Australian composer Sean O’Boyle and his partner writer/performer Amanda Jane Pritchard were in London working on a musical theatre project for the West End, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the project was cancelled.

They tried to book a flight back to Australia but with the chaos that followed the coronavirus, there weren’t many available. Eventually they managed to secure two tickets but the flight was then cancelled. As they waited to see what would happen next, they decided to use their isolation time in London by starting work on a new show – Coronavirus the Musical Musical.

O’Boyle composed a lively two-minute overture that draws on a range of genres including modern classical, jazz, rock, country, Celtic and choral, while Pritchard wrote the opening scene, which features a brawl in a supermarket as shoppers vie for toilet paper and other essentials.

Amanda Jane Pritchard and Sean O’Boyle in COVID-19 lockdown. Photograph supplied

“The overture is quite short so we thought that we would get all our musical friends from around the world to record it in isolation. I knew that it would be problematic and difficult but we ended up with 112 musicians, and more than 200 tracks,” says O’Boyle who is now in Melbourne where he and Pritchard have just been released from two weeks quarantine in a hotel after arriving there on a Qantas repatriation flight.

“We don’t really have a base as such in Australia any more, so Melbourne it is!” says O’Boyle, who prior to arriving in London in February, had spent the previous few years moving between the US and the Sunshine Coast where he started a new music program at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

O’Boyle is a prolific composer whose music has been performed or recorded by Australia’s major orchestras as well as international orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

Along the way he has met a huge number of musicians, many of whom agreed to take part in the recording of the Coronavirus the Musical Musical overture. They include Dame Evelyn Glennie (snare drum), Andrew Bain (Principal Horn, Los Angeles Philharmonic), Professor Peter Luff (Deputy Director, Queensland Conservatorium), Sarah Curro (First Violin, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), Alasdair Malloy (percussion, BBC Concert Orchestra), John Jorgenson (guitar and saxophone, Elton John band), and Sonia Croucher (Principal Piccolo, Malaysian Philharmonic), as well as singers including Rhonda Burchmore, Kate Ceberano, Katie Noonan, Simon Gallaher and Adam Lopez.

O’Boyle asked each musician to record themselves playing to a click track, and to send in a video of them performing. He edited all the individual tracks on Pro Tools while he was in isolation in London, and then sent them to Geoff McGahan, an engineer in Brisbane.

He also found a video editor who helped assemble a video featuring each of the 112 musicians involved, all of whom volunteered their time. That video is now available on YouTube and on their Facebook page.

“To do just over two minutes of music has taken the better part of two months really. But I think it’s well worth it,” says O’Boyle. “We had identified at the start in speaking with our engineer that there are all these really wonderful products coming out from people in isolation. The vision always looked pretty good but the audio suffered so I had the time to finesse it. The engineer Geoff and I spoke about how we wanted it to sound as much as possible as if it had been recorded with a symphony orchestra, all in the same room, even though our principal horn player is from the LA Philharmonic, and Dame Evelyn Glennie played snare drum in her percussion studio in London, and all these people from all over the world from Malaysia and Serbia and America and Australia… so it was pretty interesting.”

“We sent a rough draft of the video to all of the musicians basically to say ‘make sure you are in there’ because there were so many people. We had missed about five or six of them so we found their footage and they were edited back in so that everyone is in there. That was the most important thing because they are the isolation orchestra really.”

Musically the overture embraces a range of musical styles. “What I wanted to do was embrace a lot of musical colleagues and friends, which include country musicians and bagpipe players so I just threw everything at it including a part for kitchen sink instruments,” says O’Boyle. “Someone plays a wine bottle and there are some scissors. But all the little snippets of melody that are in there, we are slowly combining into the musical, so that in a true sense it is an overture that is a representative of the music that is in the show.”

Pritchard came up with the story for the musical, which is a satirical comedy. “I do musical comedy mostly and I immediately saw the funny side in what was going on,” says Pritchard. “I think a lot of people did.” That said, the show embraces serious themes including mental health, sexual identity and climate change, as well as the impact of COVID-19.

Coronavirus the Musical Musical gets its name from the fact that it is a musical within a musical, with Pritchard mentioning Michael Frayn’s play Noises Off and the musical The Producers as influences.

“It’s actually taking two really topical things – obviously the coronavirus, but also the thing that was dominating the news [before COVID-19] which was the Extinction Rebellion movement. So it’s about the making of an Extinction Rebellion musical during the coronavirus pandemic. The producer is quite ruthless, he’s an Aussie from Gundagai, a cashed-up bogan who fancies himself as a bit of a tune-maker and a writer but he’s actually written this exceptionally mediocre musical. Then the pandemic hits but he’s adamant that it’s going to go ahead,” says Pritchard.

“It is historically as accurate as we can make it as far as how the lockdown happened, and then all of a sudden there’s social distancing so the rehearsals have to happen with two-metre distancing. It’s really farcical in many ways.”

Amanda Jane Pritchard and Sean O’Boyle. Photograph supplied

“I always shine a spotlight on mental health in my work so one of the main characters has bipolar disorder and is also bisexual, and the cashed-up bogan producer is very old-school and doesn’t understand mental illness nor does he understand homosexuality. And so it does become a bit of a moral victory for these young people who he brings in to work on his musical. So that’s the story in nutshell,” says Pritchard.

While O’Boyle and Pritchard were in London – where they were working on redeveloping a musical called Mimma, which had a short run in Perth in April 2019, for a possible West End run – they became very friendly with Tama Matheson who had been engaged to rewrite the book of Mimma and direct it in London.

“Tama has been quite instrumental in the development of Coronavirus the Musical Musical and he’s going to be dramaturg and also play one of the characters. So that’s really exciting,” says Pritchard.

Other performers who are attached to the project at this stage are Rhonda Burchmore, who will play Wanda the Warbler (“who thinks she is a reincarnation of Dame Joan Sutherland but she’s more like Florence Foster Jenkins”, says O’Boyle) and the mother of the bisexual character Britney, and Neil Melville who will play the producer Reginald Coote.

Asked how they will develop the show from here, O’Boyle says that they plan to have their first reading of the show on Zoom in around a month’s time.

“We see it on a stage in the theatre and not streaming,” says O’Boyle. “We have spoken to quite a few producers including some on Broadway so we really want to develop it properly. No one thinks that any theatre is really going to open for about another 18 months, which is probably perfect timing to raise finance and do all the normal things you have to do for a musical in order to get it on the stage. But we are extremely confident so we have that going for us.”