Interviews: Mitchell Butel and Alex Rathgeber

Last Wednesday I was lucky enough to interview both Mitchell Butel and Alex Rathgeber, who are preparing for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.  I learnt I am way too nervy to do more than one interview in one day, but the actual interviews themselves went swimmingly, it was just the oh-so-fun lead up which had me freaking out.  I’m not sure what I was worried about: sounding like an idiot, perhaps?  But more so, I think it was just this unknown of I’d never done this before.  I shouldn’t have been worried, because both men were lovely to talk to: very excited about their shows and the festival and spending time in Adelaide, and they both seemed genuinely interested in me and my background and how I fit into this arty world.

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Mitchell Butel

Mitchell Butel is having a busy year; traveling around the country with Avenue Q, performing in The Grenade with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and then crossing the pond to New Zealand with Avenue Q again – it only gets busier when you consider he has been preparing for his first cabaret show in ten years, Killing Time for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Killing Time tells “tales of time from jazz and blues”songbook, and Butel and Musical Director Darryl Wallishave been busy cutting down a list of 300 songs to fifteen or sixteen, to tell a “day of the life of someone from dawn to midnight . . . looking for, finding, and losing love.”

“When creating a role in a show you have control of what you get to do, but not the structure of the whole show,” Butel says on the phone from his Auckland hotel room, after a delay to the interview as he realised his phone doesn’t carry global roaming, and so planning to take the interview in the park wasn’t the best idea. “Cabaret shows are more personal about what you want to do and what songs you want to sing.”

In the show, Butel and Wallis use a mix of classics, from talent such as Frank Sinatra, Stephen Sondheim, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin; using a song he will “rip it apart, turn it on its head and put a different face on it.” So, for example, a song from Merrily We Roll Along has a jazz and swing feel, as Butel and Wallis put their “very own stamp” on the piece. There is also a little Dolly Parton and ‘9 to 5’ in “a version you won’t recognise.” In addition to the music, Butel is looking forward to a good “chin wag with the audience.”

“Flying in and out of Sydney on Sundays” as he tours around the country, Butel says it is a joy to be working with Wallis, “He’ll say: ‘what if we do this’ and take it further. He’s a great piano player who makes a piano sound like an orchestra.”

But what about the title song, ‘Killing Time’? It’s a song Butel regretfully says they “really love but couldn’t quite fit into the thematic structure.” Another song Butel is sad has been let out of the show is ‘The Schmuel Song’ from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, which at eight minutes long, is too long for a 70 minute show: “We could do 15 hours of material, I’m sure there could be a second Killing Time.”

Butel says he is expecting to have “a great time in Adelaide”, and is excited for everything congregating around the festival. In addition to Killing Time, Butel will be singing at Stephen Schwatz and Friends and Mark Nadler’s Broadway Hootenanny, and pianist Wallis will play with Schwartz: “everything cross-fertilizes.”

It also sounds like his list of shows to see is almost as long as the festival itself, including Liz Callaway, Caroline O’Connor, Donna McKechnie, and Soshanna Bean. Overall, Butel energetically says he will see “as much as I can, picking up all of the best bits of other shows.”

“I like cabaret performers who let themselves into the performance, communicate directly with the audience,” he explains. “The soul of the song really moves me, rather than vocal pyrotechnics. Nothing’s better than a good singer and a good song communicating to an audience that are up for it.”

Some personal cabaret favourites are: Kurt Elling (“My god, wonderful!” he exclaims), Alison Jiear (“dynamite in cabaret”), Queenie van de Zandt (“an incredible singer and incredible actor in the songs”), Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone.

Butel says he loves how at a cabaret show there are “people sitting at tables, having a drink, and want to be directly involved”, the fourth wall of plays and musicals is removed. Before cabaret Butel “found it difficult to make contact with audience members,” and he says it is a “good lesson in not being scared of your audience . . . It teaches you to perform and be comfortable on stage.”
I like cabaret performers who let themselves into the performance, communicate directly with the audience. The soul of the song really moves me, rather than vocal pyrotechnics

For the Cabaret Festival Butel will be singing a mixture from many composers in his own show, and for Stephen Schwartz, Butel will sing ‘Out There’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and ‘All For The Best’ from Godspell with David Harris. So how will it feel singing Schwartz’s songs at his show? “[Schwartz] knows there isn’t just one definitive version of his work, [however] in you own show you can fudge mistakes and say ‘I meant to do that!’”

After the Avenue Q tour has wrapped up in New Zealand and Butel has finished his show at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, it is back to Melbourne for Sugar with The Production Company, and then the Sydney season of The Grenade. It’s been a “pretty good year” where Butel says he is “lucky with what’s ahead.” And while he may be “currently living out of two suitcases on the road” he is quite happy with that arrangement: the Avenue Q tour has allowed him to “see different parts of the world, different lifestyles and people” on a tour filled with “wonderful dinners and wonderful drinking.” Reminiscing on what has clearly been a wonderful year, Butel says he will be “sad to say goodbye to the people and the puppets”, as they became a real family unit on the road.

