Hayes Theatre, April 14
Tim Freedman’s show Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, about Harry Nilsson, is one of the best bio-cabarets I’ve seen in a long time.
Looking shaggily shambolic in beard, dressing gown (like the one Nilsson wore on the cover of his 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson) and flat-cap, with a glass of cognac at the ready, Freedman takes us into the mind and musical world of the man he considers “a mercurial songwriter and a sublime singer”.
Nilsson, who was famously described by John Lennon and Paul McCartney as their “favourite American group”, was something of an enigma. Despite his huge success as a recording artist, Nilsson never toured and hardly ever played live. In the studio, however, he was prolific, making 18 albums between 1966 and 1980 until his hard-living took its toll. After that, he recorded virtually nothing until his death in 1994 from heart failure, aged just 52.
In Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, we find Nilsson in his songwriting den late at night. He’s 50, with two years left to live. His third wife and children are asleep upstairs and he’s trying to ration his alcohol intake with the help of an alarm clock.
Rather than trotting out an animated Wikipedia entry, the script – co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell – feels convincingly conversational. It’s full of fascinating reminiscences, reflections and anecdotes out of which the songs emerge organically without feeling shoe-horned, while the segues also flow with natural ease.
There are lots of great stories: his Brooklyn upbringing, his mathematical brain, his self-destructive streak, his hell-raising with Lennon and Keith Moon and the recording of Nilsson sings Newman among them.
Freedman – an acclaimed singer-songwriter with a lovely voice himself, best known as the frontman of The Whitlams – inhabits the character, capturing his weathered demeanour and manner. Deploying his own quiet, effortless charisma, he gives a laconic, gently wry performance that has you leaning in to hear Nilsson’s story.
Accompanying himself at a small baby grand, Freedman performs a wide ranging selection of Nilsson’s hit songs, some that he wrote for himself or others, some that he recorded but didn’t write, among them: Everybody’s Talkin’ from the film Midnight Cowboy (which he didn’t write), his Grammy Award-winning hit Without You, the semi-autobiographical 1941, Coconut, One (Is The Loneliest Number) recorded by Three Dog Night, Cuddly Toy recorded by The Monkees and How About You from the 1991 film The Fisher King.
All in all, it’s a fascinating, gentle, beautifully sung look at an intriguing character. Recommended.
Everybody’s Talkin’‘bout me is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until April 19. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337