The Strangest Brief Ever

“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.

“Love’s Where I Live”

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?

Call Me Maybe – An Appreciation.

Clearly, I’m late to the party.  I downloaded this song, along with “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Starships” because I’d finally accidentally-heard them enough to think I should intentionally-hear them.  All three are now lodged in my brain and getting a lot of lip-sync work on the treadmill.  I like how “What Makes You Beautiful” sounds like “Summer Lovin'” when it starts and how “Starships” feels like it changes key in the bit after the chorus.  I can’t help put my hands slowly into the air as Nicki Minaj mangles (minajangles?) some rappy thing just before it.

But “Call Me Maybe” has my attention today.  It’s perfect pop.  It created Carly Rae Jepsen (via Bieber and Canada) who has since been semi-ironically referenced on “Girls” (Soon-Jee storms off on Booth after eating the rosewater ice-cream to join her boyfriend who is doing lights on the CRJ tour).  The thing that surprised me most about CRJ is that she’s 27.  Which seems old.  Until I remember I’m enjoying the song and I’m a decade oldER.

The song starts with (probably) faux strings doing a little bit of a rhythmic thing.  I like this as it’s a little bit disco and tells you the producers know this is good classy pop.  Unlike Minaj’s, which is good trashy pop.  Carly sings:

I threw a wish in the well/don’t ask me I’ll never tell/I looked to you as it fell/and now you’re in my way…

I was very pleased to see a pop song where three lyrics in a row actually rhymed.  Not false-rhymes but real ones.  At first I thought Carly was being coy (Coyly?) about “I’ll never tell” since it’s obvious what the wish is, but upon reflection she must have wished to fall in love with the next guy she saw, who happened to be (according to the video) a hot homosexual gardener.  The “now you’re in my way” sets up a kind of interesting tension – CRJ wanted to be in love, but now that feeling is stopping her from moving on with her life.

I trade my soul for a wish/pennies and dimes for a kiss…

Oh well, good things can’t last…

I wasn’t looking for this/but now you’re in my way

Ok, maybe I was overthinking that wish – if she’d wished to fall in love but then claims not to be looking for it, something’s awry.  Perhaps it’s just Carly acting coyly again.

There’s more lyrics which don’t really mean anything and then a really cool rocket-ship sound that propels us into the chorus.  This is where the disco strings really kick in.  If you’re a fan of ELO or Hooked on Classics or young enough not to know they ever existed thus aren’t hugely embarrassed by how they dominate the chorus of this song, you are in for a treat.  I think these strings contributed hugely to the success of the song.  And of course, it’s a very catchy chorus-

Hey, I just met you/and this is crazy/but here’s my number/so call me, maybe? (punctuation my own after listening to the track many times)

It’s hard to look right/at you baby/but here’s my number, so call me, maybe?

It took me quite a few listens to realise that those two lyrics were one sentence.  “It’s hard to look right at you, baby”.  Not “It’s hard to look right”.  Because what teenage girl or gay can’t identify with how hard it is to look right?  Even when it’s being sung by a woman in her late twenties with a severe fringe who’s wearing socks and heels in the cover art?  But no, it’s “It’s hard to look right at you baby”.


The chorus repeats again but does two really fun things underneath – first there’s two “sonic glisses” as I’m calling them.  Glissandos are when pianists run their fingers down the keyboard to create excitement.  My boyfriend, a composer and pianist, loves glisses.  I tried doing one once and it really hurt my fingers.  The “Call Me Maybe” glisses are tuned to a kind of outerspace frequency but they’re definitely glisses.  The second fun thing underneath this chorus is a jangly guitar joins in very quietly, along with a high pitched alarm, creating a tense kind of giggly feeling – JUST LIKE FALLING IN LOVE AND BEING TOO NERVOUS TO SAY, “HEY, CALL ME” OR EVEN “WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER” BUT “CALL ME, maybe“.

There’s a lyrical addition here

And all the other boys/try and chase me/but here’s my number/so call me, maybe?

Nice tactic Ms Jepsen.  The old “everyone wants me (but I’m not a slut)” technique.

You took your time with the call/I took no time with the fall/You gave me nothing at all/but still you’re in my way

Nice to see the triple-rhyme back.  There’s been an interesting development in their relationship.  He’s been a typical male and held off calling.  CRJ has fallen straight away, perhaps at the wishing well, and the object of her gaze (a verbal pun that pays off in the final moments of the video clip) has shown little interest, which is infuriating and intoxication to a girl who “all the other boys try and chase”.

I beg and borrow and steal/at first sight, and it’s real/I didn’t know I would I feel/but now it’s in my way

A tortured triple-rhyme this time.  She’s forcing the English language to do things it doesn’t want to do, much like Lorenz Hart used to, and it’s a rhyme won on a foul.  But now to the content – what does she beg and borrow and steal at first sight?  Has this obsessive love caused this former good girl to do things she never thought she would?

Those silly lyrics about skin and ripped jeans and hot nights follow again and all anyone really wants us to hear is “Where you think you going, baby?”  So, now he’s the boy she’s chasing.  It’s gotten tough.

And we’re back in the chorus, with all the same disco strings, sonic glisses, jangly guitars and electric triangles.

Then we get what’s passing for the middle eight or bridge in this song.  It’s quite mystical, this section:

Before you came into my life/I missed you so bad/I missed you so bad/I missed you so, SO bad/Before you came into my life/I missed you so bad/and you should know that/I missed you so, SO bad

“Bad” then gets condensed, repeated and sent off into the aether.

Ok, I get what she’s saying.  Before she met the guy, she didn’t realise there was an absence in her life, an absence that might be called “love” or “lust” or “ego transference”.  However, it’s kind of nonsensically over-romantic to baldly state “before you came into my life I missed you so bad”.  What with all the other boys that were trying to chase you.  What was so special about this guy anyway?  Anyway, it’s a nice-ish sentiment and appeals to the modern-day tween who is just waiting for someone to rescue her from the monotony of not having “in a relationship” ticked on Facebook.  Musically nothing really happens here, but there’s a nice descending pattern that gives it structure.  Then disco strings and sonic glisses take over again.

Then we have the patented Britney moment where the singer sings an already established chorus over a minimal backing before it all kicks in again!  Dance floor time!  Jangle guitar!  Electric triangle! Weird mystical bridge with descending pattern!

