Heathers the Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, July 20

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Based on the cult 1988 film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers the Musical, which premiered off-Broadway last year, is a black comedy with a catchy, upbeat pop-rock score: think Grease meets Mean Girls with a decidedly dark twist.

Westerburg High is ruled by a triumverate of beautiful but cruel girls all called Heather. Cross them and you’ll find yourself in the social equivalent of Siberia, or worse. But when the Heathers enlist former misfit Veronica Sawyer for her forgery skills, they take on more than they’d bargained for with Veronica’s avenging boyfriend Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean prepared to go to deadly extremes.

Written by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy, the musical sticks closely to the screenplay though it isn’t quite so dark. The show’s gear changes between satire, camp comedy, blithe sentimentality and dark themes (teenage suicide, school massacres, bullying, homophobia) crunch a bit at times ­– or would do if the production were not so good. But here, first-time director Trevor Ashley negotiates them with assurance, flair and a sure-fire sense of comedy.

Ashley’s high-energy production leaps off the stage at you. With the cast all turning in full-bore performances, it does a great job of walking the fine line between being knowing, tongue-in-cheek and just serious enough. The musical could do with a little tightening at times but Ashley never allows it to flag. It’s a very impressive directorial debut from a man who is also playing Thenardier in Les Misérables at the same time.

Jaz Flowers is sensational as Veronica, giving a winning, emotionally believable performance that brings surprising depth to the role. She also sings the hell out of her songs. Lucy Maunder is hilariously funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler, showing what fine comic chops she has. Her raised eyebrows are eloquent as anything, her death stare is scary, while her singing is gorgeous.

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Among the rest of the terrific cast, Lauren McKenna shines in the double role of the bullied Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock and loopy New Age teacher Ms Fleming. Stephen Madsen brings a brooding charisma and cool detachment to the Baudelaire-quoting, psychopathic J.D. and has a lovely voice. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose are very funny as dim-witted jocks Ram and Kurt, while Erin Clare and Libby Asciak give broadly comic but well-defined performances as Heather Chandler’s side-kicks.

Emma Vine’s compact, clever set design, consisting primarily of school lockers, is well used by Ashley, who keeps the action pumping with sharply choreographed scene changes. Angela White has fun with the 1980s costuming and Cameron Mitchell’s superb, witty choreography is also bang on target.

The night I saw it the sound was somewhat out of whack with the band (led by musical director Bev Kennedy) so loud that the cast struggled to compete at times, though I gather that has now been sorted. Aside from that, it’s a first-rate production and extremely entertaining.

Heathers the Musical plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 9. It is sold out though I’m told they may try to add a couple of performances. Check the website http://www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 26

Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

Ghost Stories

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 10

Aleks Mikic as an unlicensed driver in Ghost Stories. Photo: Liam O'Keefe

Aleks Mikic as an unlicensed driver in Ghost Stories. Photo: Liam O’Keefe

“Are you brave enough to book?” asks the Sydney Opera House website, warning that Ghost Stories “contains moments of extreme shock and tension. We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition and pregnant women carefully consider their decision to attend.”

In an interview, one of the cast said that he was prepared for people to “freak out” or even leave theatre, adding: “There is nothing in the theatre they can compare this to and I think a lot of people will be uncontrollably scared.”

Well, I’m a complete wuss when it comes to horror films but I didn’t find the play particularly scary at all.

Written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the West End hit is presented here by Prince Moo Productions and directed by Peter J. Snee with an Australian cast.

It begins with an illustrated lecture by Philip Goodman (Lynden Jones), a genial professor of parapsychology. As he describes three supernatural cases, which he tries to explain logically as emanations from a guilty mind, they are enacted on stage.

Using familiar tropes from the horror genre, there’s a nightwatchman (John Gregg) at a deserted warehouse, a young man (Aleks Mikic) driving home late at night on an isolated country road, and a man (Ben Wood) whose pregnant wife won’t go into the nursery. Most of it takes place in darkness illuminated with flashes from torches, car headlights and a nightlight.

