Vamp and historian? Philosopher and chanteuse? Comedian and harmonist? Student, linguist, dancer, dramaturg, raconteur? The disciplines spin like electrons around the nucleus of the artist known as Meow Meow. Her extensive CV defies easy categorization. Legit stage roles from the diverse canons of Shakespeare, Brecht-Weill, and Frank Loesser intersperse with “kamikaze” cabaret, symphony concerts, fringe festivals, songwriting, solo performances, and collaborations with renowned international artists like Emma Rice, Alan Cumming, Barry Humphries, and Thomas Lauderdale.
On Sunday evening, she opens the twelfth season of Bay Area Cabaret in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, a return to the region after triumphant engagements of An Audience with Meow Meow and album-promoting concerts with Pink Martini. What follows are excerpts from a far-ranging WhatsApp chat with the Australian-born entertainer, mildly edited for continuity and crafting her rapid-fire exclamations and curves in the conversational road into the sort of arc she might intend for one of her performances.
RS: Your website biography leads with “Meow Meow has hypnotized, inspired, and terrified audiences globally…” Do you like terrifying audiences?
MM: Well, you’d be amazed. I think that if I learned anything, it’s that you really can’t control what an audience will find funny or what they will find heartbreaking. So, my technique has always been to throw as much of it as possible out there and trust that it will resonate in different ways for different sensibilities. The music that I do is really very layered, so you can take it as just a gorgeous song or read a lot more into it.
RS: You had a hit in the Bay Area in 2014 with your world premiere of An Audience with Meow Meow at Berkeley Rep.
MM: That’s right. Under the wonderful Tony Taccone and Susie Medak. I loved their spirit and their, you know, trust in creation and giving artists places to make work. Very special people, those two.
RS: How will this performance differ?
MM: This will be a vastly stripped down comparatively. It is me and piano – Lance Horne on piano – and we are embracing the full potential of the cabaret form. When it’s just piano and voice, you can really respond to that live audience on that night and see how it is. We’ve just started the tour, and we’re finding audiences very varied in terms of a lot of people just wanting healing music and a lot of people [asking], “Please make me laugh!” I’m hoping we’ll do all of that.
RS: Are you familiar with the Venetian Room and its legacy?
MM: No, but I’ve had a look online, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. My question is will we be able to tell me apart from the furniture and the decor? “Somewhat gilded and a little bit refurbished?”
RS: Your friend, collaborator, and occasional director Emma Rice is returning to Berkeley Rep with Wuthering Heights. Talk about her vision and your vision and how those play together.
MM: We both work from a place of joy and heart. We want there to be pleasure in the making. She’s absolutely joyful to be with in a rehearsal room, even when you’re doing agonizing work. She creates that space where you can just try anything. We’re both, I think, immediately attracted to the fragility of the human heart, and we have a stupid sense of the ridiculous, so that’s always helpful. It’s easy enough to say I’ll be fearless, but you have to have made a fool of yourself enough to sort of realize it doesn’t matter too much and to find it liberating. Do you know what I mean?
RS: Intellectually, yes. Practically, no. That terrifies me.
MM: I understand. Not many people do well feeling that they’re failing. Generally, people sort of shut down. What I like in the cabaret form is that you’ve got so many songs, and each song is a story or a journey or adventure. So, you kind of reset and go again and reset and go again. It’s totally different to doing a narrative play with a full fall under dramaturgical necessity. That said, I always have a sort of dramatic throughline, even in a cabaret show, but [that risk of failing feeling] does give me a degree of flexibility to be really responsive.
RS: What is the most critical element for you as an artist in working with someone else’s material versus the freedom to create your own world?
MM: A good script, of course. I’ve played Miss Adelaide [in Guys and Dolls] at Royal Albert Hall, and I think that’s one of the most brilliant times I’ve ever had on stage. I felt completely free. There’s so much complexity and joy and poignancy within that character. I think when it’s a great play – same with Shakespeare, and one can’t complain about the writing there – it doesn’t feel constrictive. I think it feels constricted if it’s something not well written. That’s when you start thinking, “How can I…? What can I do here to help?”
RS: Talk about the jump from classic Broadway musicals to the Weimar era.
MM: It’s so funny. Clearly, I’m a Brecht fanatic and a huge Kurt Weill fanatic. There are parts when you look at Happy End, and you sort of think, “Gosh, I’m sort of seeing a wonky German version of Guys and Dolls.” Again, it comes from great writing. I’ve got something of an affinity with the politics of the theater of Brecht and the theater theory. Then, I think Weill knocks all of that away and puts this immense dissonance and heart and agony and joy and stridency within the text, and now they’re kind of thrilling concurrent energies. I love that work so much. It’s almost in spite of the theory that you’re absolutely going on an emotional journey. It’s painful to be screaming at, usually a sort of middle-class audience, that humans are bad. Often you need a tender touch. You need to understand why. For instance, with Emma, she often puts a dance at the end. It’s sort of the old Dionysian sense of being put back into the world after the trauma. It’s the same with The Seven Deadly Sins. It goes down, down, down, down, down, you know, and it doesn’t give you that beautiful resolution that things are right in the world. I’m drawing on the politics of a lot of that music because it’s so relevant, but I also can’t help putting some musical healing in because I think we need that a lot right now. So I think this little concert will be a mix of sort of spookily resonant historical pieces and some bits of beauty, actually.
RS: Your performance presentation is…
RS: Specific. How did Meow Meow evolve?
MM: [Pauses] I simply am, and that’s all I can say. Since time immemorial, I would say.
