On Broad­way

Darryn King on Ed­die Per­fect and his jour­ney to ‘King Kong’ and ‘Beetle­juice’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

When Ed­die Per­fect was five, his high-school teacher par­ents took him camp­ing. They loaded the tape deck of the Kombi van and headed to the Aus­tralian bush, ac­com­pa­nied by the cast al­bums of Stephen Sond­heim’s Sweeney Todd and Gil­bert and Sul­li­van’s The Pi­rates of Pen­zance.

Thirty-five years later, the Mel­bourne writer-per­former – based in New York as of a few weeks ago – has com­posed the songs for two mu­si­cals open­ing for the 2018–19 Broad­way sea­son. He seems more daunted than de­lighted by that fact. “It’s not ad­vis­able,” he says. “It’s more than a full-time job do­ing one.”

Per­fect is in a T-shirt and oc­ca­sion­ally smooshes his hair into its trade­mark cock­atiel crest. He’s din­ing at Broad­way in­sid­ers’ gath­er­ing place Joe Allen, where the walls are adorned with posters of in­fa­mous flops: Amer­i­can Psy­cho: The Mu­si­cal, Paul Si­mon’s The Cape­man, the Tu­pac Shakur juke­box mu­si­cal Holler if Ya Hear Me. (One sec­tion of wall is de­voted to vam­pire mu­si­cals that suf­fered crit­i­cal im­pale­ment: Dance of the Vam­pires, Le­s­tat, Drac­ula: The Mu­si­cal.)

“Some in­cred­i­ble artists,” Per­fect says. “I can only dream of be­ing up there one day.”

On Sun­day, Novem­ber 4, Beetle­juice will of­fi­cially open in Wash­ing­ton, DC, ahead of its un­veil­ing in April at the Win­ter Gar­den The­atre, New York – the same venue that hosted the Ziegfeld Fol­lies in the 1930s and Cats.

On Thurs­day, Novem­ber 8, King Kong will stomp into the 1761-seat (that’s big) Broad­way The­atre, where Mickey Mouse made his an­i­mated de­but 90 years ago. “So that’s a pretty nuts week.”

Re­cently, Per­fect was drop­ping off his daugh­ters at school in the morn­ing, then us­ing the city’s pub­lic bike­share sys­tem to cy­cle to 42nd Street, where Beetle­juice and

King Kong re­hearsals were un­der­way in the same build­ing: Skull Is­land na­tives and De­pres­sion-era New Yorkers on level four, de­monic crea­tures and mis­chief-mak­ers on level seven.

“It was like an el­e­va­tor ride away. I’d spend the day with Beetle­juice and then get in the lift with the Kong cast and I felt like I was cheat­ing on my wife.”

It helps that the projects are noth­ing alike.

King Kong, adapted from the 1933 movie and its nov­el­i­sa­tion, is a rad­i­cally over­hauled ver­sion of the pro­duc­tion that opened in Mel­bourne five years ago, prior to Per­fect’s in­volve­ment. Among the changes, this ver­sion gives the damsel in dis­tress, Ann Dar­row, some much-needed agency. “She’s al­ways been saved by the love of a man. We were like, well, that’s bull­shit.”

As be­fit­ting a mu­si­cal cen­tring on a giant go­rilla – the an­i­ma­tronic pup­pet, cre­ated by Mel­bourne’s Crea­ture Tech­nol­ogy Co., weighs 1.1 tonnes and looms 6 me­tres tall – Per­fect’s songs are an­themic and mon­u­men­tal, with el­e­ments of dance­hall, prog rock and big band swing jazz, sup­ple­mented by a score by English mu­sic pro­ducer Mar­ius de Vries.

Beetle­juice is adapted from the 1988 Tim Bur­ton film, with a script by a for­mer the­atre critic and a for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Up­right Cit­i­zens Bri­gade Theater. Per­fect’s songs are laced with the lop­ing rhythm of Harry Be­la­fonte’s “Ba­nana Boat Song”, but he is play­ing with a range of styles, ap­pro­pri­ate for a mu­si­cal

about a shapeshift­ing mis­cre­ant: the open­ing num­ber alone in­volves ska, banjo-strum­ming folk, death metal, swing jazz, and a big cheer­lead­ing step cho­rus. “It’s so bonkers. But a lot of fun.”

It was in 2014 that Per­fect made the first of sev­eral re­con­nais­sance mis­sions to New York. He stayed with Tim Minchin, picked his brain and signed with his Broad­way agent, John Buzzetti. Go­ing to shows in the evening was the high­light of Per­fect’s day.

“It was the one time of day where there was a room full of peo­ple that gave a shit you ex­isted. And in this town, you know, you can go days feel­ing com­pletely sort of in­vis­i­ble. Af­ter a while you start to won­der whether you ex­ist.

“I also started feel­ing I had my face pressed against the glass of the candy store, look­ing in, no idea how to get on the other side.”

