Playing together, staying together by: Ken Longworth 17th May 2001 Newcastle Herald
Stewart D'Arrietta and John Waters met when they were working in a show about John Lennon. And they were in accord about one thing: it wasn't a particularly good show. It certainly doesn't appear to have been memorable. D'Arrietta refers to it as Imagine, while Waters' CV lists it as A Day in the Death of John Lennon. Anyway, it was 1985 and D'Arrietta, an accomplished keyboards man, had been suggested for the Lennon show's band by a friend.
Waters was playing Lennon but he wasn't happy. `The problem was it was very theatre. There wasn't enough of the real John Lennon in it,' said D'Arrietta.
Waters and D'Arrietta became mates and exchanged thoughts about what a satisfying show on John Lennon should have: the songs, of course, and words which put the music in the context of his life and background. It was to be seven years, however, before they had the opportunity to put their ideas into practice. Late in 1992, John Waters had an offer from the Tilbury Hotel in Sydney's Woolloomooloo to stage a show in the pub's small cabaret room. The catch was that the show had to be ready to go on within eight weeks. Waters contacted D'Arrietta and they got together.
`John would be writing and I would be piecing the music together on a multitrack.' The show steadily progressed, as fragments of songs were interlaced with dialogue written by Waters but in the idiom of John Lennon. No attempt was made with the music to emulate the sound of original recordings. It was the exciting essence of Lennon they wanted, not a cut-and-paste biography.
In December 92 their show, Looking Through A Glass Onion, began a five-week run. Waters, playing guitar, was Lennon. D'Arrietta, on keyboards, provided back-up vocals.
Looking Through a Glass Onion was an instant success. The two men began planning a larger-scale production, after Waters fulfilled an obligation to appear in a touring Jesus Christ Superstar.
Waters also had a dream of winning a go-ahead from Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, to take Looking Through a Glass Onion to New York. So D'Arrietta headed to New York in the hope of making contact with Ono. `I spent a month trying to find who was the lawyer for Yoko,' he said. `In the end, she virtually gave us a no. However, while I was there I met British producer Michael White who knew Yoko and thought things could be worked out. In the meantime, he offered us a London season.'
In preparation for the London gig, the show was restaged at a larger Sydney venue, giving D'Arrietta the opportunity to add two electric guitar players and a drummer to the backing.
The London season was a disaster, with the tabloids hammering the audacity of a `couple of colonials' for daring to do a show about a British icon. `It was the same as the reception Mick Jagger got in Australia when he played Ned Kelly,' D'Arrietta said. So it was back to Australia and a 1994 tour which showed that, in their homeland at least, they were honoured for their achievement.
D'Arrietta toured with the show again in 1996, this time with Jeremy Stanford as Lennon, and now he and Waters have it on the road again. Since the last outing, Looking Through a Glass Onion has gained more musicians, a string group known as the Dr Winston O'Boogie Quartet. `I've always wanted to use strings in the show. You expand yourself musically working with strings,' D'Arrietta explains. `One problem was to find string players who can work with groove. In a typical Sydney Symphony Orchestra situation, there is no camaraderie between string players.' Asked whether he had any more plans for augmenting the show's music, D'Arrietta laughed. `Short of the King Family being the backing choir, this is its final version.'
Waters and D'Arrietta still hanker to take Looking Through a Glass Onion to New York. `Half the reason for getting it up again was to make another approach to Yoko about doing it there,' D'Arrietta revealed.
While Looking Through a Glass Onion began the pair's artistic collaboration, it hasn't been their only project.
They followed it in 1995 with ReUnion, a musical about a '70s rock performer that won praise for D'Arrietta's songs but otherwise sank like a stone. Waters and D'Arrietta had put their own money into it in an attempt to maintain artistic control. They lost a mint. More successful was their next show, Cafe Brel, with John Waters singing the songs of Belgian performer Jacques Brel. While the intimate 1998 work was a hit, it caused problems for D'Arrietta in the rehearsal phase. `All the lyrics are in French and I can't speak the language for love or money, even though I once lived with a French girl for six months. So initially I found it difficult knowing where we were in the songs.'
Stewart D'Arrietta has rarely been at sea musically since he had his first piano lesson at St John's College, Campbelltown, a boarding school run by the Good Samaritan nuns (`A misnomer if ever there was one'). His piano teacher, Sister Anthony, though paralysed down one side as a result of a stroke, was nonetheless adept at bringing down a steel-edged ruler on her pupil's thumbs when he played a wrong note. D'Arrietta noted that, apart from that, `she was a very dear lady'.
It was the late 1960s and D'Arrietta soon found rock'n'roll. At age 14, he was threatened with expulsion when he was caught playing rock. But the storm blew over and he was soon playing, as a schoolboy, in a band. From school, he went to Sydney University to do an arts-law degree. But he never practised law, deciding he wanted to be a musician `and give myself a secure future', he laughs.
Bands, particularly Big Storm, backing groups and piano bars led to his meeting with John Waters.
Waters, though, hasn't been his only collaborator. He's written a ballet score, Intrusions, for the One Extra Dance Co, several film scores, notably Blood Oath, and he's working with playwright Justin Fleming on Devil's Tango, a musical about a love from hell.
A fan of singer-composer Tom Waits, he has developed a one-man show that uses Waits' songs. D'Arrietta is trying to persuade Newcastle Civic Theatre director Malcolm Calder to let him premiere the cleverly titled Tom Waits for No Man on the theatre's stage. He was `knocked out' by the atmosphere of the Civic stage when it was used to house performers and audience for a season of Cafe Brel in 1999. Looking Through a Glass Onion plays at the Civic Theatre from tonight until Sunday.