One of the most exciting things about Cabaret is hearing a performer take something familiar, even verging on the tired, and give it a fresh spin. Cabaret provides performers with the greatest amount of artistic freedom by letting them interpret material with their personal bent. In his MAC Nominated New York debut, Sean Hayden refused to take the safe, tried-and-true path of most performers and instead created a show which gave a unique spin on one of my favorite composers, Cole Porter. His show, Confidentially, Cole, which has recently been released on CD, is an evening of Cole Porter tunes, some familiar, many obscure, all filtered through the sensibilities of a fearless gay performer.
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Sean, and congratulations on your MAC Nomination for Male Debut.
Sean: Thank you!
J: Now what made you pick Cole Porter's music to center a show around?
S: About a year and a half ago, when I was living in Dallas, I was involved in a project about the life of Cole Porter, and was given the song "I Loved Him but He didn't Love Me" to sing. I had never heard it before, since at the time I wasn't a really big Cole Porter enthusiast; my image of Cole Porter was that aloof, champagne and cocktails, "aren't we amusing" member of high society that is fixed in so many people's minds. And that song just jumped out at me and sounded alarmingly contemporary. As I got further and further into his music, I became convinced that there was a project to put together. When I moved to New York a year ago, I started developing a simple show which was going to focus on a guy singing the songs of Cole Porter to another man in a cabaret setting, and the show evolved into a one-man musical theater piece.
S: It's sort of a hybrid, in that it's a theater piece presented in a cabaret format. It starts off in a pseudo-nightclub setting with the band and the performer on stage and the 'customers' seated at tables. There are no sets, just costume changes. It's really two mini-musicals back to back, about two fictional characters, one contemporary, one in the time of Cole Porter, who find their voice through Cole Porter's music during their search for love, relationships, and their sexuality.
J: Which of the characters do you like better or identify more strongly with?
S: It's hard to choose between your children ... it's like Sophie's Choice! They both speak to me and are facets of my personality. I couldn't choose between either!
J: Just trying to be difficult! My brain is still fried from a long day at work, and I didn't have time to get into the appropriate mood by having a Cole Porter-esque dry martini!
When you say you are putting a gay spin on the show, how overt are we talking? For lack of a better word, how campy is the show?
S: Actually, I think that the biggest surprise for people coming to the show is that it isn't as campy as they feared. I'm not playing, say, the typical queeny gay man of the Cole Porter period. The characters are masculine, non-stereotypical gay men; they are men who just happen to be gay and are struggling with love, relationships, and the restrictions of society, just like anybody else. I think that by doing that, we've been able to put a much more human face on Cole Porter. I think people come away thinking of him as a human being rather than the aloof figure that is pictured in the photographs.
J: But you don't mention him in the show at all, right?
S: No. It's not the story of Cole Porter. It's the essence of Cole, the themes and thoughts and inner moments of his life as seen through two other men's lives.
J: So you're basically taking the subtext of his songs and bringing it to the forefront? Turning the covert gay 'coding' of the songs into an overt message?
S: I usually describe the show by saying that we've deconstructed his songs to their very core and turned them on their end. I think what we've done is explore the very essence of the songs. Some of that, I think, is through subtext that Cole Porter wrote, which was only understood by a small inside circle at the time. And some of it is stuff that has a different meaning given the passage of time, and also from my own personal spin on it.
J: Is there some sort of storyline or throughline in the show?
S: Yeah, very much so. We begin the show in a fictional nightclub called "Old Peking" which is based on the underground brothel parties that Cole Porter used to go to in Harlem in the late 1930's. The first half of the show deals with a fictional gigolo named Cliff, who might have existed in the circles that Cole Porter ran in. And we follow this character from his life as a gigolo, to him being drafted in the war and falling in love for the first time. The great thing about that section is that you get to hear "You'd be so Nice to Come Home To" as it was intended; it was originally written to be a song for Cole Porter and his boyfriend Nelson Barclift. Then we follow Cliff to Hollywood in the 50s, and the era of Rock Hudson and James Dean, and see where he ends up ... most of these men did not have happy endings.
J: But he probably became friends with Liz Taylor!
