Rehearsals started yesterday on the first 2016 show of the year – Little Shop of Horrors. Started with a meet and greet, and then a design meeting – which I found slightly hard to take seriously after satirising the process in my last show of 2015, Jerry’s Girls. Having talked about and stared at the designs for the set, the costumes and plants for the last half-year, to the point where the novelty had worn off, it was great to be re-invigorated by the cast’s thrill. Then we got into a read through with a lot of tears, laughs and “oohs”. Then music calls. I like music calls because it’s my last bit of rest time before it goes all in. I’d like to say that’s when I sat back and started to reflect on the year’s work that had just gone by, as that would make a classy segue to this retrospective, but I really just thought about how difficult it is to get to UNSW from Potts Point.
Anyway, I did lots of things in 2015 and I saw lots of things. I kind of subtitled it “The Year of Living Fearfully” in my head, because I approached a lot of the work I did with a big fear hanging over every show. That’s normal, of course, you don’t really create anything without the fear that you’re about to fuck it up, and hopefully you’re taking the sorts of risks that exciting theatre requires that conversely also have the potential to fuck up. Throughout the year I also saw a ton of theatre, so I thought I’d pepper the blog with things I did and great things I saw.
What I was concerned about with the return of Sweet Charity was how much the rapturous reception of that show was tied into the tininess and newness of the Hayes Theatre. We were now in the Opera House in a 400-seat theatre, and touring to bigger theatres around the country, including the Playhouse in my home-town, Melbourne (around 850 seats). Would the heart of the story stand up? And the set had been…well, the Hayes itself, painted. We weren’t taking the theatre with us. And our first port-of-call required us to bump in and out each night, sharing with one of those multi-storied treehouse shows. There definitely were challenges, but Owen’s new design gave the a show a real personality that it imposed on the spaces we went into. The performances had deepened, if anything, and of course our leads were all music theatre pros, so were adept at sizing-up to whatever space they happened to be in. In fact, the show was even more exciting this time around, and played to amazing audiences all around the country.
Simultaneously, I directed Gaybies for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. My fear here was that an evening of verbatim stories about kids being raised by gay families might not sustain dramatically. WHAT IF PEOPLE GET BORED? (This pretty much powers anything I do). It had been an event at Midsumma, when a cast of celebrities did it for a week, but this was now creating a dramatic version to sustain a month’s season for theatre audiences. The ensemble cast was wonderful – funny, kind, musically brave, politically passionate and we had a great rehearsal period. My brother came down to work his music with the cast – it’s tricky to make folky music work for mood rather than narrative. It looked great, it was charming, it was publicised more than anything I’ve ever worked on. And a lot of people loved it. Though it sold well, it wasn’t a smash, it was sweet. Lovely even. Though we all worked out hardest on creating a structure from real people’s lives, and a message that the country needs to hear (ie, there is no issue with gay people raising children) I think people really hunger for a narrative in theatre. I had a conversation recently about this piece with a very clever friend, where I said that I wondered if I could’ve made the piece darker or more political somehow – I don’t know though. I really enjoyed meeting the real people and then transferring that experience to the stage.
Gypsy and Imelda Staunton
I got to see this production and performance when I was casting the cruise ship version of Priscilla in London. I adore this musical, I know it back to front and when I saw this production at the Savoy, I thought – well, that’s it then. Perfect musical. Done perfectly. It is such a pleasure to see such a smart text and score served so well by everyone working on it. And especially Imelda Staunton. You just could not take your eyes off her. She made every line of Arthur Laurents’ wonderful dialogue seem invented in that moment. I rewatched this on youtube a few weeks ago as the BBC did a brilliant job of recording it live – it really is the perfect version of Gypsy, and maybe the best filmed live musical ever. It’s easy to access…so go do it!
