The process of creating a new show for a Festival can be a tricky one. Festivals tend to plan their brochures many months in advance, and if you’re making a world premiere the show you plan to do may not exist at all at the point you’re required to title, summarise and photograph it. Which is how the show we sold to Adelaide Cabaret Festival as Pure Blonde became Show People by the time it went on.
Barry Humphries saw our first show for Christie Whelan-Browne, Britney Spears: The Cabaret, in it’s first Sydney season. He became a fan of the show and her, and when he took on the position of Artistic Director of this year’s festival, he asked her to come up with a new show. Britney had just finished it’s fifth Australian season the year before, so we knew we wanted to make something new for Christie, a friend and actor who has gone from strength to strength since our first collaboration. We talked for a few months in late 2014 about what we could do. My career had gone from strength to strength too, and I had pretty much directed non stop for 18 months, with an other year of work still to go. I worried that I wouldn’t have the time to create anything new for Christie. But I really hate to pass up an opportunity, so I said yes, let’s do this, I’ll make it work.
We were one of the last shows that commit to the Festival, so had to come up with the idea and name in the space of about two weeks, in order to make the deadline of the Festival brochure of late January. I wouldn’t be able to write the show until after Sweet Charity and Gaybies were finished, but I needed something to sell. I knew I didn’t want to do another bio-show for Christie, and that what I wanted to show people (ahah, a pun!) was that she was a brilliant character actress. So I was going to do character monologues. Something I’d never written before (when you have no time, why not challenge yourself with something you don’t even know whether you know how to do!) Seeing as Christie always gets cast as a blonde, I thought she could do a series of typically dumb blonde characters, who actually turn the tables – ie, Marilyn Monroe’s entire role call (another pun!) We were going to call it Dumb Blondes, and the song part of the evening would be either blonde-type songs that existed or new ones by Mathew and I. We decided Dumb Blondes was a bit off-putting so Tom Sharah, a friend of all, suggested Pure Blonde. I wrote a blurb about “Saturday Night Live sketches meets Alan Bennett with songs from the blonde songbook”. I figured whatever I wrote would be similar enough to that when it came into being a few months later. Christie did a photoshoot where she did a number of different wacky faces (an idea we borrowed from Vanity Fair). The festival program was signed off.
Time passed and the two weeks that I had spare to write the show were approaching. It had become clear that I didn’t want to write about blondes, and that one of the things I most loved about Christie was her ability to tell stories about the many exciting folk we spend our time with in musical theatre. A world I know best of all and a world where I deal with a mix of charismatic and complex people under very trying circumstances. I decided to lift the curtain and write a series of fictional characters that populate this world. I didn’t know how the songs that are necessary to a cabaret would fit into this world, but seeing as they all sing for their living, they would HAVE to find a way to make it in, right?
I chose eight personalities of different age and gender, six performers, a director and a blogger. Every day I would sit down at the City Library and write a monologue straight through. First up was a new drama graduate from my own alma mater, WAAPA. It’s all a bit meta, but she was there to introduce Christie’s new show – so we got to set up Christie’s career, and the point of what was still called Pure Blonde – a night of monologues from people who work in musicals. The new grad hijacks the show in her desperation to be given a chance, and ends up crumbling in despair that she might never get a job in musical theatre, while performers like Christie are handed them on silver platters (a falsehood, of course, but one that every new graduate feels keenly). I wasn’t sure about the material (I never am) but emailed it through to Christie who replied instantly that she loved it, and we were off. By the end of the next week all eight monologues were done, and we’d worked out that musically we only really needed 20 minutes worth, max – most of this diagetic music (I learned that term at Uni – diagetic music is when the song is in the reality of the situation, non-diagetic when the characters don’t know they’re singing) – so the songs were the drama grad auditioning her entire repertoire, a diva performing her cabaret and an older gent singing a farewell. Plus a love song by an usher for her idol Rob Mills and a song about chorus boys.
My trusty guides read the script and gave feedback and I took Simon Phillips’ advice to cut the director and blogger, so that the arc of the piece became a performer’s life over the entirety of their career. I then went into an overseas casting trip for Priscilla and Anything Goes rehearsals while Christie memorised the script. Occasionally she’d send audio snippets via facebook messenger which Matt and I would lol over on the couch. The first time she did four of them for us was amazing – I’d barely directed her at all and yet here were 4 subtle and vastly different humans, hilarious and moving. Christie’s process in memorising 60 minutes of spoken material required her to nuance and direct herself, basically, so by the time Anything Goes was on and we were ready to “rehearse” she was word perfect and completely alive. Which was good, as the premiere was 11 days later in Adelaide.
We did a showing for theatre friends just before we went to Adelaide – the piece was as bare bones as theatre can be – Christie in (what she felt was pretentious) blacks, a chair, a stool…that was about it. The first showing (to a rather starry audience – Geoffrey Rush, Gerry Connolly, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Esther Hannaford), terrifying for her, was a triumph – under fluros in a function room, there was wave after wave of laughter and applause, and a standing ovation. We hoped it would play that way for the audience we wrote the show for, but realised Adelaide would be different.
We knew going into the three shows in the Artspace that it wouldn’t be the same. Christie’s show had sold well early, so was at capacity, and what they had bought was the pitch for Pure Blonde – a show that became something completely different – we even referred to it as Show People now. We hoped that the audience that had come to see Christie be a funny blonde would go on the journey of a darkly satirical look at musical theatre performances told by a brilliant actor. The technical team at the Cabaret Festival were brilliant (as always) and very into the show – having worked in that capacity on big musicals – and the show looked and sounded great. The first audience was an older demographic, attentive but quiet – as we expected really. I was so proud of Christie maintaining her poise and focus in front of a different audience than a few days earlier. She was bouncy afterwards, and when we got a fairly mixed review the next day – furious that the show advertised was not the one that turned up – she took it well, her opinion being we’ve created a show that we love and we’ll take that to the audiences that want it. She went back out for night two to a vastly different house – about 15 theatre people were in, and that was enough to tip the balance to hilarious laughter and a standing ovation. And Barry Humphries was in and adored her (he lead a round of applause after her terrible drama school endowment of a cup of cold water as a cup of hot tea), though plaintively asked “why did you have to make what we do look so grim?” And night three was a GP audience, but Christie attacked with even more confidence, and they came to her willingly. And later reviews came in that happily took the work for what it actually was – “an exciting and deftly balanced work that is as much a celebration of the Australian musical theatre industry as it is an indictment of it.”
It’s scary premiering a new show, and even more so when the show you’re bringing isn’t the one you originally intended. But that’s new work, and we are so excited by the actual show that exists, Show People. I’m looking forward to seeing Christie bring to life these funny and flawed and fabulous performers, in front of an audience that actually knows they’re coming to see a show about funny and flawed and fabulous performers.