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Dr Zhivago: the great Australian musical

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Dr Zhivago: the great Australian musical

by Jo Litson on May 2, 2011 (May 2, 2011) filed under Light Classics | Stage | Comment Now
Composer Lucy Simon eschewed the bright lights of Broadway to stage her new musical in Australia.

In 1995, Anthony Warlow played the tortured, grieving Archibald Craven in the Australian production of Lucy Simon’s 1991 Tony Award-nominated musical The Secret Garden. Sitting in the audience, Simon was deeply moved by Warlow’s portrayal – so much so that she found herself thinking: “There is my Zhivago.”  

“Anthony Warlow is a miracle,” says Simon from her home in New York. “I know of few other singers who sing with such sheer beauty and emotional depth and honesty as Anthony. He is also a fine actor. When he sang Archie, Doctor Zhivago was just a gleam in my eye, but I knew that if I was ever to write this musical, Anthony could bring it to life.”

Fifteen years on, Warlow will indeed star as the romantic Doctor Yuri Zhivago in Simon’s lusciously lyrical new musical, which has its world premiere in Sydney on February 19, directed by Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys), before moving to Melbourne.

The eyes of the musical theatre world will be on the Sydney opening. “A lot of international producers are flying in to see it because if it works it will go to London, Toronto and New York – so it’s a big deal,” says Australian co-producer John Frost.

Based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, which David Lean filmed in 1965 with Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Julie Christie as his lover Lara, Doctor Zhivago is an epic, sweeping tale set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution.

Essentially, however, it is a love story with five main protagonists. At its heart is physician and poet Yuri Zhivago, who is caught up in the political turmoil and wrestles with the new order while at the same time being torn between his love for his wife Tonia and the alluring Lara. Then there are the two other men in Lara’s life: her revolutionary husband Pasha Antipov and the cynical, bourgeois magistrate Viktor Komarovsky.

Simon says that she had always wanted to explore the possibility of doing something Russian. “The palate seemed bold and romantic. Like most of us, I fell in love with the film before I knew the novel. I wondered if it could be what I was looking for. When I read the novel, I said, “no way”. When I watched the film again, I still said, “no way”.

“A year later, still haunted by the idea, I read the book again. I was completely pulled in and started to hear music in my mind. When I got to the last chapter of the novel – the 25 poems Pasternak wrote as Yuri Zhivago – I had my answer.

“Pasternak, a brilliant poet of the 20th century, wrote the novel in prose form. The lyric poems at the end, in a sense, retell the novel in poetry and exist as an alternate form of the same story. This chapter told me how to approach the work. My task was not to condense but to distil, to find a way to capture its essence, emotions and history in the form of a musical drama for the stage.”

After an initial attempt, which had a read-through in 1997, Simon approached McAnuff who she knew was also intrigued by the novel. What’s more, he has spent a lot of time in Russia and so understands the Russian mentality. Together they chose new writers – lyricists Michael Korie and Amy Powers and book writer Michael Weller. Though Simon had never worked with them before, they quickly formed a strong team. 

McAnuff was keen to develop the musical at the La Jolla Playhouse, a highly regarded not-for-profit company in San Diego, California, where he is Artistic Director. After workshopping the piece in 2004, they staged a production the following year in order to discover what worked and what didn’t.

Anita Waxman, the show’s American co-producer, says that they learned a great deal. “Most importantly we learned that we needed it to be a love story that was set during the Revolution as opposed to what we had done, which was to have the Revolution front and centre with the love story in the background. That is completely reversed now.”

The involvement of Frost and Warlow came about almost by chance. The two of them were in New York last year seeing shows when Waxman called Frost out of the blue to ask if he would be willing to discuss Doctor Zhivago and An Officer and a Gentleman (which is also being developed for the musical stage).

“He said he was free for lunch and could he bring Anthony Warlow,” recalls Waxman. “When I told Lucy that we were having lunch, she said that many years earlier when she had begun to write the music for Doctor Zhivago she used Anthony as the model for Yuri Zhivago.”

After lunch, they called Simon from the restaurant who invited them to her apartment near Central Park, where she played them some of the music. Over the course of the afternoon, Simon and Waxman were both convinced that Warlow truly was their Doctor Zhivago and offered him the role.

Warlow walked around New York for a week mulling it over, knowing what a huge commitment it would be to create a leading role in a major new musical and then, if successful, go overseas with it. 

“But these beautiful tunes kept popping into my head,” he recalls. “I thought ‘this is not a bad sign’. They were pretty tunes. They made me tingle. The songs actually moved me and if you feel it as an artist then the audience is going to feel it as well.”

No sooner had he signed on the dotted line than he had an omen-like experience. “I was walking down Madison Avenue and went into an antiquarian bookshop and as I went in I noticed right at the back in a dusty old glass cabinet a first edition of Doctor Zhivago,” he recalls. “So I bought it and started reading it on the plane back to Australia.”

