Interview: Toby Francis

June saw me head out to my first Cabaret show as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival 2016 to see the very talented Toby Francis from my very own hometown of Canberra. There were at least two reasons I chose Love and Death, and they were Toby Francis and Jim Steinman.

Speaking to Toby after the show I told him I was thinking of writing a review, and soon after I got in touch about running an interview. Since organising the interview back in June Toby has been swamped, you may have been lucky enough to catch him performing in the pre-game entertainment at the St. Kilda vs Sydney AFL match on August 13th.

If you are lucky enough to be in Melbourne you may even get to catch him in Kinky Boots later this year.

Hi Toby, welcome to Beauty and Lace and thanks for talking to us.

Can you tell us a little about how you got your start and what made you want to pursue a career in the industry?
I got my start at around 12 years old when I started doing amateur productions around Canberra. I don’t really know what drew me to it, I was just a kid who thought it might be fun and I liked doing it. Now though, I can’t imagine doing anything else. That’s why I pursued it in all honesty, everything else I tried made me restless and unhappy. So I don’t think I ever had a choice as to whether or not I would pursue this.

What do you remember of your first performance?
My first ever performance was when I was about 12 years old in an amateur production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by The Phoenix Players in Canberra. I was playing Edmund. I remember that I was a giddy little child who had listened to the audiobook about 1,000 times and I loved being a little brat to everyone during the rehearsals and shows. Not because that’s how Edmund was or anything — I wasn’t a little method actor — but because, at that age, there’s not much else to be that’s any real fun.

You are multi-talented – singing, acting, writing, producing and playing guitar. What came first?
Thank you! Here’s a little secret though, it’s all a bit of smoke and mirrors as you only ever look like you can do things because there are people around you who catch you when you fumble a chord or tell you to stop yelling that high note.

But thinking about this question, it’s hard to pinpoint what came first because I was always singing as a kid, or play-acting and making little adventures. Producing certainly came later and guitar wasn’t picked up until I was 14 or so but, really, it all becomes a bit of a jumble so I’d say what came first was those people who caught me fumbling chords and stopped me yelling high notes. Because there are a litany of them from different points in my life and they are what turn a child play-acting or singing around the house into a person who wants to take those things seriously. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly when that change happens.

Let’s talk Love and Death, your award winning cabaret show. What inspired you to write the show?
I grew up listening to Bat Out of Hell and Bad for Good — Jim Steinman’s Solo Album — and have always loved the music. The show is also inspired by films I love that are high on the camp scale, films like The Warriors or Streets of Fire. There’s even some more less-camp stuff like The Outsiders in there. But it really started when I was sitting down with my partner Lauren to talk about what my next show should be. We just started bouncing around ideas of things I liked, things that felt universal but were also a big part of my life. When we settled on framing it around a time in Jim Steinman’s life that was difficult for him, coupled with a rock ‘n’ roll adaptation of Neverland, the computer got opened and the writing started. I just started throwing all of these things that I love into a word-soup and waited to see what stuck. I wish I could say it struck me out of the blue on a bus trip home but it came from a conversation of ideas with my fiancé — I prefer that kind of inspiration though.

Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

I found the show beautifully put together, how did you select the songs to include?
I wanted the show to be satisfying to an audience. It’s a celebration of the incredible work that Jim Steinman does but it’s such a big catalogue so something had to go. If I went to a show about someone like Jim Steinman and it didn’t give me his most iconic numbers, I’d probably be a bit disappointed. And the audience’s experience should come first otherwise all you’re doing is creating work that is predominately about satisfying you personally. And you can do that at home without charging people money.

Your musical director and pianist for the show is Andrew Worboys, how did you come to be working together?
I was introduced to Andrew Worboys by David Campbell. Campbell was directing my first cabaret show, Blokelahoma!, and Worboys came on board as the Musical Director. We fit together pretty much perfectly from the get-go and we just keep doing stuff together. He’s an incredible MD and a a very dear friend so I’m more than happy that it’s worked out that way.

Production Design was done by Lauren Peters, what was the inspiration for the house? It made me think of the one used in the film clip for I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).

Lauren is always doing things like that. She took inspiration from video clips and the films I talked about earlier to convey the feeling of the show in a way that fit with those very first ideas we had in our lounge room. That house was certainly inspired by I’d Do Anything for Love. And It’s All Coming Back to Me plays a role the style of it too. The rest of the show is full of little hints like that, Lauren’s sprinkled them all over. We’d be here forever if I were to list them!

Recently you toured with The Ten Tenors, you have Kinky Boots coming up later this year and you are half of the up-and-coming production company Highway Run Productions, how do you fit it all in?

iCal is my best friend. It’s a great feeling to have so much on so you tend to find space for everything because whenever something comes up, you always want to say, “absolutely.” That said, there are things you just can’t fit in sometimes but finding space is always a priority.

What is your career highlight to date?

I’d just finished a tour with the Ten Tenors and, following a week in Disneyworld with Lauren, I flew to Chicago to do my final audition for Kinky Boots with the director, Jerry Mitchell. I found out later that night that I got the job while I was eating a deep-dish pizza in my hotel room. That time, from the start of the Tenors tour to finding out I’d booked Kinky Boots, is my career highlight. I felt like I was somewhere I’d always wanted to be, and I wasn’t quite sure how I’d ended up there. It was an incredible feeling to just take it all in while staring out the window of that hotel room down onto the street below: “How’d that 12 year old brat from Canberra end up here? Perhaps I should thank him for being so incorrigible…”

Thanks so much for your time Toby, and thanks for bringing Love and Death to Adelaide – I would love to see it back here next year. Actually after some discussion with a couple of people I know, we would love to see it released on DVD.
Good luck with Kinky Boots, and we’ll see you next time you are in Adelaide.

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