BWW Interview: Tom Frueh of HOUDINI at Theatre Row
When people hear the word Cabaret their first thought is usually the song made most famous by Liza Minnelli - and if they've seen the film Cabaret their frame of reference is very specific, leading to a vision of musical numbers, torch singers, and comedy bits, rather like a vaudeville. The truth is, though, that there are many different types of shows welcome in the world of cabaret, from torch singers to toe dancers - as long as the entertainment is performed in a place where food and drink is served, it is considered cabaret. All of it is theater, and sometimes the theater born within these food and drink establishments grows beyond those walls and takes root in a place where food and drink is not sold, and their cabaret show becomes a work of art to be performed on any stage, anywhere. That's what performing artists need to see to it that they are continually employable. The ratio of auditions to jobs is not always a favorable one, and actors need employment. What better way to get employment than to create something that is perpetually self-sustaining?
In 1995 Tom Frueh began a journey with a one-man musical he wrote about the life of Houdini. It started in one of Manhattan's most popular cabaret nightclubs, and this month HOUDINI will perform at the prestigious UNITED SOLO -- The World's Largest Solo Theatre Festival, the same theatre festival where Mr. Frueh debuted his one-man musical PARTNERS. Many artists performing their shows in cabarets around the country wonder about whether their show might be right as a theatrical venture, a solo show, a duo show; but many have no idea, or little inspiration, of how to make it happen -- or if it is even possible.
Having seen HOUDINI in 1995 I was wildly curious about the journey from nightclub to Theatre Row, so I reached out to Mr. Frueh to ask him to share his journey, and maybe some inspiration, with me and my readers.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Tom, your show HOUDINI started in what year?
In its first incarnation, it was 1995 and we did it at Don't Tell Mama.
You were in The Original Room.
The big long room, yeah. I had done shows there before and it was a welcoming, warm venue to try out my first musical that I'd written from scratch - and I wanted a welcoming venue to do it, so that was the perfect place to do it. Then it outgrew that and I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it, but I knew it probably belonged in a theater. I put it aside for a long time and got busy with other shows and projects and so forth.
You had performed at Don't Tell Mama before Houdini? What had you done?
I did some cabaret acts with some friends, something called "Our Time" in different incarnations. It was great.
What is it about Don't Tell Mama that you found so inviting?
Well, Sidney Myer was really nice and everybody there was great. It was just a really good room and a nice warm, friendly venue. Welcoming.
When you did HOUDINI the first time, how many performances did you do?
I don't remember, I think we did four.
Was it a good run?
You got positive feedback from your audiences?
With this feedback, you still back burnered it?
Yeah because, first of all, the scope of anything about Houdini is kind of grand so doing it as a one man show is a bit of a paradox. I wanted to tell a story specifically about him and not his feats of illusion and escapes and so-forth. But I wanted some of that in it, I wanted to explain why this guy is still so mesmerizing after all these years. I wanted to make some reference to those illusions in a theatrical way. That's a tough problem to solve in a solo format. It took me a while to figure out how to do it. I also wanted to write more music, more elaborate music, and it worked out great because in waiting a lot of new things came out about Houdini that were not in the biographies that I read when I was writing it. Simply because the old newspapers that told the between the lines story were inaccessible and now they've become digitized and all kinds of things. It usually takes some digging, but I found out there were inaccuracies and things I wanted to correct. It's not a by the numbers biography by any means, there's poetic license.
You can't do that.
Yeah, you can't. So it was good that I waited. And I also wrote it so that I could age into it. I was playing him toward the end of his life and I was way too young to be doing it at that point, but I wrote as something I could do as I aged as an actor.
When you picked it up again to work on it, it was with the intent to take it into a theatrical venue, so what was the next step?
