“The stage is a safe place to be, real life is a little more daunting”: An interview with award-winning Cabaret performer Michael Griffiths
The culture team at The Upcoming was thrilled to get a chance to interview one of Australia’s biggest cabaret talents, Michael Griffiths. He started out in musical theatre but recently broke through with his more intimate solo work, which soared rapidly from his hometown of Adelaide to win the hearts of Kiwi, British and American audiences the world over. After three highly acclaimed shows chronicling the lives of pop legends Annie Lennox and Madonna as well as the more personal Adolescent, he incarnates in his latest performance, entitled Cole, the tragic and extravagant story of the game-changing Broadway composer Cole Porter. We asked him a few questions about this most recent endeavour, which won him a Helpmann award in 2016.
Hello Michael! It’s an honour to interview you and thank you so much for your time.
How do you feel about music nowadays? Would you agree there’s a romance to the olden, analogue days that we may never know again?
I’m not sure when I became a grumpy old man, I’m in my early 40s now and I’m always groaning about modern times and the intrusion of social media. What I miss most is the tactile exchange of buying a CD or LP, treasuring it and listening to it from start to end. I can’t remember the last time I did that (I’ve not bought hard copy music for years) but I remember growing up treasuring my LPs and the quiet, private time of listening to music. Streaming music through an online radio station on your smart TV just isn’t the same.
What would you talk to Cole Porter about if you could meet him?
I think we’d get drunk first, he loved a drink, a smoke and staying up late. He also loved being impulsive so perhaps we’d jump on a plane and head somewhere with good food and dancing? The company of handsome men is something we both agree on so a gay bar feels inevitable. Maybe one in Soho?
Which country has had the most responsive, interactive audience so far?
I was thrilled to tour the US earlier this year and was overwhelmed by the warm responses. I always pop out to the foyer after the show and there were so many hugs and well wishes. Americans are disarmingly open (especially Californians), they make me feel like Australians are far too reserved.
Do you ever see yourself playing piano and backing vocals to, say, a big pop artist of some sort, or will it always be theatre for you?
I’ve been music directing a show for Carlotta this last year, an Australian icon who hosted a legendary burlesque show in Sydney in the 60s called “Les Girls”, a little like the Moulin Rouge in Paris. It’s been a lovely change of pace taking a back seat and I’m always happy to mix things up. I think the trick to being able to make a living as a performing artist is going after work wherever it may be. And collaborating is always fun!
Please give us a glimpse of your most embarrassing moment on stage.
I was in the ensemble in Priscilla the Musical in Australia and I somehow locked myself in a toilet side stage just before my entrance for Don’t Leave Me This Way in the first act. I had steel-capped boots on (my costume) and was madly kicking the door and screaming in the hope that someone would hear me. The door eventually gave way and I snuck on half way through the number. Deeply embarrassing.
How did you master the piano? Do you know any other instruments?
I grew up with an upright piano in the family house and was drawn to it like a magnet. I never quite figured out how to read music (to this very day) and have always let my ears guide my fingers. Mum used to lift me up on to the piano stool and I’d amuse myself for hours. Mum also used to play the guitar, which I though I would play inevitably, but it hurts! My fingers never toughened up so I’ll just stick with the piano.
If it wasn’t for music, what would you do?
I’ve been doing cabaret masterclasses the last few years for high school students in a programme called “Class of Cabaret”, which culminates in a performance as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Its been very rewarding and I’ve been like a tearful proud parent on the day of performance. So teaching definitely comes to mind but there’s still music involved, I can’t get away from it.
Gender fluidity is a popular topic nowadays. Do you get involved at all in the politics surrounding your medium?
Not directly. I’m very aware that gender fluidity is a big part of my tribute shows to Madonna and Annie Lennox. In both shows I portray my idols without impersonation or costume. So in effect I become “female” without any compromise and I like to think when I perform those shows (in character) that I am the strongest and most powerful person in the room. Growing up in Australia in the 70s and 80s I was taught to be ashamed of my feminine aspects so it’s empowering to turn that around and celebrate them on stage each night.
Cole Porter’s repertoire is vast and his life full to the brim with extravagant scandals and tragic events. Do you relate much to his life and music? How do you get into character before a show?
I relate to him very strongly. I’ve always been one to learn things the hard way and find myself in trouble constantly – Cole mastered the art of “getting away with it” more than me! There’s also a healthy disdain for the “establishment” in his work, along with high romance and heartbreaking melancholy, all of which resonate with me. Most of all I have fun with his cheekiness and bring lots of that into my performance of each show. There’s always a glint in his eyes and you know he’s probably been up to no good.
Old Broadway jazz tunes must be harder to play than the pop classics of Madonna and Lennox. How did this affect your preparation time and methods?
Learning all his lyrics and getting my fingers around the original piano arrangements have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They’re all so dense! It meant about six months of almost daily practise, I drove my partner crazy. Now that I’ve (almost) mastered them, they are such a joy to share – it’s hard not to smile when you’re singing Let’s Do It.
You’ve done three shows now based on artists’ biographies. What or whom do you see as your next subject matter?
I’ve been obsessed with Pet Shop Boys since they first appeared 30 years ago. I have a brand new Kylie Minogue show that I’m touring all over Australia next year but I think a Pet Shop Boys show won’t be far behind.
Do you find yourself performing in everyday life or are you a completely different person onstage?
I find myself singing in public all the time, I don’t even know I’m doing it. I sing shopping for groceries, in taxis, waiting in a queue at an airport. People must think I’m quite peculiar! Otherwise I’m actually quite shy off stage, something I’m learning is quite common amongst performers. The stage is a safe place to be, real life is a little more daunting.
It is hard to make a living out of such a career, but you defied social career norms. Do you have any inspiring words for any aspiring performers?
The only limits to what you can achieve are self imposed. Sometimes a rejection is a blessing. Don’t worry about “success”, it’s not what you think it is anyway. Be concerned with the integrity of your work, that will serve you better in the long run. Your friends are the best indicator of where you are heading, choose them wisely. No one really knows quite what they are doing!
Cole Porter Songbook is at the Royal Albert Hall Elgar Room on 11th and 12th July 2017. For further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Cole Porter Songbook here: