Beetlejuice opens at the National Theatre this month, featuring the work of a tightknit team of American theater professionals – and one Australian that none of them had ever heard of.
The show’s composer and lyricist, Eddie Perfect, a self-deprecating Australian songwriter and political comedian with a penchant for the F-bomb, is a known commodity in his native Australia. Compositions like his “Don’t Kill Yourself” or “Drink Pepsi, Bitch” suggest that he shares the penchant for “dark whimsy” that Beetlejuice Director Alex Timbers envisions for the new musical based on the iconic 1988 Tim Burton film.
But in the US, where Beetlejuice came to life, he was an unknown. So when the opportunity came to write a few songs for the project, Perfect figured that, at best, it would be an opportunity to get his music under Alex Timbers’ nose.
Instead, before he had met a single member of the creative team, Perfect got the job.
“I couldn’t believe they hired me,” he said at a recent press briefing at the National Theatre. “No one knew anything about me or my past in Australia. They just liked the material, which is incredible.”
Of course, there is more to the story.
It was 2013 and Eddie Perfect was enjoying great success as a songwriter, actor, and political comedian in Australia. He even had a stint judging Australian Idol. But something was missing.
Despite a lifetime of hometown success, Perfect felt the pull of Broadway. “Broadway is what got me interested in performing arts in the first place,” he said. Specifically, it was the 1982 recording of Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in Sweeney Todd that turned him on to musicals. “My dad put the tape on in the Kombi van during a camping trip and I was like ‘What the f*ck is this?’ I was hooked.“
Perfect despaired that Australia didn’t make a lot of original musicals and he longed to break into the American theater scene. Finally, his wife Lucy intervened. “She told me to just buy a bloody ticket and go to New York,” Perfect said. So he did.
Perfect didn’t know anyone in New York but he started visiting and looking for an agent. “I would just sort of walk around the city and take the odd meeting and fly home,” he said.
But he did eventually find an agent, and a good one: John Buzzetti at WME Entertainment, who Perfect says listened to his stuff and liked it “even though it was Australian.” Perfect knew Beetlejuice was floating around without a composer yet, “but they were pitching all these sort of fancy-pants Broadway writers, so I assumed they wouldn’t let anyone else in, much less an Australian that no one had ever heard of.”
So he offered to write a few songs for Beetlejuice for free. It wouldn’t cost the producers any time or money, so they agreed, sending him the script and asking him to write two songs: One to be sung by the show’s narrator, Beetlejuice, and one for the character of Lydia, whose emotional arc is the center of the musical.
The Beetlejuice creative team knew they had found their composer the minute they heard Perfect’s Beetlejuice song. “That song answered a major question for us as writers,” Book writer Scott Brown said.
Brown and co-writer Anthony King had been stuck wondering what Beetlejuice would sound like when he sang. “You have this character that is all anarchy and nothing earnest. What happens when he stops to sing his feelings? Is that going to be terrible?” King recalled. “Then Eddie wrote this song and we were all like oh, ok, that’s it. It can work after all.”
The song that earned Eddie Perfect his first Broadway job is currently the show’s opening number. “We’ll see if it sticks,” Perfect said, acknowledging that things can change quickly when a show is in previews.
Perfect describes the song – which still hasn’t been given a title since the show is just in previews – as based in surprise. “Surprise was the element that was pitched to me in terms of the design elements and the storyline” in Brown and King’s script. “Beetlejuice’s humor and danger and energy stem from the fact that he is multiple things inside one house. Things would turn on a dime.” Applied musically, this means that Beetlejuice (played by School of Rock alumn Alex Brightman), would be able to sing across genres. The song’s got everything from a Latin requiem mass, to ska, to folk, to death metal, to big band swing, to jazz. “It’s all loopy,” Perfect says with a shrug.
The composer is still surprised that a major Broadway-bound production took a risk on him. “I mean, I could have been a f*cking psychopath or had 72 people in a warehouse writing songs for me. They never checked. They were just like, ‘we like your stuff. You’re hired.’ ”
Coincidentally, Perfect will be making his Broadway debut not once this season, but twice. While Beetlejuice plays its five-week run in DC, King Kong, which Perfect was subsequently hired to compose, is in previews at New York’s Broadway Theater. “It’s a bit of a fast and furious time,” with lots of trips between New York and DC, Perfect said. “But this is what I signed up for so I can’t complain.”
See Eddie Perfect performing his song “Don’t Kill Yourself” (not from Beetlejuice):