AP Photo/Richard Kornberg and Associates, Eric Ray Davidson
Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 | 6:50 p.m.
NEW YORK — A few years ago, Kyle Riabko found himself in the most intimidating of places on Earth for a young singer-songwriter.
First, he was in the home of Burt Bacharach, a songwriter who has three Academy Awards and eight Grammys. Second, Riabko was performing songs for the master himself. Third, what he was playing were a few of Bacharach's own songs with his personal spin.
"It was a very nerve-racking experience: Going to a legend's house and sitting him down and playing him his music by you," Riabko says. "There were a lot of sweaty palms involved."
Somehow he survived the session and even walked away with Bacharach's respect. "He impressed me very much with his musicality, with his sensibility and the way he was handling the songs," says Bacharach.
More important, Riabko got the green light to continue tinkering with Bacharach's impressive catalog as the 26-year-old built it into a cool new musical the 85-year-old icon would like.
"One thing that I realized about Burt early on was he has such a deep respect for melody," says Riabko, a singer and actor who appeared on Broadway in "Spring Awakening" and "Hair." He conceived the Bacharach show with David Lane Seltzer.
"My strategy was always to infuse a sense of style that was very personal to me within the music but also to maintain and always respect those melodies," he says. "I maintained them because I feel like that is the work that we're celebrating here."
What emerged is "What's It All About?" a stripped-down and hauntingly emotive show now at New York Theatre Workshop in which Riabko leads a small cast through some two dozen of Bacharach's songs, including "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," ''Walk on By" and "Say a Little Prayer."
Riabko's orchestrations have stripped down the songs and rebuilt them, making the familiar new, and he bleeds together different choruses to make connections between diffuse songs.
"Burt's written so many damn hits, you can't do it any other way," says Riabko, laughing. "You have to smash them all together."
He and six performers — who all play instruments — move through the 90-minute show effortlessly under the direction of Steven Hoggett, creating a big neo-folk kiss to Bacharach.
"Hats off to Kyle. It's pretty incredible stuff he's done," says Bacharach, who has been tough on anyone reworking his material. "This was like a valentine that was being given to me by Kyle."
The two men first worked together at the Los Angeles workshops of Bacharach's musical he wrote with Steven Sater, "Some Lovers," that would go on to premiere at The Old Globe in San Diego.
Riabko was a cast member who fell in love with the older man's songs, calling each a "handcrafted sculpture." He soon reworked some, recorded a 20-minute demo on his computer and got Bacharach's permission to keep going.
Emboldened, Riabko created "What's It All About?" by listening and then trying to categorize Bacharach's songs, most of which were written with lyricist Hal David in the '60s and '70s.
"A lot of these songs I see as colors," he says. "I was kind of thinking of this body of work as a bunch of watercolor paints and then I took a paintbrush and used them."
What he found when he pulled the songs apart was a special songwriter, one who first decided what he wanted to say and then wrote a song around it rather than rely on a formula. Playing Bacharach's music has turned into an education for the young rising musician.
"I have it in my blood, which feels great."