Simon Green, actor, director and cabaret star from London, makes rare trips to the United States to offer his studious interpretation of the British songbook, but when he does, it’s normally a reason to celebrate. His favorite spot in New York City is 59E59, a network of three theaters at, you guessed it, 59 E. 59th St. in midtown Manhattan. Green and his musical director/accompanist David Shrubsole offer So, This Then Is Life through June 1 in Theatre B.
The theme of the cabaret-style show is quite unique: What advice would you give your 21-year-old self? Green explores this question over the course of 80 minutes, using a motley variety of poems, readings and songs from the likes of Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling, Daphne du Maurier and P.G. Wodehouse, among others.
“[The show] began because the 59E59 invited us back, so we thought, hooray, we’ll come back,” Green said recently during a phone interview. “Let’s get a show together. David and I have worked together regularly over 16 years, but because we have our independent careers — mine as an actor and a director, and David as a musical director, and composer and arranger — we come together from time to time to do the shows.”
The theme of the show, characterized by Green as a “Dear Me” to a younger self, evolved through the rehearsal process. Green and Shrubsole often start by looking at the lyrics of several songs, and from this time of exploration the general mood for the show was discovered.
“We tend to as much as we can go to British writers because, you know, the American songbook is fantastic, but lots of other people do the American songbook,” he said. “And so we try to discover lesser-known stuff from the British songbook.”
Green’s two other 59E59 shows, Coward at Christmas and Traveling Light, both warmly received, were similar journeys into the British songbook. “Over the years, because of my personal style and who I am, of course, I’m very … suited to Coward, so it’s very much my style, and I’ve acted in Coward plays and stuff. So, of course, it’s an obvious one to start with, and we, over the years, have used more and more Coward in our cabarets. And then one day, we said, ‘Well, let’s push it and do a whole Coward show.’”
After Coward at Christmas, Shrubsole and Green started thinking more thematically; their focus on the words of the writers became more intense, and the second show, Traveling Light materialized.
“It’s very organic the way we get it together, and then sometimes we might find a piece of writing or a lyric that David will set to music for us, or a piece of poetry. So some of the work in this show is stuff that David has written especially for the piece. Our opening number, ‘Dear Me,’ relating to this letter-writing theme, David wrote the music and a young lyricist in London called Victoria Saxon, we commissioned her to write the lyrics for the opening number.”
When watching Green on stage — in command but gracious to his accompanist — it’s obvious that he’s traveling on a journey. The cabaret act is theatrical, in the sense that the interpretation of each song seems carefully planned and finely tuned. Much of this musical perfection can be attributed to Green’s voice, but also Shrubsole’s piano playing.
“[David’s] a lot younger than I am. … He’s about 16 years younger than me, so we met when he was in his early 20s. I don’t want to do a cabaret, a show-off cabaret. I don’t want to do, here’s my 10 favorite audition songs, and I’ll sing them as well as I possibly can. I want to tell a story, and that’s very much the place that David comes from. He’s more than just a very good accompanist or a very good M.D. He’s a very creative person.”
And there’s no rest for the weary. Before performing So, This Then Is Life at night, Shrubsole works on arrangements for a new revival of Porgy and Bess, set to premiere this summer in England.
Together, Green and Shrubsole exude a certain level of professionalism and comfort level with each other. Perhaps it’s because the cabarets are the “most fulfilling” work Green has ever done.
“I am pushed to work at the height of my abilities with technique and talent,” he said. “And it’s dangerous because we’re just out there doing it. You’re just putting something out there, and you’re standing in front of people for 80 minutes. And it’s just you. Although, of course, it looks like it’s me, it is an absolute double act. It looks like I’m the one who is … taking the spotlight, but it’s the two of us together completely. He’s so with me. I understand that when we’re working, it’s a very nice, symbiotic thing, and he’s there. And if I breathe slightly differently … he’s right on it.”
Although his U.S. engagements are few and far between, Green seems dedicated to 59E59. It’s his creative well while in New York City, and the membership theater company seems ready to follow his voice for years to come.
“Other than repeat audiences that have been to 59 before, or when we played at Metropolitan Room or wherever, I’m often playing to audiences who are strangers to me, and I’m a stranger to them,” Green said. “In London, I tend to play more to people who know me because, let’s face it, you’re working off your mailing list, and you’re getting an audience that way. … I can’t generalize about American audiences, but what I love coming to this theater is the loyal fan base that they’ve got because of their subscription scheme or membership scheme. They’ve got this terrific, loyal audience who really love the space and support it, and love the fact that it’s here. And, of course, that energy comes over to us, so it’s very rewarding, very nice.”
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Simon Green: So, This Then Is Life plays through June 1 at 59E59 in New York City. Click here for more information.