KYLE RIABKO is the 27-year-old actor-musician Canadian behind the Menier Chocolate Factory’s upcoming production, What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined. As the title suggests, it’s a show that explores the contribution that songwriter Burt Bacharach has made to popular music, but rather than a jukebox rehash of this unparalleled songbook, it’s a respectful and impassioned reworking, performed by a small group of young performers, none of whom were born when the songs were first released.
At the heart of this company is Riabko – an actor-muso who has spent time on Broadway in hit shows Spring Awakening and Hair, yet seems more at home behind his guitar in rock and blue bands. His Bacharach show, directed by Once-choreographer Steven Hoggett, has already enjoyed an airing in New York, where it played to rave reviews at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2013. Now, he’s bringing the show to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory for a two-month run from 3 July to 5 September.
While still in rehearsal in New York, Kyle spoke to Craig Glenday about the inspiration for the show, and the daunting – yet ultimately rewarding – task of working with one of the greatest songwriters of all time. The first question, though, was about the weather (!) and how much the Saskatchewan was looking forward to working in London.
It’s a gorgeous day here in London – are you a fan of the city?
Oh man, I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve only ever popped into London on quick trips, so this is going to be my first experience of actually living there. And it being over the summer is all the more exciting.
Do you know the Menier Chocolate Factory well?
I do. That whole area is very cool, and over the years, I’ve visited the Menier a few times. One of the reasons we’re doing the show there is that we’d talked to David [Babani, artistic director] very early in the process. It’s one of those places where you look at it, and you look at our show, and you think “oh yeah, this is exactly right”. The space is just perfect for this. The feeling we’re after is a bunch of musicians jamming together in this room, and the audience will be part of that experience, so it’s exactly right to evoke that feeling
So, tell us about the genesis of the show…
The whole thing started when I met Burt in a recording studio. I was asked to sing some demos for him, some new music he was writing, so I was basically a hired gun. Then, when I got there, the session – at the risk of being hyperbolic – became a magical moment in my life. It was clear that I was in the presence of a true genius.
It was so unlike what musicians today are used to, when you play or sing along to a click track or a pre-recorded backing. It was just Burt at the piano, me at a mic and no metronome… just us two living and breathing together. And me trying to keep up with the music inside him!
I’d invited my manager David Seltzer to the recording session because I knew he was a big fan of Burt’s, and at one point David was alone with Burt and said: “You know, it would be really great if we could hear Kyle sing some of your classics, like ‘A House is not a Home’.” And Burt turned to him and said: [imitating Bacharach’s gruff voice] “Yeah, good idea, I’d really love to hear him sing ‘Alfie’.” And that’s how the whole thing started.
David and I went to dinner afterwards and he said, “Is there a creative way to do this so that it’s not just you making a record of his songs? Is there a way to look at the entire catalogue of music and honour it and celebrate it in a singular way? Could you make a single piece out of this vast catalogue?” And that became the task.
How well did you know Bacharach’s catalogue at that stage?
I knew the big, big hits but I was relatively naive to the breadth of his output. So I took to it like a student. I grew up in the world of blues and jazz and rock‘n’roll, so my friends and I didn’t really cross paths with his music. At this point, I had to really learn about his career, and I slowly started to realise how enormous it was. I made these little demos in my home studio; I would record 15 minutes at a time of these interlaced melodies and take them one at a time to Burt’s to play them for him and get his approval.
What did this exercise reveal to you about Bacharach’s songwriting?
What’s amazing and unique about Burt’s music is how unlike anything else’s it is. It’s an incredibly rebellious catalogue of music when you start to look at it. He really doesn’t apply the ‘rules’ of pop music to his writing. You’ll be listening to a song, studying it, trying to figure it out, and you’ll realise “wow, he’s just thrown a 3/4 bar into the chorus of a 4/4 song all of a sudden” – and that’s one of the smaller complications!
He writes for the content and not for the form, which is a really exciting thing. It’s one of the reasons why he’s so theatrical. He’s writing for what the song means, not for what the song’s supposed to sound like, if that make sense. This guy is like a punk rocker in attitude. He started telling me stories about how in the early days of his career, he really tried to comply to the very simple rules of the 4/4 pop tune, and he eventually realised that the only way he could sound like he wanted to sound was if he stood up to the publishing houses telling him to write that way and started breaking the rules. That’s when it really took off for him. As a young musician, when you hear stories about breaking rules and getting success that way, it’s inherently exciting.
How well do Bacharach’s songs translate to the stage?
Each song tells such a great story, but a lot of the times, we don’t play whole songs, we mash them together, for want of a better word. It’s done in a way that tells a broader story, though. What you realise quickly about Burt’s songs is that they have a beginning, a middle and an end, so they’re like mini movies. They don’t just have a chorus that tapers off at the end. That’s what is different to other catalogues.
