Meet Eddie Perfect, the man from Melbourne making monster musicals in America
Despite his high profile at home, the composer has been largely unknown outside his native Australia – until now. He talks to Mark Shenton about cracking the US market, with composing credits on two of the most eagerly awaited new musicals of the season: King Kong, which marks his Broadway debut, and Beetlejuice
Yes, Eddie Perfect is his real name. But who is he? That’s the question on everyone’s lips around Broadway right now. This 40-year-old Melbourne native has composing credits on not one but two of the most eagerly awaited new musicals of the season – and both are due to open in the same week. Beetlejuice is in previews at Washington DC’s National Theatre, prior to opening there on November 4 (then transferring to Broadway next April), while four nights later King Kong, also now in previews, opens on November 8 at New York’s Broadway Theatre.
Even Stephen Sondheim, the king of the modern musical, never achieved this.
“It really is crazy,” says the affable Aussie, over Sunday morning breakfast at a restaurant near the Upper West Side apartment he is renting for a year with his wife and two young daughters. “I started writing Beetlejuice 18 months before King Kong, but as we’ve gotten towards production, everything has come at the one time: we started rehearsal within two weeks, and open the shows within four days of each other. It has been very strange.”
For example, he tells me of a new song he had to work on for the beginning of Act II during previews of King Kong: “I wrote it when I was in DC, in the last throes of tech and previews for Beetlejuice, so I couldn’t be in New York even though they wanted me to be. I’d get up at 5am, which gave me six and a half hours to write before going to the theatre for 12-hour days from 12pm to 12am.
“It really felt like having two girlfriends and cheating on both of them and going from one to the other. I’d think, ‘I love this show, why would I ever leave it?’ then go to the other and think, ‘Yeah, this is the one’. It’s really confusing. I wouldn’t have chosen to do this. I’ve enjoyed writing two shows at once, but this bit – where both shows need you – is difficult, because you can’t be in two places at once. And each show is a full-time job of its own.”
Until now, Perfect has been largely unknown outside his native Australia, though he has a high profile at home as an actor (known for the TV series Offspring), TV personality (he was a judge on Australia’s Got Talent), live comedy performer (he won the 2011 Helpmann Award for best cabaret performer for his show Misanthropology) and composer of original musicals (Shane Warne: the Musical won the 2009 Helpmann Award for best new Australian work).
But about three years ago, he tells me: “I was sick of just writing with myself, and I needed to start collaborating with other people. My wife, Lucy, said to me: ‘Dude, get a ticket and go to New York.’ Tim Minchin is a really good friend of mine from Australia, and I stayed with him in LA for a few days on my way over. He connected me by email with his American agent John Buzzetti. We met in New York and we got along really well.”
Q&A: Eddie Perfect
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Appearing in Nick Enright’s A Poor Student at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, after graduating from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I was told the right things, but I didn’t listen. At WAAPA, I was looking for validation and didn’t think I belonged there. I wanted to compose for the theatre, and Max Lambert, an amazing composer and musical director, was a guest lecturer. He said Australians were not interested in making their own content, and there were no pathways from the conception of an idea to bringing it to the stage. I was so angry about it and said: “Why the fuck do you bother writing musicals then?” He said: “Because that’s what I do.” He found me later, and told me: “You’re going to be fine.” Just keep working and don’t get too worked up.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What is your best advice for auditions?
Bring your ‘A’ game, but don’t give away that you need it – people smell desperation. Once they know you want it and they’ve got you in their pocket, their attitude changes.
If you hadn’t been a composer/performer, what would you have been?
A visual artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No superstitions, but I always get to the theatre an hour before; and before I go out on stage, I tell myself: be clear, be free and trust the material.
Perfect was duly sent to a lot of meetings, but nothing was happening. Then, he heard that a musical version of Beetlejuice was on the cards, but it had already gone out to pitch with various writers.
“That’s when I offered to write two songs for free. They sent me the script, and I had a phone conversation with Alex Timbers, who was directing it, and he told me what he had in his head sonically for the music.”
