Saturday, July 28, 2012

Work in Progress

When I first met the Australian cookery superstar, Margaret Fulton, it didn't occur to me that I would one day write a musical about her. My job at the time was to propose to Margaret the idea of doing a TV special about her.  This was long before all the Masterchef and celebrity cook TV shows existed. I was working in TV for Steve Vizard, and we wanted to produce a series of shows about 'Australian icons'. As I spoke with Margaret it became obvious that one show might not be enough. As we sat in her Balmain house, enjoying views of Sydney Harbour and eating Anzac biscuits, Margaret told me story after story about the mini-adventures that were all part of her life. Margaret was bright, funny  and sharp. She spoke clearly and proudly about a remarkable career that covered five decades. (Some of these were later compiled with her favourite recipes in a biography called I Sang for my Supper.) I'm not sure Margaret actually wanted to be part of our proposed TV series. I quickly bought the rights to the biography because, even though Margaret wasn't so keen on the TV idea, I suspected  that I would one day dramatise the story, though the idea of making a musical about Margaret's life didn't occur till years later.

When I was no longer working full-time for Steve Vizard, I pitched the idea of a Margaret Fulton musical to Simon Phillips, who was then the artistic director of The Melbourne Theatre Company. Simon liked the idea and gave me a little bit of money to present a 'treatment'. I contacted TV colleague and composer Yuri Worontschak to help me with the songs. We recorded five in all, to give Simon a taste of what we wanted to do. (By this time, the successful musical Keating was up and running, and doing very well. I've also blogged about that.) It was a slow process. When I eventually had the presentation ready for Simon, he had made a decision to move on from the MTC, so the whole project was 'put on the back-burner'. I was over thirty, so quite used to projects going nowhere. I tucked the songs and the first act away on my hard drive, and didn't give it much thought until I met young produce/director Bryce Ives. We were lucky enough to work together on Tracy Harvey's musical comedy set in a call centre: 'Call Girl'. (I mention this elsewhere on my blog.) It was a show that made no money and disappeared but left everyone feeling energised and optimistic for some reason. It probably helped that most of the cast and crew were young. And the show was good.

Bryce Ives was under thirty, so he was a lot less jaded about the business than I was. I passingly mentioned the idea of the Margaret Fulton musical and he was instantly enthusiastic. He kept coming up with ingenious ideas about how such a musical could be staged. He just wanted me to finish the script and let him sort out the other stuff. I contacted Margaret, who gave her blessing to the script and songs thus far, and seemed equally keen for me to finish the project. Margaret was always supportive. She sent me a card from Scotland when she went to visit family over there. The card contained a sprig of Scottish heather for luck. 
A greeting card from Margaret.
Unfortunately, the heather never arrived because it's extremely illegal to send plant matter through Australia Post. When the card finally turned up on my doorstep, it was wrapped in adhesive tape informing me that it had been inspected by the customs department, the heather had been removed, but the card was still okay, if a little bent and battered. So I returned to writing the show, since Margaret had allowed me to take such liberties with her life. Using the biography, and my regular recorded interviews with Margaret, along with a heap of transcripts I found on-line, I wrote the rest of the songs and compiled a second act. People's lives rarely obey the laws of drama. When Alfred Hitchcock said that drama was real life with the boring bits cut out, he really knew what he ewas talking about. But there seemed few boring bits in Margaret's life; there was no deadly struggle facing heartless villains and an eventual triumph. Margaret seemed successful from day one. It was, I suspect, due to her optimistic personality. She did, however have one or two secrets to tell, and with her permission I included these in the script, which she has now approved. Bryce Ives organised a place for our production in the Theatreworks 2012 schedule. (Theatreworks is a small theatre based in St Kilda, and originally set up by students from The Victiorian College of Arts, my old school.)
Then Bryce, who remained hugely enthusiastic about the project, went about getting some funding together.

An early read-through of the production. Sean Bryan, our  production manager, is the one sitting cross-legged with the notebook on his lap. I'm the guy in the middle background on the right, being my usual ebullient self

Bryce also had a network of very gifted theatre mates who came on board to help with the project. Nate Gilkes joined us as musical director, and Andrew Bellchambers signed on as designer. When you work with someone like Bryce you can't help but be swept up in his enthusuiasm. I'm over fifty, and going out to see live shows at night is usually a pain for me. I'm always worried that I'll be bored. AFter having the stroke, I tend to nod off. Bryce's crowd were out at shows most nights. They never got bored. I liked hearing their opinions of the various shows they saw. They rarely trashed anything. They always seemed to find positive things about the shows. It was a whole new approach for me. Then I realised that it wasn't new at all. I had been the same in my twenties. When I was the dramaturg-in-residence at Playbox, I was out most nights and was probably La Mama's most reguklar customer.  La Mama, in Faraday Street, Carlton, like many of the other theatrical venues in Melbourne at the time, had not been built as a theatre. It was a small warehouse that had been converted into a performance space after some determined fund-raising. I still go there, but my over-fifties side kicks in. I always sit up the back because of my fear of boredom. And at La Mama, the actors can see you, the audience is so close. I went to a very good one-woman show by Rachel Berger. Someone in the front row was playing with a lolly wrapper and the noise was irritating Rachel. Rather than heckle the audience member, which actors are sometimes forced to do, Rachel went quietly up to the lolly-wrapper fiend in the front row and quietly took away his wrapper. Theatres like The Pram Factory were the same. These were not big spaces, the stage rarely had wings and the auditoria were generally small. Audiences were just as exposed as performers. Then there was The Flying Trapeze on Brunswick Street. Absolutely Tiny. This was a shopfront (I think it had once been a fish and chip shop) with an audience area so small that people walking down Brunswick Street could stop outside the shop window and watch the show. Whenever comedy duo Los Trios Ringbarkus performed a late show, the demand for tickets was high, and I remember joining the groups of people standing outside the shop window late at night and and looking in for free. Owner Ralph Kerle could probably have charged us, and I'm surprised he didn't. I was never 'worried' about being bored, because I so rarely was. It helped me get a writer-in-residence gig at The Playbox Theatre Company. When I left Playbox after a year and went to work in TV, I stopped all that theatre-going. I got old and tired. In my thirties, I rarely went to live theatre. I'd be more likely to go to a comedy club, or The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, to see if there were any new local talents that I could plunder for TV.
The icon herself.

In short, The Margaret Fulton Musical project exists because some talented young people were enthusiastic and thought they should put it on. The theatre where the show will be staged later this year was not originally built as a theatre. It's the old Parish Hall on Acland Street in St Kilda, but right now Bryce and the gang including (young and energetic) designer Michael Bellchambers are working out how to make this space work for us. Fortunately, Margaret Fulton herself has a lot of fans and there has been much interest in the production, which will happen in November. I’m still in stroke recovery, so writing is hard for me, but the team remains so positive and devoted to the project that I'm trying extra-hard to make it good. We've had  few run-throughs of the songs, and they've been great. The song about when the first Margaret Fulton cookbook was published really rocks, thanks mainly to Nate's ingenious arrangement. I think that when you get older, it's vital to work with young people, who teach you enthusiasm. It's going to be a great show, folks.

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