Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and other future projects including the Australian tour of Matilda the Musical and the new musical Minchin is writing.
Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder
In 1996, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz performed together in a University of Western Australia (UWA) student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the 1966 play that made Tom Stoppard’s name.
Schmitz was initially cast in one of the lead roles but during rehearsals broke up with the director, who he’d been dating, and promptly found himself demoted to the much smaller part of Hamlet. Minchin played the meatier role of The Player and helped his brother write the music.
Seventeen years on, they about to co-star in the play for Sydney Theatre Company, this time with Minchin as Rosencrantz and Schmitz as Guildenstern: a casting coup that has triggered such demand for tickets, the production has extended before opening.
The excitement at such a double act is hardly surprising. Minchin is now a superstar comedy-musician whose hilarious satirical songs have won him an international cult following and who is regularly hailed “a genius”.
Based in London with his wife and two young children, he recently received rave reviews for his rock star turn as Judas in the UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Mel C and Ben Forster. He has also been winning serious plaudits as the composer/lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical, currently doing a roaring business in the West End and on Broadway, and headed for Australia in 2015 – more of which later.
Schmitz, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most in-demand actors. In October, he plays Hamlet for Belvoir then jets off to Cape Town to film a second season of US television series Black Sails: a pirate drama prequel to Treasure Island, which premieres early next year.
He is also a successful playwright whose comedy I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for Tamarama Rock Surfers (TRS) last year and whose latest play Empire: Terror on the High Seas opens at Bondi Pavilion for TRS next month.
Friends since they met as teenagers at a youth theatre company in Perth, an interview with the two of them is a lively affair with thoughtful, intelligent conversation punctuated by sharp wit and much easy banter.
“We arm-wrestled and I lost,” deadpans Minchin when asked how they decided who should play who in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Stoppard’s play was just one of many productions they collaborated on at the UWA drama society, during which time they also performed as a cabaret duo.
In 2004, after Schmitz had graduated from NIDA and Minchin had moved to Melbourne to kick-start a career in music and cabaret, they co-wrote a show with Travis Cotton called This Blasted Earth, which had a short season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.
“It was a musical about putting on a terrible musical,” says Minchin. “The first half was the terrible musical and the second half was the cast saying: ‘I can’t believe we are in this terrible show.’ I think I came away with $50 for my songs and three months of work.”
To date, it hasn’t been revived. “Travis and Tim and I talk about it. It wouldn’t take too much work to re-mould it for 2013,” says Schmitz.
“If we didn’t have anything else to do we would probably do it,” says Minchin. “If we had spare time on an island together it would be fun.”
Spare time, however, is the last thing on their hands right now.
It was Luke Cowling, a co-director of the UWA production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who suggested around four years ago that they revisit the play with the two of them co-starring.
“But then he had a baby, blah, blah, blah and it kind of ground to a half. But my manager Michael knew it was a good idea and wasn’t going to let it go so he set up a meeting with these guys (STC),” says Minchin.
The play is an absurdist tragicomedy in which the two hapless courtiers of the title – minor characters in Shakespeare’s play – find themselves in the spotlight, trapped in a confusing, existential world where most of the drama is happening elsewhere as the plot of Hamlet unfolds predominantly offstage.
On the page, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem somewhat interchangeable. They finish each other’s sentences, are mistaken for each other by other people, and even muddle their own names up.
In the stage directions at the start of Act One in which Rosencrantz is tossing a coin that improbably keeps coming up Heads, Stoppard writes that Rosencrantz “betrays no surprise at all – he feel none. However, he is nice enough to felt a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend. Let that be his character note.
“Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but it is worried by the implications; aware but not going to panic abut it – let that be his character note.”
Schmitz and Minchin chuckle at the casual brilliance of Stoppard’s succinct character notes.
“At the beginning you think, ‘I wish you’d given us just a tiny bit more here Tom!” says Schmitz. “But the genius is that you realise he has given you just enough. It’s your job to take one word and riff on it for four pages or hark back to a moment an act ago.”
“We bang on about his incredible genius to be able to write this play at the age he wrote it – you know, almost in a Shakespearean way, how could he have the knowledge?” agrees Minchin.
“But there’s an incredible maturity in how he used that knowledge and I reckon that’s very apparent in the stage directions: ‘Let that be your character note.’ What 29 -year old writes that? The effortless authority at age 29 – I would have wanted to punch him!”
“It becomes quite quickly apparent in performance or on reading out loud even that Stoppard has delineated two quite different personalities,” says Schmitz. “And then in the third act when things start to fall apart for them, lines are crossed and the characters are blurred a little more but I think it’s very clever in its delineation.”
“For the first half of the first act Rosencrantz does a lot of listening,” adds Minchin. “Guildenstern has a lot more text throughout the play. Rosencrantz does a lot more reacting and responding so that when his rants come they are really exceptions to the rule.”
The STC production is directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova who produced the extraordinary sets and costumes for Phillips’ production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies.
Schmitz was at NIDA with Tylesova and says that even then the students were excited by her special talent – “and it’s not that common among the acting fraternity to go and be interested in any other department at acting school.”
He describes her design as “a vision of Elizabethan England” though Minchin qualifies that as being “not so much Elizabethan England as a traditional, Elizabethan-style Hamlet.
“The set is a minimalist, post-modern set, so it’s a Beckettian, Stoppardian non-specific set with entrances and exits designed to have their own weight because of our (Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s) inability to enter and exit. So the entrances are foreboding and the stage disappears in a converging line into infinity.
“There’s a nod to Godot because the play was a nod to Godot so the set design is very minimal but the costumes make it very clear that it’s a traditional Hamlet. You need that to anchor the play. If you reinterpret what are meant to be the foundations then your house crumbles a bit.”