The soundscape is certainly eerie. Whistling wind and dripping sounds give the feeling of a haunted house as you enter the theatre and as the night unfolds creaks, rumblings and sudden loud crashes and roars ramp up the tension. But that’s about it for the fear factor. The plot climaxes are a letdown and several special effects are comical, even naff.

Glimpsing an actor through the front scrim heading off stage carrying a supposedly terrifying creature punctures the illusion still further.

Still, there are plenty of laughs and a few surprises, and it’s well performed with a particularly enjoyable performance from Jones as the Professor. Just don’t expect to be terrified out of your wits.

Ghost Stories plays at the Drama Theatre until August 15. A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 12

Avenue Q

Enmore Theatre, July 2

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod. Photo: supplied

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod, with Julia Dray and Nicholas Richard operating Nicky. Photo: supplied

Avenue Q opened at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with little fanfare in the mainstream media. Presented by first-time producer Luke Westley and his associate Natasha Sparrow for LCW, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s terrific – every bit as accomplished and enjoyable as the acclaimed commercial production seen in Sydney in 2009.

With book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, the musical premiered off-Broadway in March 2003, before moving to Broadway later that year where it won three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Performed by actors with Muppet-like puppets, the show pays homage to the children’s television show Sesame Street, while cheekily sending up its politically correct, rosy optimism with perky songs like It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn.

With some colourful language, references to porn, and puppets getting drunk and having vigorous sex, it’s definitely not for children. But for all its naughtiness, it’s very sweet with a big heart. More than a decade since premiering, it still feels fresh and topical, with Gary Coleman the only really dated element beyond a reference to a mixed-tape.

The story centres on Princeton (Matthew Predny), an arts graduate who arrives in Avenue Q in a downbeat New York neighbourhood looking for his Purpose in life. There he meets among others kindergarten teacher Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones), porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Nicholas Richard), closeted gay Republican investment banker Rod (Predny), and former child star Gary Coleman (Shauntelle Benjamin), who is now the superintendent of the housing block.

It’s far from Easy Street as characters wrestle with unemployment, homelessness, heartbreak and their sexuality.

With a score full of perky tunes, a clever book and savvy, witty lyrics, Avenue Q zips along in thoroughly entertaining fashion while its celebration of friendship and its simple message – that, sure, life sometimes sucks but that’s OK – sends you home uplifted.

Jo Turner directs a very nifty, polished production. Cat Raven’s set with its row of apartment housing, and small set pieces that are moved quickly into place for various interior scenes, works a treat.

The musical features three human characters and 12 puppet characters, operated by clearly visible actors. Turner has gathered an excellent cast, all sing of whom sing strongly and get the balance between comedy and emotion, as well as flesh and fur, just right as they manipulate and interact with the puppets. (Props to puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne).

Madeleine Jones, who recently played the Girl in the musical Once, is lovely as the good-hearted, wistful Kate Monster and plays the predatory Lucy T Slut with plenty of vampish va va voom. Recent NIDA graduate Matthew Predny also exudes plenty of presence as the naïve, immature Princeton and the camp, sexually repressed Rod.

Nicholas Richard unleashes a fruity baritone as Trekkie and Rod’s slovenly but understanding roommate Nicky. Rowena Vilar is extremely funny as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (a human character) and Justin Smith gives a warmly engaging performance as her fiancé Brian, an unsuccessful stand-up comic.

There are also strong performances from Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman, Julia Dray and Owen Little as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kimberley Hodgson and Riley Sutton in smaller roles.

Musical director Shannon Brown heads the seven-strong band, keeping things bouncing along nicely. All in all, a great little production, that charms in equal parts, fun and heart.

Avenue Q plays at the Enmore Theatre until July 18. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849

Sydney Theatre Company brings Chekhov into The Present

A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Anna Bamford are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford and Chris Ryan are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Cate Blanchett is widely regarded as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. We’ve been incredibly lucky to see her give unforgettable performances in a number of Sydney Theatre Company productions over the last few years including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maids, Gross und Klein and Uncle Vanya.

But with the family relocating to the US when her husband Andrew Upton’s contract as artistic director of STC concludes at the end of this year (after eight years, five of them shared with Blanchett), the chances are we could be about to see her on a Sydney stage for the last time in a while.