Along with all of the good times, the road has come with many lessons: as room service interrupts our interview, Butel tells me “when on tour you quickly learn to the leave the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. [You’re] interrupted at the most inopportune times.”

He happily reflects on how working in film, television, musicals, plays, and cabaret “certain things feed back into others.” Musical theatre teaches precision, knowing what you need to do to get a laugh, while film and television teach truth and credibility. And while he happily says he enjoys “swinging between forms”, when he is doing a play he’ll wish he was doing a musical, and when he’s doing a musical wish he was doing a play.

As someone who has wanted to do a festival for years, but hasn’t been able to fit one in, Butel is “feeling very blessed.” Through the interview, Butel was showing nothing but enthusiasm for coming to Adelaide and showing this city what he’s been working on, and embracing the Festival head on. We’re looking forward to having him!

Alex Rathgeber

Alex Rathgeber started this year in The Drowsy Chaperone with Geoffrey Rush for the Melbourne Theatre Company, has appeared in Production Company shows The Boy Friend, Camelot, Annie Get Your Gun, The Pajama Game and Kiss Me, Kate, and he also popped over to the West End for a year, staring in the 21st Anniversary Cast of The Phantom of The Opera. At the launch of the Cabaret Festival, David Campbell introduced Rathgeber as a rising star and one-to-watch of the Melbourne musical theatre scene.

Rathgeber is travelling to Adelaide to perform his own cabaret show of Cole Porter songs, Experiment, for the first time. On the phone from Melbourne, Rathgeber tells me “David and Lisa had heard I’d done cabaret and asked if I’d like to be involved in the festival using Cole Porter music. I jumped; I thought there would be a lot of interest.”

“There are so many unknowns. Experiment is sort of what I’m doing: putting it together to create something new and exciting for the audience. A celebration of Cole Porter music.”

Collaborating with writer/director Dean Bryant (who worked on last year’s festival hits Newley Discovered and ‘Tegrity) and musical director James Simpson, Rathgeber enthusiastically states he’s “having a ball. The music’s brilliant. I love singing it and I love that there are so many songs so well loved and well appreciated.”

Experiment neither tells the biographical story of Porter (“That’s been done before”), nor is it “tearing apart or reinventing”. Rathgeber says he wants to “capture the essence of a lot of the things I identify as things in his life. Themes in the music: individual themes of the music. Without reinventing, but trying to capture the flavour of incredible sensual energy they have.”

Sorting through the large collection of songs, and narrowing it down to “just a handful”, Rathgeber believes he has “chosen songs with a real currency in the 21st Century.”

Rathgeber is clearly drawn to the sensual and sexual energy in Porter’s music: the “strong romance through all of his songs,” the “very provocative themes of love, passion, and fidelity”, and songs which have a real “sexual energy.”

“I think in the era a lot of that music was written, a lot of the lyrics were cleverly disguised in some clever music. If you listen carefully you got all the music, but I’m interested in looking at the darker side. Sometime the music takes you away, when sung by innocent young characters,” yet Rathgeber enjoys looking deeper at the raw context of the music.

Rathgeber sung Porter’s work at reparatory classes at WAPPA, and his first professional Porter show was Kiss Me, Kate with The Production Company, and with “so many stand out songs,” Rathgeber happily explains “I loved doing that show.”

In addition to Porter, Rathgeber has a strong affinity with other music from the golden age of Broadway: George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Kander and Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart: he describes how he loves the escapism of these composers, and “the romanticism of those eras.”

In 2008 Rathgeber made his West End debut with The Phantom of The Opera. I asked him how the Melbourne theatre scene compares to the sprawling London West End. “In some respects it is quite different, yet at the heart of it not that different. The standards are similar, if not higher, in Australia.” He explains you really need to judge each show “case by case, it’s silly to generalise.”
Rathgeber is clearly drawn to the sensual and sexual energy in Porter’s music: the “strong romance through all of his songs,” the “very provocative themes of love, passion, and fidelity”, and songs which have a real “sexual energy.”

He tells me he is “so proud of our industry: so enthusiastic and passionate here. The number of shows in Australia can’t compare.” Rathgeber passionately states “I loved being over there, [it has an] infectious energy and vibe. One big city with so many shows happening at the same time. Arts and theatre there are so embraced, have such a rich tapestry in the history of culture,” where he sadly reflects in Australia “arts doesn’t get the same kudos.” … but ,“we get on with it, and love it.”

Previously at the Cabaret Festival with Andrew Lippa’s Master Class, this is the first time he is doing a show here in his own right but for Rathgeber the Cabaret Festival is more than just the chance to perform in his own show. At this year’s festival he has songs in other shows including Mark Nadler’s Broadway Hootenanny, and plans on catching Smoke and Mirrors, Liza on an E, Newley Discovered, Frisky and Mannish, and Shoshana Bean. “The beauty of cabaret for me is that it is intimate, it depends on the audience. It will be whatever it is with that particular audience.“

He hopes to “have a great time, contribute to the festival and hope the audience has a great time. If the show travels beyond Adelaide that’s a bonus.”