The great American songwriter and provocateur Randy Newman will tour Australia and, for the first time, New Zealand in early 2020. Not with an orchestra, nor with a band, but solo.
As generous and engaged as ever, these will be shows encompassing vast musical knowledge and brilliant invention, and yes, he might even take requests.
In this brief outtake from my interview with Newman – look out for the full thing in the near future where our conversation ranges across Kennedys and Trump, satire and fascists, Toy Story and Tolstoy – we touch on the good and bad sides of playing solo. Especially when you have a career so starkly diverse as film score composer, children’s favourite and acerbic satirist.
Unlike his tour here seven years ago, where a full orchestra offered grandeur, cover and plenty of weapons to deploy, the next time we see Randy Newman he will be alone at the piano, singing songs from 12 Songs and Sail Away, Trouble In Paradise, and his last studio record, the brilliantly sharp and sometimes sinister Dark Matter.
To most of us in the audience this could seem exposing and brave, but it does have its advantages for a performer: the audience is also exposed.
“I’ve always liked it,” Newman says of solo performance. “I can feel the audience. When I play with the band or with the orchestra even, I lose some kind of contact, not being able to hear the coughing or whatever else is going on.
“I go back and forth whether a solo show is enough, or play with the band or orchestra, which I did last time I was in Australia. But I don’t know how much it adds playing with a band: I’m not going to be jumping around much so there is no visual.”
So, no playing the piano with his feet then for the man who will, by the time he arrives in Australia, be 76?
“Yeah,” he chuckles. “I won’t be doing much of that though my hands are giving out a little.”
As well as the rustling and coughing, playing solo must also afford him the chance to hear an audience gasp at a line or pungent observation. This shock-of-the-real would be true even for an audience familiar with his vast catalogue of striking, often despicable characters and stories, who might find themselves suddenly being reminded of a classic Newman moment portraying a redneck in the court of the liberals, a Kentucky family a little too close for comfort, or a man whose sexual confidence is actually a shrivelled neediness, with or without your hat on.
Is there pleasure in hearing that gasp? In knowing he has hit the spot?
“Not always, but it’s what I intended, yeah,” Newman says. “It happens. Some of my stuff is kinda rough, particularly if you come based on You’ve Got A Friend In Me [the Oscar-nominated family favourite from Toy Story].
“I feel like I should have a sign around my neck ‘be careful’.”
For those children, or parents of children, for whom the Toy Story, Monsters Inc and A Bug’s Life films are their sole exposure to Newman, it may require someone walking ahead of him with a bell, possibly intoning “Unclean! Musically and morally unclean!”
He laughs. “That would be better, a bell.”
Randy Newman will play Riverside Theatre, Perth, January 30; Hamer Hall, Melbourne, February 2; State Theatre, Sydney, February 4; QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, February 7; Civic Theatre, Auckland, February 9; Wellington Opera House, February 11; Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, February 13.
Tickets on sale Monday, August 26.