Not surprisingly, Schmitz and Minchin are relishing Stoppard’s famously dazzling word play.
At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game akin to verbal tennis where they have to keep lobbing questions at each other.
“In that questions game, everything they say is utterly related to the characters and the text as well as relating to a rhythm and a toying and a playfulness,” says Minchin. “It’s scary, man. He’s the monster as they say in jazz. The monster.”
Phillips has gathered an exceptionally fine company of actors for the supporting roles, among them Ewen Leslie as The Player, John Gaden, Christopher Stollery and Heather Mitchell: “an embarrassingly fabulous cast” says Schmitz.
“It’s thrilling when the court (characters) come on. It’s seismic. You can do nothing but be slightly rattled and a rabbit in the headlights – which is exactly the effect you want.”
“I think it’s very difficult to do a brilliant production of a Stoppard play,” adds Schmitz. “You need a sparkling cast, great direction and great resources.
“And you need time too,” says Minchin.
“That’s right, like a Shakespeare you need time to plumb and realise that a lot of it is bottomless but you just have to pull up somewhere and say, ‘OK we’re going to have to make a decision.’ Like all brilliant plays, it just continues to reveal itself,” says Schmitz who first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at age 12.
Schmitz played Dadaist Tristram Tzara in STC’s 2009 production of Travesties – his only other experience of performing Stoppard – while for Minchin it’s his first on-stage encounter with the playwright.
However, he has met the playwright a couple of times at awards nights. “The first time I met him it was just me going, ‘oh my god?’” he says. “And the second time he’d become aware of who I was – which is the most profoundly satisfying thing from someone. You want to meet your idols but actually you don’t want to meet them. What you want is for them to meet you.
“He’s so youthful in his curiosity that he had gone ‘OK, that guy wrote Matilda’ so he’d gone away and discovered I do other things.”
Schmitz has also met Stoppard – though it was only the briefest of encounters. “It was during a writers’ festival and a bunch of young playwrights were being herded into a back room at the Opera House to meet him,” says Schmitz. “Someone had told him I’d written a play called I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. He said, ‘I’m just glad it’s not called I just want to sleep during Tom Stoppard.’ I didn’t even name the play, it was my Dad’s title.”
The chance to see Minchin on stage in Jesus Christ Superstar and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something for Sydneysiders to cherish because we’re not likely to see him in another musical or play any time soon given his hectic schedule.
However, we will be seeing Matilda the Musical. Ever since the show premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, Australian producers have been vying for the rights.
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel and featuring songs by Minchin, the RSC production transferred to the West End in November 2011 where it won rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical. In April this year it opened on Broadway, again to ecstatic reviews and 12 Tony nominations (though it was pipped to the post for Best Musical by Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots).
At last, a deal has been done for the RSC to present it in Australia in 2015 in association with a local producer, reveals Minchin.
“We actually know who the local producer is going to be (but) it’s still embargoed. I only found out (on Tuesday),” he says. “The plan is for it to open in Melbourne in September 2015.”
Meanwhile, Minchin is busy writing a new musical. “It’s still embargoed even though I’ve been working on it for six months,” he says. “But it’s a very interesting, arty but much-loved early ‘90s film we are adapting for the stage: very conceptual, somewhat Stoppardian. It will be more complex and dark (than Matilda). Even though I am working on it with Matthew Warchus, who was the architect and director of Matilda, we are going to try and start it quietly.”
Minchin is also working on an animated musical film for DreamWorks about animals in the Australian outback and when that is done will put a new solo show together.
Schmitz also has a lot happening. Rehearsals for Belvoir’s Hamlet (his second stab at playing the Prince of Denmark after taking on the role for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2010) begin while he is still performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which will make for “an interesting double play”, as he puts it.
At the end of August, TRS will premiere his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas about a serial killer aboard a luxury cruise liner in the 1920s featuring a cast of 20.
“The first half is my take on an Agatha Christie and the second half descends into something far more gothic and horror,” says Schmitz. “It’s a spectacle. It’s huge and it’s really ambitious. Leland Kean (artistic director of TRS, who is directing) has always done my stuff well and the cast is really talented and stupidly good-looking, I realise.”
Schmitz wrote his first play at NIDA. He won the 2002 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Lucky and was shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award for Chicks Will Dig You in 2003. His 2007 play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth has toured widely and I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for TRS last year.
“I’ve never had any interest from any (mainstage) theatre company in putting on any of my plays, ever – and this is play number 12. And I’ve had some really popular ones and critically acclaimed and even relatively economically successful ones,” says Schmitz. “But it got to the point a few years ago where I said to Leland Kean, ‘I’m just trying to get a mainstage company to put one on’ – hence I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard (with) four middle class people and a couch.
“And he said, ‘for your own soul, write one as if it was going on independently as a commercial thing like The 39 Steps or The Mousetrap or something. Don’t worry about the budget.’ I don’t think he was expecting 20 characters or an ocean liner.”
Given the number of projects they both have on the go, is there no end to their talents?
“I hope not,” fires back Schmitz.
“Is there no end to your ego is really the question,” quips Minchin.
But in the end, they agree, it all comes back to a love of words – and music, in Minchin’s case.
“It’s not multi-skilling,” says Minchin. “It’s a love of language and expressing ideas, wanting to perform other people’s great work and wanting to perform your own. That explains everything I do pretty much.”
“Yes it’s just another way of generating your own material,” says Schmitz. “We’ve both been doing that since before we can really remember.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the Sydney Theatre from August 6 to September 14. Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au