Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank have joined forces again to adapt Miles Franklin’s legendary coming-of-age novel My Brilliant Career into a musical, telling the story of the fiery misfit Sybylla as she wrestles with the restricted life on offer for a young woman in Australia 100 years ago.

Luisa Scrofani in a promotional image for My Brilliant Career

An acclaimed director and librettist, Bryant is currently an Associate Director at Melbourne Theatre Company, while Frank is an admired musical director and composer. They met at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), where they workshopped their first musical Prodigal, which was produced at Chapel off Chapel in Melbourne in 2000, winning a Green Room Award for Best Original Score. In 2002, the show premiered off-Broadway in New York. Their other credits include the musical Once We Lived Here, and the hugely successful Britney Spears: The Cabaret, which they created for Christie Whelan Browne.

Their new musical of My Brilliant Career has been developed as part of the Jeanne Pratt Musical Theatre Artists in Residence program, a groundbreaking collaboration with Monash University performing arts students and professional artists. It will be performed as part of MLive at Monash University from October 18. Dean Bryant spoke to Limelight about the new musical.

When did you first think about writing a musical based on My Brilliant Career?

We pitched it to a company a few years ago as a possible adaptation, and for that we had to write a song to show the style we’d work in. That’s where In the Wrong Key came from – originally a song for Sybylla to sing on her drought-struck farm. That song became the engine to want to write the musical, and our audition for the program this year. However it didn’t really fit what we wanted to do with the piece anymore until we realised that Syb wanting to be a writer in a musical meant that could also encompass singer-songwriter. This gave us a musical language for the whole piece and it positioned this song as the one where she reveals her talent at Caddagat.

Were you inspired by the book, the film or both?

Only the book. We wanted to go back to what Miles Franklin created, rather than someone else’s (incredible) adaptation. And the book felt extraordinarily resonant in 2019. In fact, the first thing I did was comb the dialogue and direct-address from the book for sentences that sing today. How Syb deals with the people around her is shockingly brave for now, let alone the time she was in. She utterly refuses to take the easy way out, and yet is so magnetic in spite of it.

What was it about the story that made you think it would suit a musical?

Almost everything Mathew and I have written has female protagonists – the entire cast of Virgins, Esther Hannaford’s role in Once We Lived Here, Christie’s Britney Spears show. We’re drawn to telling those stories in musical form. And Syb is the ultimate female protagonist. Also, she talks to the reader, which translates brilliantly to musical theatre – that’s what solos tend to be!

How long have you been working on it?

We started writing in February this year after we opened Lady in the Van at Melbourne Theatre Company. We wrote the entire first draft in two months by sticking to a strict timetable. The pressure of Petra Kalive, our director, needing to start the design process meant that we couldn’t slack off or delay, and I think that head of steam meant the youthful energy of the show stayed front and centre. After the first draft (and a few rewrites based on notes from Petra, our incredible dramaturg Anna Barnes, and trusted colleagues Alicia Clements and Virginia Gay) we did a week’s workshop with the cast, another set of rewrites, which have continued right up until today!

Do you tell the story chronologically?

Yes, we follow the story beats of the book pretty closely, with two flashbacks.

Do you use a narrator figure?

Syb talks to the audience, the way she did to the reader, but it’s quite sparing and feels akin to how Phoebe Waller-Bridge addresses the camera in Fleabag. It’s less about information or plot than about getting inside her mind.

Mathew Frank and Dean Bryant. Photograph © Sarah Walker

What musical style are you using? Does it include references to music of the period?

There is a little turn of the last century – early jazz/ragtime, hymns and gorgeous waltzes – but mostly it’s in the style of music of the last few decades. The influences are Sara Bareilles, Carole King, Lady Gaga, modern country and western, all filtered through the perspective of musical theatre. James Simpson, our world-class orchestrator, has created a thrilling folk/rock sound for seven instruments.

The Jeanne Pratt Musical Artists in Residence program allows the staging you have coming up at Monash. How valuable is that experience?

It is the best possible way to make a new musical. I can’t speak highly enough of how valuable it is to be writing for the practical stage – not just making up the story, the songs, the dramaturgical part of the musical, but having to work towards the director’s needs, the designer’s needs, all the time working towards a full production. It’s all the joys of making a piece for the stage, without the stress of it being in the centre of town.

How fully staged will the Monash production be?

Fully staged – set, costumes, lighting, sound, band. It’s a bit of a hybrid production. We only need eight actors to tell the story, but we’ve got the luxury of 35 students to create these massive Australian landscapes. Nonetheless, it’s created as a chamber piece. We have a crack creative team: Petra, our director, but also Chloe Greaves as designer, who did Barbara and the Camp Dogs. The cast is led by Helpmann nominee Luisa Scrofani as Syb, with Anne Wood (Beautiful), James Millar (Matilda), Natalie O’Donnell (Mamma Mia) and our romantic lead is Andrew Coshan who made a remarkable pro debut this year in MTC’s A View from the Bridge.

How do you hope the musical will develop from here? Do you have producers and directors coming to Monash?

I’d love to see it on stages here and round the world. For such an Australian story it feels like it could be told anywhere in the world, and feels like something that high schools especially would jump onto. When does a teenage girl get to lead her own story, belt out the majority of the score and choose herself over everything else?

We have quite a few producers coming out to Monash over the week-long season, and there’s a documentary being produced of the experience from day one, with tons of great footage.

My Brilliant Career plays at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University, October 18 – 25