Prolific writer/director and musical theatre prodigy, Dean Bryant, returns to the 2012 Midsumma festival with a new work celebrating the life and art of a pop culture icon – In Vogue: Songs By Madonna. He speaks to Australian' Stage's Paul Andrew.

Dean BryantIt seems you have been rather busy Dean?
The last twelve months have been crazy, actually, and the busiest of my life – and it’s not letting up any time soon – the year started with a revival of Prodigal, the first musical I wrote – with Britney MD Matty Frank) and Liza (on an E) – both of which were huge hits for Midsumma Festival. I went to NYC to put up the Broadway premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – which is still pulling in crowds and is a popular hit. Then my directing debut at Melbourne Theatre Company with Next to Normal, my opera directing debut with Hansel and Gretel for OzOpera and my Production Company directing debut with Anything Goes, co-directed with Andy Hallsworth.

I wrote two new shows for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival – Josie in the Bathhouse – which is playing the Spiegeltent at the Arts Centre in March and In Vogue: Songs by Madonna. Then I flew round the world casting Priscilla in Brazil, Milan and recasting NYC and finally moved to Milan for two months to direct the production in Italian – quite the experience, brilliant cast, very rocky tech period, but another big success. Now, it’s quite a relief to be staging two single actor shows for Midsumma.

Tell me about how In Vogue: Songs by Madonna was conceived?
Michael Griffiths, the star of the show approached me – he’s a huge Madonna fan and I was a huge Michael fan – I’ve been begging him to do a cabaret forever. We studied together at WAAPA and he was in Priscilla – he’s hilarious and has the most beautiful singing voice.

I wasn’t keen on the Madonna idea as I felt like I was retreading the Britney territory, however in development, the tone became vastly different. His arrangements are like art songs for a start. However, he rewrote the first draft I did – very cheekily I might add – and after we’d had a huge fight, we rewrote the show together, and I’m so much happier with where that went. His passion for the song writing of Madonna has made the show what it is.

How did you first conceive the narrative voice in Michael’s “Madge” show?
The narrative voice is most definitely Michael’s voice – he has a very sophisticated sort of humour – and is kind of like the essence of Madonna – smarter and more confident than everyone else in the room. She’s almost untouchable, really, unlike Britney, who is an open wound. This show evolved very moment by moment, improvising jokes, making sense of why an arrangement would be where it was. Michael has a pretty amazing sense of what does and doesn’t work.

Is this show also part Juke Box Musical, part Cabaret ?
Yes, the experience on creating Priscilla with the team gave me great insight on how to construct a jukebox musical and I think I took those skills, along with the structural ones I’ve developed writing original score musicals for a decade, into the world of shaping these cabarets. I prefer to think of Britney as a monologue with music and Madonna as a master class in pop song writing.

Was it actually conceived as a Midsumma high note?
I had such an exhilarating experience with Prodigal and Liza last Midsumma, having such excited audiences coming to see these shows in the summer that I was really keen on repeating the experience. Both these new shows have a fairly queer sensibility, ie, mine and both feature performers doing what a queer audience love – Christie is designed to be a Star Diva and Michael is like a Buff Stephen Fry.

Is there an actual narrative per se?
I’m always looking for structure as that’s what gives an audience an emotional memory to take away – the Britney one is very much the rise and fall of a young woman, whereas the Madonna arc is more like a philosophical exploration of complete success.

“Michael Griffiths IS Madonna”. Tell me a little about Michael and indeed, his take on gender bending?
Michael plays the grand piano the entire show; an incredibly difficult ask for a seventy minute show where he is all alone onstage. Madonna has always been considered to have a masculine drive and energy so it’s not a stretch to have a man play her, and not in a drag sense, just to embody the inner strength and feel of the woman.

We wanted it to be a celebration of her achievement, though, we do of course have some fun with her – she’s an extreme and divisive figure by choice – but ultimately she has achieved everything she’s wanted to and is in full control of her destiny, as much as anyone can be. That’s to be applauded.

Michael sounds like one of those magical stage all rounders?
I’d seen him in cabaret (doing ten minute slots) and I wanted him to finally show that he was an incredible talent. So when he finally came to me with an idea I had to seize on it. Plus I love Madonna’s music.

Britney, Liza and now Madonna – why Madonna?
I’ve never known a time that I wasn’t aware of Madonna. As I get older as a creator, I admire even more the effort that has gone into every stage of her career – constantly being told she’s not good enough to do what she wants – but she still does it. I don’t know that she’d make a particularly good friend or partner but she’s a mesmerising figure in popular culture. I’d be terrified to meet her, I think. Unless she’d seen a show of mine and then I think she’d be interested. Unless she can find a use for you, I don’t think she’d notice you.

How have your earlier artistic works informed, helped or indeed hindered the making of this work?
Always helped, in that my craft improves every show and I know how to write more efficiently and with the audience in mind. Hindered in as much as I really dislike repeating myself, so, I need to find novel ways to tell real people’s stories.

Tell me something juicy about your own brush with the Madge factor?
I used to subscribe to Who Weekly when I was twelve – I’d cut up the best pictures and put them on my bedroom wall (on the back verandah of a dairy farm) – Who did a big story on the sex book and had the pictures! So I cut out many of them and plastered the wall. I still turned out gay.

Tell me about these “art song “ musical arrangements in the show – touch of minimalism by the sounds?
I’m begging Michael to record them as they’re so beautiful – there’s a touch of Satie, of Rufus Wainwright, Phillip Glass, Michael Nyman – Michael trained as a classical pianist so his sources are eclectic. But there’s a lot of traditional stuff in there as well. Michael would record them and email as he was creating them and I would download to my iPhone and imagine the show that was going to evolve from them – the music is always what creates the joy of a new show for me.

Describe the work in seven words and no cheating?
Camp handsome man singing beautiful Madonna arrangements.

Something hilarious that happened during the making of the show?
Michael did a preview of the show as a special treat for the Volunteers Concert the day before his Adelaide Cabaret Festival debut in the 2000 seat venue. We assumed it was a sophisticated audience and did the first twenty minutes of the show without editing – Michael is short sighted and couldn’t make out the audience. Anyway, within that first twenty minutes of dialogue there are several “fucks” and an anecdote about a photo shoot Madonna did with Mickey Mouse where he was “basically fingerfucking” her. There was lukewarm applause at the end. As Michael was walking offstage he realised that the concert was mostly for pensioners, families with young children – it was an absolute PR disaster and a public apology was demanded the next day. Nonetheless, as it so happens, the show became infamous and sold out.

Speaking about performer's with monstrous egos destined for the Midsumma stage – you're not working on a cabaret style show about Oprah by any chance?
Bitch can’t sing. Whitney’s next for sure – now THERE’s a tragedy.

In Vogue: Songs by Madonna is now playing at fortyfivedownstairs until Sat 28 January, 2012. Further details»

Image credits:-
Top Right and Cover – Michael Griffiths
in In Vogue: Songs by Madonna