 2011 Adelaide Cabaret Festival. By then I had most of the songs under my belt, Dean had given the show its overall structure and cleverly decided which songs would best tell the different parts of her life and career worth discussing. We had a first draft.
After a tricky start to the weekend where Dean arrived to find I’d rewritten about half the script. I was beginning to really panic. and as much as I loved most of the script, there were sections I was worried that weren’t genius. We then proceeded to start from a blank page and work together on the piece, using Dean’s existing song structure and bouncing ideas off each other, cramming in as much of the research we’d done independently so that it was clever, economic, hilarious and, best of all, true. It was also important to us that we kept coming back to her songs and her songwriting talents; a masterclass, if you will.
We pretty much worked non-stop for two days culminating with a read/play through at the piano which ran for about 85 minutes (it was supposed to clock in at an hour) so we set about making little cuts and refinements but were satisfied we had a show and were on the right track. I then had the unenviable task of learning an hour script whilst seated at the piano, playing emotive underscore as I spoke. Harder than it sounds (and I reckon it sounds hard enough).
Thankfully, I was a swing at Jersey Boys, meaning if I weren’t required on stage, I could sit in the Musical Director Luke Hunter’s office and spend hours at the piano, marrying the script with my fingers.
It all came together. We opened in Adelaide with a bang and it was possibly the most exciting week of my life. I’m Adelaide born and bred but working in the ‘biz’ had kept me away from there for about 10 years. To come home as part of the esteemed Adelaide Cabaret Festival with a one-man show was honestly a dream come true. I’d been as an audience member to a couple of the Adelaide Cabaret Festivals in previous years and had been so impressed with the content and feel of it all. If you’ve not been, it really is something you have to experience for yourself, it’s such a wonderful vibe. I’m not sure if there’s anything else quite like it.
My three shows in Adelaide whizzed by and when a few months later Jersey Boys announced a two month break between Oz and NZ, my first thought was “I wanna to take IN VOGUE to New York.” Audacious, I know, but it’s also a great excuse to catch up with mates over there and see lots of Broadway shows, especially Priscilla with Tony Sheldon, who I had the pleasure of being in the Original Cast with. I know I’ll cry like a baby when I see it. The two-week season I just did in Melbourne for Midsumma fell into place, so it was a case of striking while the iron was hot. The perfect thing to do on a break really!
So here I am at 30,000 feet, a visa in my passport and four dates booked at Don’t Tell Mama. In three sleeps, I make my New York cabaret debut.
Cabaret Confessional’s new guest blogger Michael Griffiths is a critically acclaimed cabaret and musical theatre performer. He made a spectacular cabaret debut at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival last year with In Vogue: Songs by Madonna. Following his success, he is now touring the show to Melbourne, New York City and Sydney. He will document his time on the road on his tour diary for the next two months.
“He creates a sense of togetherness in the room, reminding audiences that pop songs aren’t popular because they’re ordinary or vacuous, but because of the joy and connectedness that they inspire in the people who hear them. To miss this show would be even more of a crime than Madonna’s cover of ‘American Pie’.”
Click here to read the Four and a half-star review by ArtsHub reviewer Aleksia Barron.
“Griffiths’ charming and impish performance sheds new light on Madonna’s songs and career…” - Kate Herbert
Click here to read the four-star review by Sun Herald reviewer Kate Herbert.
“With some impressive arrangements for piano, Griffiths gives the music and lyrics a considerable lift, and together with some clever monologues, injects a lot of humour” - Australian Stage
Click here to read the full review by Vito Mattarelli.
Michael Griffiths in In Vogue: Songs by Madonna
New York season at Don’t Tell Mama: For tickets and show info, click here.
Sydney season as part of the Slide Cabaret Festival: For tickets and show info, click here.
Read his interview with Cabaret Confessional here.
Michael Griffiths Bio:
Performing Arts (WAAPA) with a Bachelor in Music Theatre in 1999 and has a Diploma in Music Composition. Michael is currently performing in Sydney in Jersey Boys. Before this Michael toured Australia and New Zealand in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Michael performed in the Australian and Japanese tour of We Will Rock You!, appeared in the original Australian cast of Shout! and was in the original workshop for the new Australian musical Prodigal. Michael has performed cabaret at Sydney’s legendary Showqueen at the Supper Club and for Koookaburra’s Up Close and Musical series. He enjoyed a sold-out season with his cabaret debut In Vogue: Songs by Madonna at the 2011 Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
Michael Griffiths’ Cabaret Tour Diary series
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