Then the very odd ending.  The “slowing down the tape” ending.  Which is so odd as this is now the digital world.  What does it signify?  Did the guy never call her…again?  If you’ve seen the clip, that’s where you can add the “she’s just seen he’s a homo” moment, but the production would have occurred before the clip, so I’m just going to assume the production engineers went: button the song with an orchestra hit? Fade out on disco strings? Fuck it, let’s go with robot running out of batteries.

This is probably where I should admit that before I heard this song, but I’d heard OF it – ie, seen it in the iTunes chart – I thought it was a song about a girl called Maybe.  Like it was going to be some Sara Bareilles-type folky song like “You Can Call Me Al”, with an odd weekday name like the Addams family’s daughter or Portia’s from Arrested Development.  In fact, having now googled “daughter from Arrested Development” I find her name was Maeby.  So, if this was used underneath the soon-to-be-released movie of Arrested Development, you literally can call her Maeby.

2012 – the world didn’t end, the work didn’t neither.

As I re-read my last blog, from July, that ended with a defiant “I’ll be back!” kind of vibe, I guess I felt sheepish.  I still haven’t gotten back into the blogging thing, after being so diligent for so long.  But, I’m sitting here two days before I join my family for Xmas up in Byron Bay and at 2am this morning I finished the first draft of my last project for the year.  I’m kind of on holidays and I thought I’d take the time to recap the year in work.

Britney 2

The first cab off the rank was the debut of In Vogue: Songs by Madonna and the return of Britney Spears: The Cabaret, both as part of the Midsumma Festival.  Both ended up having sellout seasons, with Britney even playing an entire extra week of shows, before setting out on tour around Oz.  This little show that premiered in 2009 has now played almost three months worth of seasons since then, a combination of the talent of Christie Whelan (now Whelan-Browne, another 2012 highlight – for her and Rohan, I wasn’t here), the perseverance of Lisa Campbell and Luckiest Productions and the fact that the show seems to touch people.  Touch them and make them piss themselves.  I think it’s probably wrapped up now, after playing Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, but like the title character herself – I wouldn’t rule out another triumphant comeback.  Meanwhile, the mother of reinvention herself was brought to life by a camp and low-voiced man, and my best friend and former flatmate, Michael Griffiths.  He’s taken our naughty and beautifully musical show across the whole country and to New York City this year, while playing one of the leads of Jersey Boys.  I still laugh myself silly when he shows off her book of snapshots, and talks us through the banalities of the Sex book.  Michael and I are about to start work on our next diva collaboration – debuting next year in June.

madonna pic

Next up were two months of heaven – putting Priscilla up in Sao Paulo.  The show closed last week and I was sad not to be there.  Though not being at things kind of gets to be a trend in your life when you’re always on the other side of the world from people you love.  I missed the aforementioned wedding because I was in Brazil, and the closing nights of both Broadway and Sao Paulo.  On one hand, closing nights are over-rated and on the other hand, I’d like to be there to make that call for myself.  Brazil was a two month celebration of brilliant people and actors, capirinhas, a visit to Rio and just generally having a brilliant time.  The show was great, too.

I came home to put Josie in the Bathhouse into the Spiegeltent.  I love this show because I love Josie Lane.  She’s brave, she’s gorgeous, funny as fuck and I could listen to her voice forever.  The show sold brilliantly in the tent – the Arts Centre were kicking themself that they didn’t program more shows – and we had a hoot putting our dirty little show up again, with the added talents of Ro-Hung.  The newly married Mr Browne-Whelan showed yet again why he’s the gayest straight man who lived.  Who’s also hot.  Which is just not fair.  To single people.  Bizarrely, this show set in a gay sauna still hasn’t played to any gay audiences, really.  I would love to see how it went down with the set that like to go down.  Ok, I know straight people do that too, but I saw a pun and took it.

From Josie I flew up to Sydney to work on that other romp, An Officer and a Gentleman – The Musical.  That was the hardest any of us have ever worked, I think.  It’s the first time I’ve done a six-day rehearsal week with two of those days, then three, turning into 12 hour days.  I’ve written four of my own original musicals before, but until this musical, I didn’t know how hard new musicals were!  The cast were troupers.  Literally.  Or factory workers.  Also basically literally.  But a finer group of people were never assembled to tell a military-based musical before.  It was hard to get up, then there was all that reviews drama, then we closed.  It really was a kind of dirty little war.  What I remember most fondly, though, were the wine-soaked debriefs after each day with the indefatigable director Simon, and his core creatives of Matt, Dale and Andy.  If I had to be led into war again, I’d want to be right behind that man and his crew.

This would’ve been the point that I started working on developing a television show.  Pretty much since the end of last year.  It’s interesting, learning an entirely new medium.  There’s not much to say about it, as it’s still so far from even becoming a real pilot, but it’s scary and good to feel like a real beginner at something.  It’s also the life of a writer, creator, whatever, to have to keep lots of projects in existence all the time, as you don’t know what quirks of fate will make one of them suddenly go.  Things can happen quickly, it just takes meeting someone, but if you’ve got nothing going on…nothing much is gonna go on.  This was probably also the point I started working with Todd McKenney on his concert for later in the year.  We hung out and chatted about his life, Peter Allen’s life, and over the course of a few meetings, strung together a skeleton for his show.  This continued through till October.

I don’t keep a very clear diary, so I’m guessing that The Producers was next up.  Perfect show.  Perfect cast.  Perfect experience.  Brent and Wayne led a brilliant group of singing and dancing comedians, working so hard in such a short amount of time, to show off Mel Brook’s zany creation.  It was a joy discovering just how funny this show actually was. And Andrew Hallsworth’s production numbers were exhilarating.  We work together on everything.  Literally.  This year we’ve done Priscilla, Officer, Forum and Producers together.  And Todd’s show, but we were only once in the same room for that.  I love working with him, his sharpness in the room and his kindness outside of it.  I’m very lucky that the collaboration of Simon Phillips and Ross Coleman begot the collaboration of Dean Bryant and Andrew Hallsworth.  The Producers was especially enjoyable because Ken, John and Rachel at The Production Company always make you feel so good about yourself during the whole process.  I was thrilled that everyone who worked on the show had such a good time together.  I think it showed in the outcome.

