Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser will share their love story in a theatrical extravaganza that will have its Australian premiere in Adelaide next year
SHE IS THE Detroit-born burlesque pageant queen, contemporary dancer and cabaret artist who once trained Oscar winner Kate Winslet to swim like a mermaid. He is the English rock drummer, actor, comedian and disability activist with phocomelia – a malformation of the arms caused by the morning sickness drug thalidomide.
Together, Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser not only perform Beauty and the Beast but have intertwined the classic French fairytale with the story of their own relationship and eventual marriage.
The result, which will have its Australian premiere at next year’s Adelaide Festival, is a multi-layered theatrical extravaganza of shadow puppetry, song and dance, which is both deliberately confronting in its undiluted sexuality and yet mesmerising in its rich visual tapestry and emotional depth.
In a real life love story that couldn’t have been scripted, the Freak and the Showgirl (as they are frequently billed) actually met in 2006 at – where else – New York’s Coney Island, home to some of the world’s most famous amusement parks and sideshow acts.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?’’ Fraser says from New Orleans, where he is filming the latest series of American Horror Story: Freak Show, which began screening in Australia on Channel 11 this week.
“It was kapow! A couple of years later, with our respective pre-existing first marriages no longer, we were able to manifest our love.’’
The seeds for Beauty and the Beast were sown from the very start.
“It was her idea. I said ‘We should work together’ because I was too scared to say ‘I fancy you’,’’ Fraser recalls.
“She said, ‘ What about Beauty and the Beast?’ It hit me like a bolt from the obvious blue: all that symbolism and mythology and history that goes into fairytales is so ripe and beautiful to use with disability, in terms of metaphor.
“I thought: ‘ Dammit! I should have thought of that!’ The fact that she nailed the obvious show that we should go for… just made me like her even more.”
Muz, meanwhile, is talking from Paris where she has been performing at Cirque d’Hiver as a regular member of Cabaret New Burlesque, the troupe at the centre of Mathieu Amalric’s film Tournée (On Tour), which won the best director and FIPRESCI awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.
“He was working at a ‘Born not Made’ weekend at Coney Island and I was doing a burlesque show,” she says of meeting Fraser. “It just started there… we were hot for each other, it was fun.
“Mat was in my dreams a couple of times when he went back to England... so I wrote him. At that time, he was looking for somebody to collaborate with artistically, because he had been doing a lot of solo work. I just blurted out: ‘ Beauty and the Beast, how’s that?’ Our relationship grew from there.’’
Fraser’s career has followed a fascinating trajectory, one which to a degree mirrors the depiction and incorporation of disability in the arts.
After drumming with several UK bands in the ’80s and ’90s, he first came to Adelaide in 2002 as part of the shortlived High Beam disability arts festival, performing his one-man show Sealboy, in which he portrayed both an old freak show act and a contemporary disabled actor who converse across eras.
By the time he returned in 2011 with his then fiancee Muz in The Freak and the Showgirl, Fraser had graduated from the marginalised High Beam to the more mainstream, popular Fringe audience at the Garden of Unearthly Delights.
This time, the now married couple have scaled the pinnacle of arts programming as part of the Adelaide Festival.
“The thing is, I’m happy to do low art and high art, and I like the cabaret short-format evening stuff as well as the highfalutin, philosophically profound theatrical experience,’’ Fraser says.
“We’re thrilled that we’ve arrived at the Festival – although, I have to tell you, I will be kicking back and enjoying some downtime down at the Garden.
“The difference is that The Freak and the Showgirl is very much cabaret, there’s no fourth wall, it’s Mat and Julie doin’ what they do, gettin’ down and dirty with the audience, and having a riotous old naughty time.
“Beauty and the Beast is a much more layered piece of work, that covers both the classic fairytale and interweaves experiences from our own courtship and romance. The two bleed into each other. We’ve got puppetry, we’ve got a huge set that reminds me of an open-air Elizabethan stage, great lighting design, fantastic stage design and costumes.’’
The original French text of Beauty and the Beast has quite strong erotic undertones and a dark subtext that the couple were keen to further explore.
“You probably know Beauty and the Beast as a story for children, but when it was originally written in France by Barbot de Villeneuve… it wasn’t really intended just for children. There are a lot of erotic interpretations of that story,” Muz says.
“We weave the traditional fairytale with our own real-life story, so we are constantly going in and out of true life.
“There’s no singing teapots – Disney really sanitised the fairytale, and we eroticise it. Beauty and the Beast is not a