The cruise tour moved to New York (life is pretty good sometimes) and I got to see a spate of new works in New York City, including the hilarious Hand to God – there’s a whole heap of virtuoso performances there, and a brilliant set too. But Fun Home was the treat of that trip. I’d loved the score since the first time I heard it – accessible, forward-moving and unique. Great melodies (the ever-brilliant Jeanine Tesori) and equally great lyrics (a first-timer, playwright Lisa Kron). The performances were contemporary and truthful, with the kids an authentic delight and the staging was nothing I’d ever seen before. A musical in the round, where pieces of furniture disappear down traps to reappear somewhere else. Virtuosic and really helpful in creating the fragmentary world of a middle-aged cartoonist trying to figure out her family history. This and the soon-to-be-discussed Hamilton reminded me of everything I wanted to do when I started writing musicals. And proved that what the sort of musicals I aspire to, can also be 1/ exciting and 2/ profitable!
Got off the cruise casting to do a musical set on a cruise. The old warhorse Anything Goes. I’d done a version with Andy for Production Company a few years earlier, which had led to this GFO/OA co-pro, but here we were in 2015, doing the first professional Australian-created production of Cole Porter’s classic. My fear here was, what does this show have to offer a modern audience? I think the book is hilarious, but if you study it too closely, it’s nonsensical. And I had a group of actors who weren’t just in it for the shits and giggles, but wanted to understand why their characters were doing what they were doing. This rigour from them, especially Caroline O’Connor, helped build a layered version of the script, that certainly didn’t stint on malarkey, but always tried to push forward, character-first. People think doing scripts like Anything Goes is easy. Go for it! The jokes and momentum can be flatter than the Atlantic Ocean ever is. There was so much to love about doing this show – the principal cast were fantastic, the ensemble were one of the most supportive I’ve had the pleasure of, Dale’s costumes were practically edible and then there was that 8 minute tap number that never failed to send the audience mad and won Andy a deserved second Helpmann award. Caroline and Alex both picked up awards too, which was thrilling. The Melbourne opening night will always live in my memory – it was the real juice of what makes those classic Broadway musicals a drug of their own.
Meanwhile, I’d written a new show. My first character monologue show. Christie Whelan-Browne has a fan in Barry Humphries, and he wanted a new show for his Cabaret Festival and I thought, well, you don’t turn down the chance to write a show that already has a booking. So we all said yes and then went – what the hell is this show going to be? You can read all about the travails of the making of Show People in a previous blog, but suffice to say that Christie’s performance is career-changing, and it’s probably the best writing I’ve done. Certainly the funniest, if our one-off Melbourne show is any proof. The archival honestly sounds like it has canned laughter. This one has a big life ahead, and will start appearing around the country sometime in the next year.
The Dog/The Cat
This was just delicious. The writing (Brendan Cowell, Lally Katz) was enchanting, real, hilarious. The staging was so simple and SO clever. And the three performances were brilliant. I don’t know what makes theatre so wonderful sometimes, but whatever the magic is, this Belvoir premiere delivered. Total fun.
Josie Lane is like a little sister to Matty and I. He taught her from age 14 and I first saw her sing solo at a kids concert, giving her distinctive belt to “Out Here on My Own”. We’ve worked with her ever since on a range of shows, and she’s been studying stand up over the last few years, trying to find a way to match her love of comedy and singing. Well, this cabaret for the Hayes did that in spades. She explores her half-Asian life history with a matching set of “Asian” songs from musicals. So basically she’s rudely hilarious and gets to belt the hits of Miss Saigon. The show looked a treat at the Hayes, and Josie moved into a whole new stage in her career – she owned the room, she made them go where she wanted them to go, she shocked and entertained. I was so proud. And last night she picked up Best Cabaret at the Sydney Theatre Awards. So, yay!
I almost walked out of this MTC play. The lead character, brilliantly portrayed by Mark Leonard Winter, is inexcusably awful as a human being. And he was just punishing people again and again. I wanted to heckle, to walk out, to do loud things that a shy-ish person like myself never does. But then it all got very interesting. He begin to pay a price for who he was. Not in a panto sense, but a very real, I’ve gotten myself into this shit, sense. And it was gripping. The show was brilliantly performed across the board, Bert LaBonte has never been better, and Mark was incandescent. And I was very pleased to see Anna Samson for the first time, who, one very short audition later, became Kyra, in my production of Skylight in that very same theatre in a few month’s time.
Priscilla on the Boat
I’ll probably blog about this some other time. It was the best of the times, it was the blurst of times. Mostly it was a lot of fun in very strange places. And resulted in yet another version of our old drag show. And it also took me to New York, where a certain show had just opened.