Out of the blue, Mathew and I got offered a writing job.  We were to create the songs for an episode of the upcoming Channel Ten show Mr and Mrs Murder.  I can’t say anything about what the job was until it airs in February, but I can say that Fremantle and Ten were brilliant to work with.  I think it’s the first time we’ve handed songs in and received congratulatory emails from a producer – I expected the TV world to be dismissive but maybe the novelty of what we were doing made them extra-enthusiastic.  The songs were recorded beautifully and choreographed for the television by…Andrew Hallsworth, of course.  It’s bizarre that the writing highlight of the year for us would be this, but it was.

I think I wrote a pilot next.  It was really funny and it was good to get the ideas out there.  It had about 40 characters, at least 10 of them actual celebrities.  Since then I’ve watched a lot more comedy and pilots and realised that meeting just a few characters is hard enough, but 40?  But it was invaluable research into how the world I was inventing talked and behaved.  When I write the new pilot, with 8 characters and a few rooms, I’ll know a lot more.

Then it was off to London and Sweden to audition new casts for Priscilla.  It’s touring the UK all of next year, starring Jason Donovan and Richard Grieve, and Andrew and I head off in two weeks to rehearse them in.  London was in great weather all week.  I caught up with friends and had the pleasure of seeing the best musical I’ve seen since Billy ElliotMatilda.  It just works.  It’s charming, it’s intriguing, it’s cute, it’s moving – I just had a wonderful night at the theatre.  Afterwards, too, when this slightly odd man and woman came up to tell me they adored my velvet jacket.  It was nice and awkward in equal measures.  Stockholm is a beautiful clean city full of beautiful clean people.  Our hosts, Asa and Kristjan were as delightful as hosts could be, taking us to lovely dinners around the historic city.

Forum started rehearsals while I was finishing off casting.  It’s still playing now at the Maj.  There were a lot of famous funny people in that rehearsal room, famous for numerous and varied things.  It was definitely the craziest rehearsal room I’ve been in – intentionally, as Simon wanted the show to have a manic, playful quality.  Forum is a brilliant farce, with songs I grew to love (I knew Pacific Overtures better than I did Forum) so it was quite the process taking a bunch of different creative methods and impulses and making this piece of clockwork work.  Geoffrey Rush was singing in this show, for the first time really.  He came to our house to work with Matty for three months prior to rehearsals starting.  He began to memorise the script at the same point.  That level of detail and investigation for what many would say was “just a bit of fun” was testament to why he is one of our country’s greatest actors.  It was invaluable to see just how hard you should work if you want to be an artist of that calibre.  Even now he still invents every show, nine weeks after opening night.

And of course, Sondheim flew out to see the show.  I got to chat to him for a half hour at drinks and it was…nerve-wracking, of course – you can’t help but put so much pressure on yourself to make this conversation count!  He was affable, charming…we really just did small talk; jetlag, shows in New York, people in common etc.  They say it’s dangerous to meet your heroes (and if I had one hero in the entire world, it would be him) because you’ll inevitably be disappointed.  I saw that he was only a human and instead of being disappointed I was inspired again by the fact that those shows could come from that funny, normal man, and also that the level of adulation he has received for 40 years now hasn’t made him anything but kind and pleasant to all.  I still would’ve like to talk about writing, but, who wouldn’t?

The visit also revitalised me in one way.  Matty and I have been writing original musicals for 13 years now.  They’ll pretty much all gone on and had lovely seasons and people love them.  But lately I’ve struggled with what to write that has a bigger life, that gets seen by lots of people, that can get an audience that justifies the cost of big musicals.  We’ve had our disappointments over the last few years and I’d gotten a bit “what the hell are we meant to write?” about it.  But meeting Sondheim in the flesh, and hearing him talk at the afternoon chat made me remember – this man wrote what he wanted to, what he was interested in, what his collaborators suggested – and never what he thought would sell.  It reminded me that to write and create for your own interest and pleasure is enough.  And a much surer path to satisfaction than trying to find the project that will sell.

I thought once Forum was open, I’d be done for the year, but no – one of the balls thrown up in the air came back down again.  I proposed a show for Midsumma’s 25th anniversary called Gaybies – a piece of verbatim theatre about children with gay parents.  We were given the Sumner Theatre and suddenly, it was on!  I hit the interview trail and over the last six weeks have met 27 people, talked to them about their lives and transcribed their words into a piece of theatre that will come to life in a month.  I finished the first draft two days ago – the first time in my life I’ve finished on schedule! – and I feel good about it.  It helps that the group of actors that are going to bring these people’s beautiful stories to life include favourites from all my shows over the last few years; Todd McKenney (Anything Goes), Virginia Gay (The Producers), Esther Hannaford (Once We Lived Here), Trevor Ashley (Liza), Christie Whelan-Browne (Britney), Alex Rathgeber (Experiment), Ben Mingay (Officer), Kate Kendall (Next to Normal), Gareth Keegan (Good Stuff), Brent Hill (The Producers) and newcomers Robert Tripolino (who’s swinging in Forum), Emily Milledge (did a workshop of my musical The Silver Donkey) and Georgia Scott (my good friend Phil’s daughter and a freshly minted WAAPA grad).  Just typing that list I get excited…excited and sad as I’ll never actually see the show.  It opens a week after I leave to direct the UK tour of Priscilla.  The reins have been handed to up and coming director Daniel Clarke – he did the much-lauded Golden Dragon at MTC and Pornography at SATC this year, and is a verbatim theatre specialiste.  I know come 8am on Thursday, January 17, I’ll be hovering over my iPhone, waiting to hear from my boyfriend how opening night went.


This is an example of what makes a life like this hard sometimes.  Apart from missing my friends’ wedding this year and the closing of two shows with companies that I adored, missing seeing Gaybies at all really hurts.  But you have to make choices that enable you to keep everything going forward.  But dammit – being in the room on the opening nights of Once We Lived Here, Prodigal, Next to Normal and The Producers were moments of such bliss, when everything you and a group of people have worked towards is shared with another group of people, that it kind of pisses me off that these choices have to be made.

