Interview by Scott Dowd
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It is perhaps the most ironic phenomenon of this young century. Women are buying E. L. James’s erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey by the armful. But unlike other cultural sensations like Twilight and The Hunger Games – which are centered on strong female protagonists who are firmly in control of their bodies and their minds – Fifty Shades of Grey’s star is a virginal college co-ed who becomes the voluntary object of a billionaire’s bondage-domination-sado-masochism fantasies. Last year, a largely Canadian writing team decided to have some fun with the source material. The result was SPANK! The Fifty Shades Parody, a musical comedy that has gained a small cult-following of its own. Actor and singer-songwriter Gabe Bowling portrays the character of the handsome but damaged young billionaire in the production that is coming to Louisville later this month.
SD: Had you read E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey before you became involved with the show?
GB: I read it only after the audition. When I got the call telling me I had the job, I decided I’d better read it as research.
SD: To be clear, SPANK! is not a sanctioned part of the franchise.
GB: That is correct. This is strictly parody. Essentially, we are loosely following the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey. But everything that happens within that amorphous blueprint is new.
SD: With the exception of a few excerpts, I haven’t read the source material for this musical.
GB: Basically, you have a very damaged 28-year-old billionaire and a naïve, virginal college student. She comes to interview him after her friend, who works for the school paper, becomes ill. When they meet, he recognizes in her a potential partner for his perverse – as some might characterize them – proclivities, shall we say. He sees a chink in her armor, and she becomes the object of his desires, most of which involve submission and domination. Essentially he wants to – I’ll try to keep this PG – be in control of everything she does. That leads to all kinds of other happenings.
SD: It seems like a story ripe for parody. Are you the billionaire in this scenario?
GB: That’s me. I’m the Christian Grey-like character. My character is called Hugh Hanson in our show. Reminds me of a couple of other damaged billionaires with the same initials, like Hugh Hefner.
SD: …and Howard Hughes.
GB: I hadn’t even thought of him! Makes me want to go back and watch that Leonardo DiCaprio movie again.
SD: This seems like a “target rich” environment. Tell me about the play and give me an example of how the writing team made this story their own.
GB: Humor is the through thread of this play. Essentially, any time sex comes up in the play, we navigate around it. So you’re not going to see an X-rated live pornography show. It is, in fact, pretty tasteful even in the use of language. There is not a lot of cursing; there is a limited amount of nudity. Audiences will definitely see some skin, but it is usually done for the sake of humor. This is a celebration of the book and the surrounding phenomenon – not a scene-by-scene recreation.
SD: It is amazing that someone with no literary background generated this kind of enthusiasm.
GB: E. L. James was a typical housewife in a blue-collar community who sat down and penned this book. It is obviously in no danger of winning a Pulitzer prize – but she has sold a bazillion copies. Her book outsold Harry Potter!
SD: Sales of the book are mostly to women. Are the audiences of the show mostly female?
GB: By a long shot, the majority of our audiences have been women – I would say 80 to 85 percent. Men who come to see it, with few exceptions, appear to be the husbands or boyfriends. Although I will say I went to see the show in Chicago after I was cast. I hadn’t yet read the book, but I thought it was hilarious. I got really excited at that point to be part of the show because it was so funny and I wasn’t even getting the references! The show definitely stands on its own. You don’t have to have read the book. Men can also come and enjoy the show on their own. But this musical obviously really appeals to women.
SD: Speaking of “skin,” I gather from the web site that you at least take your shirt off in this show.
GB: Safe to say I take off…at least my shirt.
SD: I guess you want to stay in shape for a show like this. Is it difficult to maintain a workout routine on the road?
GB: The funny thing is that while there are challenging aspects, I almost find it easier to watch what I eat and be a little more aware of my body while on the road. It’s a requirement that the show put us up in a place with a gym. We basically have the hotel and the venue, so there are fewer distractions. If I get a week off and go home, I tend to just eat burritos and drink all the beer I miss at work. So then I have to whip myself back into shape before I go back.
SD: Do you ever go out?
GB: I like to get around the cities we visit, but being on the road is like being at work 24/7.
SD: Home is Los Angeles. Do you have family there?
GB: I actually have a special lady in Chicago. Being that I’m on the road all the time, we are able to meet in a variety of places. The show has been very cool about sending me to Chicago, and she can fly out to wherever I am. She looks at my schedule and says, “I see you’re in Florida in the middle of January – maybe I’ll come there.”
SD: How long have you been on the road with SPANK!?
