Joe Sterling talks about portraying Art Garfunkel in The Simon & Garfunkel Story

Thanks to Zaya Altangerel for her help on this feature.

Many wonder about the story of Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, from the counterculture icons of the 60s to the tumultuous breakup right at the beginning of the 70s to their hugely-attended comeback concert in New York City’s Central Park. The duo have many stories wrapped in their careers both as individuals and as a duo together.

Performing this story in a theatre setting can prove slightly challenging as well, as both musicians have nuanced qualities to their voices and compliment each other harmoniously too. The Simon & Garfunkel story takes a biographical look into how they met as young boys from Queens to become one of the most successful musicians of the 60s and of modern music.

Joe Sterling who plays Art Garfunkel in the production happily chatted to us from the UK ahead of the show’s tour around Australia.

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Are you currently based in the UK at the moment?

Yes, that’s right. Yes, absolutely. We’ve just got back from Ireland and having a few days off before we head back on the road in the United Kingdom yeah.

You’ve previously played a musician in the past, recently Buddy Holly. Can you tell me how much prep you had to do to portray musos like Art Garfunkel and Buddy Holly?

It’s a similar set of process. I just watched a quite lot of clips and I just watched and did a lot of research, who they are as people because obviously when you are performing as a real person, you wanna get it right. You wanna do your own interpretation of them really. Rather than an impression, you kind of wanna do your own interpretation of it, put your own spin on it but also with a lot of respect for the person that you are portraying.

So yeah, a lot of video clips, and a lot of research books and that kind of thing, getting to know them as people and performers as well. This means watching a lot of things like the Central Park concert for the start of the Garfunkel story, lots of watching Art Garfunkel in general and seeing how he does things.

How do you try to negotiate that line between presenting an impression and performing as Art Garfunkel?

You do the sorts of vocal idiosyncrasies I suppose. There are certain things with Art Garfunkel, you know there are certain things he does, certain things he will put in but then also not sort of crossing that line to just doing a straight up impression. You wanna sort of do your own interpretation of the role.

In your opinion Joe, why do you think the story of Simon & Garfunkel needs to be told on stage?

I think it’s a really a great tale. It’s wonderful to hear how they really were best friends at school. Growing up they met in a school play of Alice in Wonderland when they were children. They were teenagers and they got to know each other so well and are such good friends. They rose to being at that point where they were the biggest musicians and artists in the world at that point in time.

When they split, Bridge Over Trouble Water was actually the biggest selling album of all time. It outsold The Beatles, Elvis Presley and all those guys so they were so huge and people sort of refused to forget that because they stopped right at the heart of that success. So they really were the biggest in the world at that point. It’s a great story.

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I suppose trying to portray that story on stage is also more about acting the role rather than just performing the songs as well. Do you have to go through the emotion of being Art Garfunkel?

Well sort of, within the songs we do because we actually show the concert shows, so we narrate through that story. We’re not in character as we narrate the story. We just tell it as narrators speaking about them. And then through the songs I suppose and then through the recreation of Central Park at the end of the show which starts an army piece, we then very much get into the roles and certainly through that music yeah.

And from what I understand, you also have like visuals behind you to too.

Yeah that’s right yeah. We have a big screen that plays various pictures and video footage and things all from that time and period.

How does that coordinate with you performing? When you watch those pictures before performing as well, do you have to get a sense of what the time was like? It’s more of obviously simply just about Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, but you have to express the time as well which was this revolutionary time in music.

Yeah certainly and people say that when we speak to the audience after. They really enjoyed the videos because it really evoked memories with this music…it really makes people think about a time gone by. Certainly people of that era that come and see the show go down memory lane and all that kind of thing.

Can you tell me about the relationship that you and Dean (Elliot – producer of The Simon & Garfunkel Story) had with performing this material? I’m assuming you guys have to have a bit of a close relationship considering that you have to perform together quite a bit.

We get on very well. Dean produced the show originally and the show has been running for a year and a half and I just came and auditioned and luckily got offered the part. I joined a year ago and we get on very very well. We did a lot of rehearsals beforehand and just Dean and myself getting to know each other’s voices and blending. It was all about the harmony work. So we worked a lot to get the vocal harmonies just right and then with Gregory Clark who took over the role in January, we’ve always worked really closely together to get our harmonies just right.

Can you tell me about the process of getting those harmonies right especially with Dean?

So we obviously learnt all my harmonies and independently beforehand and via Dean I had lots of material to listen to and go away and do my homework and learn all the harmony lines and then we’d just get together and then we of course start rehearsing together and it’s all about the ends of words and cutting of your T’s and S’s at the same time and lots of little things like that to make it just sound just like Simon & Garfunkel did which was so they were so perfectly well together. So we worked quite hard to try and get that sound just right with all the close harmony work so it took a lot of homework. But you really learn how each other sing and you learn each other’s ways of doing things. You get so used to singing together.

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The show also portrays a little bit of both artists’ solo careers as well and thinking of both of their solo careers, they actually went off in kind of interesting directions as well. Is there kind of an interesting exploration outside of what they’re well known for in the 60s and 70s? Does the show delve into even present day?

Yeah we do a little. We don’t talk too much about what they did after they were together. We’d love to do more of their solo work as well but there’s so much work, the show would last about three days if we did all their solo records as well. So we don’t do all that much of their solo work but we certainly give a nod to what they went off and did.

Art did a film called Catch-22 and he became an actor and that’s when they split really. One of their songs is actually about Art leaving to go off to Mexico and work on a film and The Only Living Boy in New York which is one of our final numbers of the show that Paul wrote for Art. There’s a video montage of their solo careers and our fantastic band, play an instrumental medley of that solo hit actually. So that sort of nods to that solo career.

What is your favourite Simon & Garfunkel song or which song do you love performing the most?

Oh gosh, I love so many of them but one of my favourites is a song called Richard Cory which we do in Act 1 and it’s one of their very early works and it’s not that well known and it’s based on a poem actually. But Richard Cory is a very cool song

Have you met either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel or have they seen the production?

We wish. No they haven’t. They’re aware of the production I believe but no we haven’t met them or seen them. We’d very much like that. It’d be a real a very fantastic thing to do. But no we haven’t. I’d very much like to meet them certainly. That’d be amazing.

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The Simon & Garfunkel Story  is touring Australia between 6–22 July. They’ll be performing major venues in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Wollongong, Newcastle and the Gold Coast. For more info and to buy tickets head here or check out their Facebook page.