Back to Bacharach: Steven Hoggett and Kyle Riabko Are Reviving Burt Bacharach for the Young Folks

Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach. (Photo by Eric Ray Davidson)

Kyle Riabko and Burt Bacharach. (Photo by Eric Ray Davidson)

“Is it choreography or is it movement?” Steven Hoggett has been officially stage-credited as one or the other in shows, so when he was asked that question at point-blank range about the jerky gyrations he is now putting a band of twentysomethings through, he paused a long, hard, thoughtful Hoggett beat and smiled a “touché!”

“Good question,” he conceded. “It’s a mix between the two. I suppose that’s why I’m attracted to projects like this. I like to play with fast movement, then choreograph.”

The thing that is keeping him in idiosyncratic motion right now is, of all unexpected things, The Burt Bacharach Songbook. It has been reconceived and deconstructed by Kyle Riabko, the rocker who replaced Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening and Gavin Creel in Hair. The result of their eclectic teamwork, What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, will world-premiere Dec. 5 at the New York Theater Workshop.  

Thirty-five songs by Burt Bacharach and his faithful lyricist, Hal David, are sprinkled over this 90-minute entertainment. “Some last just a minute, some for three, some go the distance—it’s a nonstop musical kaleidoscope,” Mr. Hoggett said. “My first impression on hearing Kyle’s demo was that it was music my parents listened to. I didn’t really listen to it. It was just there, like elevator music. I could recite the songs verbatim, but I didn’t think of what they meant. That’s why this show is such a treat for me.”

At 42, balding but boyish, Mr. Hoggett is the theater’s new secret weapon, proving himself as applicable to dramas as he is to musicals. He has an Olivier for the march drills he concocted for Black Watch and an Obie for the stiff, swaying moves of Dublin pub-crawlers in Once. He dropped by for only five days of rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie, and, in no time at all, Laura Wingfield was materializing out of the folds of a sofa and brother Tom was literally falling backward into a “memory play.”

Mr. Hoggett’s specialty is in physicalizing performances and, somehow, animating emotions to an extreme level in the process. He developed his technique at Frantic Assembly, a physical theater company co-founded in Wales, and tried it out on a 1994 revival of Look Back in Anger, which he produced, directed and performed in.

“In the U.K., I’ve directed quite a lot,” he said. “Over here, this is my first directorial effort.” Previously, as choreographer or as movement consultant, he worked in tandem with Michael Mayer (American Idiot) or with Alex Timbers and Roger Rees (Peter and the Starcatcher), and he has teamed eight times with John Tiffany.

Stepping out on his own this time as a fully credited director is not necessarily something Mr. Hoggett embraces: “In lots of ways, I like being a part of a team more than anything else,” he admitted. “This is Kyle’s conceit, and I was asked to come on board. That was a great way for me to get into this, because I feel I’m part of a collaboration.”

Then again, he’s not exactly flying solo. On the creative team for Mr. Bacharach are people he worked with on Once and American Idiot. “I’ve got so many histories with so many people here it feels like we can be brave about things,” he said.

Of all the major pop-composer maestros who’ve sampled Broadway success, Mr. Bacharach, who turned 85 in May, is one of the few who never came back for seconds. His solitary hit, the prophetically titled Promises, Promises, was rich in promise and Tony nominations, racking up 1,281 performances the first time around (1968-72) and 289 the second time (2010-11); in between, Encores! rang up a terrific reprise with Martin Short.

Creating for the Broadway stage just wasn’t Mr. Bacharach’s cup of cappuccino. He was used to the comfy California clime and the control he had over his recordings. Pneumonia in New Haven—and having a disbelieving David Merrick threaten to bring in a new composer—were rude jolts to his system. Dutifully, he climbed out of his hospital bed and, in a few hours, set to music the lyrics Hal David had handed him for “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” A showstopper was born—the hard way.

In 2010, at age 82, Mr. Bacharach felt some Broadway stirrings and composed Some Lovers, his first theater piece in 40 years. It was the musical version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and it premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe three Christmases ago—to mixed notices. The music was praised, but the book by Spring Awakening Tony winner Steven Sater played like The Re-Gift of the Magi. It has subsequently been revised, got a reading in New York recently and was still deemed a no-go.

Mr. Riabko was hired to sing on the “Some Lovers” demo and became good friends with Mr. Bacharach—so much so that he, on the QT, began reimagining and rearranging the Bacharach catalog. Eventually, he did a demo of some of his arrangements as a first pass and went over to the composer’s home to play it.

“It was nerve-racking,” Mr. Riabko recalled, “sitting there in a room with a tape recorder, ready to push ‘play’ and show this genius what I have done to his work.”

After a taut 30 seconds or so, the 60-year gap between them fell away, and Mr. Bacharach smiled his approval, pleased at how his young fan has reinterpreted his music. “From his O.K., I continued arranging his music and taking chunks of it over to his house to get his approval. From the beginning, we always had his blessing.”

David Seltzer, Mr. Riabko’s manager and co-conceiver, entered the picture to assist him in categorizing the music. “We started looking at the songs and thinking about what they meant emotionally and melodically—What are they about? What, musically, do they say?—then we started putting bits and pieces together and mashing them. Once I organized the songs into a place that made sense, I started finding patterns within melodies and using them on top of each other. That started to inform itself as far as how to transpose them into different tunes and how to come in and out of them. There’s so much melodic content in these songs that it’s possible to create a new symphonic thing of them, and that’s what I did, essentially.

“It’s not necessarily your grandmother’s Bacharach. I think Grandma could come, but the idea is to introduce his music to a youthful new audience.”

Giving a contemporary spin to vintage evergreens deepened Mr. Riabko’s appreciation of Mr. Bacharach. “It’s the kind of a thing where, when you start to look at Burt’s music, you start to look at Burt, the man, because you realize that he only ever wrote for the content, never for the form. As I started digging more and more into his music, I felt a lot of what I was doing was experiencing who he is.”

And exactly what kind of man emerged? “I saw a rebel. A lot of people don’t use the words ‘Bacharach’ and ‘rock ’n’ roll’ in the same sentence, but to me, he’s one of the most punk-rock guys in musical history. The things that he did and the risks that he took as a writer were far beyond anything that anyone else was doing at the time. Back when the idea of having a waltz on the radio as a hit song was not allowed, he comes along with ‘What the World Needs Now’ and ‘Say a Little Prayer.’ He’s a rebel. I had no idea about that, but once I saw that side of him, I was hooked.”