Next year will be good I think – there’s less of those jobs that keep me in a rehearsal room for weeks and time to imagine what I want to create.  I’ve realised this year that I’m at my most content when I am creating – be it a musical, cabaret or piece of verbatim theatre – well, when I get the idea I’m content, then I’m stressed as I try to figure out how to, then content again when it’s working, then stressed again…etc etc.  The balls are going up in the air as we speak – Josie Lane and I have a brilliant new idea for a show that basically allows her to belt for 70 minutes straight, Michael is arranging the songs of his new diva as we speak, that pilot is asking to be redone, and one of the gayby interviews gave me an idea for a movie that seems so perfect and Australian and camp-in-the-way-I-like that maybe I’ll venture over into that territory.  And of course, Matty and I are due to write a new musical.  Without worrying whether the audience will pay $140 a ticket for it.

And so, assuming the world doesn’t end tomorrow, there’s lots to look forward to.

Why I Haven’t Blogged

1. Laziness.

2. I was working.

3. I was working on “An Officer and a Gentleman”.

4. Then I was developing new stuff.  Stuff that I didn’t want to talk about because if it doesn’t happen you feel like a dweeb.  Plus people steal ideas; Apple didn’t even invent the iPhone, it was that guy who sells The Big Issue on the corner of Queen and Collins.  He told me.

5. Then I did Producers.  Which was actually awesome in every single way, so I might do a belated blog on that.

6. I’ve been thinking a lot about people who read blogs – not fans, friends or family, but people who report on the arts industry.  I started to wonder a lot about whether me writing about the process, which is kind of a fun insider journey for a lot of people, might actually end up giving them yet another brickbat to hit you with. “Oh, the DIRECTOR thinks he and SOME ACTOR have had a breakthrough, well, let me rain on that parade.  I’ll be the one deciding who’s had breakthroughs or not!”  I kind of went into the zone of just put the work out there and leave it at that.

7. I tweet,  facebook, and instagram every single day.  Writing a blog felt like I was back at Melbourne University.  “How many words?  300!  I’ll be up all night!”

8. There’s so much good television out there at the moment.  Game of Thrones alone sapped the leisure time that wasn’t taken up by drinking, and then there was Downton Abbey, Girls and Revenge.  Ok, I gave up on Revenge seven eps in, but for a while I was a real flagwaver.

9. A bit of doubt of late.  Sure, it creeps in for everyone who makes stuff up.  But a bit of doubt puts you off creating, and then puts you off blogging about creating, because really, why write about the process of something that you feel like you might not be processing in any way worth accessing?

10. Laziness.

Anyway, since I last blogged I have been very busy, so it’s not like I’ve been absent from the world of theatre, just from the reportage.  I’ll still be affected by many of the ten points above, but fuck it, if you write from your heart you’ll be fine.  So, I’m off to St Vincent’s to get one, and then I’ll keep on blogging.

Priscilla 2012 – Brasil

I was worried about doing Priscilla in Brasil.  The two audition trips had been high on talent and low on enjoyment – basically I remembered traffic, chaos and never wandering far from my hotel.  Low expectations can be wonderful, and the two months I spent in Brasil rehearsing Priscilla were easily amongst the best of my life.

From the first minute I arrived at the George V Hotel, I knew things were going to be great.  It was a beautiful place, roomy and in a great location – Pinheiros, the Beverly Hills of Sao Paulo.  Immediately I stumbled upon Piraja, the local Carioca-style bar, a few minutes walk from the hotel, and halfway between home and the rehearsal venue, in the architecturally superb Tomi Ohtake building.  Piraja…I miss it terribly, the great waiters who insisted on speaking Portuguese to us even though they knew we couldn’t understand it, who’d find us a table in the always packed bar, the great steaks and sausages in cachaca, and more importantly, the amazing capirinhas made of cachaca – my favourite drink, I suspect, until the day I or my liver dies.  

The beloved capirinhas on our final night.

The weather was beautiful – almost always sunny, with a tropical storm between 4-6pm every day.  There was a park fifteen minutes jog away (in Sao Paulo you jog down the grassy area between the lanes – it was quite foresty in there).  There was very good coffee next door at Ofner – my best attempts at language were used here; cafe con leite, pra leva, mezjo. (I’m inventing the spelling).

But what made the trip was the people.  The cast, of course, but everyone I met in Brasil.  I’ve tried to describe what the culture is like to people back home in Australia, but it’s so difficult to get across the genuineness of Brazilians – their sense of fun, the openness, their contact with emotions, their ability to both take things seriously and not too seriously.  I’ve never met a people I liked more.  And I’m a relatively cynical person.  In Brasil I felt like it was a good thing to share, to be friendly up front, to celebrate the life that you’re living every day.  

Which makes the country perfect to host Priscilla – a show about celebrating individuality in it’s most fabulous form.  I’ve blogged endlessly about the show in so many countries now that I won’t bother talking about the process except to say that it was the easiest rehearsal period I’ve had.  Why?  Firstly, the actors all got the material – the lead cast were astonishingly good, easily up there, if not superior to, the best in the world.  The story made perfect sense when told by then, even the sometime awkward shifts in the the narrative (um…paintbrushes onstage now!)  The discipline of the cast was also astonishing – when the actors weren’t being used, rather than gossiping or playing on their iPhones they sat quietly waiting till they were needed, or watched their fellow actors with joy, or just practised a particularly complex piece of choreography by themselves in the corner.

The first run we did of Act One, usually a bit of train wreck was exhilarating.  One week in and they’d captured the spirit of the show to perfection.  Lots of cleaning up had to occur (I don’t think Andrew ever wants to mention the Cupcake debacles again) but you just knew that they were going to land this show brilliantly.  I always looked forward to turning up each day and seeing everyone in the room, and to enjoy exploring the show with them – amazing after six years of turning these scenes over and over.

Credit must go to our amazing producers Almali and Mariana – who, as Andrew often said, showed that the spirit of a company comes from the top: how a team is treated defines how well a show goes.  And we were treated as honored guests, something that I will be eternally grateful for.  Our Resident Director Tania is gifted in the skills of discipline, diplomacy and direction – I have no doubt she held the focus of that room so that our team could make this show happen, almost unaware of the fact that we spoke different languages.

I am very lucky that I get to work on a show in these countries with these amazing teams, and that I get to spend so much time with the core team of Simon, Andrew and Natalie, three people who are as good a friends as you could ask for, and happen to be stationed with me across the world on this show.  We got to share experiences like the famed Carnaval, where the city shut down for five days and the parade exploded at the Sambadromo, going to Rio, one of the most enchanting cities in the world, going to Buenos Aires and soaking in the culture of this globally booming country.  

