This year was really special for me for a number of reasons. It was David and Lisa Campbell’s final year – they’ve done a marvellous job building the Festival that is thrilling to be part of and they’ve allowed me to premiere new shows every year of their reign – in 2009, Newley Discovered and Britney Spears: The Cabaret (though still referred to by us all as “Teggers”, even though it’s given name disappeared a year ago), in 2010, Experiment: Cole Porter (with a reappearance by Newley and Liza (on an E)) and this year Josie in the Bathhouse and In Vogue: Songs By Madonna. It felt wonderful to be part of it each year with them, to hang at the Piano Bar each night, lose my glasses at the Mars Bar each time, you know, the little things.
But this year was especially special because I got to showcase the talents of two of my best friends in the world, Michael Griffiths and Josie Lane. Michael has been my best friend since WAAPA. It was loathe at first sight. But that changed a few days later, and in the 14 years since we met, we’ve shared many drinks, laughs and trips to G-Star. And now, after this Festival, lots of tears, too. Michael is wonderfully talented and hardly ever out of work. He’s done long runs now in Shout, We Will Rock You, Priscilla and Jersey Boys. During Priscilla he started doing ten minute slots at the various Showqueens and Up Close and Musicals and I noticed how adept he was at handling a crowd. When he pitched his idea for a Madonna show, I was dubious. It sounded very like the Britney show. But as we talked the idea got more specific – firstly, that Michael would play Madonna without an accent or costume. So it was semi-absurdist to begin. Second, that he would arrange the material and accompany himself. As the various arrangements started flooding in over the past few months, I realised he had a very “art song” take on the material, which intrigued me and shaped the show it was becoming. I wrote a script for Michael, which he loved, and went up to workshop it in Sydney. Hilariously, that day at Jersey Boys he’d been bored so had rewritten my entire script. Oh, how we laughed. Except not. But once we’d worked out what respect and collaboration means, we started making the show much more representative of both our voices, and it became it’s own thing. I tend to be drawn to the emotional arc underneath everything, whereas Michael is much more interested in celebration and power. And swearing. I made sure to put lot of “fucks” in the script, including one that came back to haunt us later.
Right from the start we wanted Josie to be part of Michael’s show, and Michael to be part of hers. To go with the absurd nature of Michael’s show, Josie would to a cameo as Justin Timberlake, and they’d riff on planking, which was then a popular thing.
We quickly realised that planking would be as passe as this blog will be in a month, so left open a slot to improvise on the night about whatever was topical that day. What was topical during the performance, as it turned out, was the ash cloud that prevented numerous artists getting to the festivals, both weeks. I ended up driving over eight hours (don’t you love when people write stuff like “over eight hours”, rather than just eight and a half or whatever) with Gillian Cosgriff to make sure I made my rescheduled tech in Adelaide. It was a pretty drive for a few hours, then it got dark. Gillian and I now know everything about each other, and I totally support her decisions to break up with every one of her exes. The ash cloud improvised song in the show ended up being hilarious…ly bad. As we hoped. The show itself ended up being very much about the art of songwriting, and how any person’s life (in this case, Madonna) inspires the songs they put out there.
It was very interesting working with my best friend in this capacity. It’s very full-on doing one person shows – writing and directing an individual into being confident that they can hold the audience for 70 minutes, mostly by themselves. I had often wondered whether Michael had ambition but I wonder no longer. He seized this opportunity, like Madonna would an African child or Brazilian model and he ran with it. I’ve never seen such single-minded focus from anyone I’ve worked with on a cabaret. But it paid off handsomely, as he was completely in control and hilarious during the three sold-out performances in the Artspace. It was a truly beautiful and strangely sophisticated show that won universal praise. My favourite part was the bit I had nothing much to do with – when Madonna took us through a few snapshots…her infamous Sex book, of course, but Michael’s droll improvisation about how each photo came about was truly inspired.
And the “fuck” that came back to haunt us? In a nutshell, Michael was asked to perform at a government function for 2000 people, didn’t realise his audience was essentially senior citizens and families and did an excerpt of his show that involved both “Mickey Mouse” and “fingerfucking”. The monologue became so infamous at the Festival that I suspect the Adelaide Drama School will be allowing it to be used for auditions next year.