I wasn't sure where to go with it and I discovered, back in 2014 a friend of mine had a solo show that had performed at United Solo Theatre Festival on Theatre Row. I didn't know anything about this company. I submitted... you have to submit your work, it's international and many people submit to be included in this festival. Luckily I was picked to be among them. It's the world's largest theatre festival devoted to solo theatre. It was a perfect venue, it's on Theatre Row, it's high profile. It's a great staff of people working there. Everything clicked. So this is the place for it. That was 2015 - I did basically the old show there because I was going through some personal things, my partner was very sick, and I couldn't really take it to the elaborate places that I wanted to because of that. But that was fine, it was a new venue. And since then I've written a lot of new music, re-wrote some scenes based on the new stuff I learned about Houdini. And I'm a different performer than I was then. I just enhanced it a lot, it's completely restaged, it's got a new set, I'm working with a different director. It's like a whole new show, really.
Tell me about United Solo Theatre Festival.
It goes on for about two and a half months and artists from many different countries come. Unfortunately, each of us only gets one slot because of the limitations of it. In some cases, if there are slots left over and your show sells out you can get more.
Do all the solo shows perform in the same space?
So you've got to be self-contained and able to move in for your one night after one show, then move out after?
We do a tech right before the performance.
And where do you get your sets? Do you create it yourself?
Is that part of the rules for the festival?
Not at all. That's just the way I did it. Initially, I did paintings of Houdini, I recreated Houdini posters to provide some visual exposition of his career - escaping from the Water Torture Cell, and escaping from a straight jacket while hanging upside down. Then I wanted to streamline, so now it's just projections.
Is this the same solo festival where you did your solo musical Partners?
So you have a long-standing relationship with this festival.
Since 2015. I had to resubmit but yes, I have a relationship with them, I think.
Is performing in this venue as welcoming as when you did the show at Don't Tell Mama?
It's just different. It's a different atmosphere. But, yeah, it is. It's very intimate. It's a great venue for telling a story about Houdini because his ability to relate to the audience, to connect to them, communicate with them was great. And I think that's one of the reasons he's remembered - one of the many. And in a solo show, one actor on a stage has a very unique, special relationship with the audience. You can dig a little bit deeper, you can go to places you might not be able to go to in a big production, even if you're in a scene where it's just you on stage. The people are close and there are moments of nice interaction. And I can speak to them as if they are Houdini's audience.
And your band, are they onstage with you?
Yes, its Chris Piro, who is my musical director. He's off to the side.
You wrote Houdini and Partners all by yourself. Words, music, dialogue, all of it. Does it get lonely working all by yourself?
Not at all. I wrote it myself because I was an actor doing musicals. I wanted to play Houdini. I was also a playwright, I had had plays produced. So it was logical that I would do the script. I grew up playing the piano, so I used to spend hours improvising at the piano. So I thought it would be fun to try my hand at writing a musical since I was doing musicals. It's a steep, difficult learning curve but it was exciting. I had a friend who helped me correct some of the notation errors, and I learned how to write like a composer. Chris Piro helped me too, but I learned how to do it myself. It was thrilling. I hope I get to write more musicals and write more songs. I'm so glad I did it.
Now, do you still make it into the clubs to see shows?
Do you think that there are people creating shows like Houdini that could move from the cabaret world into the theatrical world?
I think it depends on the show. They have all kinds of people... people doing comedy... I think they might even have people doing magic, puppetry and straight plays. Musicals like mine.
What advice would you give to somebody who is performing their show in nightclubs and cabarets with the hope of moving into a theatrical venue?
Again, it depends on the show, but if it's a one-person show United Solo is certainly worth looking into. If you think it's right, try to see some shows there and see if your show would be a good fit. Obviously for two-person shows you would need to find another venue but I would say perform it anywhere you can. Even before an invited audience in a studio, if that's all you can get. Just keep performing it, keep shaping it and keep enhancing it.
HOUDINI plays October 28, 2019. To learn more about HOUDINI please visit the Website
To learn more about UNITED SOLO please visit their Website