Blanchett co-stars with Richard Roxburgh in The Present, adapted by Upton from Anton Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov. Directed by John Crowley, the production plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from August 4. The season is all but sold out but a final limited release of tickets will go on sale on Thursday July 9.

Blanchett and Roxburgh wowed audiences and critics alike when they performed together in Upton’s 2010 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Sydney, Washington and New York. As you’d expect, their reunion has made The Present one of the hottest tickets in the STC’s 2015 season.

The rest of the 13-strong ensemble is pretty extraordinary too, among them Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Anna Bamford, Chris Ryan and Susan Prior who recently won an AACTA Award for The Rover.

“It’s a great bunch,” says Blanchett.

“It is an incredible cast. Looking around the table and listening to the voices when we were doing our first read-through, it was just absolutely stunning,” says McKenzie.

“But if you had seen (Blanchett and Roxburgh in) Uncle Vanya and their amazing chemistry and work together, as an actor you want to be a part of that. So that’s really how you can collect such an amazing group of people because we all want to be in amongst it. It’s Andrew’s writing too. He’s an extraordinary adaptor,” adds McKenzie who performed in Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for STC in 2014.

“So you’ve got Chekhov, you’ve got Upton, you’ve got the Rox and you’ve got the Blanchett – and then you’ll get anyone.”

Chekhov’s first play – commonly known as Platonov after its central character – was an unstructured epic, which would have run for more than five hours if staged in its original state. The manuscript was discovered and published 16 years after his death. There have been various adaptations over the years including Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey.

 “You couldn’t do it (as written). It was a mad thing. That’s why it ended up in a Chekhovian sock drawer and he never pulled it out again,” says Roxburgh.

“The play was a broken thing, a play without a name,” says Blanchett. “Andrew has taken the fragments as a starting point, really, the characters and the basic situations.

“We’ve got this box set of rather crusty old sepia Chekhovs done by the BBC in the 70s. It’s quite useful to see just the bare bones of the storytelling. It’s very, very English (depicting) Russians as eccentrics but I went back and looked at Platonov the other night and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly the women don’t make any sense. What Andrew has done is really teased out not only the relationships but the states of being that all the various women represent in the piece.”

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov, once considered a great intellectual but now a disillusioned, wittily acerbic provincial schoolteacher, though still something of a Lothario. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, the widow of a much older General who she married in her 20s, and McKenzie plays Sophia, a former flame of Platonov’s who is now married to Anna Petrovna’s stepson.

Set in a country summerhouse where a group of old friends gather for Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party, the play is awash with yearning, shattered dreams and vodka.

Blanchett says that they are still discussing whether Anna Petrovna is also a former flame of Platonov’s.

“There is a sense that they are soulmates. Anna Petrovna is not at the centre of it but she’s the catalyst for the collision of desire and longing that happens around her 40th birthday.”

Upton has a fascination with late 19th century and early 20th century Russian drama and has adapted several plays of the era: Gorky’s Philistines and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard for London’s National Theatre, along with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, Gorky’s Children of the Sun and a revised version of The White Guard for STC.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC's Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC’s Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

His acclaimed adaptations are sparklingly colloquial, muscular and very funny but underpinned with melancholy, and speak very clearly to us today.

Upton has updated Platonov to the mid-1990s, to Russia post-Perestroika, and has the characters in their 40s rather than their 20s as in the original.

“What I like about the updating – Andrew’s updated it to 1995 I think we’ve settled on – is that when Chekhov was writing there was the sense of Russia in transition but it was quite a dangerous time politically and morally. Setting it in the mid 1990s, Russia is once again in that similar state of transition. With the wisdom of hindsight you see that there was a real chance for change,” says Blanchett.

“What is beautiful about it is that it really mirrors the state the characters are in. There’s still that opportunity to change. When you’re in your 40s, as we know, life’s not over.”

“It becomes so much more make and break than in your 20s when you’ve got the whole world laid out in front of you,” says McKenzie.

