EVERY ARTIST HAS A source of inspiration, and cabaret singer Rick Lau Wing-fung found his in Barry Manilow. The 43-year-old said he first saw the American singer-songwriter performing on television and was amazed. “I had no idea who this guy with long hair, platform shoes and flared pants was. But I found him really interesting – he sang well, and all the women were screaming at him. I remember thinking that I wanted to be like him – to be on stage, with people cheering at me.”
Lau may not be as big a star as Manilow, but he does have hordes of fans who cheer him on at his solo performances. His latest show, My Queer Valentine, was first staged during the Fringe Club’s City Festival in 2009.
The cabaret explores how gay men and women see themselves and the world, through songs by musicians, composers and lyricist such as Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Rufus Wainwright and Danny Chan.
“Straight people can also relate to this show,” says Lau. “One of the reasons I’ve come up with this cabaret is to show that [our life experiences are] actually the same. Everything is universal – heartbreak and insecurity are all part of human nature. We’ve all been through that.”
There have been several runs of My Queer Valentine, including 24 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival , and five in London’s West End in 2009. Lau is bringing the show back once more to coincide with Pink Season, Hong Kong’s LGBT festival. The idea is to celebrate the rapid improvement in gay rights and marriage equality, he says.
New tracks have been added to the set list, so there are now 14 songs instead of 12. Shows are minimalistic, as Lau wants the audience to mine their imaginations while he sings songs that take them on different kinds of journeys.
Former director Tony Taylor, who co-wrote the cabaret shows, is currently in Australia, so Lau has invited choreographer Yuri Ng Yue-lit to co-direct. The two have collaborated three times before, and Lau says they have great chemistry.
Ng says he’s been touched by Lau’s previous performances. He says he will focus on enhancing the visuals to polish an already “structured, very powerful production. The lyrics are very good and the delivery is very nice,” says Ng.
“We don’t try to explain everything, as it ruins the mood. But there is still a lot of fun we can have with it. We hope the audience will get something extra special this time. It’s already a solid production, so my job is to put the icing on the cake.”
Ng has been working on the lighting for the song about a pair of lesbian seagulls, and collecting wine bottles to highlight the loneliness of a man singing alone after a party. He has also been thinking about how to better engage the audience during a song about ogling bathers on the beach.
Lau and Ng may be from different artistic worlds – musical theatre and ballet respectively – but they share the idea that a performance should be full of confidence, beauty and honesty.
Their collaboration has allowed Lau to learn from the precision of the ballet world, he says.
“When you’ve rehearsed well enough, spontaneity and that special chemistry between you and your audience happens. When you’re not prepared, you become frightened and self-conscious; you get stage fright,” Lau explains.
“Large-scale musicals are very effective, but they are different from intimate storytelling in a cabaret setting. A cabaret show allows you to get audience feedback instantly.
“I enjoy it a lot, although it’s more challenging. You can cheat on a big stage that’s not close to the audience.
But in a small room, if you’re not telling a story honestly, people notice. They can tell from your eyes. In a cabaret show, you can’t lie. It’s great training.”
Lau has produced, co-written, and performed in seven other one-man cabaret shows. He says earlier works such as SunRice and How Now Rick Lau were autobiographical, while Men in Love was less about himself.
“Men in Love was a bit like [Alfred Hitchcock’s] movie Rear Window. I was observing people living in different apartments in the building opposite. I sang about the love stories of 12 different men. It was the start of me talking about other peoples’ stories, not just my own experiences,” he says.
“My Queer Valentine is an extension of that, as it’s about other people’s stories. It’s also part of my journey of self-exploration. At this age, I am starting to think about the bigger things in life,” Lau says.
My Queer Valentine, September 12-14, 8.30pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Road, Central, HK$180 (Fringe Club members), HK$220 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 25217251