“Hi Dean, this is Andy Walker from Fremantle”
“Oh, hi, how you going?”
“Good thanks, look I’m producing a new show for Channel 10 for Kat Stewart and Shaun Micallef and we’re doing this episode set backstage at a musical. Do you and Matt want to come in for a meeting? Andy Hallsworth’s doing the choreography”
That’s how Matt and I found ourselves (with Andy) at the vast warehouse space Fremantle has in Richmond. TV has a fascination for me, being “same-but-different”. In the room were a number of people who got introduced as the story editor, costume designer, set designer and a couple of producers, including Andy Walker, who turned out to be one of the nicest men we’ve ever worked with.
We didn’t really know why we were there – the show was going to be an amateur detective series and I guess they wanted some songs – and to this day we still don’t actually know who recommended us for the job. And everyone has heard how terribly people are treated in television. So the fact that this turned out to be one of the best writing jobs we’ve ever undertaken was a very pleasant surprise.
The brief was explained at the first meet – this new Channel 10 show, Mr and Mrs Murder, was set at a new environ every week. This episode was going to be set backstage at a commercial musical (as it turned out it was filmed in the National, used the Maj’s side door for a stage door and the Forum for the poster, so it was kind of set at every commercial musical) where the leading lady was found killed. And the musical? A bio-musical about Amy Winehouse’s life. Using original songs. Clearly, in the age of the jukebox musical, we were in fantasy land, but it was a thrilling challenge to be asked to write songs for this unicorn of a musical.
There were a few parameters – three songs, the first one we saw was a tech rehearsal gone to hell, a ballad that had to involve Amy and the other 4 members of the 27 Club (Jimi, Janis, Kurt and Jim) and the set was already designed (what is this? An Andrew Lloyd-Webber production?!) to be a massive crucifix and church windows. Brilliantly I suggested that the other ensemble members could form a choir! Song 2 was to be sung at the funeral of the dead leading lady, and had to clue our amateur detectives onto the fact that our leading lady was having a lesbian liaison. The final song was a big production number about anything Amy-ish that could be contrasted with an attempted murder below the stage. We all agreed that we could do this and set off to write the songs.
We were also given the lovely task of casting the 10 singer/dancers and coming up with the orchestration and staging of the two big numbers. Which were being filmed in a month. This was truly the first time that Matt and I have had the chance to write, cast, stage and have fully produced, any number from a musical ever. And it was the dreaded “TV” that was making it possible.
First we needed some concepts. I hit the biogs. I know very little about Amy Winehouse. I listened to “Back to Black” like medicine, and kind of hated “Rehab”. In fact, when the story editor, the lovely Kelly LeFevre, made a joke about the musical-within-the-tv-show being called “No, No, No” I laughed and had no idea what she was referring to. So, whilst on the treadmill at Fitness First, I played that iconic album over and over and not only grew to appreciate the voice and the music but to admire it immensely. I studied “Rehab” so closely, in fact, that I demanded that Matt and I recreate the clapping beats for the production number we came up with. The two of us clapping into a mic in the studio is definitely up there with “campest moments of our relationship” thus far.
Amy’s life was quite joyous and way too short. Addiction claimed her. It’s not a happy story. The pain her family and friends suffered as she could not shake her demons must have be intolerable. I felt how tired she must have been of it all. Of not being able to get completely sober, of not being able to resolve her relationships, of not being able to do the thing she loved. And that’s what fed into the song we wrote, “27”. What was Amy thinking on that last night, with a bottle of vodka in her hand? The number is theatrical – the members of the 27 Club turn up, and each one riffs with their most famous song about the struggles of being a famous artist – and those choir members give it hardcore backing. We demo’d that one and sent it to 10 – they were thrilled.
For the production number, I wanted to go 60s and fun, so looked for a happy moment in Amy’s life. I chose the period just after she met her soon-to-be husband Blake – that’s when she was at her most creative, writing the songs that became “Back to Black”. And because it was being contrasted with a murder under the stage, I wanted it to be have the lyrics “good stuff” and “bad stuff” in it. So to fit them into the song I had Blake (as legend has it) introduce her to crack halfway through the number. And being a musical theatre song that means that everything slows down and goes kind of dream ballet. This song also passed muster immediately.
The third song, just a love song to be done at a funeral, proved to be the hardest. The first one we wrote was considered too sad. I got a little to Sondheim about the whole thing and imagined it was the song Blake would have sung in the musical at Amy’s funeral. When all Fremantle really needed was a nice song that had the lyric “man and a woman” in it, for the sleuths to clue into. Next up Matt wrote a beautiful tune (music first is a fairly rare occurrence for us) and I wrote sardonic lyrics to go with it. This was rejected as being too sarcastic, though they liked the tune. So then I wrote a fairly simple and straightforward lyric called “Love’s Where I Live” that had “a man and a woman” in it 4 times. This was snapped up and we had our song set.
Casting was easy. Fremantle chose Gemma Ashley-Kaplan who was an utter joy to work with. It was an inauspicious start though, as Gemma bought her dog over to the first music call who promptly pissed all over our carpet in nervousness. This was a good omen as sheer embarrassment forced Gemma to belt the shit out of the material. We liaised to cast Stephen Mahy as Blake and then there was a roll call of lovely singer/dancers from our previous shows (or just people we’d all liked in past auditions).
First up we went to the studios for a day of putting the three tracks down. Band parts for “Good Stuff” first, then we laid down solo vocals and finally the ensemble backings. The studio mastered them over a few days and we hit the rehearsal room where Andy worked his magic on the two numbers.
Finally we got to shooting day. It was an early start – 6am for some of the girls into hair and makeup. Matt had gotten volunteered into taking the part of what I called “Snooty Pianist” and the wig girl tried to get a wig on him, but he wasn’t having any of it. The choir got their hilarious hot pink and blue robes and the dead celebs got all dolled up. It took about 2 hours to film the “27” number. Gemma was a revelation during the filming of this – watching her commitment to each moment, and how gorgeous she looked on the “split” was pretty exciting.
Daniel Nettheim, the director, was very generous and allowed us to film the number properly, even though only 30 seconds of it was going to make it onto broadcast. In the show, tech problems happened (Mathew was the star of this section, rolling his eyes like he’s got a degree in it) and you only hear grabs of the number before it all goes in the toilet. The funeral song had been filmed with Stephen the day before. The cast all went into hair and makeup for “Good Stuff” and the team did amazing work with them – some seriously brilliant hairstyles came out of it. We rehearsed the number again and then waited. And waited.
There were a ton of scenes to be filmed for the plot proper, but we knew that we had to finish by a certain time, and that time kept creeping closer and closer. After a few hours not one dancer could have had a warm muscle when suddenly we were on. We whipped through the number twice and within 7 or so minutes “Good Stuff” was in the can.
Months later, the show aired. As expected the numbers were cut down to the minimum necessary to keep the real story moving forward, that of Shaun and Kat’s investigation. Hilariously, the love song at the funeral was almost entirely background except for the lyric “a man and a woman” so I probably could have written any lyric at all for the tune (though I’m quite chuffed to have written a nice love song, we don’t have many of those in our rep). But then Fremantle sent us the full versions of the songs, and we were stoked.
Writing music theatre in Melbourne is a pretty tough gig – there’s just not much chance for your work to be seen in any capacity. So to have a commercial company invest their resources in having you write, stage, orchestrate then film three of your songs is both a joy and an invaluable asset in promoting our work in the future. And who knows, maybe it’s not crazy to write an Amy Winehouse musical with original songs?