Watching tango in a plaza in BA.

How did the show go?  We played a week of previews and performances to outstanding audiences, so loud that your ears sometimes hurt.  Our first two shows were for a charity were underprivileged families got free tickets, people who’d never seen live theatre before, let alone a show with such gargantuan production values.  They were timid to start but roaring by the end.  Opening night was another flawless show – the cast always delivered exceptionally moving performances, and that night was no exception.  I miss every one of them a great deal.  In this country, more than any other, I realised how likely it was that I may never see them again, such a difficult thought to process after sharing their lives and stories on the floor for two months.  Rehearsing a show about what it is to be different, to long for love and acceptance means that you talk about a lot of things that matter to you, that make you vulnerable.  It was a hard night saying goodbye at the final party, thinking, well South America is just not a place I’ll be popping by much in my life.

The team on opening night.
Four of my favourite men in the world. Well, three, and one boy.

And you leave so quickly.  We all had work to get back to – the show opened Friday night, the party started at 1am and by 5am we were on our way to the airport, so that Simon and Andy could get to the first day of Officer and a Gentleman rehearsals and I could get to Josie in the Bathhouse down at the Spiegeltent.  

What happens next for Priscilla?  No-one knows for sure.  There are the three productions running as I write this – Broadway, Milan and Sao Paulo.  They got raves in Brasil and the show is selling out – I hope they run a whole year then move to Rio – they really deserve it.  But when I next get back on the pink bus is anyone’s guess – it could be as soon as the second half of the year…or never.  Brasil was very much a time of celebration, but also of reflection – of how far this one show has taken me around the world and as a person.  I have been extraordinarily lucky and Brasil, for me, was the icing on the cupcake.  Saude.

A brilliant opening night party.

Britney and Madonna

I never intended to write about Britney or Madonna.  I am a gay, so have loved them since they turned up on the scene.  I’m pretty sure Madonna was always around in my life, me being 34 and she being 450, but Britney only popped into my life second year at WAAPA.  I have a fairly bad memory of things past, but I have a very distinct memory of a holiday that my Nan and Don took me and my cousins on to Bateman’s Bay when I was around eight or so.  Madonna’s “True Blue” was out and that cassette got quite the workout on the car radio.  Which seems amazing when I think of my grandfather.  I’ve always been into the music of Madonna – the title song of that album had this weird power over me.  In the days before digital music, and before my parents paid money for music, or anything, I used to sit beside our radio and pray to God that that song would come on the radio.  I’d turn the dial, and more often that not, it would.  It seemed miraculous at the time, but now that I understand commercial radio more, I realise it’s almost impossible to avoid the song that is anywhere between number 10 and number 1 on the charts at the time.  Strangely, “True Blue” hasn’t stood the test of time and isn’t even on Madonna’s unbeatable greatest hits “The Immaculate Collection”.

And Britney.  In a strange enough coincidence, I was introduced to Britney Spears through the man who became my Madonna, Michael Griffiths.  We all lived together in a ramshackle house above a second hand book store during my WAAPA days (the rent?  50 dollars a week!) and he had this single called “Baby…One More Time” which got endlessly played and danced to in our very humble abode.  Time passed and I absorbed Britney’s oeuvre, and paid a little attention to the tabloid feeding frenzy that was her life.  I didn’t care either way about her – neither judging her nor adoring her.  She just was a singer who had turned out the right amount of hit pop songs to be permanently famous.  So “Circus” was released during my jogging days of the Sydney return season of Priscilla.  I downloaded it, needing new stuff to run to, and really got into the first couple of songs on the album – the title song, “Out from Under” and “Piece of Me”.  And I was about to be poor (Priscilla was ending) so I really wanted a job, and wanted to pitch an idea to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, which was being headed by my friends David and Lisa Campbell.  I’d just met Christie Whelan via Company and a workshop of my musical Once We Lived Here, and it struck me one day – I love Britney songs, her life is mental, why don’t I write a cabaret for Christie as Britney as if she’s decided to do what any young girl does and reveal herself via songs.  But the songs would be her songs, and revealing of her actual life.

Now that the show has played Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne twice, (and is a week away from Brisbane and the second Sydney season) to the best reviews of my career, it seems so obvious that this idea had legs.  But at the time, Lisa and I would regularly chat – always talking about the central issue – could this idea sustain 70 minutes?  I can’t claim to have any secret formula to what makes cabaret work, but I do know that building that show taught me so much about how to keep an audience’s interest for a period of time.  One of the key delights an audience can have in the theatre is variations on a theme.  “Noises Off” is the ultimate example of this – it takes a bad British farce and shows you it onstage, behind the stage, and then the result of it months later (I think that’s the plot, anyway).  When creating “Britney” I knew I had to take what the audience expected (Britney is a dumb blonde) and find a lot of variations on that, and then slowly turn the story around to what I was actually interested in – what does it mean for a young girl to live her life in full view of every person in the world?  “Britney” was a blessed project.  Christie was promising when we started the project four years ago and is now blooming into one of Australia’s pre-eminent live performers.  She’d never done anything like this before – in fact, there’s not many people who’ve taken on the daunting task of being alone with an audience for 70 minutes – with only their charisma and talent (and the script, music and Matty) to get them through.  The creation of the show was effortless – the three of us worked on the arrangements, I riffed on aspects of Britney’s life that I was interested in, Christie worked the monologues, we shaped it, we put it up.  And the show has remained pretty unchanged since that first Adelaide performance to 60 people.  We’re currently playing 5 shows a week to 150 people, and the show has gone from strength to strength.

Then came Madonna.  I really didn’t want to write this show.  The only reason I did is because it was my best friend Michael’s idea (the Michael who introduced me to Britney).  Michael and I studied together at WAAPA and have been best friends ever since.  He’s one of the most employable actors in musical theatre because he can sing, act, is tall and dance enough to get by.  He’s also happy to do ensemble and cover, which is a dream for any producer.  During our stint together on the original cast of Priscilla, he started doing ten-minute slots of cabaret at various functions.  And he was brilliant.  Not “I’m supporting my friend because he’s having a go” brilliant but actually comedically amazing, musically brilliant and exactly what cabaret should be.  So I started pushing him to do something for himself.  Instead he did chorus in Jersey Boys.  Well, it’s a wage.

