I never intended to write about Britney or Madonna. I am a gay, so have loved them since they turned up on the scene. I’m pretty sure Madonna was always around in my life, me being 34 and she being 450, but Britney only popped into my life second year at WAAPA. I have a fairly bad memory of things past, but I have a very distinct memory of a holiday that my Nan and Don took me and my cousins on to Bateman’s Bay when I was around eight or so. Madonna’s “True Blue” was out and that cassette got quite the workout on the car radio. Which seems amazing when I think of my grandfather. I’ve always been into the music of Madonna – the title song of that album had this weird power over me. In the days before digital music, and before my parents paid money for music, or anything, I used to sit beside our radio and pray to God that that song would come on the radio. I’d turn the dial, and more often that not, it would. It seemed miraculous at the time, but now that I understand commercial radio more, I realise it’s almost impossible to avoid the song that is anywhere between number 10 and number 1 on the charts at the time. Strangely, “True Blue” hasn’t stood the test of time and isn’t even on Madonna’s unbeatable greatest hits “The Immaculate Collection”.
And Britney. In a strange enough coincidence, I was introduced to Britney Spears through the man who became my Madonna, Michael Griffiths. We all lived together in a ramshackle house above a second hand book store during my WAAPA days (the rent? 50 dollars a week!) and he had this single called “Baby…One More Time” which got endlessly played and danced to in our very humble abode. Time passed and I absorbed Britney’s oeuvre, and paid a little attention to the tabloid feeding frenzy that was her life. I didn’t care either way about her – neither judging her nor adoring her. She just was a singer who had turned out the right amount of hit pop songs to be permanently famous. So “Circus” was released during my jogging days of the Sydney return season of Priscilla. I downloaded it, needing new stuff to run to, and really got into the first couple of songs on the album – the title song, “Out from Under” and “Piece of Me”. And I was about to be poor (Priscilla was ending) so I really wanted a job, and wanted to pitch an idea to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which was being headed by my friends David and Lisa Campbell. I’d just met Christie Whelan via Company and a workshop of my musical Once We Lived Here, and it struck me one day – I love Britney songs, her life is mental, why don’t I write a cabaret for Christie as Britney as if she’s decided to do what any young girl does and reveal herself via songs. But the songs would be her songs, and revealing of her actual life.
Now that the show has played Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne twice, (and is a week away from Brisbane and the second Sydney season) to the best reviews of my career, it seems so obvious that this idea had legs. But at the time, Lisa and I would regularly chat – always talking about the central issue – could this idea sustain 70 minutes? I can’t claim to have any secret formula to what makes cabaret work, but I do know that building that show taught me so much about how to keep an audience’s interest for a period of time. One of the key delights an audience can have in the theatre is variations on a theme. “Noises Off” is the ultimate example of this – it takes a bad British farce and shows you it onstage, behind the stage, and then the result of it months later (I think that’s the plot, anyway). When creating “Britney” I knew I had to take what the audience expected (Britney is a dumb blonde) and find a lot of variations on that, and then slowly turn the story around to what I was actually interested in – what does it mean for a young girl to live her life in full view of every person in the world? “Britney” was a blessed project. Christie was promising when we started the project four years ago and is now blooming into one of Australia’s pre-eminent live performers. She’d never done anything like this before – in fact, there’s not many people who’ve taken on the daunting task of being alone with an audience for 70 minutes – with only their charisma and talent (and the script, music and Matty) to get them through. The creation of the show was effortless – the three of us worked on the arrangements, I riffed on aspects of Britney’s life that I was interested in, Christie worked the monologues, we shaped it, we put it up. And the show has remained pretty unchanged since that first Adelaide performance to 60 people. We’re currently playing 5 shows a week to 150 people, and the show has gone from strength to strength.
Then came Madonna. I really didn’t want to write this show. The only reason I did is because it was my best friend Michael’s idea (the Michael who introduced me to Britney). Michael and I studied together at WAAPA and have been best friends ever since. He’s one of the most employable actors in musical theatre because he can sing, act, is tall and dance enough to get by. He’s also happy to do ensemble and cover, which is a dream for any producer. During our stint together on the original cast of Priscilla, he started doing ten-minute slots of cabaret at various functions. And he was brilliant. Not “I’m supporting my friend because he’s having a go” brilliant but actually comedically amazing, musically brilliant and exactly what cabaret should be. So I started pushing him to do something for himself. Instead he did chorus in Jersey Boys. Well, it’s a wage.
But then after I’d done a few Adelaide Cabaret Festivals he said, I wanna do a show. About Madonna. Because Britney had already had a few seasons, I was loathe to tread that ground. But he had a unique take – Christie impersonates Britney, it’s like an Alan Bennett monologue with songs about her life. But Michael was going to do Madge without any attempt at accent, costume or wig. Just say, I am her, so let’s get going. Lisa Campbell was intrigued, but only if Michael would accompany himself at the piano. Which he can do, luckily. This was the stroke of genius because it turned his show into something very specific, a recital, essentially, of Madonna’s music. I said from the start I didn’t want to biopic the script, because I’d done that on Britney, Newley and Liza. Michael started sending me arrangements of the songs he was interested in, and they started sending ideas into my head of how they could fit. In a biopic. So I wrote a biopic script. We were getting together to work the script for a few days, and Michael, who had professed to love my draft, spent the day rewriting the script. So when I turned up at his house to begin the rehearsal process, there was an entirely new script waiting for me. This led to the only real fight we’ve ever had in our friendship. But the outcome of this (apart from a trip to Stonewall) was that we made a show that was original and unique.
Michael really wanted to push the idea that Madonna is an unsaluted songwriter. So we went through all her lyrics and found key quotes, and then shaped the story around the idea that she was giving a masterclass from the piano of how to use your life to write pop. Once we’d shaped that, thrown in a guest appearance from Justin Timberlake and a trip through the infamous “Sex” book, we had a show. Adelaide was controversial, for reasons I can’t even be bothered going in to now, but the show was a hit. Michael is even better with an audience than I thought he would be. Apart from the truly virtuoustic skill of being able to accompany yourself, sing and do dialogue, he can improvise hilarious dialogue on a moment’s notice. Whenever I watch him do the show I am ridiculously proud of his talent and gratified that I had a part in making sure the world has seen it now.
And then came the unexpected but wonderful coincidence of both these shows playing my home town in the same month. Lisa had decided (very astutely) that “Britney” needed another Melbourne outing after Christie’s profile had bloomed in the last 18 months, and I’d booked 45DS for something that fell through and ended up sticking “Madonna” in there. So suddenly both shows opened performances on the same night in the city. It’s probably an event that will never occur in my life again, but it felt absolutely wonderful to have audiences flocking to two shows I was so proud of.
As similar as their source material is, the shows are quite different –
Britney is a victim and Madonna is a leader
Britney follows those who are strong whereas Madonna fires those who go against her will
Britney is an exploration of a life and Madonna is an exploration of a vocation
Britney is ultimately poignant and Madonna is ultimately joyful
Britney’s songs tell her life but Madonna’s songs are her life
Britney is pure, Madonna is camp
But what they have in common is two marvellous performers, amazing musical arrangements and complete control over their audiences.
I’ll probably never write about a pop icon again, but the joy these two shows have brought me will satisfy until I can’t write anymore.