I met with Baz Luhrmann’s long time co-writer Craig Pearce at The Star in Sydney, as the cast and crew were feverishly preparing for the premiere of Strictly Ballroom – while the Lyric Theatre itself underwent a facelift in time for its glamorous debut. We headed into The Star’s new food court for lunch and sat appropriately in an area that looked like a giant disco ball – to talk about the new musical. In the second part of our chat (the first is HERE), we talk about the music, casting Scott and Fran, the preview performances and the life of the show beyond Sydney…
Let’s talk about the Soundtrack. As Baz has done in all his projects over the years, he’s working with contemporary musicians. How has that process been undertaken? I imagine it was one of the earliest questions: How is it going to sound?
Yeah, there were very early workshops on it. This is one of the many great things about working with Baz. He’s constantly challenging himself and challenging the process and all of us who are working with him to disregard our preconceptions, and really find some sort of truth. And to be brave enough to be put everything up for grabs.
So early on we really tested the theory. Do songs… does singing actually make it better? We made the commitment that we weren’t going to do it if music actually couldn’t lift the story to a higher plateau.
You didn’t want it to be the musical for the sake of a musical…
Exactly right. Music can be an incredible tool with storytelling. But we’d been through this with Moulin Rouge, and people should only sing when in terms of the storytelling, there’s absolutely nothing else they can do to tell that bit of story, better. So then it was the question of what is the music going to be.
There are those pieces of music that are great storytelling pieces in the film already, “Time After Time” and “Love is in the Air”. Really great and iconic and I think people want to hear them and would be disappointed if they didn’t. So they’re in, but we also knew we wanted to have a lot of original music in there. And there’s a lot of original music, written by Elliott Wheeler, who’s our composer and arranger… and then we have David Foster, Sia, Diane Warren… the brilliant Eddie Perfect has written two songs.
So that’s been an interesting journey, to find those songs. We didn’t start with those songs. We always wanted to be driven by story. Same with Moulin Rouge. That’s how that came about, because we had a story rather than a bag of songs that we wanted to fit into it. So (for Strictly), when we knew that a piece of music was needed for a particular story piece, that’s when Baz went to people he’s worked with before like David Foster, Sia and others around the world, and we found that music. And then of course we shaped it for the show.
When you say you shaped it for the show, do you mean that these were songs that existed originally that you’re shaping – a la “Roxanne” in Moulin or have these been created especially for the show?
They were composed just for Strictly Ballroom, they’re just all working in isolation from one and other, so there are things we do on our end to tie it all together.
The cast. In talking with you today we’ve gone quite far back in the history of the show, and now it seems that when it comes to the cast, we’re looking at the last piece of the puzzle of getting this show onto the stage…
Well you know, they’re such hard roles to cast. Scott and Fran need to be young, they need to be multi-talented. There was all that rubbish in the paper about how we couldn’t cast the roles and it was a disaster… but we’d actually already cast both of them when that was all coming out! We just hadn’t announced it yet, we didn’t want to do it too soon. Baz puts people through rigorous testing processes. Ultimately he’s got to be convinced that they can do the roles. They’re going to be doing Strictly Ballroom for a while, it’s a big commitment.
But they’re both incredible. Pheobe (Panaretos) who plays Fran… it’s been very interesting to see her take on that role. Obviously there are some heritage things in that role that have come down through the film, but at the same time, every actor has to make it their own. But I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter what I say, because readers will go “oh yeah, he has to say that…” but I really do mean it. She’s doing an incredible job of taking this role. In many ways it’s Fran as you know her, and in other ways it’s completely (Pheobe). And that’s the mark of really great acting. If you try to photocopy a performance, you’ll always fail, because you won’t have that essential truth within you.
And the same with Thomas (Lacey). He has big shoes to fill – they both do – but, I’ve seen them grow throughout the rehearsal process, and as we’ve been teching this week, I’ve seen them walk on stage, realise they’re in front of a 2,000 seat theatre, and I’ve seen them step up to it – they glow in front of your eyes! Not just physically, but in power and spirit. It’s very exciting to see.
And now all that’s left is to have those 2,000 seats filled with people!
It’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. And I think that’s the thing with working in the theatre. It’s a big part of its allure. You really are flying by the seat of your pants, on a knife’s edge… any other cliche you can think of. They’re all true. And that’s what an audience gets out of it too – it’s LIVE, anything can happen. The bloody thing could fall down! *laughs*
It could be the greatest experience of someone’s life, or it could be a complete disaster. And the fact that it could be a complete disaster… and there is that small possibility, even with a great show… that’s what makes it the greatest night of people’s lives. Because there’s that little bit of danger there.
But like in film, you have something of a test screening in terms of the previews that are coming up… how will you be using those performances?
Yeah, we’ve got a couple of weeks of previews and I’m sure we’ll be re-writing things all the way to opening night. We’ll see how people react, we’ll see what works and what doesn’t, expand and cut back. We know people are paying their money to come to the previews, but they’re aware that the show is being worked in still. And that’s in itself why previews can be so exciting, because there’s that thrill of seeing something that’s not quite there yet, and being a part of getting it to perfection.
Looking forward now – if you can even take yourself there at this point! – do you know what you want to happen to the show beyond Sydney?
We’re hoping it will have a big life, and we’ll eventually go out to the rest of the world. But we’re not talking any specifics there yet. We’ll see how it goes here, but at the moment, Sydney’s it!
That’s the beauty of the stage though – the productions can live on forever! You could have an Arena spectacular in Las Vegas that runs for ten years…
Exactly right, or you could have a High School in Texas who’s doing it. And that’s really a lovely thought as well, and honestly nothing excites me more about the future of the show than that.
The royalties would be better from Vegas though… *laughs*
Preview performances of Strictly Ballroom are underway now at the Lyric Theatre at The Star in Sydney. The show will officially premiere on April 12th. For more details on the production, and tickets, head to: http://www.strictlyballroomthemusical.com/. You can click HERE to look back to the first past of our chat with Craig.