For an Australian composer to have not one but two of their musicals revived is comparatively rare. To have them both on at the same time is even more remarkable. But such is the happy situation Max Lambert will find himself in January when a 30th anniversary production of Darlinghurst Nights opens at the Hayes Theatre Co, while Miracle City, starring Missy Higgins, plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse prior to a season at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre in February.
“I was trying to work out whether an Australian having two musicals on at the same time was a bit of a first. And maybe it is, or maybe that happened a lot in 1926. But it hasn’t happened a lot in my life time I don’t think,” says Lambert.
Max Lambert. Photograph supplied
Born in Sydney in 1955, Lambert is one of Australia’s leading musical directors, theatre composers and arrangers, whose many credits include working as Musical Supervisor on The Boy From Oz,David Atkins’ Hot Shoe Shuffle, Hairspray, King Kong – The Musical and Strictly Ballroom – The Musical. His recent theatre credits include composing the music for Griffin Theatre Company’s productions of Diving for Pearls, The Literti and Ladies’ Day.
He co-composed Berlin for Sydney Dance Company and co-wrote Tivoli for The Australian Ballet, while his numerous other credits include working as Music Director on opening and closing ceremonies for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.
Lambert co-wrote Miracle City with Nick Enright (who died in 2003). The show was premiered by Sydney Theatre Company in Wharf 2 in 1996, thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from West End producer Cameron Mackintosh for a programme to develop new Australian musicals, and though it sold out was then not seen for close to 20 years.
Then in 2014, it had a second coming at the Hayes Theatre Co, directed by Lambert’s partner Darren Yap, with Lambert himself as Musical Director (for which he won a Sydney Theatre Award). Featuring a cast including Blazey Best and Esther Hannaford, it received excellent reviews.
“It was David [Campbell] who rang me up and said ‘can we do Miracle City?’ and I said ‘no! I don’t think so,’” recalls Lambert with a laugh. “It had sort of passed into legend, it was a little bit like the loaves and fishes, the number of people who claimed to have seen it [at STC] as opposed to how many seats could have been sold. It felt like millions had seen it.”
However, he allowed himself to be convinced and nearly two decades on the show – which was originally inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker – certainly held up.
Set in Tennessee, Miracle City tells the story of televangelist family the Truswells. The musical happens in real time during one of their Sunday morning TV shows. With the cameras on them it’s all gleaming white smiles, soaring gospel songs and cheesy God-will-heal-you joy. But backstage a much darker story is unfolding. Ricky Truswell is determined to build a Christian theme park but unbeknown to his wife Lora-Lee it is close to sending them bankrupt. Salvation arrives in the form of preacher Millard Sizemore but he wants something shocking in return for his investment, his lascivious eye alighting on the Truswells’ 16-year-old daughter Loretta.
In October, The Theatre Division produced a new staging of the musical in the Sydney Opera House Studio, also directed by Yap, with a cast including Missy Higgins as recovering drug addict Bonnie Mae who gets to sing the show’s most beautiful and famous song I’ll Hold On. (Read Limelight’s review).
Max Lambert and Nick Enright at the time they wrote Miracle City. Photograph courtesy of The Theatre Division
“It seems with Harvey Weinstein, that it’s even more current,” says Lambert, who was Musical Director on that production too, playing with the band each night. Casting his mind back to when he and Enright wrote it, he admits that it was Enright who pushed the darker material.
“In 1996, when Nick said ‘[Sizemore] goes backstage and asks one of the girls for sex while he’s also come to ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage’ I went ‘Nick, I think that’s just a bridge too far, why would he do that?’ And Nick never answered that question but he insisted on it being there. Since then, of course we’ve had Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, and now Harvey Weinstein and others,” says Lambert.
“It’s funny what people laugh at and what they don’t laugh at. In 1996, they did laugh at the idea that he was putting the hard word on Bonnie Mae, but now they don’t laugh at that all. Back in 1996 when Tom Burlinson [who played Ricky Truswell] said ‘I’m going to put my hand up to the camera, put your hand up the TV and you’ll feel the warmth of it, that’s the love of Jesus’, in 1996 everyone thought that was hilarious but in the Hayes version no one laughed, ever. In this version there are uncomfortable titters but not much, and often nothing,” says Lambert.
