Mitchell Butel


Mitchell ButelMitchell Butel is having a busy year; traveling around the country with Avenue Q, performing in The Grenade with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and then crossing the pond to New Zealand with Avenue Q again - it only gets busier when you consider he has been preparing for his first cabaret show in ten years, Killing Time for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Killing Time tells “tales of time from jazz and blues” songbook, and Butel and Musical Director Darryl Wallis have been busy cutting down a list of 300 songs to fifteen or sixteen, to tell a “day of the life of someone from dawn to midnight . . . looking for, finding, and losing love.”

“When creating a role in a show you have control of what you get to do, but not the structure of the whole show,” Butel says on the phone from his Auckland hotel room, after a delay to the interview as he realised his phone doesn’t carry global roaming, and so planning to take the interview in the park wasn’t the best idea. “Cabaret shows are more personal about what you want to do and what songs you want to sing.”

In the show, Butel and Wallis use a mix of classics, from talent such as Frank Sinatra, Stephen Sondheim, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin; using a song he will “rip it apart, turn it on its head and put a different face on it.” So, for example, a song from Merrily We Roll Along has a jazz and swing feel, as Butel and Wallis put their “very own stamp” on the piece. There is also a little Dolly Parton and ‘9 to 5’ in “a version you won’t recognise.” In addition to the music, Butel is looking forward to a good “chin wag with the audience.”

“Flying in and out of Sydney on Sundays” as he tours around the country, Butel says it is a joy to be working with Wallis, “He’ll say: ‘what if we do this’ and take it further. He’s a great piano player who makes a piano sound like an orchestra.”

But what about the title song, ‘Killing Time’? It’s a song Butel regretfully says they “really love but couldn’t quite fit into the thematic structure.” Another song Butel is sad has been let out of the show is ‘The Schmuel Song’ from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, which at eight minutes long, is too long for a 70 minute show: “We could do 15 hours of material, I’m sure there could be a second Killing Time.”

Butel says he is expecting to have “a great time in Adelaide”, and is excited for everything congregating around the festival. In addition to Killing Time, Butel will be singing at Stephen Schwatz and Friends and Mark Nadler’s Broadway Hootenanny, and pianist Wallis will play with Schwartz: “everything cross-fertilizes.”

It also sounds like his list of shows to see is almost as long as the festival itself, including Liz Callaway, Caroline O’Connor, Donna McKechnie, and Soshanna Bean. Overall, Butel energetically says he will see “as much as I can, picking up all of the best bits of other shows.”

“I like cabaret performers who let themselves into the performance, communicate directly with the audience,” he explains. “The soul of the song really moves me, rather than vocal pyrotechnics. Nothing’s better than a good singer and a good song communicating to an audience that are up for it.”

Some personal cabaret favourites are: Kurt Elling (My god, wonderful!” he exclaims), Alison Jiear (“dynamite in cabaret”), Queenie van de Zandt (“an incredible singer and incredible actor in the songs”), Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone.

Butel says he loves how at a cabaret show there are “people sitting at tables, having a drink, and want to be directly involved”, the fourth wall of plays and musicals is removed. Before cabaret Butel “found it difficult to make contact with audience members,” and he says it is a “good lesson in not being scared of your audience . . . It teaches you to perform and be comfortable on stage.”
{xtypo_quote_right}I like cabaret performers who let themselves into the performance, communicate directly with the audience. The soul of the song really moves me, rather than vocal pyrotechnics{/xtypo_quote_right}
For the Cabaret Festival Butel will be singing a mixture from many composers in his own show, and for Stephen Schwartz, Butel will sing ‘Out There’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and ‘All For The Best’ from Godspell with David Harris. So how will it feel singing Schwartz’s songs at his show? "[Schwartz] knows there isn’t just one definitive version of his work, [however] in you own show you can fudge mistakes and say ‘I meant to do that!’”

After the Avenue Q tour has wrapped up in New Zealand and Butel has finished his show at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, it is back to Melbourne for Sugar with The Production Company, and then the Sydney season of The Grenade. It’s been a “pretty good year” where Butel says he is “lucky with what’s ahead.” And while he may be “currently living out of two suitcases on the road” he is quite happy with that arrangement: the Avenue Q tour has allowed him to “see different parts of the world, different lifestyles and people” on a tour filled with “wonderful dinners and wonderful drinking.” Reminiscing on what has clearly been a wonderful year, Butel says he will be “sad to say goodbye to the people and the puppets”, as they became a real family unit on the road.

Along with all of the good times, the road has come with many lessons: as room service interrupts our interview, Butel tells me “when on tour you quickly learn to the leave the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. [You’re] interrupted at the most inopportune times.”

He happily reflects on how working in film, television, musicals, plays, and cabaret “certain things feed back into others.” Musical theatre teaches precision, knowing what you need to do to get a laugh, while film and television teach truth and credibility. And while he happily says he enjoys “swinging between forms”, when he is doing a play he’ll wish he was doing a musical, and when he’s doing a musical wish he was doing a play.

As someone who has wanted to do a festival for years, but hasn’t been able to fit one in, Butel is “feeling very blessed.” Through the interview, Butel was showing nothing but enthusiasm for coming to Adelaide and showing this city what he’s been working on, and embracing the Festival head on. We’re looking forward to having him!


The 10th Adelaide Cabaret Festival opens June 11, 2010. Mitchell Butel's Killing Time plays 19 - 20 June, 2010. Further information»

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