“It has that depth of meaning when someone is approaching the middle of their life,” agrees Blanchett. “Had the characters been in their 20s, there’s a self-centredeness to it whereas there’s a desperate futility and sadness about it. Suddenly the play has a purpose and an energy and an ache inside it.”

“It has a much darker depth to it, doesn’t it? It’s really fabulous,” says Roxburgh.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC's Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Upton’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the 1950s and directed by Tamas Ascher, got the tightrope balance between laughter and tears just right. The highly physical production verged on slapstick at times with pratfalls, pillow fights and drunken dancing. Blanchett’s elegant Yelena cooled her sudden ardour by standing in front of an open fridge. Hugo Weaving’s Astrov did a boisterous, drunken jig then fell backwards through a window. But for all the laughter you never lost sight of their misery.

The Present has “a different spirit”, says Roxburgh. “I think the fact that it has a contemporary setting gives it a different quality. What is I would say is that what is incredibly manifest is this energy in the storytelling. There’s a fantastic energy to it that gets pushed and pushed.

“It’s people in extremis. Things unfold that push people to their various breaking points and that can be terrible and hilariously funny, so it does explore all those things. But it’s by no means slapstick. It feels very real. It is people in extremis. To my mind that’s the definition of great theatre.

“But it is hilariously funny. I was rolling about laughing when I read it, which is not what you expect when you read an adaptation of Chekhov. But it’s never silly. It really feels like Chekhov, but not as you’ve ever got him.”

“The dialogue is fantastic,” says McKenzie. “It’s very witty, very fast. It’s like throwing little darts across the room. I’m laughing on stage. I have to stop.”

“John Crowley has a terrific way of putting it, which is that it seems like all of the scenes are not the scenes you’re supposed to be seeing,” says Roxburgh. “They are the grabbed moments in between. There’s a dinner, there’s a lunch, but you don’t see those, you see everything around that, the accidental moments or the catastrophic conclusion of the lunch. It’s a kind of string of all these broken, wrong moments.”

“Those points of genuine contact are like a life raft,” says Blanchett. “They happen occasionally when people do connect in the play. I was reading one of Chekhov’s short stories the other night, I think it was The House with the Mezzanine. It’s a brilliant story and it was describing a painter who was having a conversation with someone he was lodging with and he said that this lodger had the student’s predilection for turning a conversation into an argument. And that’s why this feels like a young play. Conversations very quickly turn into argument, sometimes fierce and sometimes frivolous. But there’s that cut-and-thrust in the play. My character is constantly saying: ‘can everyone just stop being mean!’”

“The crafting of the writing is very finessed,” says Roxburgh. “There’s a lot of overlap in it, which I reckon had Chekhov lived into these times he would have used because his sense of rhythm was so beautiful. It obviously wasn’t a thing of the time but the overlapping dialogue just creates this constant feeling of the shadow play of life. It feels just like we are with one another.”

The three actors speak very highly of Crowley, who has directed in London and on Broadway. McKenzie says that during the first week he got them all to research different aspects of Russian culture and politics from Russian oligarchs to Perestroika.

“I got post-Soviet country houses, where this is set. But it was fantastic because we all came together and shared our findings. It was so great because normally you all do your research yourself. I’ve got a six-year old now and my situation isn’t as free to sit in a library for hours obsessing, which is what I used to do.”

Working with Crowley “is about discovery”, says McKenzie. “What happens with actors a lot of the time is that things happen osmotically. He allows that to happen at the different paces that people work at. It’s just very generous. I tell you, I trust him. I really do. I don’t feel any agenda other than to find the best play.”

“And he seems to have great taste as well,” says Roxburgh “I saw his production of The Pillowman in London. It was a beautiful, very classy piece of work.”

Blanchett and Upton met Crowley when they were living in London. “We’ve been talking about working together for a long time. We’ve been trying to lure him here but dates and situations didn’t work so it’s great that it has now,” says Blanchett.

Asked if it’s hard to return to a rehearsal room when you have a young baby, Blanchett responds with an emphatic “yes!”.

She and Upton adopted baby Edith from the US earlier this year and have said that they and their three sons are “besotted”.

“I feel a bit sleep deprived,” she admits. “But you have to work with whatever state you’re in and turn it into a positive. Sometimes it can be good to be a bit tired in a rehearsal room because your defences are down, your guard is down.”

