A seasoned writer, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival AD reckons it’s good do it all over again. Here’s why.

My Uncle Jim – he’s retired now – was a professional piano player in a bar. He also played at home and some of my earliest memories are of listening to him handle the piano in a way that I found just incredible. I remember watching his hands fly across the keys and being completely flabbergasted that someone could make that sound come out of an instrument that was just sitting there in my living room. Uncle Jim never had a lesson in his life and he couldn’t read music, but he was a walking encyclopedia. 

It was because of him I went to classical piano lessons for two years, but I dropped out after my piano teacher figured out that I was playing from ear and not by sight. After that I taught myself to play. I used to talk to my uncle all the time about music. He was the one who said to me, “Just listen to music and play it.”

As a kid I sang in a few choirs and then started singing in a couple of a cappella groups. From there I started teaching choirs and doing a cappella workshops, and gradually I found it became easy for me to invent a melody and then quickly create a four-part vocal harmony arrangement. I suppose I’d been doing it for so long that it became second nature. And that was really my way into writing my own stuff. 

When I went off to study music theatre in Perth, I used to volunteer for every writing opportunity – if we were doing an improvised puppet show with Handspan Theatre, I’d be the first to put my hand up to write a song for that. Eventually I decided to write a song cycle called Up about the transition from being a young person to being an independent adult. I interviewed a whole bunch of students and wrote songs based on their experiences. I workshopped and presented this song cycle, which went on for about 55 minutes. That was when I first thought, “Hey, I like this creative feeling and I think I find it more satisfying than performing.”

When I was at WAAPA I got to do some assistant work for David King and Nick Enright when they were writing The Good Fight, their musical about the boxer Les Darcy. I talked to Nick a lot and was able to pick his brains. The first full-length work I wrote myself was Shane Warne: The Musical but there were a whole bunch of solo cabaret shows I did before that at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, touring the country and overseas. 

When it comes to writing musicals, there’s not much you can do except start. Oddly, the best thing that ever happened to me was having what I’d call really limited success with my writing. I’d produce something and it would go OK, but it wasn’t as if it would then be plugged into some over-blown world tour. The best thing that can happen to a writer early on is to have to go back and write another show – to write more, and to continually write. You’ll find a way to put it on – you put it on in a hall; you put it on in your living room; you put it on in a pub; you learn. You’ve got to know how to back yourself until someone else has the confidence to back you.

Nowadays I listen to a pretty broad range of music. I love the Russian composers, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. When I was singing classically – at which I failed horribly! – I used to love Handel. I like dramatic stuff: Verdi and Puccini, and of course Bizet’s Carmen is one of the most amazing operas in the world, ever.

The music I couldn’t live without…

Sondheim Sweeney Todd
George Hearn, Angela Lansbury
Turner Home Ent DVD

I think Sweeney Todd is one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre ever written. It is fiercely imaginative, dramatic and incredibly funny in a macabre way. In this production, Angela Lansbury is totally manic and George Hearn gives this tortured insane performance full of rage – you can barely imagine that a human being could be standing afterwards. It’s one of the most electrifying things I’ve ever heard.

Eddie Perfect is Co-Artistic Director with Ali McGregor of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which takes place from June 10-25