Thursday, 9 July 2015

Interview: Kyle Riabko, starring in What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Kyle Riabko has brought his show What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined to the Menier Chocolate Factory. 

The piece previously played the New York Theatre Workshop, where it became the venue’s longest running show. Kyle co-conceived What’s It All About? with David Lane Seltzer and also stars in the production which is directed by Steven Hoggett. 

What’s It All About? is described as a dynamic 90-minute non-stop musical journey in which Kyle leads a talented group of young performers through Burt Bacharach’s classic melodies, blending nostalgia and innovation, where generations old and new can revel in the joy of these hits as if for the very first time.

Kyle made his Broadway debut in 2008 when he replaced Jonathan Groff as Melchior Gabor in Spring Awakening and later reprised his performance in the musical’s U.S. tour. He returned to Broadway in 2010, taking over from Gavin Creel as Claude in Hair. 

The Canadian born performer released his first full-length album of original material on Columbia/Aware Records at the age of seventeen. He enjoys a successful music career, having supported the likes of John Mayer, Maroon 5, Jason Mraz, BB King, Buddy Guy and James Brown.

I recently spoke to Kyle about creating What’s It All About?, the beauty of Bacharach’s music and how he manages to balance a music career with theatre work…

What's It All About must be like your baby, how did it all begin?
You’re right – this is sort of the first thing that I’ve been a part of and created from the ground up, so it does feel like my baby. It all started when I met Burt in a recording studio in Los Angeles – I was asked to be the singer on some new demos he was working on. When I got into the room and started singing and he started playing, very quickly we bonded on a musical level. I realised ‘this is a guy I want to get to know and really study’. 

Kyle & Burt Bacharach / Photo Credit: Eric Ray Davidson 

Did he have to somehow approve you?
I had invited my manager and friend David Seltzer to the session and he was in the booth with Burt at one point and said, “It would be great to also hear Kyle sing some of the classics like A House is not a Home” and Burt turned around and said, “Yeah, and I’d love to hear him sing Alfie.” That was the genesis of the whole thing. David and I went for dinner afterwards and said “Is there a way that I might look at this entire catalogue of music and smash it all together into one piece and celebrate it from the perspective of a younger person?” I went home to my little home studio and started piecing things together and made what is now the first fifteen minutes of the show. I would take these chunks of demos over to Burt’s house and sit there with him and press play which was a very nerve wracking experience, as you can imagine [laughs]. That’s how I got his approval – it was over the course of a few months. 

What is the secret to his music?
I think the most amazing thing about his music is that every single piece has his DNA in it and only his DNA. His music is entirely unique, and actually quite rebellious. When you look at what he does with his songs, they break all the rules of what is conventionally supposed to be pop writing. You start to realise things like, “Oh man, he just threw a 3/4 bar in the middle of a 4/4 song!” I started thinking of him sort of like a punk rocker because in the early sixties he had to say no a lot to get his way. A lot of times he was asked to straighten out his songs but he just didn’t and that’s what made him, him. So that’s the beauty of his music – it’s unpredictable. On top of that the songs have a very clear beginning, middle and end – just like a movie. It’s really nice to hear music in that way.

Kyle in Broadway's Hair in 2010
Photo Credit:  Joan Marucs
And I guess that’s what lends it to the theatre?
That’s right! It’s saying something. He never wrote – and I think he would back this up – form first, he always wrote content first and would then create a form around the content. That’s a very theatrical way of writing, whereas pop music is usually ABABABCAB… but he goes AZFGHBC – it’s all over the place.

What's It All About is a very different concept for a show, what do you think people can expect?
It’s an emotional journey. There’s no clear storyline, we wanted it to have an abstract feeling. The evening is more about your internal emotions. What really turned this into a theatre piece was when we involved Steven Hoggett (director) and he’s done an incredible, beautiful job of making the show move. The show flows and, it sounds a little bit weird, but we’re asking a philosophical question – what’s it all about? We use Bacharach’s music to sort of point out the different ways he has asked that question.

Is the show still changing? Have you made tweaks for London?
Absolutely! The great thing about it is that the performers make up the essence of the show. Because we have four new performers in this version we are really making them feel at home within the piece. Everybody has their own strengths so we mould the show for them. This is an incredibly strong group, I’m really excited! 

Do you enjoy playing more intimate theatres like the Chocolate Factory?
I love it – it’s my favourite. Since I was a kid I’ve loved the smaller gigs where you can hear a pin drop in the room and really connect with people. And also one of the early concepts of this show, which we’ve maintained, is that we’re really getting together in a room and jamming. We’ve invited some people over to the jam to hang – that’s the audience – and we’re all in this experiencing it together. At times we really tear down the fourth wall and make it an experiential thing. There’s no better place for that than the Chocolate Factory! It’s very vibe-y. 

You’ve got impressive Broadway credits on your CV but have also managed to maintain a successful solo career alongside theatre work. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps? It isn’t always easy to do both…
I think as tough as this lesson is for a control freak like myself, you have to learn that you can’t necessarily control what’s coming your way. Especially these days in the world of entertainment, openness is a very important feature to have – particularly early in a career. It’s almost like you have to learn to say “yes” a lot, and then at a certain point when you learn more about who you are you have to reverse that and say “no” a lot. Sometimes saying no is the only way you can control who you are becoming. I started out as a musician and I still feel primarily like a musician – the theatre thing sort of came along by accident and I was amazed by it!

What was it like coming into the theatre world from a musician’s point of view?
I said, “Oh my god here’s a room that is so finely tuned and detailed and these people are actually engaging themselves with what’s going on onstage which is totally different to playing a gig in front of 2,000 people who are chatting and dancing.” I really see music and theatre as complementary; I think you’re going to see – we already are – them morphing into one, like with Sting doing The Last Ship. I think musicians are catching onto the fact that theatre is a place where people really pay attention and I love it for that. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

What's It All About? Bacharach Reimagined runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5th September 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

UPDATE: The show is transferring to the West End and has been renamed Close To You: Bacharach Reimagined. Performances begin at the Criterion Theatre 3rd October 2015 ahead of press night on 15th October 2015. Please visit for further information and tickets.

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