“You seemed to be working very well this morning in your mad aria!” chuckles Roxburgh.

“But Chekhov is excruciating (to rehearse),” rejoins Blanchett. “The couple of times I’ve had the fortune to work on Chekhov it’s really difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s why it was so wonderful touring Vanya because by the time we got to New York and we’d done three seasons of it, it had gone to another level. When you work on great writing – and what Andrew has written is really great – it’s difficult to get there but the longer you live with it, the richer it becomes, the more it feeds you and the more the company can bring to it.”

“I’m not finding it excruciating,” says Roxburgh cheerily. “I’m having great fun.”

The Present plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre), August 4 – September 19. A final limited release of tickets will go on sale to the public at 9am on Thursday July 9. Bookings can be made at www.sydneytheatre.com.au, by phoning 02 9250 1777 or in person at the Wharf box office.

 STC also has its Suncorp Twenties program, which makes a limited number of $20 tickets available to each production, even if a season is otherwise sold out. Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online, in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 5

Tim Minchin: Part II

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

When Tim Minchin played to adoring, sell-out crowds on the steps of the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in February, he included a song called Seeing You, from Groundhog Day, the new musical he is currently working on.

He has also performed the song at London’s Hyde Park and various other gigs. As a first-taste introduction to Groundhog Day, the gentle, lilting, country ballad is excitingly promising.

“It’s a bit weird because it’s the final song in the whole musical so it doesn’t really give you the tone of what’s gone on before,” says Minchin.

Groundhog Day follows in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda the Musical for which Minchin wrote music and lyrics.

It’s based on the brilliant 1993 film: a comedy classic scripted by Danny Rubin and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Rubin himself is writing the book, Minchin is writing music and lyrics, and Matthew Warchus, who helmed Matilda, is directing.

The show will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year as part of Warchus’s inaugural season as artistic director, prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

Writing on his blog, when news of the project leaked last year, Minchin described the plot in his inimitable way: “For the handful of you who’ve never seen the film (philistines!), Groundhog Day is about a cantankerous weatherman who is sent to a small town to do a weather report, and gets stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again until – eventually – he figures out how to be less of a miserable, egotistical git. It’s about selflessness and acceptance and love and time and life and death and all that good stuff.”

Minchin says that their stage adaptation will be “instantly recognisable and utterly different”.

“The narrative is very similar but tonally it’s completely different. You can’t make the character of Phil like Bill Murray – by which I mean the Bill Murray-ness of that character would not allow him to sing. It can’t be Bill Murray. It has to be a slightly more standard Scroogian character,” he says.

“And also you can’t write a piece of theatre – or I don’t want to in 2015 – with a woman as passive as Andie MacDowell. You take the opportunity to write a stronger woman whose influence is more profound and who has her own sense of humour. Andie was very charming in that movie but we need to know more about her.

“In musicals – just like in Matilda – you want to know more. You can’t maintain a distance in a musical and that’s why you have to consider very seriously which texts you do. Is going into their head – which is what a musical does because they sing their feelings – is going into their head going to help us?

“And if you are going into their head, how do you make sure the character doesn’t become mawkish and over demonstrative? That’s the problem with Matilda and Miss Honey (in Matilda). Miss Honey isn’t a demonstrative person so how do you get her to sing? That’s why I made her sing about her house, which is her singing about herself by not singing about herself. Those sorts of solutions are what musical theatre writers have always done but Groundhog Day is a particular challenge like that because you’ve got to keep it funny and witty and dry.”

In the story, the same scenes keep playing out, with the weatherman Phil gradually responding differently each time he relives a moment. Asked whether the music will repeat with gradual transformations, Minchin says not.

“Music reflects your protagonist’s state of mind. You could take the same music and put different angles on it but I realised early on that it’s not the songs repeating – because songs repeating is not unconventional. It’s dialogue and action repeating which is where the magic is in theatre. You have a complex series of events that are exactly the same. That’s like a magic trick; that’s awesome.”