Waxman considers Simon’s score for Doctor Zhivago (which is a book show with dialogue as opposed to being sung-through) to be “the most romantic music” she has heard since Les Misérables and The Secret Garden. “I truly believe she has written the most beautiful score we have heard in decades.”

Asked about her musical inspiration for the show, Simon says that her “starting point is always to discover the voice of the characters, to hear what they tell me musically.

“I grew up loving Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. My father was a pianist and Russian compositions became part of our household atmosphere. When I started working on Doctor Zhivago, I immersed myself in the works of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and other (Russian) composers that I hadn’t been familiar with. Russian folk music is wonderful and infectious. I have enjoyed using it where the text seemed to call for it.

“As the love story is what propels the narrative, much of the score is romantic and emotional,” says Simon. “But the novel is more than a love story: it is about love and art rising out of the ashes and enduring. The novel is set during a tumultuous time of war and revolution so there are marches and Soviet-style constructivist numbers as well as spirited folk numbers and political anthems.”

As for her writing process, Simon says her main instrument is her voice. “I sometimes don’t even go to the piano until I have found the melody in my voice so I don’t obscure where the melody wants to go. I am naturally a soprano but I have to write songs in the range for each character. It doesn’t sound great but I have become a passable baritone. I need to know how each song feels in my vocal chords. There is a subtle difference for each vocal range that I don’t discover until I am living there. I grew up singing with my two sisters (Joey and Carly Simon) so I love the blending of voices in harmony and counterpoint.

“One of the exciting themes of this novel is interconnecting destinies. My musical translation is to find countermelodies that can work together to viscerally inform the interaction. An example of this is weaving the themes of the revolution into the themes of old-world Russia at the end of Act I as the revolution displaces the aristocracy.”

Warlow has a real affinity for Simon’s music. “Lucy Simon writes from the heart,” he says. “There’s an emotional, human connection to the work. That was the feeling that got me in New York when I was listening to the material.”

For him, the music is “more romantically inclined than Les Misérables – and that’s just the nature of Lucy,” he says. “She is an incredibly spiritual woman as well. There are many layers in the Pasternak novel. He was very into Russian iconography and what the characters really mean.

“The name Zhivago comes from the word for ‘life’ in Russian. There is a life force in the character and a similar life force in me. In Russia they see him as a hero, they don’t see him as a philanderer or adulterer whereas in the western world when the book came out he was seen as an anti-hero because he was a pacifist.

“He is the audience’s eyes. That’s the challenge – getting the audience to come with me and follow the story arc through his eyes and all the things that happen to him as he passes through. He’s almost like a Christ figure. He walks through things and he’s almost healing situations around him and people are drawn to him.”

As for Lara, Warlow points to one of the poems in the book called Mary Magdalene. “That’s very much Lara. She is the soul, a strength in her own right. Mother Russia.”

Warlow candidly admits that some may consider him, at 48, a little old for Zhivago. “I will be very open here and say that maybe one would want to have a young juve lead playing the romantic Doctor Zhivago but it does go through his life to the age of about 50, which is, I think, the most poignant part of the story.

“I think it’s better for me to be the age I am because the crux of the story is when he’s older. He has had a hard life and Lara has had a hard life and it’s better to have that gravity than to be a young thing trying to be old.”

Warlow, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992, certainly brought his life experience to bear on the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera when he returned to it in 2008, 18 years after starring in the original Australian production.

Not only was he in sublime voice, but he brought new levels of emotion, psychological complexity and pathos to the role in an incomparable performance. “I think it’s about this baggage that we have in our lives and sometimes these roles become gifts because they are a cathartic experience,” he says. “The stuff that we were doing with Phantom all those years ago was more technical for me whereas this last time, while I suffered for it, I felt that it was far more dangerous and emotional.”

Had Warlow not committed to the role of Zhivago, Frost admits he probably wouldn’t have come on board as co-producer, despite being excited by the music.  “I knew it needed a star of his calibre for its launching pad in Australia,” he says.

Frost says he is thrilled by the rest of the cast and the creative team, which he describes as “an A-team of people at the top of their game”. Working alongside the American writers and director are a team of Australian designers, including set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell.

“To do this show on Broadway would probably cost between $12 million and $15 million,” says Frost. “In Australia it’s going to cost $5.5 million because things are cheaper to do here. I didn’t want a full American team coming here to do it so I really pushed for set, costumes, lighting and sound to come out of Australia.”

In the past, an Australian world premiere would have been seen as the ultimate out-of-town try-out but not anymore. “Today with the Internet that is gone,” says Waxman.

“We don’t view the Australian production as a try-out but as the ultimate production that we are honoured to premiere in Australia,” agrees Simon. “We have been so happy with every aspect of creating the show there. Of course we hope that this will be a production that will have a life beyond Australia, just as the creators of any show originating in London or New  York hope their work will be embraced in other countries.”  


Doctor Zhivago plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until May 29. View the event details here

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Limelight.