The original idea for Miracle City was, in fact, Lambert’s. “I thought there was something wonderful about music at church, but that there was something really wrong with it. And I would ask people ‘why do you go to church?’ and they’d go for the singing, either for themselves or to listen to people singing. And I thought there was something in that,” he says. “And also we both wanted to write a vehicle for Genevieve [Lemon, who played Lora-Lee in the original STC production]. It was definitely for her.”
The Theatre Division production of Miracle City. Photograph © Branco Gaica
The show came to the attention of STC when Lambert was asked if there’s was anything he could do at a Friends of the STC fundraiser and he organised for Penny Pavklakis to sing I’ll Hold On. “We had the soundcheck in the afternoon. There was general chaos and then everything stopped for that song, complete silence, and the same thing happened that night. And Wayne Harrison [STC’s then Artistic Director] came up to us – Nick was there – and said I don’t really care what the show’s about. If that song’s in it, I want to do it, and so that’s how it started.”
Lisa Callingham sang I’ll Hold On in the original STC production, Esther Hannaford sang it at the Hayes, and Missy Higgins gets to put her own distinctive spin on it in the current version, which is headed for Brisbane from January 24 and Melbourne from February 9.
Lambert and Enright went on to collaborate on The Boy From Oz, which premiered in 1998, then went their separate ways, with Enright working on Cloudstreet for Belvoir and Black Swan State Theatre Company, and Lambert working on the Olympics – which he refers to in his wryly deadpan way as “the sports carnival” – and then the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. “By the time I came back Nick was very sick. And I only really saw him for another couple of months before he died,” says Lambert.
“After Nick died, Robyn [Nevin, Harrison’s successor as STC Artistic Director] was keen to do a version of Miracle City at the Wharf and Katherine [Thomson] was employed with the agreement of David Marr and the Enrights to rewrite it into a two-act version where you see act one essentially as it is now, and then in act two you would see the following week, and find out what had happened. There’s a script…”, says Lambert. Fortuitiously, perhaps, that version never happened.
Thomson and Lambert had previously collaborated on a musical called Darlinghurst Nights. Thomson is an acclaimed playwright whose plays include Diving for Pearls, staged by Griffin recently. Inspired by Kenneth Slessor’s 1933 book of verse of the same name, Darlinghurst Nights is set in Kings Cross in the 1920s and 30s and celebrates the colourful, seedy side of life there at a time when the Cross was the only place in Sydney where people could live a bohemian life without fear of intolerance.
The show was first produced by STC in 1988 where it was a huge success and was revived in 2000 at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Olympic Arts Festival.
“It’s really lovely that it’s going to be in a theatre where everything that’s happened is right around it, so close by. Kenneth Slessor lived down in Cavendish Hall in Billyard Avenue,” says Lambert. “I remember [TV and theatre producer] David Mitchell telling me that it was very exciting because Peter Allen was going to write a musical based on the poems of Darlinghurst Nights. Decades later, I said to David, ‘what was it like?’ And he said ‘it was very strange – we went to Peter Allen’s hotel and he hardly played anything and we weren’t allowed to record anything and I can’t remember what it was like’, so I never found that out.”
Anyone who knows Lambert will be aware that he often quips about how he hates the theatre and never goes. However, he is now writing another musical with Australian playwright Stephen Sewell, details of which must remain under wraps for now.
“It’s very funny. My agent rang up and said Steven Sewell wants to talk to you and I said ‘no, that’s a mistake, he’s looking for Max Lyandvert [an acclaimed composer who regularly works in the theatre]. I’m sure that’s what he means’. I didn’t hear anything for a while, then she texted back and said ‘no it’s you’, so we’ve been working on a musical together which is coming along. He’s fantastic – tough and clever, so it’s been great and very stimulating.”
Miracle City plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse, January 24 – February 3
and at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre, February 9 – 17
Darlinghurst Nights plays at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, January 4 – 27