An Interview with the creatives from Ladies in Black

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Here is part two of the group interviews with director, Simon Phillips and Music/Lyricist, Tim Finn.

What: Ladies in Black media call
Where: Regent Theatre, Melbourne
When: 29th November, 2016

Coming to Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra in 2017!

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SIMON PhillipsDirector
Simon on the name change
“It’s been a project of love from the very beginning of the show. It’s based on the book by Madeleine St John, called the Women in Black. For those of you who find the title change offensive, we were forced to do this because if you google the women in black, you got the Woman in Black, which is a thriller that Daniel Radcliffe made, for the first 29 hits that you could look for, so we knew that we had to change the title or else no one would know the show was on if they looked it up on the internet.”

Simon on the name change and show itself
It is the most beautiful book. Tim Finn, in fact read it first, and sent it to me and said, ‘I reckon there might be a musical in this book’. I read the book – for me the book was like a page turner; I found it really vibrantly written – and just completely feel in love – it’s absolutely a gem of a novel. The intensity of euphonious are described in the book, that made me think it has the necessary ingredients. It’s not easy because there’s so many stories. It’s about how the three lines plait together that makes it work, but these key moments feel vibrant with a vital energy. Tim, he’s such a great songwriter, he has the capacity to bring those things to life.

I said, ‘I’ve got just the person who can help you get this on – I happened to be married to her’, so Carolyn Burns, my wife, did the adaptation. I’ve worked in the theatre for a long time, there is a touch of magic about this show. It’s a coming-of-age story in the 50s of a young girl, who is highly intelligent, who gets a job working at Goods Department Store. When she gets there, she encounters the ladies in black and life is changed forever by getting to know the very moving stories of these women.

Eventually, QPAC in Brisbane and Queensland Theatre Company rallied resources to get this show on. It was a great hit there, and then it came to Melbourne and it was a hit here. This is like the mouse that roared, this musical, it’s a small, home-grown Australian musical that’s about Australian people in the 50s and it’s up against every mega-American musical that thunders into town. I hope you’ve all booked your tickets to those shows and we now need the icing on the cake and I reckon Ladies in Black is going to be it.”

Simon on Tim’s music
“Tim had written some songs when he first approached us about the musical. As Carolyn started working on the script, she would occasionally send him an email going, ‘I just need a song about this’ and about 45 seconds later it would arrive via email on a little demo. And in every case, Tim would be doing his rendition of whatever character was required to sing the song.

Now some of these were safe to say, were less successful than others – his rendition of the 16-year old school girl had a touch of the spooky about it. One of the characters he embraced were, the worrying degree of empathy, the mid-40s voluptuous and magnificent middle-European women, Magda, in charge of model gowns, who introduces Lisa, the young schoolgirl, to a whole new astonishing world of style and fashion.”

Simon on changes in the show this second time around
“We were amazingly supported by QPAC – they did give us that early workshop which got a lot of things ironed out. We did a tiny one even before we even went to them which we paid for with a few actor friends to start working it. But still, as usual, a tonne was done in the rehearsal room for the first time. That cast worked so hard [but until] you’re putting it on, you don’t quite know structurally [how things are going to go], but we were really happy with the result. It’s just an emotional ride for the crowd.

You’ll think it’s exactly the same, let’s put it that way. There’ll be some indiscernible changes, but we did a few changes between it opening in Brisbane and it coming to Melbourne. We really did do a few changes then. But I think this time around, we thought, look it’s not broken, we won’t try and fix it. It’s all good.”

Simon on working on this show compared to other blockbusters he has made
It’s a very different kind of show. There are 11 people in the show; those people tell the story. It’s important to know it’s not a massive chorus of 20 people backing up with all singing and dancing. If we’d been able to do that from the beginning, we might have filled the store with shop people, but we thought we won’t, we’ll keep it really intimate, and let people get to know those people and invest in them. In the end, that’s turned out to be one of its strengths. The story, I love it, because it’s more of a character-plot based story than some of the other things I’ve done.”

Simon on if it’s important to have read the book before seeing the show
“I don’t think it’s at all important [for people to have read the book]. You find people relating so strongly to particular things. Some of them are generational specific and some are for all time. Lisa talks about going down to get her exam results where they’re posted when the newspaper and you heard this rustle go through the audience.

Her real love interest is education. We found, when we played the show in its original seasons, that feeling of the right to be educated hit a lot of women of certain generations in the audience. Carolyn found a couple weeping in the toilets. Whereas Sarah’s character gets her wish, there are people in the 50s who didn’t, whose fathers won out and they never got educated.”

