Theater News

Arrivederci to David Campbell

DAVID CAMPBELL says farewell to New York (for now) in an evening of songs by MICHAEL PEMBERTON. An in-depth interview with Barbara & Scott Siegel.

David Campbell
David Campbell

When David Campbell performed in New York for the first time, we were there. It was the Cabaret Convention at Town Hall. He was all of 23 years old, but you didn’t have to be a fortune-teller to know he was headed for stardom.

When Campbell performed in New York for the last time–at least for a while!–we were there again. Having conquered cabaret and on the cusp of taking Broadway by storm, Campbell had suddenly decided to head back home to Australia to fulfill what he believes is his destiny: He’s going to record a rock album. And, the weekend before he left, you could glimpse the David Campbell of the future. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a sleeveless jacket–and sporting a tattoo on his left arm–he took the stage at Joe’s Pub for two sold out nights. Joining him was the composer who’s songs he sang, the talented Michael Pemberton, along with the gifted vocalists Sara Ramirez and Natascia Diaz.

Shortly before these performances, we sat down to talk with Campbell and Pemberton. In our interview, we discussed everything from how the Joe’s Pub gig came about to why Campbell quit the Broadway-bound show Thoroughly Modern Millie in favor of a chance at rock stardom.

“I was in several rock bands in high school,” Campbell recalled, a bemused smile creasing his James Dean-like face. “We were going to conquer the world–except they just didn’t want to do that. It was me who wanted to conquer the world in rock and roll. Then I sort of let that go and went into acting. I had to start my dreams all over again.”

So he did, making his mark as a singer-actor in musicals in Australia. Arriving in the U.S., Campbell took off like a rocket: He played an unprecedented series of sold-out gigs over a two-month period at Eighty Eight’s, and quickly went on to become the youngest entertainer ever to play at Rainbow & Stars. Great things were happening for him in the theater, too.

“I’ve come up through the ranks pretty quickly,” he conceded. “Babes and Arms [in the Encores! series at City Center] was a big push. I have to be very thankful for Encores! because that got me Saturday Night. I literally skipped four levels and was a lead in a Sondheim musical. That’s bizarre to me. That was really an incredible experience.”

Meeting Michael Pemberton
It was while he was starring in Saturday Night at Second Stage that Campbell met Michael Pemberton, who was also in the cast. “We started bringing our guitars in to have a bit of fun back stage,” Campbell explained. “I sat down and listened to Michael’s song ‘Number Seven,’ and it was phenomenal. I said, ‘Play me more!'” A musical bond was formed right then and there.

Campbell and Pemberton
Campbell and Pemberton

Pemberton–a big, bearish man with a warm and friendly manner–told us how some folks at Second Stage heard him and Campbell and other cast members of Saturday Night jamming and had the bright idea to put them to work on their day off: “They asked us to do a show on a Monday night at Second Stage, when the theater is dark, so the patrons could see the other side of what we do.” It was agreed that they would all get together and perform a night of Pemberton’s music. “The opportunity to take that beautiful theater and turn it into a concert hall for us was just fantastic,” says the singer/composer.

The performance went so well that Pemberton and company simply couldn’t let it end. “We thought it would be great to do it somewhere else,” Campbell said. “After doing John Bucchino’s show at Joe’s Pub last year, I’d been toying around with several ideas to take back there. Because of the relaxed atmosphere at Joe’s, you can experiment. So, when we finished Saturday Night I said, ‘Let me call and see what the interest might be.’ And [Joe’s Pub] said, ‘Yeah!'”

Pemberton’s music had been described to us as rock, but we wondered if his work as a theater performer had influenced him. “My writing developed through my involvement in theater,” he responded emphatically. “My sense of storytelling is much stronger since I got involved in theater. People like Patsy Cline, Harry Chapin–that’s the kind of songwriter I’m interested in. Carlos Santana is an icon for me.”

“He’s lyric-driven,” Campbell piped in. “But he writes really beautiful melodies.”

Like Father, Like Son?
Campbell’s decision to chuck his burgeoning New York career and head back down under took many people by surprise. In particular, we asked him about giving up his chance to go to Broadway in the revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

“I really wanted to do Millie because I think it’s going to be huge,” he replied. “Above all that, I made great friends with [composer] Jeanine Tesori and [director] Michael Mayer. I could give up New York, but the hardest thing was giving up Millie. Still, I knew I had just one opportunity to do a rock album. I’m 27. If I’m going to do it, I’ve got to do it now. If it doesn’t work, Broadway will always be here. And if not, then I’ll try my hand at something else.”

Fans who have been following Campbell’s cabaret career will have noticed that more and more pop material has been making its way into his act. According to Campbell, “That’s because my father [Australian rock star Jimmy Barnes, who had little contact with his son when he was growing up] started turning up more and making an effort.”

Though his musical tastes are changing, Campbell promised, “I will never truly leave cabaret. The great thing about it is that it helped in every aspect of my work, because it opened me up so much with an audience. I don’t see too many rock or stadium acts that can just talk. My dad screams at people and says, ‘How ya doin’? And that’s the talking.” He insisted that his intention is not to become his father’s son: “I’m not going to make a rock album like my dad’s. It’s not going to be screaming and full-on guitars. There may be some tracks like that, but the album will be built around songs that mean something to me.”

He’s Going, But Not For Good
Campbell is planning to leave the U.S. for a year. He trusts the people he’s working with in Australia because, he said, “I’ve known them since I was 15. They think I’m hot. They want to do the album now. They have a production company, and they’re already talking about a TV show with me.”

Then Campbell paused. “Hey, this isn’t a grand goodbye,” he assured us. “It’s just a sojourn of about a year, if that. I’m planning to come back and do gigs in between, to try out material.” While in Australia, he plans to stay connected to the kind of material his theater and cabaret audience adores; for instance, he’ll be performing in concert with Barbara Cook on September 21 and 22, “right smack dab in the middle of the Olympics. We’ll be at the Sydney Opera House with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Very fancy.” Campbell also plans to marry his fiancée, Natalie Mendoza in Australia, “probably in August or September. I’ve just been choosing a kilt to wear.”

We caught Campbell’s final performance at Joe’s Pub. He sang Pemberton’s touching “Arts & Leisure” in a pop arrangement, but you could just as easily imagine it as a cabaret song. He also scored with the sexually charged “Bodies in Motion” in a duet with Sara Ramirez; you could feel the heat as they stood toe-to-toe and moved to the music. Singing with Pemberton, Campbell wailed his way through the country-influenced “Falling in Crazy.” And he rocked and rolled toward his future in “Cold Bound Train” and “Tender Avenue.” Despite some technical problems, the sold-out show was a smashing success.

It was a fitting send-off for David Campbell. But you can be sure that, one way or another, we’ll see and hear him again. Hurry back, David; America will be waiting.