She’s known as the queen of neo-burlesque and is a former Miss Coney Island and Miss Exotic World, and native New Yorker Julie Atlas Muz returns to Liverpool this weekend with new full length theatre show Beauty and the Beast.
Described as an adult fairy tale, anyone familiar with the work of Muz and her now husband Mat Fraser will be unfazed by the disclaimer the show contains nudity, and lots of it.
It’s kind of what they do. The pair have been devising Beauty and the Beast since they first met, before they became a couple. The attraction grew with the project, and they married last year. They are no strangers to the Liverpool stage, and tried out a very early version of the show here in 2008. Fraser is a patron of Liverpool’s disability arts festival DaDaFest, and they have performed slots in the regular DaDaLesque burlesque night, as well as their own variety-style two hander, the Freak and the Showgirl, in 2010. All of these have left very little to the imagination. But it’s not just about shocking the audience – in fact, that’s hardly the point at all.
Beauty and the Beast plays on the physicality of their relationship and the desirability of disability, with the tagline ‘the true story of a natural born freak and an American beauty queen’. Created with Phelim McDermott, artistic director of Improbable theatre company, it incorporates two puppeteers to tell the story.
Muz may be more accustomed to the club stage than the black box theatre space, but with a background in dance and performance art (and even a stint as head mermaid in a giant nightclub aquarium in her time), it is fair enough to say the Unity will not have seen anything quite like this.
She says: “Years ago, Mat wanted us to do cabaret together. Off the cuff, I thought why not Beauty and the Beast – I’d been reading a book called Uses of Enchantment about fairy tales and all that stuff. And that had that ring of truth, that it would be a really good project,” she said. “We did some scratch shows and got such good audience responses. From there, our goal was to make it into something more considered. We would write over email and slap it together, and decided to apply to Arts Council England for funding and began to work with Improbable – fantastic artists with a gentle but radical way of working.”
Muz, 40, is a real grande dame of the New York cabaret scene and Fraser has also spent many years performing on the neo-burlesque ‘freak show’ circuit, where they first met. Although they have plans to take the new show to the Big Apple, for now Europe is providing more opportunities for them as artists. One of Muz’s ‘day jobs’ is performing with Paris-based touring company Cabaret New Burlesque.
Of course, red tape is never glamorous, and nearly put the brakes on Beauty and the Beast more than once. “We applied for funding three times, and the final time, we didn’t even want it anymore we were so sick of it all. But, that’s when you get the job – when you say, oh, fuck it. That’s when you get hired,” she laughs.
As the show came together, they became more determined to get it staged. Muz describes it as “part dance, and a very tender, loving, uplifting story – and very political, without saying as much. Mat takes a bath in the show, and watching a disabled man washing himself is something no one really gets to see – it’s something pretty outrageous.”
She is fully aware that the more explicit elements of the show are likely to be the things that critics and audiences leave the theatre and tell people about – “punchline syndrome”, as she calls it. This is true – the first time I saw her on stage she performed the quite unforgettable routine Breaking the Law, in which, to the Judas Priest song of the same name, she attempts to break as many laws as possible for the duration. Obscenity, needless to say, gets a bit of a head start.
It’s something that has fascinated her as a performer since her early days. A self-confessed nudist all her life – no particular reason why – in university she discovered the work of performance artists like Carolee Schneemann (her work Interior Scroll is often on display in the Tate), Karen Finley, and former sex worker and educator Annie Sprinkle, against a backdrop of obscenity and indecency crackdowns in the US being “a really big deal”.
There was a cause to take up. “Every generation needs a couple of naked ladies covered in blood,” she laughs. There’s a lot more to burlesque than Dita von Teese looking immaculate in a martini glass.
Julie’s Breaking the Law was her outraged response to a New York crackdown on club licenses that threatened not only her livelihood, but her way of life. Another routine, The Little Girl from Chernobyl, was fuelled by her anger at the situation with the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan. (I Put a Spell on You, below, is one of her well known routines in a more traditional comic vein – still not particularly safe for work, though.)
Fraser and Muz married in New York last year in a celebration that brought together the city’s burlesque community, including friend (and Scouser) Kim Cattrall. The Beauty and the Beast show is not only an artistic endeavour but a way of seeing each other.
“We have that carnival lifestyle,” Muz says. “Life is art and art is life and we really do mix that up a whole lot.”
So anyone adventurous enough to step inside the Unity on Saturday (November 23) will get a little taste of a whole new world (Disney pun not intended).”Existing in a subculture like we do, what’s normal for us is a bit different than for other people,” Muz says matter-of-factly. “Our shows bring people into our world – for as long as they can handle it…”