But then after I’d done a few Adelaide Cabaret Festivals he said, I wanna do a show.  About Madonna.  Because Britney had already had a few seasons, I was loathe to tread that ground.  But he had a unique take – Christie impersonates Britney, it’s like an Alan Bennett monologue with songs about her life.  But Michael was going to do Madge without any attempt at accent, costume or wig.  Just say, I am her, so let’s get going.  Lisa Campbell was intrigued, but only if Michael would accompany himself at the piano.  Which he can do, luckily.  This was the stroke of genius because it turned his show into something very specific, a recital, essentially, of Madonna’s music.  I said from the start I didn’t want to biopic the script, because I’d done that on Britney, Newley and Liza.  Michael started sending me arrangements of the songs he was interested in, and they started sending ideas into my head of how they could fit.  In a biopic.  So I wrote a biopic script.  We were getting together to work the script for a few days, and Michael, who had professed to love my draft, spent the day rewriting the script.  So when I turned up at his house to begin the rehearsal process, there was an entirely new script waiting for me.  This led to the only real fight we’ve ever had in our friendship.  But the outcome of this (apart from a trip to Stonewall) was that we made a show that was original and unique.

Michael really wanted to push the idea that Madonna is an unsaluted songwriter.  So we went through all her lyrics and found key quotes, and then shaped the story around the idea that she was giving a masterclass from the piano of how to use your life to write pop.  Once we’d shaped that, thrown in a guest appearance from Justin Timberlake and a trip through the infamous “Sex” book, we had a show.  Adelaide was controversial, for reasons I can’t even be bothered going in to now, but the show was a hit.  Michael is even better with an audience than I thought he would be.  Apart from the truly virtuoustic skill of being able to accompany yourself, sing and do dialogue, he can improvise hilarious dialogue on a moment’s notice.  Whenever I watch him do the show I am ridiculously proud of his talent and gratified that I had a part in making sure the world has seen it now.

And then came the unexpected but wonderful coincidence of both these shows playing my home town in the same month.  Lisa had decided (very astutely) that “Britney” needed another Melbourne outing after Christie’s profile had bloomed in the last 18 months, and I’d booked 45DS for something that fell through and ended up sticking “Madonna” in there.  So suddenly both shows opened performances on the same night in the city.  It’s probably an event that will never occur in my life again, but it felt absolutely wonderful to have audiences flocking to two shows I was so proud of.

As similar as their source material is, the shows are quite different –

Britney is a victim and Madonna is a leader

Britney follows those who are strong whereas Madonna fires those who go against her will

Britney is an exploration of a life and Madonna is an exploration of a vocation

Britney is ultimately poignant and Madonna is ultimately joyful

Britney’s songs tell her life but Madonna’s songs are her life

Britney is pure, Madonna is camp

But what they have in common is two marvellous performers, amazing musical arrangements and complete control over their audiences.

I’ll probably never write about a pop icon again, but the joy these two shows have brought me will satisfy until I can’t write anymore.

Priscilla 2011 – Milano – What Happened Next

And then the show opened.

This is a fact.  Priscilla is now playing in Milano to rapturous audiences that are building each week.  The biggest show to play Italy is now going up eight times a week at the Teatro Ciak, or Priscilla Palace, as it’s been renamed.

How it got there?  Well, that was a journey that none of us ever expected to take.  We knew it would be challenging – the show always is.  The first production in Sydney was a cavalcade of all-nighters, cancelled previews, bus-less shows and anxiety that opening night would be a disaster in front of the city’s VIPs.  But miraculously (or rather, through the tireless work of the team and the driving vision of our director) the very first opening night ever of Priscilla was the sort of night that 30s movie musicals made into a cliché – flawless, exciting, and a standing ovation that never seemed to end.

I never thought we’d go back to that hellish tech period again.

Well, in Milano we found the eighth circle of hell.  Viewing it from months later, with the show now smoothly running, it’s hard to remember how agonising it was; the daily frustration and disappointment of falling behind schedule again and again, props that didn’t show up or work the way they were meant to, backcloths that needed to be lit by a magician to look presentable (luckily Nick Schlieper is a magician), teching in an oversized tent with barely any heating thus requiring you to wear an overcoat and a scarf indoors, production meetings that were more like vicious divorce proceedings, crew smoking inside the theatre (even in the wings), standoffs between departments about matters that would be surprising in a factory in China, let alone an arts venue in the country that gave the world the Renaissance.

Every day there was a new shock.  But I think the hardest thing to come to terms with was feeling like we were back at the start of Priscilla and not knowing if we could get it on.  Only months earlier we were opening on Broadway, in the most glorious production and theatre, walking blocks to work each day through the most exciting city in the world.  We’d gone from Sydney, to the West End, to Broadway.  Now we were taking a bus 45 minutes each day from our student-esque accommodation on the outskirts of Milano (the part that looks more like East Berlin than Italy) to an underheated tent to watch a bus not be able to move onstage.  And rip the stage up if it did.

I have been part of more conversations in my life than I ever want to again about what went wrong.  I certainly learned that handing out blame, while an amusing way to pass a stillborn tech, achieves absolutely nothing – the blamed person works worse and the show problems don’t get solved any quicker.  The simplest explanation is just that we didn’t have enough time to pull off such a complicated production in a country that isn’t versed in huge musical productions.  Bus and floor issues should have been solved in a workshop away from the stage weeks earlier, not in front of the entire cast and crew who are biting their nails and wondering whether we’ll play a preview that night or not.  A show with 500 costumes is probably too large to be made by one shop, no matter how gifted they are.  The rigid hierarchy of a musical, from production managers to company managers to swings, as is tradition in America, England and Australia is that way for a reason – it is necessary to get the beast on that is a commercial musical.

There was a lot of anger, some sadness and, despite everything, a lot of laughter (and not always derisive).  The cast battled through in heroic fashion.  They left the rehearsal room matchfit and never lost that through the obstacle course that tech became.  They were unfailingly lovely to each other and us and complained so little it was almost saintlike.  And despite the conditions they were sometimes working in, still gave wonderful performances.  The crew battled a theatre that was not designed to hold a show of Priscilla’s size and made it work for them.  Simon turned up just at the time he was really needed to boost morale, and he did so, he and Garry especially.  What amazed me was the team’s ability to be battling such dreadful odds and still care about doing a great show, when they had every right to just give up.

Ironically enough, the part of the set that broke was the Broken Hill sign.

