Steinman's megalomaniacal ballad--in addition to songs from Wu-Tang Clan, Suicidal Tendencies, Nirvana, Prince and Kate Bush--is tailor-made for the poignant style of Kiki and her co-dependent accompanist, Herb. Created by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman, the world-wise Kiki & Herb can even find pathos and passion within bubblegum lyrics penned for teenagers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Ultimately, the magic that is Kiki & Herb lies within their interpretation of the material rather than the song itself.
"I could explain the theory behind Kiki & Herb. I'd tell you the history of cabaret and how pop culture has made it nearly impossible for the art form to continue, but that ends up sounding so pretentious," says Bond via cell phone while having a day of beauty at Mud Honey. "It's where all the 'rock stars' get their hair done," adds Bond, quickly changing the subject.
When the topic of conversation is Kiki & Herb, writers have found creative ways to describe the unique duo. Harper's Bazaar declared them "cabaret's answer to The Blair Witch Project: no budget, lots of underground buzz and so frightening to watch." Vanity Fair likened Kiki to "Connie Stevens after 17 martinis." Andy Warhol's Interview saw her as "Ethel Kennedy at a party, doing Ethel Merman, channeling gritty performer Ethyl Eichelberger." Genre christened Herb "Liberace in a K-hole." Others have discovered bits of The Captain & Tennille, Steve & Eydie, Sid & Nancy, and even Donny & Marie lurking within the artistry of Bond and Mellman. "One of my favorite reviews called Kiki 'a combination of Bobby Darin, Eydie Gorme, and Judy Garland--three days before she died!'" laughs Bond as a hairdresser adds highlights to his auburn mane.
In their latest creation, Playing for Time, they reminisce about a concert tour that took them across Europe and finally to Hitler's birthplace. As in previous productions (Have Another, Do They Know It's Christmas and Now, Where Were We), the current show offers fascinating glimpses into the fictitious lives of the couple who met in a mental institution and went on to headline cabaret rooms throughout the world. "I've spent days and years in this woman's life!" claims Bond, getting ready to be shampooed. "It's fun to make it real for me. During opening night of Playing for Time, I threw in little shockers about Kiki--some even surprised Herb!"
Bond and Mellman make each unscripted show a unique experience. "We know what songs we're going to perform and have an outline for the banter, but we don't actually write a script. I prefer to improvise--I do riffs on the dialogue," explains Bond. "It's like 'jazz theater!'" Most of the music is selected from a cassette prepared by Mellman; Bond offers a few musical preferences and then they conscientiously proceed to select the songs that best fit the theme of the evening being planned. "Nothing is off limits," acknowledges the performer. "We go through a lot and say 'No, no, no.'" Ultimately, it's left to theatergoers to decide what works and what doesn't. "The audience is our director!" Bond reveals.
Between New York performances of Playing for Time, audiences from Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami will be able to "direct" the twosome as they embark on a tour sponsored by Alizé. "It will be interesting to see how people respond," remarks Bond as the beautician teases his hair. "I'm looking forward to doing the tour, but honestly, I'd rather not travel. If I never had to leave New York, I'd be happy!"
Away from the Kiki & Herb characters, Bond and Mellman explore other projects--Mellman is writing music, while Bond is putting together a rock 'n roll band. At the moment, however, both are concentrating on Playing for Time, their first open-ended Off-Broadway engagement. "Kenny is a great musician," says Bond. "He's brilliant, and he really knows how to express himself through the keyboard. I try to be just as expressive with my voice, but I'm not a singer. I figure, as long as there's some realism to Kiki, I don't have to hit all the notes," Bond continues as he prepares to tip the shampoo girl. "I'm leaving $10. Do you think that's enough?"