Tyran Parke on cabaret, Sondheim and Children and Art

When it comes to the music theatre and cabaret, you would indeed be hard pressed to find someone more passionate on the subject than Tyran Parke. Actor, singer, writer, director – Tyran is more than a bright talent on the Australian landscape. He’s something of an expert.

In 2013, Tyran released his second studio album: Compositions. Featuring songs written by some of the most successful music theatre composers in New York and in Australia – the album paired these original songs with quintessential Australian images captured by Tyran’s brother Trent – a successful artist in his own right.

Tyran Park. Image by Blueprint Studios
Tyran Park. Image by Blueprint Studios

Having worked already with some of the worlds greatest composers, Tyran is bringing his one man show Children and Art to the NSW Art Gallery this Friday and answered the following questions for Aussie Theatre.

1) Children and Art: your love of the composer Stephen Sondheim is well known. Is there anything about his work you don’t like/admire/enjoy?

Look, I don’t believe in God, but I do believe, very deeply, in Sondheim. Too much? Ok, so… What don’t I like about his work? Ummmm….That there’s not more of it? Well seriously, I guess on first listening, I have often not “liked” some of his stuff.

Sweeney Todd baffled me when I heard it at age 14, and Passion was way too dense on one listening, but of course, we have such lazy ears and the more you investigate, the more you respect and appreciate.

The man understands what it is to be human and can express that like no other. I suppose there are particular songs I don’t like as much as others, but, when you write with the kind of integrity inherent in his work, it’s always for a reason and serves story and character so, who am I to say? It’s not to say I think all of his material works in a show; but, like Shakespeare, he pushes boundaries and the results aren’t always successful but thank God he does keep pushing!

I’m thrilled that the rest of the world are seeing it like this now too, with the revivals of his shows all outdoing the originals in popularity. I think that’s what “Watch This” are capitalising on so well in their Melbourne productions. A Sondheim based theatre company is my idea of heaven and I’m blessed to work with them.

So, If there’s anything I don’t like,  it’s trying to get all those words out, except that I also love it! When I did Putting it Together, we called it “Sondheim scrabble” because we were never really sure what would come out of our mouths. Having to improvise Sondheim, rhyme and not miss a beat, should be a competitive sport.

2) Your album Compositions has some beautiful new songs. Which was your favourite to record and why?

Oh, that’s like asking who your favourite child is! You’re not allowed to say are you? I truly love all the songs on that CD. How blessed to premiere original songs from the likes of Stephen Schwartz, John Bucchino, Georgia Stitt, Scott Alan, Jeff Marx… but it’s been pointed out by many that the Australian contingent really hold their own opposite the Broadway heavyweights.

I was really aware of the responsibility of capturing each song, both in the orchestration and in my performance. I was under contract at Universal Music for the album and I think we did 12 different mixes. I loved recording “Choose Happy” by Jeff Blumenkrantz because it’s just so silly! “Shine like and Australian Idol / Hide the fact that you’re suicidal” What a great lyric!

I think Nigel Ubrihien’s arrangement is brilliant too. I also loved hearing what Luke Byrne did with the orchestration of Mathew Robinson’s “Wonder Why?” It’s not the song we were first delivered but it remains an all time favourite.

And then there was singing with Gareth Keegan and Queenie van de Zandt.

I could go on forever – it really was a blessed project!

3) Of the songs written for Compositions, did any of them surprise you when you first received them?

All of them! I can’t explain what a gift it is to receive a song, particularly from writers of the calibre that I was dealing with! Often they were sent as demos with the composer singing them, and the anticipation as I put on my headphones and pressed play was often overwhelming. It was also a treat to see how an artist would interpret the work of another artist – my brother, photographer, Trent Parke.

I think the biggest surprise was Eddie Perfect’s song, “By the Sea”. The nature of writing for photographs, meant that there were a lot of ballads, so I was determined to balance the collection with some “lighter” material. Of course I went to Eddie as Australia’s wittiest writer of comic material, and he, in turn, presented me with a dark and brooding tale of people who disappear, in a style that was more Tom Waits than Broadway! And I love it!

4) Which part of this cabaret is your favourite and what inspired it?

