Olivier-winning star, Le Gateau Chocolat and UK drag sensation, Jonny Woo, are bringing their highly successful show A Night at the Musicals to the Garden of Unearthly Delights for this year’s Fringe. Time Out London tells Adelaide Fringe-goers to “expect Les Mis in three minutes, take-offs of Hair and Wicked and mucho, mucho fun!”
I spoke to Jonny Woo, one of the stars and co-creator of this show, to get his take on himself, his unique drag style and what this show has to offer.
NQ: Tell me a little bit about yourself as a performer? How did you get started? How did you get started in drag?
JW: I trained in theatre at university, and I was just working in shops. Then I took myself to dance school and after dance school I was kind of nervous about going to auditions and so I thought, “You know what, I’ll go and continue doing some training in New York”. Whilst I was there, all my friends were drag queens and seemed to be having all of the fun. I’ve always been kind of a nightlife kind of person anyway, and I just started working with a friend who was into performance art and drag and that kind of put me in a direction.
I went back to London and started doing my own parties and developing my own drag style. It was through doing stuff there and nights like Gay Bingo that I met Le Gateau Chocolat. We remained friends and we have been working on this little show that we just put together one night, called A Night at the Musicals.
Since we both love show tunes so much, we thought it’d be a lot of fun and right from the start people loved it. We’ve been holding the show, holding the material, testing it out around the place and now we’re bringing it to Australia and I hope, and think, that you’re going to love it.
NQ: Have you been to Australia before?
JW: Yeah. I think this will be my fourth or my fifth time. I’ve been on tours that me and pals kind of put together ourselves like the juggernaut that was Gay Bingo; a crazy game-show/performance art/drag/strip-a-thon happening in Sydney and Melbourne.
I’ve made friends in Perth – I did some solo stuff there. I took some solo stuff to Sydney. I’ve done Byron Bay and I did a road trip into the bush in a kind of a crazy, ‘Scooby Doo’ camper van. But this is my first time to Adelaide to do the beast that is the Fringe.
NQ: So, do you know much about the Adelaide drag scene?
JW: I don’t. You know, I don’t actually know anything about the Adelaide drag scene. It’s going to be a new thing to see. My number is known as the ‘alternative gay/drag scene’. So although this show isn’t too alternative, my style is kind of counter-culture; it’s confrontational. So I’d be interested to see if there’s a seed of that in Adelaide. To find out where those kinds of drag rebels are. You know, I’m very interested to hear what those guys and gals are up to.
NQ: Tell me a little bit more about that alternative drag – “the confrontational”. What do you do there?
JW: Well, I kind of got into it in New York because I wasn’t into the kind of the 90s/late 90s, muscle queen, shaped-bodies lifestyle aesthetic. So I was working on this kind of beard, smeared make-up, jockstrap, high heels kind of thing. And I took all that energy back to London and my idea was that drag was a very inclusive thing that everyone can do.
We kind of identified more as transvestites really. It’s funny – that was the word to be used amongst ourselves. But it was very inclusive – like you can dress up, you can put a wig on, you can put make-up on, you can be a part of it. Often I think drag is put on a pedestal and you look at it. It’s kind of an entity over there. My approach is to the party, and to give people permission to be as wild as they can. And there’s an element of that in the show.
I know Gateuax has that kind of energy too, and the musicals show, whilst being accessible, does have that element of, “This is for you and you’re a part of it – you’re part of our gang. We’re not looking at you, we’re not exclusive”.
NQ: So tell me a little more about the show. What are you planning to do? What exciting things have you got for us?
JW: We’re giving you show tunes. We’re giving you our favourite show tunes we’re giving you popular show tunes, show tunes that you know. And we’re giving you little interesting spins on it. We’ve got some bathing suits and we’ve got some beautiful costumes coming in. We’ve got some great looks. But that’s not really what this show is about.
We’re not going with traditional big drag. This is very much me and Gateuax and our banter and our decade of working together. We’ve got a really great charisma on stage. We hope people are going to laugh. We’ve got a very English humour; a very English sensibility – slightly dry. It’s always interesting to take it to a different culture. But above all, we are really just having a laugh on stage. We’re having good fun and not taking anything too seriously. We have our little gems of pathos though. The little moments to enjoy the song, get into the moment, let people into it and then snap out of it and end with one ridiculous sing-a-long.
NQ: So you said you did a little bit of dance and performance. So what’s your experience with musical theatre?
JW: I kind of started doing physical performance and dance in New York for a couple of years. Then I didn’t do anything. My performance style that I do, is very spoken word. It’s kind of subversive. Right now, I’m working on a new play, an Edgar Allen Poe play which is very difficult. I’m kind of going back in that direction.
A Night at the Musicals is very much the main sort of drag style of work that I’m doing. The other show that I’m doing is very much character acting and talking. All that experience that I have, that dance training that I did, that experience in theatre, doesn’t leave you. I use it in the show. You’re performing all the time. I might be doing drag, but all that training is still underpinning everything that I do. So I’m kind of drifting back into that. And you know, I always love seeing dance, I always love seeing musical theatre. I’m really passionate about going to see shows. It’s still there.
NQ: Did you say that this show is very much what you’ve done before or are you trying out some new things?
JW: Are we trying out some new things? No. We’re bringing you the hits basically. We’re bringing tried and tested big hitters from start to finish. There might be some little shocks, but they’re not painful ones.
NQ: You said you’ve been working with Le Gateau Chocolat for a long time. How do you two compliment each other? What’s that working relationship like and what’s it like onstage?
JW: Well, do you know, it’s probably the first time I’ve been singing with him. He has got that beautiful baritone, opera voice. And I’ve been working for years but I’m still a little like “Oh no!” when it comes to singing – especially with this show. The style of my voice is very different to his. I would say I’ve got a slightly rockier voice; a slightly harsher tone. He’s pitch perfect. Sometimes I’ll choose some choice notes and he’s very accommodating of my harmonies. Musically we’re quite different but it works. We’re very familiar with each other and comfortable with each other. My kind of humour tends to be drier and perhaps a little more acerbic, maybe a little more acidic. He’s very warm. He’s chocolate and I’m citrus. In the nicest possible way, but I’ve got a wicked glint in my eye.
NQ: What’s your final sell for the show? If you want to get somebody to come see the show, what are you going to tell them?
JW: You are going to love it!! Everybody adores this show. I guarantee that everybody’s going to be on their feet, hands in the air for the big finale. If you love musicals, you’re going to love this show. If you don’t love musicals, you’re still going to love this show and you’re going to have a big laugh along the way.
A Night At The Musicals will run from 12 Feb – 13 March 2016 (excluding Mondays) in The Garden Of UnEarthly Delights – Studio 7 9.30pm. Tickets:$25 – $32 Bookings FringeTix
Interview by Nathan Quadrio