I’ve know Josie since she was 14 and she was a student under Mathew. At 18 we cast her in Spelling Bee at Sydney Theatre Company, where she quickly moved onto a Diva in Priscilla, Avenue Q, Fame and several other projects. All this by age 22. She’s talented, obvi. Last year she came to see Mitchell Butel’s show and got up at the piano bar. Her rendition of “Home” wowed the audience and David asked me to shape something for her this year. But what to do, we pondered? Josie has often been described as having the energy and voice of a young Bette Midler, so we somehow landed on the idea of doing an homage to Bette’s start as a singer in gay bathhouses in Manhattan. We swerved away from doing a Bette show, partially because I didn’t want to do ANOTHER “Famous Person” show and partially because there’s a few of those floating around the country. What we decided we wanted to do was capture the spirit of those shows – set the show in an actual gay sauna and tell dirty stories and belt the shit out of the songs. Josie did a ton of research and we started finding the links between songs we felt fitted and stories we wanted to tell. Tonally, a lot of the early Bette stuff is very burlesque/vaudeville and that suits Josie as well. Over a period of months we had a collection of stories and songs – Josie pretty much handpicked everything and I brought the overall structuring to the show. CabFest had been very generous in ok’ing a five piece band in the Space Theatre, and re-creating a version of last year’s Smoke and Mirrors set. They sourced a bath for us, as Josie had the delightful (and ultimately exhausting) idea of hiding herself in the bath before the audience entered, then making an appearance out of it during her first number. What we didn’t really factor in was that the house opened 15 minutes before the show. She was stuck in that bath, covered by a sheet, for a very long time.
James Simpson came on board again to MD and do the arrangements. This was one of the few shows I’ve done not based on an individual singer/writer’s work, so we could choose anything. An eclectic set built up, including Steely Dan’s “Josie”, the Ting Ting’s “That’s Not My Name”, Sarah Silverman’s “Porn Song”, a medley of “Forget You” and “Only Girl in the World”, plus many more. Michael was worked into Josie’s show as “Michel Le Towel Boy”, the attendant at the Bathhouse and Josie’s kind of foil. This worked very well in the second and third shows.
The first show? Well…let’s say it wasn’t the best idea to have Michael do his 70 minute show as Madonna then go straight to Josie’s 70 minute show with literally no break between them. But we ironed out the issues and he was a very camp and saucy addition to her modern burlesque. Josie really worked the look of the show herself – she’s a fan of the 40s look and did the first half of the show in a vintage-looking playsuit, moving into gold party dress and ultimately a green evening gown that hung on her like water.
Rehearsals were manic. Michael was in Sydney, James in Singapore, then Ballarat and I was in Brazil. This was all in the two weeks leading up to opening. But we pulled it together and as I ran Josie I started to see that she was gonna be something special. Come opening night she surpassed any idea of her talent I had. She mesmerised and controlled 400 strangers (and a few friends and family) for 70 minutes, leading a five-piece band and her towel-boy through some pretty revealing material. I felt incredibly proud of her, as a kind of semi-brother, and very excited by the talent that was blossoming before my eyes. And her Saturday night was even better. There were things that happened in that show that you know will become legendary parts of a star’s repertoire as the years pass. Sunday night, Michel surprised her with a bunch of roses for their “acting scene” encore. During “Beast of Burden” she worked the audience, handing them roses. Which was camp and so Diva.
And the three of us, plus my folks, Daryl, David, Trav, Chrissy, Matt, Tracey and all our friends at the Festival had a great time. We went to Central Markets, the Art Gallery cafe, restaurants, shopping, and all that. I led a masterclass on how (and more importantly, WHY) to do cabaret, and even ended up doing “Crazy For You” as a duet with Josie at the Intercontinental Piano Bar. Unfortunately, it was recorded.
Every year of the Festival has been exciting and challenging in different ways. And all of them yielded new shows that I’m really proud of, done by performers I’m even prouder of. This year may be my last at the Festival, but I definitely went out with a bang. Or at least a fingerfuck.