There aren’t many cabaret performers out there that can match the quality and perfection that Michael Griffiths radiates.
His critically acclaimed show, Cole, is one of hopefully many more added to the award winning catalogue of shows Griffiths has performed over the years. He’s successfully performed songs by Madonna and Annie Lennox at numerous Fringe events. Cole Porter is a famous composer who heavily pioneered the musical theatre world. Kiss Me Kate is the most famous musical he composed, and Michael Griffiths is doing the job of reviving his classics to please Cole fans and inspire others. With Cole already becoming a hit, we speak to Michael to find out more about his upcoming shows at the Royal Albert Hall on 11th – 12th July.
What first drew your attention towards Cole Porter?
I’ve always been aware of Cole Porter as long as I can remember. ‘Night and Day’ was one of the first songs I learnt as a young singer and for many years it was my ‘go to’ audition song for musicals. The idea for him being the subject of a cabaret show simply came out of polite conversation with friends over dinner a couple of years ago. I was eating with my dear friend Anna Goldsworthy (who is a pianist herself and happily a best selling author) and her partner Nicolas enquired as to whether I sang any Porter, proclaiming his songs would ‘suit’ me. Anna chimed in agreeing they would suit me and offered to write me a show. Perhaps she’d had too much to drink and was merely being polite but I held her to it and 6 months later, after many cups of tea listening to his delightful songs over and over, we premiered at Adelaide Cabaret Festival thanks to the support of Artistic Director Barry Humphries who loves the ‘old world’!
How familiar were you with his musical theatre compositions before you performed Cole?
I come from a musical theatre background and went to drama school in the ’90s where I learnt about Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. I certainly was familiar with a lot of his work, but had never sung any (barring Night and Day) and had definitely not played any on the piano. I’ve always been more of a ‘pop’ music theatre singer doing jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys, Priscilla and We Will Rock You so these have been a welcome change of pace.
How difficult was Cole Porter to master compared to music divas such as Madonna and Annie Lennox?
These songs require far more effort with diction, many of his songs have rapid fire lyrics and only succeed with every syllable being given precise attention. Far more challenging are the piano accompaniments – Cole traversed the world of classical music and for a time was to be tutored by Stravinksy and following in his footsteps until Broadway led him down a different path. His songs stand alone as sophisticated piano works and to play and sing them are the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still adore the pop of Madonna and Annie Lennox, but in terms of musical complexity there is no comparison.
What was your first adventure into Cabaret?
My first adventure was with Madonna! My dear friend Dean Bryant suggested we collaborate on a cabaret together. He’d already enjoyed success writing a Britney Spears cabaret (coming to London later this year) and a Liza Minnelli tribute for Trevor Ashley which has been seen all around the world. The first subject that came to mind was Madonna. I grew up in the 80s, have always been a massive fan and I am of the strong opinion that her skills as a songwriter aren’t celebrated enough. In the show I play the role of ‘Madonna’ but without any costume or impersonation – it’s a little ‘avant garde’ really. It’s bitchy, camp and has a lot of fun at her expense, but ultimately its a collection of some of the best pop songs ever written.
Do you think Cole will be as successful as your Madonna and Annie Lennox shows?
In many ways it’s already the most successful. It’s been selling out all over Australia and I was thrilled to tour around California earlier this year. It won me a Helpmann Award (the Aussie equivalent of the Olivier) and now brings me to Royal Albert Hall which is an absolute dream come true.
Is the Royal Albert Hall the biggest venue you have ever played?
I should insert a disclaimer now that I’m not playing the 5000 seat main Hall, but the delightful ‘cabaret specific’ Elgar Room under the same roof, an intimate space which is perfect for what I do. Next time I’ll play the 5000 seater!! Just kidding, I did do a few songs at the Edinburgh Playhouse at ‘Forth on the Fringe’ which was to a capacity house of around 3000. That was a thrill, but cabaret works best when I’m almost in the lap of the audience so smaller rooms like the Elgar Room are actually perfect.
What other music icons have you always wanted to turn into cabaret?
I have loved Pet Shop Boys since West End Girls came out in 1986. Love bordering on obsession. They’ll get a turn one day, I might call the show Pet Shop Boy!
Are there any other theatre related festivals in the UK you have always wanted to perform at?
I’ve been doing Edinburgh Fringe for 5 years now, but I am determined to explore more of the UK next year. I think especially ‘Sweet Dreams: Songs By Annie Lennox’ would be a joy to tour to other UK festivals, you’ll need to tell me which ones!
Would you appear in another musical soon, or are you happy with cabaret?
Cabaret is keeping me very busy this year, I don’t have a break until Christmas. Musicals were my training ground for which I will always be grateful, but cabaret is now my first love. It would be tough going back to 8 shows a week, I love being able to mix things up and my performances are intentionally never quite the same, an audience at a cabaret deserves their show to be unique – that’s what makes it so special.
What’s next for your after Cole?
I just premiered a new show ‘Lucky: Songs By Kylie’ at Adelaide Cabaret Festival so taking that all over Australia happens next year. It was so much fun, was my first time with a 5 piece band and I felt like a rock star. Firstly I’m heading back to Edinburgh Fringe with my Annie Lennox show, then taking Cole Porter all over New Zealand. Then after Kylie, I better start delving into my Pet Shop Boys CD collection and brainstorming.