MM: Yes. Probably even earlier. Perhaps the box. I don’t know. Pandora. Lulu. One could go earlier. I think one could go Ooha. One could go Ishtar. I mean, it’s pretty quintessential.
RS: Do you think that Meow Meow represents who Sally Bowles might have wanted to be?
MM: I don’t know because Sally Bowles is, as we know, a fictitious character, whereas I’m terribly real. She was also the projection of a version of a known person and a projection of a marvelous writer. So, we’ve got so many layers, then washed through the brilliance of Kander and Ebb and through the marvelous Liza Minnelli.
I think Sally Bowles is a great rendition of just how complex those particular times were. You know, not just all fabulous flapper jazz age. I mean, huge amounts of poverty and desperation all the time. So as much as the Charleston and the shimmy and the tango were taking off, there’s also, you know, the complete destruction and detritus and the ruin of World War One really sort of drenching everyone’s psyches and leading to this sort of frenzied period. I don’t think anyone was untouched by that war experience. So, I think Sally Bowles is a great character reflecting the fragility of it all. It’s hard not to look back at that period without us knowing what comes next. Of course, no one knew at that point. They’d already just been through what was to be the World War. It’s very interesting because we are a hundred years from then, which just seems unfathomable, and a lot of that Weimar music that I’m so attracted to really couldn’t be more relevant.
RS: Yes. Looking at that period, the history, the cultural space that it occupied, the resonance to now is, frankly, quite terrifying.
MM: Absolutely terrifying. There are a lot of actual performers from that period who I think made it through, but so many didn’t. I relate a lot to the breed who managed to survive, that sort who kept going and ended up like, you know, in a Fellini film or in the French New Wave cinema. Performers who were trying to grapple with survival and politics at the same time. Oh, I’m going off on another thesis now.
RS: Go on.
MM: I’m just thinking of just how shattering it was with all the laws coming in during the ’30s. On the one hand, here in the ’20s, you’ve got Prohibition and everyone whipping over to Europe to have a marvelous time. Then jazz sort of hitting Europe, with modern composers doing their version of wonky jazz, not really having ever seen jazz, just looking at the sheet music was fascinating. Fascinating. I love all the dissonance of that period. I guess I’m quite full of it as I’ve just done a program with a symphony about it. I called it “The 20s and All That Dissonance, Volume One” because I see we can’t possibly cover everything I want to. It’s extraordinary. I was just reading a piece about new forms of media from the 1920s. It was worrying about the speed of dissemination of information that was false. It could be about Twitter now. So fascinating, and just like, “Gawd, how have we learned nothing?”
There’s some seriousness in the program because it sort of it feels wrong to pretend that the world isn’t shuddering with the weight of all of us at the minute. I hope there’ll be some beautiful soothing in there as well. I think there’s stuff that I’ve done with Pink Martini, with Thomas Lauderdale, songs that I’ve written with him, that are very beautiful – if I say so myself. So, there’s sort of always a balm within that to help people recover after the shock of the historical but new songs.
RS: You’re clearly a devoted student. Are you also a teacher?
MM: Teacher, did you say? Yes. No. Not in a “Waiting for my honorary doctorate. Honestly!” way. I have a lot of people – I won’t say that they emulate – but you know, I seem to be an inadvertent teacher. I’m still learning so much, though. I certainly have very strong opinions in terms of the theater. I’ve just been in Berlin, for instance, at the archives, researching a number of performers. Just holding [Friedrich] Hollaender’s sheet music in my hands. Do you know what I mean? It leads to nothing, maybe, but I like the going and finding the artifact and not just doing it online. Following down the alleyway to the tango room. I get a thrill from that. Learning. Yeah, I would be eternally a student. There’s so much to read.
RS: So much to hear. I have more music than I can ever process in my life.
MM: There really is.
RS: Your stage persona is very feminine, but strong and kind of sex-forward.
MM: I’ve got breasts, Robert. We can’t pretend they’re not there.
MM: They precede me. [Laughs] Living in a heightened way on and off stage as I do, it is very much in the eye of the beholder. So, some people will say, “Oh, she’s a dominatrix. You’re a dominatrix.” and then in the same show, others will be like, “Oh, you’re like a big Mummy making us jam.” (This is a direct quote from a Berlin performance.) So, I think it’s how people want to perceive you. If they perceive you as gorgeous or ridiculous or all things, then that’s the thing. I like to give lots of lots of layers. That’s where the fantasy can come for people in the pleasure of their dreaming room, you know?
RS: It always looks like you’re having fun. Are you?
MM: I’m a very good actor. Mainly. I’m an entertainer with a capital E. Very receptive and responsive. I don’t know if I would say it’s fun. Sometimes it’s more like magic. When it’s ridiculous, yes, that’s fun, but I think when it’s really in that shimmering space… when I think, “I’m so lucky, I have music in my life!” I have this sort of layered magic tool to bring people together when really I feel like I could die like this. I also think, with all those songs, you have a consciousness – if they’re ones that I’ve written – of the people I’ve written with, the times I’ve sung them, all of that history comes into each song, and that’s very precious.
Then, with the music that I love from, you know, Kurt Weill, I wouldn’t say I have fun when I’m singing “Surabaya Johnny” but I would say I’m kind of shaken to my core. I’ve sung it all my life, and it means something different every time. I sort of can’t not go there, and that feels miraculous. I think often people would look and I’m also attracted to music that’s got a lot of heartache and passion.
RS: You could be a gay man.
MM: You know, I think I probably am.
With that, she’s off to squeeze in a twenty-minute nap before heading into Manhattan to see the Ivo van Hove-directed Off-Broadway production of A Little Life.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30 • 7:30 PM
The Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason Street, San Francisco
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