The Sydney-based composer and arranger on translating the much-loved Australian film for the stage.
How did you get involved in the show?
I collaborated with Baz Lurhmann most recently on The Great Gatsby soundtrack. I was working in a capacity where we were trying out lots of different approaches to doing different arrangements in different styles – going between the 20s and the music of Craig Armstrong’s beautiful scores and interpreting that in different ways and so that created a really good shorthand for communicating musically on that project. So when Strictly Ballroom came up it sort of seemed like a very natural continuation to just keep working together.
What is Baz like to work with?
Baz is fantastic to work with. He’s so incredibly inspiring and he has such a fantastic musical vocabulary. With some people that you work with coming from a different area you have a communication problem, but with Baz it’s very, very easy to get ideas across. He’ll sing counter-melodies to me or say ‘There should be strings in here’ or ‘Let’s try putting beats in here’. He’s extremely involved in every musical decision, and also has a gift of creating environments where people feel extremely comfortable collaborating together.
Strictly ballroom isn’t strictly a movie musical, but it is still largely defined by its musical moments. How have songs like Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, Time After Time and Love Is in the Air been adapted for the show?
That’s one thing we were very conscious of when we were starting the writing process. We wanted to make sure that the things people would be hoping to see in the show would be there and those numbers still feature very prominently. But what we wanted to do with the production as well was really develop it and breathe new life into it so you have an all-singing, all-dancing experience. So as well as all the ones that you hope are going to be in there, there are lots of wonderful new surprises.
The show features a slew of new music composed by David Foster, Diane Warren, Sia Furler, Eddie Perfect and yourself. Was there much collaboration between songwriters, or were each of you working independently?
Being able to work with such a high calibre of artists and having them willing to workshop ideas and really give their all is really a testament to the fantastic working environment that Baz is able to create. As to collaboration, it depends on where we were in the process. In nearly every case it started with Baz going to each individual composer and talking about ideas for a specific area or a particular character. In some cases it’d be trying different things in a number of different places in the show. From there, it's really a matter of working back and forth with Baz, Craig Pearce, myself and the team to make sure the music and the composers’ wonderful ideas are fitting in seamlessly to the context of the rest of the show.
You were in charge of pulling all the music together and making it into a cohesive, unified sound. Was this a difficult process?
Something that’s fantastic about Baz and Craig, having known the story so incredibly and knowing all the characters so well, is that they’re very easily able to hone and craft and mould the different songs to fit within the tone of the show and the tone that they know so well. The composers are also such strong melodic writers that they have these themes that really stand up and can support such a different variety of treatments and dressing depending on what it is we need those themes to be doing at a particular time. Everyone has been very, very welcoming in terms of the way the arrangements have been put together. It’s been a very positive process. It’s been a happy family so far; it’s been great.
What sort of sound can people expect? Is there a rock band or more traditional orchestration?
It really just depends on what flavour we were going for at the time. You have all the elements from the ballroom level which range from orchestral elements to Latin elements to jive elements and then you have all these wonderful Spanish flavours as well which has been fantastic to get our heads around. At the same time, each time we would delve into one of those styles we would really examine it and see whether the style was serving the purpose of the story and getting the storyline across at each and every step of the way.
You also write for film and record your own rock music. How different is writing for a musical?
There are elements that are similar: I think my actual melodic writing and musical sensibilities all stem from the same well; there are just some different considerations. With writing an album you have as much time as you want to produce whatever you want, and you can use whatever tools you need to get the sound that you’re going to create. With the musical you’ve constantly got in the back of your mind a couple things: one, you’ve got an audience that you have to bring along with you on a journey. Each night you’re writing for a live band as well so you’re constantly monitoring that what you’re doing is going to be achievable in a live context. And also the thing that has been fantastic and a real joy for me is working with the maestro John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell and really being able to collaborate with him and making sure the music is serving what needs to happen for the dance steps as well.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical opens March 25 at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre