PETER TROMP spoke to Capetonian musician and theatre legend GODFREY JOHNSON about his latest show ‘Coward and Cole’, a tribute to the music of Noel Coward and Cole Porter co-starring Roland Perold that is showing at the Kalk Bay Theatre. Johnson touches upon his highlights of a celebrated career that has included a Fleur du Cap award, staging plays for neighbouring children when he was a child and clears up the distinction between tribute shows and cabarets.
How did you get started in show business?
I started performing when I was about six years old. I used to write little plays and force the neighbour’s kids to watch. I would write the script, theme song, direct and stage manage, they were usually about tree minute epics. I was a very shy little boy so creating fantasy worlds helped me get over my shyness. My first professional engagement was at a little cabaret venue in Kalk Bay called Eauver The Top, which was owned by Lynne Marie and Chris Van Niekerk. It was there that I met Pieter-Dirk Uys who became a dear friend and mentor. My first attempt at composing was when the UCT drama department asked me to write a score for them and it turned out to be a bit of a hit. I have been dabbling in all aspects of the arts ever since, including the odd role in a movie.
What do you count among your highlights thus far?
Doing my first self penned show with my wonderful friends Trevor du Buisson and Megan Furniss in 1995. Performing with Pieter-Dirk Uys in Holland, doing a one-man show in Canada and more recently travelling with Claire Watling to London and performing ‘Kissed by Brel’ at The Jermyn Street Theatre. Another highlight for me is ‘The Shadow of Brel’ directed by Sanjin Muftic. I do, however see every new project as a highlight. It is always exciting to work with other people and I have been very blessed to work with exceptional people such as Megan Furniss, Sanjin Muftic, Jon Keevy, Christine Weir, Emile Minnie, Heather Roth, Aviva Pelham and James Blankenberg, to name but a few.
Tell us about your new show ‘Coward &Cole’. What can audiences look forward to?
Because Coward and Cole were both such prolific writers, we had to choose material that would fit into the world we wanted to create. It is a show that focuses on their music and lyrics. The audience can expect some familiar tunes such as ‘Mad About The Boy’ and ‘In The Still of The Night’. We have been working with the delightful Paul Griffiths and he has been a marvellous inspiration. We simply want people to sit back and relax as if they were at home with us in our lounge or theirs and singing along is most welcome.
Tell us about your fellow cast member Roland Perold. How did the collaboration come about?
We met at a party and he invited me to do a show with him. It was actually quite straightforward really. He is an extremely disciplined artist and a delight to work with.
You have become known for your tributes to the legends of, let’s say popular music of a much different age. What keeps you coming back to the likes of Coward and Brel?
I think that all generations can identify with good writing, no matter how old. We are still watching Shakespeare and he has been done in g-strings and set in outer space. Some snobby types have often commented on my choices and said that young people won’t get it. I think that is total rubbish. Two examples: a fourteen year old girl came to my ‘Flirting With Coward’ show and was so excited that she got her father to get every recording he could lay his hands on. My young rock singer friends have totally fallen in love with Brel. It’s all about good writing.
Is it the kind of music you listen to personally as well, or is it purely part of your repertoire?
I love listening to all music and it depends on my mood. I really enjoy Tori Amos for example. To me she is a mixture of Brel, Leanard Cohen, Chopin and even occasionally Coward. I listen to a lot of classical music. I am not very interested in generic voices. One lady boasted about the fact that her daughter sounded just like Adele. Aunty, surely your daughter has her own voice; after all, Adele sounds like Adele, not Rufus Wainright. I also love Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill.
Would you describe these kinds of shows as tribute shows, or cabarets?
I prefer to call them cabarets because the material is generally so varied and interesting. For example, Brel did not ever write a safe, pretty love song. He wrote gut wrenching monologues and even Coward’s sentimental numbers drip with irony.
For the more casual serious theatregoers out there, how does one differentiate between the two forms?
I guess it is about the way a show is structured. I can’t stand watching a history lesson in song. Maybe cabaret is a more personal style of presentation and it also allows you to touch on more serious and challenging subjects. I think Nataniel and Ute Lemper are great examples of twenty first century cabaret artists.
Do you have any particular favourite song or songs that you keep getting requested to play? What about the songs you love performing the most?
I always get asked to do Brel’s ‘If You Go Away’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘Seasons in The Sun’. More recently Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ has become a bit of a favourite, as well as my twisted version of ‘Cell Block Tango’. I love performing Jacques Brel’s songs most of all.
You also pen your own material. How does performing other people’s music differ from performing your own? Is the one more special than the other?
The self penned songs are a lot more personal and can make one feel quite naked, but if another writer has written a song that I think describes something I need to express then I will do theirs; saves me the trauma of accessing a broken heart yet again.
How do you like to be entertained when you yourself aren’t entertaining folks?
I love watching performers perform. I still feel that childlike excitement when the houselights go down; it is so thrilling. My other great passion is watching movies. I will watch anything. I am a wealth of useless movie trivia, especially when it comes to trashy horrors and films nobody has ever heard of; I have absolutely no idea why. My god children are the greatest entertainment, though. They are hilarious and talented.
Finally, what can we expect from you in the near future?
I will be at the Grahamstown Festival with a few productions. I am also touring with Emile Minnie in August. I am busy writing an all original cabaret called ‘The Smallest Man in The World’. I will be doing a morning show in The Baxter Concert Hall on the March 28. I have also been asked to direct some cabarets and I am very excited about that as well as composing music for a new musical. My first novel is also on the cards as well as an attempt at a work of art for the See The Point Darling art exhibition at The Framery in Sea Point, which will open on March 25.
* ‘Coward and Cole’ is showing at the Kalk Bay theatre until March 24. For all bookings and further information visit www.kbt.co.za.