Having made a name for himself with his critically acclaimed What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, actor and musician Kyle Riabko unifies his contemporary style with classic melodies on his latest album Richard Rodgers Reimagined, out October 27. Riabko made his Broadway debut replacing Jonathan Groff in the lead role of Melchior Gabor in the Tony-winning Spring Awakening. He later replaced Gavin Creel as Claude in the Tony-winning revival of Hair. His storytelling and arrangements of Burt Bacharach tunes for What’s It All About? earned him Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel Award nominations. After stumbling upon a letter Richard Rodgers wrote to Bacharach, he was inspired to tackle the great writer’s repertoire for this latest project. Outside the theatre realm, Riabko is an established musician, having opened on tour for such acts as Jason Mraz, James Brown, Keb ’Mo, and Maroon 5.
Produced by Ghostlight Records, Riabko will celebrate the album launch with three nights of live concerts at Joe’s Pub, November 2, 3, and 4. For tickets, click here.
Below, Riabko takes us through a track-by-track breakdown of the songs he chose, the place they hold in his own story, the influences that helped shape his one-of-a-kind arrangements, and more:
1. “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’”
Kyle Riabko: My mom used to wake me up for school by singing this song, so I can’t hear the melody without thinking of her. This was the first song of the bunch that I arranged and I approached it in the most natural way possible for me—by sitting down with my acoustic guitar and jamming on the chords until it started to take shape. I grew up around blues music, and was particularly drawn to fingerpickers like Keb ‘Mo, Muddy Waters, and Eric Clapton circa his Unplugged album, so this arrangement is a tribute to them, to those mornings with my mom, and to the original melody which is so incredibly infectious. Possibly the happiest song of all time.
2. “Where Or When”
I stuck to the acoustic fingerpicking theme here and added an ever-rolling shaker part that guides you through this beautiful love song about the passage of time. I had two versions of the solo section—one in which a piano plays the melody, and one in which the melody is left out. When I played both versions for David Seltzer (executive producer of this record), he made a great point about the melody-less take: “It’s like a meditation. That space lets the listener come up with the melody in their own head.” Less is more!
3. “My Favorite Things”
The only reason to record this fun but sort of silly song was to unearth something about it otherwise undiscovered. So I took it to a darker place—focusing less on the cute little list of objects and more on the minor chords of the verse and the ominous, final phrase: “Then I don’t feel so bad.” Plus, I love ripping an electric solo over a song that doesn’t usually get one.
4. “I Have Dreamed”
How would Stevie Wonder approach this? A good question to guide you through every decision in life, and the question I asked before recording this arrangement.
5. “The Lady Is A Tramp”
I like to arrange lead guitar parts as if they are emulating a horn section. Little harmonized licks between phrases that are deliberate, but sound improvised. So, once I had recorded the rhythm guitar and vocals, I quickly set up a microphone on my desk and imagined what Tommy Dorsey or Nelson Riddle would do with the holes between the words and performed them on an acoustic, then went back and recorded harmony lines on top of them. The beauty of multi-tracking is that you can transfer the orchestra that plays in your head onto the recording—something I’ve been practicing since I bought my first Tascam 4-Track cassette recorder in the late ’90s!
I’m not a keyboard player first and foremost, so it’s always an adventure for me to work out a keyboard-based arrangement—especially when dealing with the intricate, brilliant jazz chords that Rodgers manipulated in ingenious ways. I really had to spend time on this one, as the structure is so unusual. This is what I love about the Lorenz Hart era of Rodgers writing—the choices are so wild and sly and fun, almost as if they are describing the feelings felt in Manhattan during the jazz age.
7. “You’ll Never Walk Alone”
I like to think in terms of opposites when I’m arranging these classic songs that have been performed by thousands of artists over decades. If a song is fast, for example, what would it sound like as a ballad? If it’s slow, what if we rocked it up? Simplistic thoughts, I know, but sometimes they open up the door to creativity. And in this case, I wondered what this huge spiritual anthem would sound like in a chilled out singer-songwriter’s paradise. This way the message of the tune is more internal and introspective, as opposed to outward and imposing. And with works that are as perfect as the songs of Richard Rodgers, this kind of re-thinking works—because the melody and chord progression and lyrics are so strong. They can withstand any manipulation, as long as you’re true to the original marriage between melody and chords. Once you stray from that, you’re in trouble, but otherwise it’s fun to dress these songs up in new clothes. Am I rambling here? I think I may be rambling. I get a little fired up when I start talking music. Onwards.
8. “This Nearly Was Mine”
I’d never heard this song before this project, and after one listen I wanted to sing it. It’s full of such pure, sad beauty. So I just tried to stay out of the way of the song, make the recording all about the vocals, and this is the end result.
9. “My Funny Valentine”
I remember reading somewhere that this was the most covered song in jazz clubs, from the time it was written until now. I didn’t want to contribute to its “overdone” quality, so I knew I had to do something radically different with it. Sometimes I think about rhythm before anything else, and this is one of those cases. I love playing this kind of bluesy train-beat in the key of E—it’s a go-to for me when I’m plucking the guitar at home—so I applied the Valentine chords to that rhythm and had fun with it. I’m really looking forward to playing this one live with the band. Extended guitar solo time!
10. “Some Enchanted Evening”
I wanted to try to make this huge song as small as possible—and what’s smaller than a ukulele? It’s such a quintessential love song, with big bold declarations of classic Hammerstein earnestness, and so I thought it would be fun to take a more playful look at it.
11. “If I Loved You”
For the music nerds out there:— Have you ever heard a cooler use of a diminished chord than the way Rodgers uses one here? It’s the second chord of the whole song. So odd. Even odder that it works so well.
12. “Blue Moon”
We start with my mom and end with my dad; this is his favorite track on the album. I think it may be because the chord progression reminds him of the simple blues songs that I grew up playing. It’s one of my favorites too—I’ve particularly loved the Elvis Presley version of it for years. After a journey through these highlights of Richard Rodgers illustrious catalog of songs, it felt right to end with one of his first and simplest hits. This song came at the beginning of a career that would grow into something unparalleled in the worlds of music and theatre. All we can do now is look back and celebrate the days when songwriting was an exciting new craft, evolving under the care of a rare few brilliant minds—Richard Rodgers and his lyrical collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, residing at the top of the pack.
To listen to a selection of these songs now, click here. And mark your calendars for October 27 when you can get your (virtual) hands on Richard Rodgers Reimagined.
Watch Riabko and Bacharach sing together: