Jonny Woo talks drag, being provocative and A Night At The Musicals

Drag is a culture that has a richness entwined with a diverse community of entertainers telling a story in all sorts of ways. It’s then comforting to know that drag artists are still out there keen on simply performing musicals for musical sake. Jonny Woo, along with his long-time collaborator Le Gateau Chocolat is bringing this back to Melbourne for A Night at the Musicals, giving a night of nothing more than their favourite songs from their favourite musicals.

Jonny Woo – currently in the country as part of Midsumma Festival – ensured the show was a pure, no-nonsense type of performance. A simple set up of some chairs and a microphone was all that was needed, and that was how things were from the start. “Le Gateau Chocolat and I have been doing stuff for a long time. The first time we had an idea of doing this was about ten years ago. I had a bit of a following and gathering ideas on what I wanted to do, and we just kind of thought of the idea of A Night at the Musicals as an old school-retro kind of thing,” Woo mentions over the phone in London.”The show said what it was, which was interesting because at the time I was running a provocative, cutting-edge type of performance. We thought it’d be more fun to do something more ironic.”

“The show said what it was, which was interesting because at the time I was running a provocative, cutting-edge type of performance. We thought it’d be more fun to do something more ironic.”

After a few years of hiatus, the duo decided to take this practical approach again after delving into more complex works, and in a way, the performance is a blessing for Woo after bringing it back for the Adelaide Fringe Festival years ago.

“These songs in this show are shows that we know really really really well. We perform them again and again because we don’t tire of them, and we love those songs. It’s joy and an easy thing for us to do because we know we can relax. If we go off on a tangent which sometimes happens, we are both good enough friends to get back on track easily.”

What songs are included on the show? Well they range from tunes from the modern leathery 50s chic of Grease to the graceful tunes of Les Miserables. The variety is certainly there, and you’ll get a kick out of it no matter what, assures Woo. “We are not going to disappoint. There’ll be a point in the show where we’ll say if you haven’t heard something, then shout something out, cause we’ll do it! We want you all to leave with a smile on your face.”

Woo is no stranger to Australia, with this visit being the fifth time he has brought captivating cabaret to our festival circuit. He has many weird and wonderful stories of his time here, that’s for sure. “The first time over I came over with something with a new friend of mine took a shine to us and said we had to tour our shows down in Australia. ‘It’s only a detour’ he said! (laughs).

The most interesting thing about that tour though was that he sorted us out on this whim and we really had a great time, but the tour was financed by the sale of some second-hand illegal drugs cut by aspirin or something! I thought it was hilarious too. We met some great people took this bonkers road trip from Sydney all the way to Jindalee National Park through the bush in this Scooby Doo-type van!”Even though Woo was on the other side of the world, Woo was very aware of the entertainment standing of Australia’s two biggest cities. This is the earliest in the summer that Woo has come down here – having previously been here mainly for Sydney’s Mardi Gras in March. He points out the ongoing lockout-law battle in Sydney as an opportunity for to come to Melbourne this time around, although he doesn’t think these laws will diminish the premier LGTBIQ event in Australia.

“I know all about the lockout laws there. I had a real good friend Adam Manhatten tell me that Sydney is all rubbish now, the acts try to head on down to Melbourne. We have a lot of Aussies come over here to do cabaret shows and we hear all about the closures and the lockouts and all that kind of nonsense. Melbourne is still flying the flag.” He cites the venue Revolver as a highpoint of Melbourne in particular and gives it an example of what others should take onboard as innovative venues for audiences.

In terms of the cabaret that are being held in these venues, while A Night at the Musicals is a back to basics type of show, Woo is very aware of the changes in style of cabaret shows across the Atlantic.

“I do think there is a real interesting exchange of ideas in cabaret between Australia and London. I think there’s the same thing with New York and London. There aren’t many UK artists performing there as it’s hard to get work visas over there, but we have lots of artists from America that are presenting this aggressive type of drag. I’m not talking (a) Ru Paul Drag Race style but artists like Kinky & Herb who were a massive influence as well as Christine, who is this feral character who does this awesome harsh rap stuff with a bit of heart in it.”

According to Woo, it allows for some left-of-centre ideas in performance. “With this exchange of ideas, I think it’s creating this alternative queer web. I know when I had guys from Perth to see me at Glastonbury, it seemed to me that they created their own scene which I saw great evidence of when I went there. I was all: ‘Wow this is amazing. It’s all provocative and vibrant.’ This is happening all over the place and it’s great for drag and cabaret. It hasn’t been as vibrant as this for a long time, and there’s no reason why it can’t get any stronger”

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Jonny Woo & Le Gateau Chocolat are currently performing A Night at the Musicals as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival at Arts Centre Melbourne until the 22nd January. The show will continue onto Sydney where it’s on at Slide on the 23rd & 24th January. More info is here.