Per­fect soon learnt that a Beetle­juice project was in the works and that pro­duc­ers had ap­proached a num­ber of high-pro­file Broad­way writ­ing teams. Con­trary

“She’s al­ways been saved by the love of a man. We were like, well, that’s bull­shit.”

to pro­to­col and con­ven­tion, he of­fered to write a cou­ple of songs for free – his au­di­tion for the pro­duc­ers and di­rec­tor Alex Tim­bers.

Back in Mel­bourne, hid­den away in the cor­ner of a room at the Colling­wood Arts Precinct, Per­fect came up with what would be his first batch of Broad­way-bound songs. To keep the vol­ume down, he draped a blan­ket over him and the pi­ano.

“I just turned my­self in­side out for a month writ­ing these songs. I was like, this is my chance and I am go­ing to put ev­ery­thing into it.”

“Ev­ery mu­si­cal is an anom­aly that only gets put on through sheer tenac­ity and blood­y­mind­ed­ness.”

Some three months later, when Per­fect re­ceived the call with the good news, he “lit­er­ally lay down on the con­crete in the mid­dle of the day, just scream­ing into the phone”.

It was in late 2016 in New York, in the thick of work­ing on Beetle­juice, that Per­fect took the call about

King Kong.

Now, at the pointy end of many years’ worth of de­vel­op­ment, a cou­ple of weeks be­fore pre­views open, Per­fect is still at the coal­face. He has writ­ten six com­pletely dif­fer­ent clos­ing num­bers for King Kong, and when Per­fect rewrites a song, he re­ally rewrites it. “When some­one goes, ‘We love it, but just take this cen­tral idea and re­place it with that …’ that’s like some­body tak­ing your kids away and sneak­ing in some or­phans. Those kids don’t be­long in this house.”

He adds: “The thing with a new work is that you’re con­tin­u­ously cut­ting stuff, rewrit­ing stuff, adding things. Things that you thought were clear in your head aren’t clear on the page. Things you thought were re­ally in­ter­est­ing are very bor­ing. Some­times the act is run­ning too long and you need to lose 10 min­utes and you need to go through the whole score.”

The abil­ity to work fast “is 100 per cent based on the fact that I’m an Aus­tralian com­poser who has never had that kind of re­ally suc­cess­ful work that’s meant that I could just chill out and get roy­al­ties”. Per­fect’s wife, who works in ad­ver­tis­ing, pro­vides in­valu­able feed­back too. “Her en­tire job is fa­cil­i­tat­ing cre­ativ­ity and keep­ing it on mes­sage.”

Ten years since he made a name for him­self with

Shane Warne: The Mu­si­cal, to go from writ­ing “in the vac­uum” of Aus­tralia to be­ing a cog in the Broad­way mu­si­cal ma­chine has been eye-open­ing. ( King Kong and

Beetle­juice weren’t the only shows re­hears­ing in that build­ing on 42nd Street, which has 84,000 square feet of floor space over 10 storeys.) Per­fect has started won­der­ing if Aus­tralia’s own mu­si­cals open too soon – just at the point when they might ben­e­fit from an hon­est re-eval­u­a­tion. “I thought I knew what de­vel­op­ment was, but I didn’t un­til I came here: ‘Oh, this is how Amer­i­cans develop mu­si­cals.’ It’s sus­tained and it’s in­tense. For the guy that’s been un­der a blan­ket for three years, it was re­ally con­fronting.”

None of this is to diss Aus­tralia, by the way. To Per­fect’s mind, Aus­tralia has world-class mu­si­cal the­atre tal­ent. Stu­pen­dous per­form­ers, di­rec­tors, de­sign­ers, and the best live mu­si­cians in the world. The work ethic is “gi­nor­mous”.

“But ev­ery mu­si­cal is an anom­aly that only gets put on through sheer tenac­ity and bloody-mind­ed­ness. And it’s a shame, be­cause ev­ery other form is ac­counted for and has a na­tional voice.

“If you can have a con­tem­po­rary visual art voice, mul­ti­ple con­tem­po­rary dance com­pa­nies that have a voice that tour their work over­seas, if you can have a na­tional opera com­pany and state opera com­pa­nies, cham­ber or­ches­tras and state sym­phony or­ches­tras, if you can do live the­atre, if you can do cir­cus, if you can do cabaret … why not mu­sic the­atre?”

For now, Per­fect is ad­just­ing to life in his new city. In the evenings, he some­times takes the kids to Cen­tral Park. “They chase the rats around, much to the dis­gust of lo­cals.” Later, cross­ing the road to­wards the Up­per West Side, there’ll be the oc­ca­sional glimpse of the stylish mono­chrome taxi-top ad­ver­tis­ing for King Kong – “Break­ing Free on Broad­way” – as they head home.

“I worked re­ally hard to get here,” he says. “I feel like I’m put­ting ev­ery­thing I can into these projects and I just re­ally hope that leads to the next thing. Hon­estly, one of my big­gest hopes and dreams is that they let me stay.”

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