Sounds familiar? Fringe artists taking on the greats

With tribute shows filling the Fringe programme, Tim Bano talks to performers about the challenges of interpreting famous songs and singers

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Michael Griffiths: Songs by Kylie
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Published 08 Aug 2018

“Never look behind the curtain”, is singer and songwriter Stewart D'Arrietta’s advice. When it comes to musical icons, he suggests, it’s never worth looking too hard at how they became iconic.

But it’s advice that D’Arrietta is ignoring, along with a number of artists at the Fringe this year, as they interpret the songs and styles of some of the all-time greats. From Kylie Minogue to Tom Waits the programme is filled, once again, with shows that do exactly what D’Arrietta advises against: looking behind the curtain, delving into the lives of legends, and embodying them on stage.

Still, D’Arrietta knows whereof he speaks. His show Belly of a Drunken Piano began life as a Tom Waits tribute around 2005. His voice was a perfect match for Waits’s—rough-cut, growling and smoky—and the show had a successful run in SoHo in New York.

But in 2010 D’Arrietta got a cease and desist letter from the famously litigious Waits claiming that he was being impersonated. “It was a 50-seat theater in SoHo – it wasn’t like I was playing on Broadway!” he exclaims.

He had to create a new show, including songs by other people so Waits would back off. And when he did the first performance of the reworked show, Waits’s lawyers were there in the audience.

Had D’Arrietta deliberately been impersonating Waits? "Maybe I put a bit too much gravel into it when I was originally doing it," he suggests, "and I don’t do that as much today. But I always spoke about him in the third person."

Moving away from a straight Waits celebration, D’Arrietta’s show now includes interpretations of songs by Joe Cocker, Ian Dury and others.

His Leonard Cohen tribute, My Leonard Cohen, played the Fringe last year to great acclaim, but he wasn’t planning to include any Cohen songs in this new show – not until he got the poster back from his marketing person. “She’d put Leonard Cohen’s head on it. I said, 'Darling I’m not doing any fucking Leonard Cohen'. She said, ‘You are now’.”

Eliza Jackson’s show—the first she’s written, and her Fringe debut—tells a ghost story. Or, rather, a story about a ghost. Marni Nixon ‘ghosted’ many of the greatest singers and movie stars of all time, dubbing the voices of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and many more.

But very little is known about Nixon. So when Jackson found herself housebound after an operation last year, she decided she needed something “to keep my brain active so I wouldn’t go mad”. The Voice Behind the Stars is the result.

She describes it as "a play with songs", imagining Nixon at home, with an interviewer and a cup of tea, chatting about her life.

“She was an incredible imitator. Deborah Kerr, who famously played Anna in the film version of The King and I, worked with Nixon for months. Nixon was in the studio, learning how to speak like the person she was dubbing, copying their singing voice. Audrey Hepburn ended up driving Nixon to the studio everyday for My Fair Lady and they would mimic each other in the car.”

Hepburn sang all of the lower register Cockney bits in the film, Jackson explains, but Nixon came in for the soaring high notes. “Nixon would jump in halfway through a line. I have spent hours trying to hear the difference and you can’t tell.”

Nixon was even able to imitate a singer’s particular vibrato style, slowing it down or speeding it up to match. So if Nixon was such an astonishing mimic, the problem for Jackson is how to imitate the imitator.

“I lived and breathed her for about a year. I’ve broken down every line, written them out phonetically. I am having to manipulate my voice to sound like her. But at the same time it’s my take on her voice.”

Michael Griffiths, on the other hand, isn’t too fussed about exact imitation. His celebrations of Annie Lennox and Madonna have been incredibly successful at the Fringe—and across the world—and this year he’s turning his talents to the legend that is Kylie Minogue.

In Songs by Kylie, Griffiths tells stories from Kylie’s life interspersed with interpretations of some of her hits. “It’s a love fest. Because those songs – fuck, they’re good.”

While huge amounts of research went into the Annie Lennox and Madonna shows, which he wrote with his best friend Dean Bryant, the Kylie show didn’t take nearly as much learning. Giffiths already had "every Kylie CD. I had singles on cassette”, he says with a laugh.

Sitting at his piano, wearing a tux, Griffiths comically insists he is Kylie, or Lennox, or Madonna but actively makes no effort to sound like them. “Otherwise the audience is judging the success of the impersonation. That becomes what it’s about. I remove that entirely.”

“Now and then a reviewer will say, ‘He’s captured Kylie, he’s captured Annie’. No, I’ve not! I even speak in an Australian accent! I think it’s because they’re being hypnotised. But I guess that’s the magic of theatre, the suspension of disbelief.”

From full immersion into a character to a light paddle in the shallows, what unites these tributes is how popular they are. So what’s the appeal? Why do they regularly sell out?

When it comes to D’Arrietta and Waits, it’s partly because Waits rarely performs live, so shows like Belly of a Drunken Piano are the next best thing.

For Jackson, it’s because her show has “all of the songs you could possibly want, from West Side Story to The King and I, The Sound of Music, Marilyn Monroe.”

And Griffiths suggests it’s down to the histories that get stirred up by the classic songs. “You don’t know what baggage they’re bringing.”

Besides, he adds, “someone like Kylie, and those songs – it’s just the most joyous thing.”