Interview: Michael Griffiths salutes Madonna – see the article in its original context here.
Adelaide born, WAAPA trained, Sydney based performer Michael Griffiths made a sensational cabaret debut at the 2011 Adelaide Cabaret Festival with In Vogue: Songs by Madonna. He premiered the show to sold-out crowds and pulled off a compelling performance as the pop diva – without wigs, costumes or an accent. The show was such a success that he is about to take it to Melbourne, New York and Sydney. As Michael gets ready for the tour, he chats to Cabaret Confessional about his hit show he calls “Madge Unplugged”, his collaboration with a cabaret wunderkind Dean Bryant and his thoughts on cabaret.
Michael will be starting a tour diary just before he kicks off the 2012 Midsumma Festival season in Melbourne. Watch this space and follow his adventures as he gives us an insider look at the In Vogue: Songs by Madonna Tour!
Why did you choose to do a show about Madonna and her songs for your first cabaret show?
I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember, in fact, anyone around my age pretty much grew up with her. But aside from the obvious nostalgia for her songs, I feel her songwriting talents go mostly unacknowledged. They are deceptively clever and revealing; ideal fodder for cabaret. My show is as much about her as it is letting her songs stand up for what they really are – perfect pop.
You’ve had quite an extensive career in musical theatre. What motivated you branch out to cabaret?
Dean Bryant had suggested we collaborate on something together. He’s had great success writing cabaret shows for Trevor Ashley (Liza on an E), Hugh Sheridan (Newley Discovered) and Christie Whelan (Britney Spears: The Cabaret). I suggested a show about Madonna, where I played her and we used her songs to illustrate her life, but I made no attempt whatsoever to mimic her. He liked the absurdist nature of it and the appeal of a one-man-show so we ran with it. Somewhere along the way it became clear we were reinterpreting the songs and giving them a twist – musically and dramatically. When you strip away all the pop production and put them in a dramatic context, they can’t help but change and evolve.
What were the biggest challenges when you were preparing for this show?
Playing the piano and talking at the same time! Playing and singing obviously takes a little practice but what really surprised me is how hard I found it playing underscore whilst speaking. I’d never done it before and it’s a whole new skill entirely. Of course the trick is to make it look completely effortless, so that’s where most of my rehearsal time went.
What was the collaboration process with Dean Bryant like?
Dean and I go way back to the late 90s when we were flatmates, singing and dancing at WAAPA. We have worked together before on Priscilla Queen of the Desert but never quite so intimately. It took a little while to find our groove but once we did we really got the best out of each other. Essentially he wrote the text and I did the musical arrangements but it was a true collaboration in that Dean would be singing me musical ideas while I’d be throwing storytelling ones back at him. We’re both very proud of it.
What is the best part of performing it?
I absolutely adore singing these songs. That, and seeing Madonna fans faces light up when their favorite songs appear; I can always pick the die-hard fans because their mouths move along spontaneously with the lyrics!
The show enjoyed an enormous success with a sold-out season at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. How do you analyse the appeal of your show?
Firstly, I think there’s a strong fan base out there for our Queen of Pop, which certainly helps. There also feels like a genuine resurgence and interest in cabaret all around the place right now and it seems the perfect time for the show.
You’ll be touring the show very soon – tell us a bit about that?
I’m on a two-month break right now from Jersey Boys so I’m taking my show on the road. First up is a two-week season in January for Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival, which feels like the perfect setting for a bit of ‘Madge Unplugged’. Then I’m taking it to her hometown for four shows at New York City’s Don’t Tell Mama in February, which is incredibly exciting. Finally it’s back to Sydney for one show only at Slide on Feb 24th as part of the Side Cabaret Festival before I start back up with Jersey Boys in Auckland.
What is the most memorable cabaret performance you’ve seen, and why?
Hands down Chita Riviera at last year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival. She completely blew me away. She had the whole crowd captivated the entire show. Inspirational.
What is cabaret to you?
Cabaret is singing and storytelling at it’s simplest.
Michael Griffiths in In Vogue: Songs by Madonna
Melbourne season as part of the Midsumma Festival at 45 Downstairs: For tickets and show info, click here.