Though singer-songwriter Kyle Riabko has starred in major modern Broadway musicals like Spring Awakening and Hair, he’s built a reputation in recent years not only for performing, but for thoroughly reinventing the music of some of the most well-known composers in the pop and theater realms: namely, through his off-Broadway show What’s It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined (which transferred to a successful West End run in London as Close to You: Bacharach Reimagined). As he prepared his own acoustic show of that music for a run at New York’s Joe’s Pub, Riabko stopped by the Billboard on Broadway podcast to chat about his unorthodox path and another upcoming project: Richard Rodgers Reimagined, his album of fresh takes on songs by the composer of musicals like South Pacific and The King and I.
“I still feel like a musician first…I never felt fully like a musical theater person,” says Riabko of his winding path to starring in and creating musicals. “But it’s embraced me.” Since beginning to work in theater, he reveals, “I started thinking of songs differently — as little mini-movies that have something to say, as opposed to four minute jam sessions, which is what I grew up with.” Working with Burt Bacharach, he says, was a turning point in how he thought of what songs could accomplish. “His songs arc all over the place, they ebb and flow, depending on what he wanted the song to say, and that’s how musical theater composers write. They don’t follow the formats that work on the radio.”
That, Riabko says, inspired him to think about how different arrangements could make contemporary listeners hear Bacharach’s classic pop songs in a new way — and, in turn, led him to Rodgers. “My first thought isn’t ‘musical theater’ when I think of Richard Rodgers — they’re just songs to me,” he admits. “I don’t profess to be a Richard Rodgers expert at all; I just really like these songs, and I thought it would be cool to see what they sound like in a different way.”
In his chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, Riabko tells the story of how he and Bacharach first met and how he continues to find new meaning in his songs; he also delves into his initial more pop-leaning career path, and the influence of friends in that realm like Jason Mraz.