S: (Laughing) probably so! The second half of the show deals with Cliff's nephew, an average Chelsea guy named Chase, who owns a coffee house in New York at the millennium. His situation is the opposite of Cliff's; he has lots of options available to him but has turned his back on love because, like a lot of people, he's become cynical about love and doesn't want to be burned again. When he falls flat on his ass for someone, we get to see how he handles it, and what the music of Cole Porter has to say about that situation. The theme that runs through Confidentially, Cole, which I feel you get through Cole's songs, is the emotional separateness of love. In particular, love between men, whether during the closeted time that Cole lived in, or today, when there are all these emotional barriers that men have to constantly confront.
J: One thing that struck me about the CD is that there are quite a few songs on it that I don't know, and I pride myself on singing obscure Cole songs myself. What research did you do for the show?
S: Robert Kimball's book, which contains the complete lyrics of Cole Porter, became my bible! I found themes coming through a lot of the lyrics, and I traced down the music. For instance, there's a song that becomes the central theme for these two men, "To Love or Not to Love," which I dare say, nobody has ever heard, as it was partially used in the song "Rosalie." It was exciting to call the Cole Porter estate asking for the music, and to find out that they didn't know about it! They managed to find it in a file for me. And there are some really obscure ones like "Humble Hollywood Executive" which was cut from Mexican Hayride and became our centerpiece for the Hollywood segment. So not only are there old songs which are being reinvented, but there is music that the audience is hearing for the first time.
J: How long have you been working on the show?
S: I started working last February and we had it up and running about nine months later. Then we did the CD right after Christmas, and we just finished the return engagement in New York and are preparing for the tour ... it's been a very fast year!
J: Are the arrangements on the CD what is heard in the show, or were they augmented?
S: We brought in some other instruments for the CD; some violin and cello, electric guitars for the contemporary section, and brass for the nightclub sequences. It's a different listening experience but I think it retains the feel of the stage show.
J: Where is the tour going to take you?
S: Miami, Washington DC, London, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
J: And the dates?
S: They are being negotiated. We're probably going to start mid-May, and go through September. It looks like Miami is going to be the first stop on the tour.
J: You had four instruments accompanying you at The Triad. Are you going to bring them all on tour?
S: Rick Jensen, who did the arrangements and plays the keyboards in the show, is going to tour with us, and we'll pick up musicians in each city.
J: How long are you planning on staying in each city?
S: It's going to vary. It looks like four performances at the Colony Theatre in Miami, two weeks in London, three weeks in Los Angeles and one week in San Francisco. It's going to vary depending on the venue and its capacity.
J: I wish you were coming to Seattle, since I would love to see it.
S: I love Seattle. Hopefully we can get up there. Maybe we'll add a second leg to the tour.
J: Where can one find the CD?
S: Right now you can get it through our production office or at the show.
J: Can they get it through your website, www.confidentiallycole.com?
S: The website is currently under construction, and should be up in the next week. And then people will be able to order it from there.
J: Or they can order it through 244 W. 54th Street, Suite 800, Box 9569, New York, 10019
S: Yes, for $15.
J: What's your next project going to be?
S: We're going to be recording a live CD while we're on tour. It's not going to be of the show, but of other cabaret songs and we're going to call it Road Show. At some of the performances, we'll ask the audience to stay after Confidentially, Cole so we can record some songs for a CD to be released in the fall.
J: What kinds of songs are you going to be doing?
S: It's going to have some Jason Robert Brown, John Bucchino, Stephen Sondheim ... more like a traditional vocal cabaret CD, hopefully with a strong Sean Hayden twist to it! And there might be some original songs on it, as well.
J: You write songs as well?
S: Yeah. It's a new thing for me, so we'll see if anything ends up on the album (laughing). You have to try as big as you can, and then narrow things down; see what you come up with. That's my philosophy ...
J: Go for the gusto until life proves otherwise.
S: Exactly. What's the worst thing that can happen? You try, and if it doesn't work out, you're at least left with something more than you would have had otherwise.
J: Well best of fates with the tour, and I wish you great success.
S: Thanks. We'll see what happens. There are rumors that the
tour might end up in a small Off-Broadway house, with bigger production
values, and a director coming on board. So who knows! I'm trying to take
it one step at a time and see what happens!
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