We only did one preview before opening night.  It was a benefit for a major newspaper, so the house were all corporate guests on free tickets.  First previews of Priscilla are, without fail, hysterical.  The screaming, laughter, cheering.  Even the first preview in Sydney where the show stopped 14 times and ran till after midnight had an audience that reacted like they were at the best party ever.  This first preview in Milan felt like being at Long Day’s Journey into the Night.  Being our only preview, it was a little frightening to think that maybe the show didn’t land like we thought it was going to for once.  Even though we’d had wonderful invited audiences at the rehearsal room runs.

And then came opening night.  It was one of the hardest opening nights ever.  The bus still didn’t do what it was meant to, ie, turn.  It could move up and downstage, but there was hope that last morning that finally the castors versus driving motor problem had finally been solved.  So we all turned up that morning very chipper and hopeful that we were going to have a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland experience and on opening night, the show was gonna be just like Broadway!  As the hours wore on that afternoon and the bus engine burned out again and the Aria shoe couldn’t be attached to the roof, despondency set in.  The audience were coming that night no matter what.

I got ready for opening night in the toilets of the theatre.  I stepped in urine while I was getting ready, which kind of summed up my mood at that point.  Nonetheless, the vibe was electric, there was free champagne before the show, and an audience was turning up ready to see an extravaganza.  Simon made a speech before the performance, common for a first preview, almost unheard of for an opening night (though a practice he ended up repeating at the Sydney opening night of ‘Love Never Dies’ a month later).

And the show itself?  It was wonderful.  Yes, Priscilla is about a bus, and we have a very expensive bus onstage.  But Priscilla is really about a group of friends and their adventures, amazing costumes and some of the best pop songs ever written turned into Ziegfeld-esque production numbers.  And all of that was still onstage, beautifully led by Simone, Anto and Mirko, a trio of wonderful performers who told the central story of the show as brilliantly as it’s ever been told.  The audience went crazy and it ended up feeling like another fantastic opening night.

The inimitable Vanity Faire, who, with our Diva Flying team, ran the one department that only brought joy to the production meetings.
My lifesaver Valentina. Not only did she translate wonderfully, she was the epitome of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If"
My other lifesaver Natalie. Besides pulling off the mammoth job of staging a huge show she'd only just learned, she kept the hours outside of rehearsal fun and sane.

Since then the show has turned into the complete version – the bus turns, the shoe does its magic and all the little things are being added bit by bit.  The reviews were apparently great (I can’t read Italian, so I’ll take that on face value) and audiences are embracing the show.

There’s a lot to be learned from the Milanese experience – antipasto and red wine is crucial every evening, don’t underestimate the potency of gin and tonics in a foreign country, museums might sound fun to visit on your day off but your mind is still on rehearsal, no matter how many times you see the Duomo you’ll still be impressed (and still be offered a toy helicopter or weird thing that goes splat).  But the life lesson for me was about learning to let go of what you wanted the show to be and to accept that the team and I had worked as hard as we possibly could.  No human being can make the impossible happen, no matter how much they wish it.  I had a pretty emotional experience just before the opening night performance – I went to visit the principal dressing room, and I’d become very close to Anto, Simone and Alice who happened to be in there – and I wished them the best.  I then started crying and saying emphatically “Priscilla is not the bus, it’s what you do onstage that makes the show matter”.  I felt so sad that we hadn’t delivered on opening night the production they deserved to have around them.  But then, the production that the audience adored that evening was because of them.  So maybe the lesson is – make sure you cast amazing actors!

We’ve all moved on since then – lots of the creative team travelled Europe afterwards.  I went to Noosa and sunburned away the exhaustion of the last two months.  I’ve done two of my own shows since then, and already am into rehearsals for the next Priscilla – this time in Brazil.  Although there’s tons I’d do different if we went back to Italy, I don’t get caught up thinking about it too much.  After all, there’s no point crying over spilled mascara.

Three people who always made going that extra mile for the show necessary - the wonderful trio of Simone, Anto and Mirko. The epitome of what the Priscilla spirit is.


Priscilla 2011 – Milano – Week Five

This was the week devoted to polishing.  With the first full run on Saturday, the aim of the week was to go through every moment of the show and clean the choreography, the blocking, refine choices, find new choices, fix those little moments that you’ve been letting slide for weeks.  It’s actually a fun week because the hard work of the original blocking and choreography is done and everyone knows the language now.

Monday we cleaned most of Act One.  We got a little frustrated today as we were feeling like each number was fine, but done without much passion or excitement and couldn’t figure out how to get it there.  We talked a lot about it to the cast and kept working, and by the afternoon things were improving and getting edge.

Tuesday work continued on the first act, heading for a run before lunch, where we hoped the work we’d done on the show would pay off.  And it certainly did.   The cast came to life in a way we hadn’t seen yet.  The show was exciting, had edge, every moment the leads were on fire, the ensemble powered through each number with style and sex appeal and it was really fun.  Natalie said after she wanted to get up onstage and join them, it looked like they were having such a great time.  It felt like Priscilla.  The excitement in the room afterwards was palpable.  I asked around to see why it was so different, and could they feel it.  They all could and responses ranged from “I told myself to choose fun no matter what” or “I understood how hard I had to work every moment” or “I got what I had to do”.  That afternoon we started working Act Two.

Wednesday all work stopped for our press launch to the Italian media that morning.  We were doing a rehearsal room presentation, where you invite them in to meet the cast and show them some numbers without costumes.  I hosted the event (with Valentina by my side, of course) and it was very smooth.  The biggest challenge was figuring out how to phrase my sentences so they’d have impact, even though they have to be cut up by translation all the time.  I’m very lucky to have Valentina – she not only translates the exact essence of what I say (the cast have told me) but she now does my mannerisms!

The cast were electric at the presentation, really vital and powering the material.  We did a question session afterwards that was exhausting.  There was a lot of curiosity about the size of the production, the impact it could have on a religious country, the language, the expectation of how long it will run…on and on and on.  There were tons of media there – it was quite intense, actually.  That afternoon normality returned and we continued working Act Two.