Minchin says the songs will have a more poppy feel than Matilda. “It’s less Dahly. There are songs you could play on the radio. Anyway, it’s such an exciting challenge. I just hope we don’t fuck it up.”

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Minchin is currently alternating between writing the songs for Groundhog Day and the songs for Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks movie scheduled for release in 2018, which he is also directing.

Set in the Australian outback, Larrikins centres on an anxious little bilby called Perry and a kangaroo called Red.

“The kangaroo is hard-edged and unemotional, thinks everything is a bit of a joke, hates authority and all that good Aussie stuff – though it’s very important to me that the movie moves us beyond that,” says Minchin.

“Perry is an OCD, hyper-controlling, very fearful, very kind little dude compulsively stacking berries all the time. They go on this massive road journey together and Perry has to learn to be brave and Red has to learn to be more caring. It all sounds quite twee but it’s actually very funny. There are lots of laughs in it. The term Larrikin is used, but its definition is actually only obliquely discussed. We never clearly define it, that’s part of the charm of the word – it’s kind of ambiguous.”

“It’s an Australian story and I’m writing very much as an Australian writing about Australia,” adds Minchin.

As you’d expect, he will be making some political points along the way. There’s a song called Proper Aussie, for example. “It’s sung by Howard the crocodile, who is a bureaucratic bully in charge of a bit of river that our heroes have to cross. He sees his job as preventing ‘non-native species’ from spreading. It’s quite fun because we get to talk about fauna issues as well as xenophobia,” says Minchin.

On top of all his composing, Minchin has managed to find time to take to the stage himself in recent years. In 2012/13 he turned in a sensational performance as Judas in an arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which toured around the UK and Australia.

In 2013, he also co-starred with long-time mate Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company. On screen, he has just been seen as the odious Smasher Sullivan in the ABC’s acclaimed mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s novel about the early days of Australian colonisation.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

He’s keen to do some more acting. However, he’s unlikely to have time for much theatre in the immediate future, given the demands of Groundhog Day and Larrikins.

“I want to act more but I think it’s more likely to be a few eps on a TV series or a cameo role in a film,” he says. “I’m interested in film and TV now. It’s all weird and a slightly sitty-around industry but it’s great to be a part of something, to do these little scenes and then see it all put together.”

Then there are his solo shows. He had 10,000 people across two nights eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed at the Sydney Opera House in February but, again, it’s a challenge to find the time.

“I think I can do it all,” he says. “I just need to manage my time and not lose my mojo. Comedy is a game of fearlessness and you’ve got to do it lots to stay fearless. I kind of had a wobble last year when I first went back after two years of not doing a solo show. I found it hard. I’d forgotten that you can’t just wander up. You’ve got to get your chops back up. It’s not something that comes with no work, the fast lyrics and all that stuff. But it’s worked out all right.”

Minchin, his wife Sarah and their two young children Violet and Caspar now live in Los Angeles after a decade in London, where his fame had reached the point that he was recognised pretty much wherever he went.

“LA was a lot about the film (Larrikins) and a lot about knowing that I had to leave London one day because it was just getting harder and harder. And also about coming home (to Australia) eventually. So LA is meant to be a stepping stone,” he says.

It was while he was living in Coogee during the STC season of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he decided he wanted his kids to grow up in Australia.

“The Larrikins thing was initially a songwriting gig then they said, ‘would you like to direct it?’ So I said to Sarah, ‘maybe this is our window out.’ It was awful leaving London. It was really, really hard, for Sarah particularly, but LA is kind of fun. We’ve met some really great people. You can drive around in your car. It’s a bit more like living in Perth. (Our house) is not a big place but it’s got a comparatively big garden with a pool and our kids haven’t been sick since moving there.

“People in America don’t really know me apart from Californication (the US TV series in which he played a coked-up rock star) though I was stoked that Spielberg and those people know exactly who I am. That’s their job to know who everyone is, and I am directing a movie for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“So I’ve been shocked to realise it’s a perfect balance. I don’t get recognised in the street but the people who matter are keeping an eye on me. I sit in my room all day with a piano and when the kids come home I’m there. That’s why we moved to LA. And we can go to the shops and no one cares.”

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28