Meow Meow’s Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour, part of alt.cabaret/not at Sydney Opera House (Friday June 30)
“Making people laugh is the best thing that I can think of doing. Making people laugh and making people think.”
UPDATE, NOVEMBER 15, 2006: Melissa Madden Gray can be seen in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Tomfoolery -- performing songs by Tom Lehrer -- from tonight through to December 16 at the Arts Centre Playhouse.
Melissa Madden Gray is to Meow Meow what Michelle Pfeiffer is to Catwoman, not so much an alter-ego as an altered ego. They’re both sexy as hell, but you’ve gotta make your choice: blonde or brunette? Law- and fine arts-graduate homecoming queen or Parisian Eurotramp? Do you like dancer’s high-arched trainers or stainless steel stilettos?
International singing sensation Meow Meow is in Sydney this week to do to local audiences what the French did to Mururoa Atoll... test some thermonuclear material out on it.
Meow Meow has become something of a sustaining role for the “blonde and booby-looking” Madden Gray. Meow is a blowsy, temperamental, “grotesque-slash-sexy” Eurotrash cabaret singer. “Through her own belief in her own mythology, she creates it,” says Madden Gray.
Meow sings crazy French ’60s pop songs, Piazzolla tangos and Kurt Weill... all the songs that Madden Gray loves singing. But then you are just as likely to see Madden Gray singing in a bog standard musical (she was Hedy La Rue in the Production Company’s How to Succeed in Business) as you are in a Mikel Rouse talk-show opera.
Days after a one-off performance in Melbourne at the L’Oreal Fashion Festival Gala, Madden Gray sang and danced Piazzolla tangos at the Berlin Philharmonic’s thousand-seat Kammermusiksaal. She has performed in a SoHo shop window (on Broadway, of course, darling!) flanked by go-go dancers, lectured at Princeton, performed for some Perth school children, and kicked up her long long legs in Shanghai at Michelle Garnaut’s Glamour Bar. Her accompanist, there, was legendary downtown avant-jazz pianist Anthony Coleman, who has worked with everyone from John Zorn to Iggy Pop.
Don’t be deceived by the gorgeous Karl Giant portraits. Meow Meow is as dangerous as Karen Finley doused with honey. Beware her sting. Madden Gray’s honours thesis was on performance art and pornography, and Annie Sprinkle in particular. She has also studied performance art in Berlin.
“Performing Meow Meow is another way of deconstructing that traditional cabaret repertoire and [mixing] it with an avant-garde sound. She’s very extreme but she’s also very accessible. She’s a clown, really. And people can tap into the funny side of her or the bleak side of her.”
“She’s like an old-time cabaret performer who works in multimedia. She’s grappling with the death of one form of entertainment, her continuing compulsion to create and her absolute need for celebrity and adoration. But there’s a genuine passion for music that she sings. That’s real.” Madden Gray is no stranger to the Opera House Studio, where she performs Friday night as part of the alt.cabaret/not series.
For a few mad days in January 2003, Madden Gray was making sketch comedy for the Seven Network in Melbourne, by day, and performing in Max Lyandvert’s “holocaust opera” Close Your Little Eyes in Sydney, by night. “It was quite grueling because I was rehearsing them both at the same time.”
Gruelling and more than a little surreal.
“I had just done a pastiche of Ursula Andress on the beach for the opening titles of [TV show] Big Bite, then had to race to the airport. I arrived for a costume fitting at the Opera House with fake brown tan and sparkles on me, and salt in my hair. It was hilarious.”
Meow Meow is a persona that Madden Gray dons for hours or even days at a time. She’s gone to a wedding, in Australia, as Meow. She even ended up at the 5oth birthday party of Vagina Monologue-author Eve Ensler as her brunette doppelganger. Oddly, Meow Meow is biggest in two of the world’s notoriously humourless markets: the USA and Germany.
“Maybe she’s easy to perform there because the taboos are greater. It’s easier to shock, or titillate or to play with it than somewhere else.”
Meow Meow is a political lightning rod, too. Heckled in America for being French, post 9/11, Meow Meow is also the darling of the smoker set in New York for daring to chain smoke on-stage. “I’ll usually have three in my hand. People congratulate me for flouting the [strict New York] laws, but they’re theatrical cigarettes. I don’t actually smoke!”
“I can’t control how people react. What I think is funny, you think is political. It’s like that line: what turns me on is erotic, what turns you on is pornographic.”“The politics of performance are interesting to me, but I’m very aware that I’m... I worry about the theatre and music becoming, you know... I don’t want it to be for a small number in the know, I do want to be performing and entertaining people. Otherwise it’s irrelevant. You’ve gotta be making people laugh or think.
“[Meow Meow] to me, has been a really fantastic vehicle. Aside from the other fantastic work I get to do with ensembles. Using comedy and this grotesque-slash-sexy character has completely opened up the possibilities of what I can say on stage...”
Meow Meow’s Beyond Glamour: The Absinthe Tour is the first performance in the Sydney Opera House’s cabaret season, alt.cabaret/not.
There's more information at the Opera House web site.
All photographs by Karl Giant. (Click on the images to see full-size.)