Cameron Menzies has been building an impressive career in Australia and overseas as a director of opera, theatre and cabaret over the past five or so years. Born in Sydney, he now lives in Melbourne, but spends part of each year living and working in London.
Cameron Menzies. Photograph supplied
His directing credits range from Deborah Cheetham’s first Aboriginal opera Pecan Summer for Short Black Opera Company, to operas such as Don Giovanni, Lucia di Lammermoor, Le Nozze di Figaro, Così Fan Tutte and La Bohème for Britain’s leading chamber opera company Diva Opera, which tours works around the UK and internationally.
Now an Associate Artist at Diva Opera, Menzies’s 2018 production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) was recently performed in Japan, while his new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is touring around the UK and France this year.
Menzies is currently in Australia directing a new production of the musical Hair, produced by David M. Hawkins to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Australian production, which opened at The Metro Theatre in Kings Cross, Sydney in 1969.
In October, he directs the world premiere of The Selfish Giant, a youth opera for Victorian Opera with a score by Simon Bruckard and libretto by Emma Muir-Smith. Based on Oscar Wilde’s story, it tells the story of a grumpy giant who bans children from his garden, which then falls into permanent winter.
Menzies’s previous credits for Victorian Opera include Seven Deadly Sins, starring Meow Meow, The Grumpiest Boy in the World and The Magic Pudding. He also directed Meow Meow in Pandemonium with Sydney Symphony Orchestra, More Pandemonium with London Philharmonic Orchestra, and Apocalypse Meow at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London. His other cabaret credits include directing Courtney Act in Under the Covers, and Ali McGregor in Yma Sumac – The Peruvian Song Bird.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical was written by two out-of-work American actors, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who had become inspired by the hippie movement and its push for love, peace and flower-power. Putting the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution on stage, including a famous nude scene, it tells the story of a ‘tribe’ of hippies living a Bohemian life in New York and fighting against conscription in the Vietnam War. The famous score includes songs such as Aquarius, I Got Life, Good Morning Starshine and Easy to Be Hard. After an Off-Broadway season in 1967, the groundbreaking show opened on Broadway in 1968 then moved to the West End and Australia. Produced here by the legendary, ambitious, maverick Harry M. Miller, Hair changed the face of Australian musical theatre.
Paulini, Hugh Sheridan, Matthew Manahan and Prinnie Stevens who star in Cameron Menzies’s production of Hair. Photograph © John McRae
Menzies’s new production opens in Perth tonight with a cast including Hugh Sheridan as Berger, Paulini as Dione, Matthew Manahan as Claude, Prinnie Stevens as Sheila, Angelique Cassimatis as Jeanie, and Stefanie Caccaomo as Crissy. He spoke to Limelight about his career and letting his Hair down as a director.
Do you enjoy moving between genres and such different styles of work?
Yes, I really do, I love them all so much. It is greedy of me I guess, but I just love being able to jump between different styles of music and telling a story. Music is such a great way of accessing stories and talking to people.
Times have changed since Hair premiered in the last 1960s. At the same time, we are seeing a rise in right-wing conservatism, so it’s an interesting time to be producing the show. In the past, some directors have tried to update Hair, with one production linking it to the Gulf War. Are you keeping it in the 1960s?
I’m setting it very much in 1967. I feel like it’s very important for those characters to be close to post-World War II, to be in that environment, having grown up with that in their parents’ minds. But also [they are] children who have not had a war and then have their country plunged into war. I think it’s important for those characters to be wedged in that little part of history. Some of the politics are universal to the piece, but it is borne by a certain incident being the Vietnam War. We can all look at warfare in our generation and the wars are very similar, but they are not the same. You look at history – the 1920s after World War I, with that breakout out of the flapper and short skirts and short hair, and then you look at the 1960s and the hippie movement and the long hair, which is a breakout out of the 1950s post-World War II, and I just feel like that [period of time] is a very specific thing to the lyrics, to the music, and to that way of thinking. That hippie way of thinking is quite specific.
That is how the show is structured in a way isn’t it, with an almost trippy feel at times, using vignettes rather than a clearly structured narrative?