He got the gig and he wears it as a badge of pride: “They knew so little about me. So I got it based on creativity and talent, not my profile.”
Perfect felt a particular affinity to Beetlejuice: “The hardest thing was knowing how he is going to sing. If you don’t believe it, the music is dead. So I asked myself how I’d play Beetlejuice. I was under a blanket making Beetlejuice noises to make a demo, so it sounded like the character might sound on stage and they could start imagining it.”
Meanwhile, the composer was separately commissioned to write songs for a revised stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom that had previously been staged in Australia, and was then being brought to West Yorkshire Playhouse – now Leeds Playhouse – in Leeds in 2016. The producers ultimately went a different way when they transferred the show to the Piccadilly Theatre, where it has just closed, replacing original songs with popular, ready-made jukebox pop hits.
But working on it introduced him to director/choreographer Drew McOnie and producer Carmen Pavlovic, who then brought him in to pitch songs and structure ideas for the stage version of King Kong – another show that had also previously been produced in Australia.
Perfect was brought to London for three days to work with McOnie, writer Jack Thorne and original composer Marius de Vries to kick around ideas.
“Musicals need to stem from the book – and I’m at sea unless I know what I’m writing for. So, we jammed the story and what our take on it would be, and what version of Ann Darrow [the female lead in King Kong] we wanted to present. Jack suggested that Ann needs to have agency, not just a woman who things happened to. So, she needed to make choices, both ethical ones and wrong ones, like being complicit in Kong’s capture.”
They secured the gig; but meanwhile Strictly Ballroom proceeded without him. “I was the beneficiary of a process that had been someone else’s that came my way, but at the same time I’d lost out on a project that was mine and then it was not.”
Today, he says, when this sort of thing happens, you might think that those making the decisions are making the wrong ones – “but it’s not my call. All I ask for is honesty, that they tell you to your face. Creativity can’t work in an atmosphere of distrust.”
3 Perfect tips for aspiring musical theatre writers
• Don’t write your first show then spend five years dragging it around stuck in endless workshops trying to sell it. You have so much energy at the beginning of your creative life; don’t waste it trying to sell one show.
• Don’t be afraid of writing – there’s no such thing as ideas running out. The more you write, the more the ideas come.
• Write for everyone and anyone. Learn how to take a brief, whether for cabaret or the theatre – write for as many scenarios as possible. And don’t just listen to musical theatre – I love rhythm and blues, soul, gospel and jazz – or you become an in-bred writer.
And now there’s a lot of trust riding on his own creativity for two shows at once: “They’re very different, thankfully – and in the way my music functions in each.”
Just as Beetlejuice depended on him finding his voice, King Kong had its own trials. “The challenge has always been how to make a piece where a giant gorilla is possible.”
This has been met by a combination of massive animatronic and human-led puppetry – Kong takes 12 onstage operators plus three off stage to manipulate – but there’s also a lot of dance, movement and a cinematic-led design.
Everything, Perfect says, ultimately comes down to clarity. And it takes him back to his earliest days as a satirical comedy performer, which he pursued after graduating from Perth’s WAAPA. “How do you communicate an idea, especially if it is a dangerous one? I like comedy for the fact that you can hear when it fails; with drama, how do you know if it’s dramatic or as boring as hell?”
CV: Eddie Perfect
Born: 1977, Melbourne
Training: Bachelor of Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, graduating in 2001
• Offspring, Australian TV series (as actor)
• Shane Warne: the Musical (2008)
• King Kong (2018)
• Beetlejuice (2019)
• 2009 Helpmann Award for best new Australian work, the Victorian Premier’s Literacy Award and Green Room Award (all for Shane Warne)
• 2011 Helpmann Award for best cabaret performer (for Misanthropology)
Agent: Michael Lynch at Smartartists Management in Australia; John Buzzetti at WME in the US
More information at: eddieperfect.com.au