GB: The show has been out since October, but I’ve only been with it since the middle of December. I had about two weeks of rehearsal before I was on stage in Indianapolis. I’ve been touring ever since with a few weeks off. It really hasn’t been a grueling tour, though.
SD: You had just been with Million Dollar Quartet before you started SPANK!…
GB: I had some down time – a few months. That was really nice because I did that show for a really long time. It doesn’t matter how much you love acting or how much you love music, you need a break after having done something a thousand times.
SD: Million Dollar Quartet came through Louisville recently. It was a big hit here.
GB: I was in the Chicago cast for that one, so I got to stay put. I went out on a lot of the tour promotions, though.
SD: In Million Dollar Quartet, you portrayed Carl Perkins who had a big hit with “Blue Suede Shoes” in the fifties. When you’re not on stage, I know you have your own music career going. I’ve enjoyed Gabe vs. The Sad Kids. Is that just you? Or do you hire musicians as needed?
GB: Basically, that is a studio project. I’ve never actually put a band together. I have played some of the songs out with other bands. But for now, it’s me in the studio playing every instrument. I sing everything and write all the songs. I record and mix it all, too, so it’s really a one-person show.
SD: Who are the Sad Kids? Is the name a reference to Emo musicians?
GB: That’s exactly what it is. I came up with that name about eight or nine years ago when I was exhausted by the huge Emo scene boiling up. Not to knock an entire genre, but I was getting tired of music by whiney teenagers singing about their latest high school break-up.
SD: You grew up mainly in the midwest. Do you think that influenced your response to the Sad Kids?
GB: I think it really just comes from me not liking people complaining about their first-world problems. Music is an escape for me, and I have no problem listening to a song about a negative life experience. In fact, I rather enjoy relating to whatever the writer was thinking at the time. But there has to be enough gravitas to justify the emotion.
SD: You are drawing from a lot of different genres for your sound, from R&B to country novelty songs.
GB: It’s all over the board. If there is one thing I’m guilty of, it’s not being able to slip my sound neatly into a marketing genre. I just put together whatever comes to mind that day.
SD: Would you like to tour with a band?
GB: Yes. I have in the past with other bands, and I love it. The challenge I run into is that Los Angeles is the type of city you can’t leave for very long, or people forget who you are. There are a million other actors trying to do the exact same thing you are. So going out on tour for a month at a time becomes difficult logistically. You obviously can’t audition during that tour. And when your agent calls and you are unable to make it, they begin to become frustrated with you. And rightfully so. Casting directors get frustrated when you turn down opportunities they’re providing. So I came to the conclusion that I can record my music and play it around Los Angeles, but I can’t afford to go on the road.
SD: Thankfully, there’s the internet, huh?
GB: No kidding! You can get so much done in the music industry at this point via the web. You can accumulate a pretty decent following, and that allows you to prime your audience for a one-off in any given city. I can schedule a performance and be reasonably sure of an audience who has become interested in the music via the internet.
SD: You were recently in a film that showed at the Hollywood film festival.
GB: Yes, we actually shot One Small Hitch a couple of years ago. The producers are in the process of doing what producers do: looking for distribution. What will become of that movie, I’m not exactly sure. If nothing else, I imagine at some point in the not-too-distant future One Small Hitch will be available on Netflix or some similar vehicle.
SD: You have a great character name in that one.
GB: Lance Daluca. I play the cheating, lying boyfriend of the main character and set her up for a love interest she ultimately discovers. Lance wounds her and sends her out into the world to repair the damage.
SD: So you spend much of your career in the “damage” area.
GB: I don’t know why that keeps coming up. Maybe I’m missing something – but I keep getting cast in these types of roles.
SD: Is SPANK! a bus-and-truck show?
GB: Yes, sometimes we just do one or two shows in a city. We are in Kansas City, Missouri, at the moment; but we have dates in California, Oregon, Washington and Florida before we come to Louisville. It’s crazy. With Million Dollar Quartet, I was doing eight shows a week every week and sometimes more around the holidays.
SD: How big is the cast of SPANK!?
GB: It’s a three-person cast. You have me (the billionaire), the virgin and the character of the playwright who serves as the narrator. She creates the characters and puts us through the wringer with various scenarios. At times we break out of the scenario and get into arguments with her about the way she’s writingus. Small cast, small crew – but big show!
SPANK! The Fifty Shades Parody will be in The Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theater May 23-25. Tickets for this adults-only show start at $45 and are available by calling the box office at 502.584.7777 or online at KentuckyCenter.org.