This show is genius. It’s exciting to listen to, it’s told so well, it seems inevitable and it’s a smart unlikely hit. If you pitched it, you’d be told “that will never be a hit musical”. It’s period content, history, about a founding father who doesn’t really get rated, it’s told with hip hop and rap, it doesn’t really have any stars, and it’s a fully original musical. It’s everything that commercial producers tell us the public doesn’t want. But my god, they WANT it. The show had been bubbling along for a few years, and had absolutely blasted NYC when it opened off-Broadway at the Public. By the time I was rehearsing in Florida, the cast recording had just gone online and the ticket hunger was building to crazed levels. Luckily I have a friend in said cast, who managed to snag me a single for the one day I was in Manhattan. So I got to sit down amongst the lucky/wealthy and experience this beautifully done piece of theatre. I’m not going to review it, you can find that anywhere on the internet. I just feel lucky to see it with the original cast, and also feel grateful that it exists and has been so welcomed.
I got back home from Barcelona (that’s where we got off the Priscilla ship) and went back to see off another cruise – Anything Goes closing at the Opera House. The cast were buoyant, they’d had a wonderful two months there, and in fact, their best house ever, the night before closing. I didn’t see that penultimate show because I was at another wonderful one – Rent at the Hayes. I just loved this experience so much. I loved Shaun’s clever direction, I loved the interesting performances, the sound of that show, seeing that show in a space I love so much. I fell in love with Rent in the 90s when the double-CD came out. I saw it a few times on Broadway. But I never felt so connected to it as this production, with some stunning performances from Loren Hunter and Chris Scalzo especially. Some people bagged the sign language, which didn’t bother me at all – and it seems strange to criticise something that makes a piece accessible to a wider audience. Anyway, it was witty and moving.
My final highlight for the year was MTC’s The Weir – a gorgeously put together talk-fest – pitch-perfect design by Dale Ferguson. A pub in rural Ireland, that is the haven for a number of the townfolk. Essentially a collection of mild ghost stories about the town, it lives and dies on how much you enjoy spending time with the characters, and I did, very much so, brought to beautiful life by Sam Strong and the actors. It made clear for me how we use each other (and alcohol) to get through the night – and life is just a collection of nights.
And then there was one. One last show for the year. Jerry’s Girls is a revue of Jerry Herman music done by stars. My goal with the show was to take the revue format, a once-beloved form, and make it sing anew in 2015, by showing the rehearsal process behind putting on a lavish concert and having the stars play heightened versions of their real personas. And what stars! 11 brilliant women, aged mid 20s to mid 70s. Because I was trying something I’d never done I was quite concerned about the reception and so worked incredibly hard in the lead up period, making sure that there was enough in the evening to delight an audience when there’s no storyline to cling to. The women jumped on board and it was one of the most delightful rehearsal rooms I’ve ever been part of. In the lead up to rehearsals, the constant refrain from outside was “I’d love to be a fly on that wall”, insinuating that a room full of female leads would be a Showgirls-esque nightmare. It was completely the opposite – fun, inventive, supportive and kind. And this energy went right through to closing night – one of the loveliest and most in-love groups of performers – no, THE most in-love group of performers I’ve worked with. The show became so much more than I expected, a real highlight of a production. As The Age review said, “there are too many highlights to name them all”. And really, each woman had at least one staggering moment – I’ll never forget Deb’s stripper, Nancye’s dance with young Kirby, Christie’s Andy – every one of those girls showed why she’s landed the roles she has. And then Brent kept the whole thing ticking along with his typical charm and inventiveness. The team did such brilliant work on keeping the level of surprises coming – Dale’s gorgeous rehearsal-room set which transformed into a red-velvet heaven in seconds, Owen’s parade of neutral clothes that turned into gowns, Matty’s hot brassy band, Meg’s performance as Meg and Matt’s endlessly inventive lighting. It was absolutely one of the hardest shows I’ve ever put together, but a truly fitting end to the year.
2016 is a little calmer – Little Shop tours the country and then the gorgeous Skylight for MTC. After such a huge year it’s
terrifying…great to have the time to dream up future shows and check in with where I actually want to go. But right now, I have an oversized plant to wrangle.