All week, people have been pulled out for costume fittings, and now mask and wig fittings have been added to the mix.  Ben Moir has arrived from Oz to do his magic with the masks and makeup, and oversee the wigs that are arriving from our wigmaker in Torino.  I saw a few and they’re beautiful, really well made and flattering.  Thursday we spent finishing off cleaning the second act while actors went in and out for their wig fittings.  That afternoon we had another full run of the show.  It was terrific, the story was completely there and all the work from the last week was in place.  Every single actor with a role in the show was fantastic – it’s really thrilling to see them play the show.

Friday was a mixture of cleanup from the run the day before and then getting ready for the recording sessions that afternoon.  Everything’s heating up now, every department needs the cast often to check a million things and you can feel us heading for the production.  On Saturday we rehearsed the number we’re doing on Domenica 5, a television show on Sunday.  It’s a hybrid of “Raining Men” and “I Will Survive” but with the principals dressed in their Floor Show costumes due to what costumes are ready.  This was the first time in the costumes for the cast, which caused hi jinks with Gumbies stepping on the long trains of the leads’ dresses but we sorted it out.  Then they were back on the bus for day two of the recording.

Finally, Sunday.  Our first publicity.  Publicity days are both exciting and dull in equal measures.  You feel like you sit around forever waiting for something to happen and then there isn’t enough time.  This wasn’t live, which took one degree of pressure off, but it was the first time that the cast were wearing the costumes (except the Divas, who were already publicity veterans).  We met at 9 and jumped on a bus to the outskirts of Milan to a fairly grim tv station.  Ben started on Simone’s face and the Divas got into pincurls.  Then it was time for ten minutes of blocking on the studio floor.  It was a fairly awful looking space and was really difficult to figure out what was supposed to be the front.

Then it was back to makeup again and my favourite part of Priscilla – when we turn the men into women via the magic of Ben Moir’s makeup.  The three leads start out as themselves, then an hour or so later, look like incredibly glamourous women.  We also had to do makeup on the Gumbys and get the Divas done.  It was a lot of work but we made it with one minute to spare.  Suddenly there was an audience, which we hadn’t realised.  A very loud audience.  We did the number and they went crazy – it was really exciting, and looked fantastic on camera.  The addition of amazing lighting and LED screens turned the dull studio space into a vibey rainbow.  We don’t see it till next week, but I feel pretty confident it’s a good launch onto the wider Italian public.  And that was the week that was.

Priscilla 2011 – Milano – Week Four – Saturday

The room was abuzz this morning as I entered.  Even though technically nothing was different from any of the days of the four weeks prior, the fact that we were about to do our first full run of the show (minus bows) had clearly gotten everyone into a mode closer to what doing an actual performance feels like.  When I entered the cast were warming up to GaGa’s “Born This Way” album.  Thomas, our esteemed dance captain, was putting them through a really rigorous physical warmup to “Judas”.  It was quite contemporary in theme (unlike the music playing) and the cast were fully committed to it.  Also in the room were our lead producer, seeing the show for the first time, and our costume makers, the famed house of Brancato.  And Kevin, our first Benji off the rank to join the adults.  Although only in rehearsal for two days, Kevin is such a quick study that Toto felt he was ready to play the show.

(Side note – I asked why Kevin was called Kevin – not a very Italian name.  Apparently Kevin Costner was so popular here in the 90s, there’s a generation of Kevins out there growing up.  Often when there’s a popular celebrity, the name gets Italianised.  After “Gone with the Wind”, the name Scarlett was taken on, but translated to Rosella, a name that had never existed before in the tongue.  Kevin is clearly too unique to be translated.  Or possibly the real Kevin has licensing rights – he was very controlling around the time of the Oscar and “Waterworld”)

The first run of the show was as I expected; hard work.  Putting almost three hours together of any musical is challenging, especially one where the three lead actors rarely leave the stage, and the ensemble has a new production number every seven minutes or so.  It’s an exhausting musical to get into your head and your body.  But the experience of playing it full out and in order is necessary for it to become effortless (or at least look like that to the paying public).  What we saw onstage were the performers pushing through, remembering brilliantly what and why they were doing, but not always able to jump into the “and it’s happening for the first and only time” magic that lights up theatre.  Next week we spend refining the show for style and tone again, and building the stamina up through numerous runs.  As I said to the cast, playing the show will never be that hard again…until we add the costumes, wigs, makeup, masks, lights and set.

Nonetheless, it was a great run and the arcs of all our characters were clear and completely in the right direction.  Moments of inspiration still occurred (as they only can when you’re in the middle of playing the entire journey in order) and the numbers pumped with energy.  Vocally it’s getting stronger all the time and the members of our cast new to musicals are learning more every day about how to deliver the three skills simultaneously.

There was one very touching moment.  Before we put Kevin into the run, we quickly played his scenes.  For the lego bed scene, where Tick talks to Benji alone, I dragged Anto and Kevin into the corner where the lego bed was, and had them play the scene.  A loud and crowded room of people getting ready for Act 2 suddenly quietened as they all tuned into watching this moment.  As the scene played and turned into the song, the sobbing started around me.  It was very magical and showed how strong the heart of this piece is.  Yes, you walk away remembering that girls flew in from the ceiling dressed as cacatua, but what moves you is a father and son bonding.


Priscilla 2011 – Milano – Week 4 – Thursday

The energy in the room was flagging today, as we staged “Finally”, the last number in the show, so I decided it was time for fun.  Everyone in the cast lined up on the two sides of the stage and had to strut across in heels expressing their fierce drag personality, a la Tyra Banks’ advice on America’s Next Top Model.  It was fun, freeing and there were some serious divas in there.  Maurizo (Bob) was actually very impressive – he completely threw himself in.  Andrea V (Miss U) and Cesar (Jimmy) were unsurprisingly straight off the catwalk, but lots of great, fun stuff.  Nicola (our Pastor) was actually great in heels.  I don’t think it was his first time.

After that the four Benjis came in to be introduced to the cast.  They are adorable – it’s always so hard to find the right sort of kids, but when you do they add such a great energy to the room.  Toto is rehearsing them (the first time I haven’t had to!) and apparently they’re all naturals and doing great.  I think seeing the cast giving it in “Finally” may have been quite the introduction to Priscilla.  They’ve all seen the movie, Toto said, and spent the day talking about Bernadette asleep on the cake and yelling “Mitzi!” to each other.

So, for all intents and purposes, the show is done.  Bravo to Natalie who has learned an incredible amount of intricate choreography so quickly and in such a detailed and spirited way.  This process would be unthinkable without her.