Sally Whitwell hopes her new musical might throw a spanner into the works of the usual commercial Christmas machine.

Work Cog in the Machine
Composer Sally Whitwell
Scored for Young People
Commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs
Premiere Glebe Town Hall and Bondi Pavilion, December 5 and 6
Performers VOX, Sydney Children’s Choir

I’m a little emotionally conflicted about Christmas. It’s the commercialisation of it that irks me. Festive advertisements start cranking up all the way from the beginning of October until the big day.  Ridiculous! It is my aversion to aggressive marketing that inspired my brand new musical theatre work, Cog in the Machine

Commissioned by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ youth ensemble VOX, the brief was for a Christmas show they could take to family friendly community venues. A musical seemed to me the perfect genre through which to tell my modern Christmas story. All the main characters are played by VOX choristers (so much talent within the ensemble!) and also by some wonderful young choristers from Sydney Children’s Choir. Inspired at least in part by the musical Once where the cast play the orchestral accompaniment, the VOX choristers play both a traditional chorus as well as singing abstract accompanying textures as a vocal orchestra of sorts.

The story: Cog in the Machine tells the tale of a battle between major corporation “Legerdemain Incorporating Evasive Solutions (L.I.E.S International)” and average suburban family Mr. and Mrs. Helpus and their three kids Stella, Jane and Bobby. Whilst online Christmas shopping, Mr. Helpus sees an advertisement for L.I.E.S’s Sublee-Mate®, a machine which transforms whining, disagreeable children into model offspring at the touch of a button. What it actually does though is implant chips inside the heads of children via which L.I.E.S International can do some aggressive direct marketing. Clever young Stella finds out what’s really going on by sneaking into company headquarters to spy on Marketing director Dr. Spin and CEO Snoop Lyin’. She then befriends company scientist Dr. Smart and encourages her to help protect Jane and Bobby by sabotaging the dangerous machine.

Each of the characters is identified musically e.g. Dr. Spin by a smooth Rat-Pack swing, little Bobby by a Rodgers and Hammerstein-style waltz, Jane by a cinematic hero’s march. Central to the show is the machine itself, in both a literal and a figurative sense (i.e. corporate machines) represented by the chorus through both the percussive use of text, as well as a loosely steampunk-inspired combination of mechanical and computer-age sounds achieved through vocal percussion. Various toy instruments contribute to the lo-fi feel of the show, as if it were made by the children. It’s their story, after all.