We thought: “Oh, this is really emotional. If we piece this together in the correct way, we’re not going to tell a literal story but we can create an abstract emotional arc that everyone in the theatre can experience together.” That’s why Steven Hoggett was the perfect guy to turn this musical idea into a theatrical piece. I’m such a huge fan of his work, and I love the way he can make music physically emotional. I sent him the same demo I’d shown to Burt and he got that right away. That’s when all the pieces clicked together.
So, there’s no story, as such…
We started the process and the brainstorm session knowing what the show was, and knowing that we didn’t want to shoehorn a story into this thing. We didn’t want to make a bold statement about what these song means and create a story about a boy and a girl falling in love, or something contrived. We knew that this would come across as false. We wanted to make it all about the music, and complement it with some beautiful imagery that’s evocative, not literal.
Where do you start ‘reimagining’ Bacharach? Fans must think, ‘why bother’?
The thing is, it’s more of a celebration of his work than a tweaking of it. I wanted to be entirely faithful to the melodic content of his songs and the way he wrote them. The only difference is that it’s being played by people in their 20s. The way that I arranged the songs is more the way I hear music in my head, as opposed to the way in which they were originally produced. It was sort of an experiment and is meant to fun. It means taking out the flugelhorns and importing some electric guitar, for example. I want it to be true to what Burt originally created, but it’s a new organisation of the songs and a new way to play them.
Will the songs speak to a younger generation?
I’ll answer that with a story. The first time that I went to Burt’s house, I played him what is now the first 15 minutes or so of the show. I sat there and pressed ‘play’ and I was very nervous. He listened and looked up. “It’s good Kyle, it’s good!” Then after it was over, he picked up the phone and called his son Oliver, who was 18 at the time. “Oliver, come down to the music room.” He came and sat with us and Burt asked me to play it again. This time, I watched Burt, and his eyes were completely fixed on his son. It became really clear in that moment what the show is about. It’s about a new generation respecting and celebrating a legend’s music. It’s important to keep the conversation fresh as time goes on. These songs are timeless, but they’re only timeless if we keep singing them.
And you’ve got a young cast…
They really are. Once I was studied in the world of Bacharach – which took me a while – the next step was to hear it through the voices and fingers of a cast. So we’ve cast these young people, and hearing them playing ‘The Look of Love’ on a guitar without having heard the original is a really cool thing. It sounds sacrilegious on paper, but it’s cool to hear a young person approach Burt’s music from the inside as opposed to having a preconceived notion of it. Over time, when we have a cast together, they get to know Burt’s music well, but they’re ultimately singing for themselves. It’s part of the reason we use the word ‘reimagined’ – the music is living and breathing in younger souls.
There have been a few attempts at bringing Bacharach’s music to life on stage. What’s different about What’s It All About?
In the past, people have done things very literally, but this show looks at Burt’s music less on the surface and more within. For example, we’re not going to play ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ and bring a bunch of umbrellas out on stage! It’s an emotional journey that we’re respecting, versus any obvious literal silliness.
Who are your musical inspirations?
When I was growing up, it was mix of soul singers like James Brown and Sam Cooke, and blues guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, BB King and Buddy Guy. And then also the singer/songwriters were – and still are – so important to me, like Paul Simon, Harry Nilsson, and the Beatles, obviously. So it was a mix of all these things. Those influences are my foundation, and when I first took a look at Burt’s music, I was inherently looking at it through that prism. I realised that there wasn’t a lot a blues in the music and the question to me was “What if there was?” This was one of the first thoughts at the start of this project.
What is it like working with Burt? You’ve become friends…
The coolest thing about this whole process for me is how supportive he’s been. And you’re right, I can’t believe that he’s my friend. When I get into a room with him, I hound him with all sort of questions about the old days, about Hal [David] and Dionne [Warwick]. I actually got to spend a little time with Hal before he passed away. The greatest moment in this whole process for me was when we opened in New York and Burt was there. I could just see that he appreciated what we were doing, and that was the greatest gift.
Does he plan on visiting the Menier?
Yeah, he does.
You’ve had a varied career so far. Where are you most comfortable?
I started out as a guitar player in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, and I still feel like a guitar player in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada! What I started doing, as the music industry changed, was to stop trying to control everything and stop trying to control exactly what path my career was going to take. That’s an impossible task these days. What I do know is that I love music with all my heart and that I want to be with music every day of my life.
How did you end up in musical theatre?
That kinda happened out of nowhere. I didn’t know about musical theatre at all – I honestly didn’t even know what Broadway was until I came down to audition for Spring Awakening. It just wasn’t something in the zeitgeist when I was growing up. But when I saw what they were doing with Spring Awakening, when I saw that theatre isn’t just Fiddler On the Roof, I realised that the theatre is now a place where you can play music music and tell a story with it. It was intriguing to me and it changed my whole world view.
On a physical level, too, I thought “everyone in this room is sitting down listening very closely to the music, and because it’s sound-designed, it’s like listening to a record, not like a gig in a hall where people are dancing”, and that’s a really exciting thing for a musician.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know! I’m incredibly excited to be coming to London with this show. I never know what the hell I’m going to be doing more than six months in advance, so I’m just going to soak it all in and see what happens after that.