It is sort of called the ‘no-book’ musical, but it is actually very cleverly structured. When I started first looking into it and directing it, [I realised] it was quite cleverly and classically structured, and quite balanced in how it was written. Whereas all the scenes that happen outside the tribe are all very pantomime-like and playful, the scenes that happen in reality inside the tribe are very three-dimensional and dramatic. So, it has this very interesting cross-genre, and there are references to Hamlet, a lot of Shakespearean references at the end when Claude is dead, having gone to war. They desperately try to call on the snow to clean up the world. That feels very much out of The Wizard of Oz with the snow falling to break the evil magic, and it’s such great imagery. And actually the two guys who wrote it were classical actors.
You then direct The Selfish Giant, which is a new opera, so something very different to Hair, written for a family audience?
It’s very different, yes. It’s written for a family audience and specifically for youth performers. So, it has been devised to be able to accommodate young singers, aged 12 and 13, and then the principal roles are played by either people at university or who have just graduated, so the young professionals. So it encompasses that whole range of children who want to perform, and young people, at different levels, who have an interest in singing, and that’s how it has been devised as a piece.
How different is the process when putting a brand new work on stage?
It is quite different. It’s wonderful in lots of ways because you can actually pick up the phone and talk to the composer – that’s always a new thing after directing [works by] Mozart or Puccini. But it’s wonderful. I’ve done quite a lot of new operas now and all very different as well, from something like Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer to a crazy netball opera called Contact [at Arts Centre Melbourne]. I think it’s about finding the language [for the work]… about finding that sonic space and how the lyrics sit within that world. That’s the beauty of working on new things. And if something is unclear to you, you can literally just call up the composer and say “What were you thinking in this bit?” Also, you have the luxury to slightly bend things. Simon [Bruckard, the composer of The Selfish Giant] said to me, “if there’s any scenes where you need slightly more music or less, [let me know]”.
I know a lot of rewriting happens when new musicals are being rehearsed…
Well that’s the old phrase isn’t it: “Musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten.” With The Selfish Giant we did a workshop process last year, and I’ve been talking to the librettist [Emma Muir-smith] consistently about the working process. She lives in London now so when I was working there we caught up a lot and talked through the piece. There is a lot of conversation that goes on post-workshop before casting and staging it. I love it, it’s so fascinating working on new works.
How would you describe the musical world created for it?
It’s very lush in lots of ways. It is thematically written for the characters. The piece is based on the Oscar Wilde short story, The Selfish Giant. It’s quite allegorical, there are beautiful melancholic ballads for the giant, then the winter comes in as four different characters. They’re sort of derelict, homeless characters and they arrive in this garden and stay there for seven years. So, they have a more bumbling, comic world. But it’s varied as well, and very lush. What I like about it is that it certainly hasn’t been dumbed down because it’s a family piece, it’s quite sophisticated musically. There are also beautiful instrumental sections, which almost nod back to that old ballet act in operas. Talking to Simon and Emma, who created it, we discussed the importance of children being able to listen to an orchestral section, so [there are these] purely orchestral moments – and all just within an hour, a nice, short time span, which is good for young people.
I believe you are working on a new song cycle. Can you tell us anything about that?
Ah, I’m not sure how much I can say about it actually, but it’s a new song cycle that I’m working on with a composer called Luke Styles and librettist Hilary Bell. And we’re writing it about an almost forgotten woman who was a vaudevillian, an amazing sports woman and inventor. She was fabulous.
What is the time frame for that?
We’re looking at a workshop then of the piece next year. Luke and I met each other when we were both working in London, and we thought we should do something, but this was after many conversations and many hours. He didn’t want to write an opera about it and a song cycle was sort of the next step because it can be completely produced or just be staged with a piano. It’s a very exciting process.
Hair plays at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth until September 1, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, September 4 – 8, The Art House, Wyong, September 19 – 21, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, September 25 – 29, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, October 3 – 6, Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, October 11 – 12
The Selfish Giant plays at Gasworks Theatre, Albert Park, Melbourne, October 17 – 19