November 2018

Arts & Letters

Eddie Perfect goes to Broadway

By Darryn King
The Australian composer has two musicals – ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘King Kong’ – opening in New York

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 bike-share 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 Burtonfilm, 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 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.”

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.”

Darryn King

Darryn King is a freelance journalist based in New York.

@DarrynKing

Eddie Perfect. Photograph by Emilio Madrid-Kuser

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