I’m enjoying doing “Schadenfreude” from Avenue Q at the moment. It came out of a real life situation.  You know that board game, Guess Who? It’s the one with the cartoon people, and you have to guess their identity through a process of elimination.

I loved it when I was a kid, but after my mum died, I remember playing it and me relating to two character cards differently. One was Alfred and he was really angry, and the other was Robert and he was the saddest guy I’d ever seen.

The nature of schadenfreude (the word and the song) is finding pleasure in other people’s pain. These guys were wonderful for that. I removed them from the board game and carried them in my wallet for years (I still have them)! Just looking at their pathetic faces made me realise my day wasn’t so bad. They were most useful in WAAPA ballet classes!

5) What do you enjoy most about creating and performing cabaret?

I ran a cabaret venue for three years and, though we had great performers, there is nothing more ‘cancer-inducing’ to me than a badly created cabaret. When I decided to do my own show for the first time, I went of to the Yale cabaret conference and wrote my show alongside some of the best in the world. I think what I enjoy most is the intimacy.

I’ve become a much better actor in plays and musicals because of my success in cabaret. What I love about this show in particular, is that I set out to write a show based on two specific themes: children and art (which Sondheim states are the only thing you leave behind of any worth that lives on after you). But, in the process, it has morphed into a personal reflection on childhood with my brothers (both artists). The show seems to have it’s own life – one I wasn’t even aware of.

6) If you could see any show in the world tonight, what would it be?

If I could cross time, I’d love to go back in time to some legendary Australian performances and see Gloria Dawn in Gypsy or Jennifer Murphy in Evita. In the present, I’d be interested to see the remarkable Tamsin Carroll in Miss Saigon in London. I did Oliver! with her and I watched her from off stage every night. I have no words for her brilliance.

I’m headed to New York to do my last cabaret: A Light in the Dark shortly after I’m done at the art gallery, so I look forward to taking in the current slew of shows there, including shows written by several friends of mine.

7) Are there any plans for a sequel to Compositions?

Yes! But given I haven’t yet launched the first one properly, so that might have to wait! The fact is an album can only hold so many songs before it’s bursting and we really pushed that with Compositions. To be honest, we have a bunch more songs from the likes of Craig Carnelia, Peter Rutherford, David Friedman, Carmel Dean, Anna Jacobs, Steven Lutvak – all brilliant songs that just didn’t fit. Of course, my brothers’ images just get better and better and number in the thousands now. I’ll be premiering a few of these new songs at the art gallery which I’m very excited about!

8) What is your favourite non-music theatre song right now?

Right now it would be “Three Things” by Jason Mraz.

Last year my birthday fell on the second day of directing Assassins in Melbourne and though I was really tired, my dear friend Pella took me to see his concert live. He sang the song and I loved it. He’s never recorded it but his bootleg recordings are enough to put it firmly in my “happy music” folder.

A close second would be Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which I’m singing in Children and Art. Luke Byrne has created a spectacular arrangement of it, that makes it ours and promises to remove all memories of a tearful Emma Thompson for good.

9) If you could direct any show what would it be?

Well, there’s one coming up later in the year that’s doing a tour to the capital cities so I’d say that show, naturally, but it’s still embargoed. Watch this space! I’d love to bring Assassins to Sydney. We are doing a Victorian tour in October. Aside from that, Next to Normal of course. The production is done in my head and sometimes I still ‘watch’ it. It’s my best work, and Michelle Doake’s performance as Diana – well, it wins the Helpmann Award for “Best Actress in my Imagination” hands down!

10) To anyone who has never seen a show at the Art Gallery, what makes the experience special?

Well, it’s the Art Gallery of NSW! What more do you want?

It’s beautiful and iconic and your ticket price gets you into the latest exhibition and free alcohol, plus the show in cabaret setting! I think it’s a wonderful idea! For me, singing upstairs from where some of my brother’s work hangs…well, the children in us (my brother and I) would be bloody proud to know how it all worked out! Children and art, eh?

Tyran Parke’s new cabaret Children and Art will debut this Friday, May 2, at the NSW Art Gallery as part of the Gallery’s Resonate 2014 concert series. The show will be preceded by a champagne reception and a private viewing of Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul. Doors open at 7PM.

More information about the show is available at whatson.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au, while you can book tickets online at artgallery.nsw.gov.au.

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