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Kyle Riabko: ‘Bacharach’s a genius – his music has joy’

Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach. Photo: Eric Ray Davidson Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach. Photo: Eric Ray Davidson

London is already awash with jukebox shows, drawing on the pop repertoires of everyone from the Beatles and Michael Jackson to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Abba and (imminently) Frank Sinatra, too. But whether they fold them into a new story, as Mamma Mia! does, or simply offer a live experience of the songs, they all share a DNA of offering audiences something they already know well.

CV Kyle RiabkoWhat’s It All About?, a show born off-Broadway in December 2013 and which has now transferred to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, is something else: it reinterprets the familiar repertoire – one of the greatest in popular song – of composer Burt Bacharach, but makes it sound brand new without changing a note or lyric. Its creator and star is Kyle Riabko, a 27-year-old Canadian singer/songwriter who now lives in LA, and it has the blessing of Bacharach himself.

Riabko has been a professional musician since he was signed to a record label at the age of 15, and released his debut album of original songs at the age of 17. He spent his teen years performing as an opening act for such headliners as BB King and James Brown, and by the time he was 20 he made his Broadway debut, taking over as Melchoir in Spring Awakening.

“I did some theatre in high school – I played the beggar in Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus in Godspell, but I didn’t really know anything about the theatre. I didn’t even know what Broadway was, growing up in Canada,” he tells me, sitting in a diner near the famous Montana recording studios on 11th Avenue in New York, after spending the morning rehearsing the show there for its London transfer.

He sees himself as a musician first and foremost, even though he’s also appeared on Broadway in Hair after he did Spring Awakening, but those experiences have stood him in good stead for developing his studio re-interpretation of Bacharach’s catalogue into a theatre show.

How did the idea to look at Bacharach’s catalogue in a fresh way occur in the first place? “Burt had seen me in Spring Awakening when we did the tour in LA, and he asked me to be a singer on some new songs he was working in the studio on. I went in as a hired gun to sing this new material, and it was one of the most thrilling sessions I’ve ever been a part of. He is so clearly a genius – it’s in the air between you, and as he played on the piano, I learnt his breath. We clicked musically, and my friend and manager David Lane Seltzer had come to the studio to listen. He said to Burt, wouldn’t be it be really cool if I sang the classics, too?”

An idea was sparked – Seltzer is now billed as co-conceiver of the show – and Riabko went home energised to look at the catalogue for himself.

Kyle Riabko Q&A“I started creating new arrangements from scratch. I came up with the first 15 minutes of the show and I called Burt, and asked him if I could go over and play him something. So I went over to his house in the Palisades, and we went to his music room and I played my tape on his boom box. It felt insane, playing Bacharach to Bacharach. When he looked up and said, ‘it’s good, Kyle’, I knew we were in there.”

Further encouragement came when Bacharach invited his son, then 18 years old, to join them in the music room.

“I played it again and I could see him watching his son listening to it being played by one his peers. I could see that this legend wanted to see his music continue on through the voices of a new generation, and that’s what this show is about. We’re celebrating the music with people who already love it as well as introducing it to people who have never heard it before.”

Riabko then realised something else: “I quickly thought that the theatre world was the best one to take it to. David and I discussed ideas about who could nudge this into the theatre world, and Steven Hoggett was top of the list.”

They felt that the British co-founder of Frantic Assembly, who had worked on such Broadway shows as American Idiot and Once, was someone who “could let it still be music-centric and appreciate the rhythm of it, without slapping a story onto it, but giving it an emotional arc.” Hoggett was sent the demo and came on board.

Next they went to Montana Studios, the same place they’ve just rehearsed, to put the music together with a cast of singer/musicians.

“We drew a multicultural cast together all of whom contribute to the sound of it. It was then performed to an invited audience in the studio, without movement, but it started to make sense.”

Early interest was shown both by Jim Nicola, artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, where it would eventually receive its off-Broadway premiere, and also David Babani, who has now brought it to the Menier Chocolate Factory in London.

This was, Riabko notes, “the first time I lifted a show up the mountain that is development. It’s a very different story to joining something as a performer”. But it’s been worth the effort: “There’s so much joy in Burt’s music, so much unashamed joy, but there’s also melancholy and heartache. I hope we’ve got it all in the show.”

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