Simon on casting Sarah Morrison as Lisa
“I’m very proud of this young women. We scaled all of Australia. It’s a tricky piece of casting. This girl has to read as a very young girl and blossoms into something unexpectedly gorgeous at the end of the show. Little bit of the My Fair Lady transformation going on there, and a really fantastic actress going through this complicated story arch, a beautiful singer, and when I cast Sarah I was completely thrilled. And one of the most impressive debuts that I’ve ever been part of in my career. I think she’s wonderful.”

Simon on happy endings
“There are quite a number of stories told to quite some degree of fruition in the book and in the stage show. They’re small stories but I’ve always said, I can’t think of a show that dares to have as many happy endings as this show has – it’s desperately unfashionable, there’s no cloud anywhere at the end of the show, everyone has got exactly what they wanted. They’ve gone through hell in the process of trying to get it but they all emerge like a butterfly at the end. People appreciate that.”


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TIM Finn Music and Lyrics
Timon finding the book
I found the book in Brisbane airport. I started looking through the blurbs at the front and there as Barry Humphries, Clive James and Helen Garner and all these people. They’re all saying amazing things about it, so I thought that’s good enough for me. I’m not a fashion kind of guy, it’s not just about fashion but there’s a lot of that Department store stuff in it. And again as a child, I remember going to those spaces – the smells, and the sights, and the mirrors, and the lights. You do remember that as a child, I was just drawn into that world. You go into a world. They’re very theatrical spaces and let’s face it, a lot of people go into the shop want transformation, they want the frock or they want something that’s just going to give them a bit of transformation. It’s a lovely place to play out Lisa’s transformation.

I was researching music for a film project, I would be very off the grid and quite challenged five degrees off the equator, I was bewildered and overwhelmed for the first few days, but I had this little book. Every evening I would slip into the cool interior of the department store in 1959 and it just gave me a great escape. I suppose [the] book was highly memorable and I began to see songs everywhere. I wanted to do a musical for a long time. I met Simon when we did Poor Boy a few years back – that was more a play with songs, which apparently is a form, but I wanted to do a real musical with songs. I had to get inside the characters, so my kids at home used to hearing different voices from characters, back and forth, from my little room.”

Timon what he loved about the book
“I just love the book, love the characters. I loved Lisa. Living a drab existence but very bright in school. Her father didn’t want her to go to University – but more than University, she wanted to be a poet and she announces that on day one. For a 16 year old girl to announce in 1959 in a very posh department store to her workmates I want to be a poet. Of course, there’s some laughter and snickering as there would have been if I would have stood in Te Awamutu, where I grew up and said ‘I’m going to be a songwriter’. I can really identify with that.

I love the Hungarians – mainly, Magda, an extremely charming character says at one point ‘I was a bureaucrat in Budapest’ sounds like a song, yes it does! Frank is worried that he might be sterile and both he and his wife are desperate for a baby – his story arch is very familiar to us all. But they’re very tremendously powerful emotionally.”

Timon being a fan of musicals
“It’s sort of new but I’ve listened and heard musicals through the years as a child. Mum took us to see My Fair Lady. I was only about 8, they were singing Get Me to the Church on time and [I] physically jumped – I just had to get off my seat, and that has stayed with me. The joy of that. The fun of that. There was the Sound of Music, obviously the film (I’ve never seen it on stage). More recently I saw Sweeney Todd, and then I became obsessed with Stephen Sondheim for a while, listened to a lot of his stuff and read his book, Finishing the Hat.

But in many ways, I’m an apprentice, which is a really great place to be, that sense of naivety – in zen-budism they call it ‘beginners mind’ – so I bring that to music theatre. I bring all my knowledge of music, cords, tunes but also a kind of unknowingness, which I think it works for me. It’s a craft. I have learnt a lot from Simon and Carolyn about crafting lyrics – a lot of it is teamwork.”

Timon what he knew about fashion before he wrote the songs
I didn’t know [much]. I went and bought [a book on fashion from] that period, the great icons. I haven’t read the whole book, but I’ve skimmed looking to rip off phrases. Yves Saint Laurent, for example, I had a rhyme ‘he seems to know exactly what it is he wants to feel elegant, I thought I’d get away with that in an Hungarian accent. Then I realised that Yves Saint Laurent wasn’t the slightly bit interested in elegance; he wanted women to feel seductive. In fact, he was out to destroy elegance.”

Timon the Bastard song
“One of the great things about this show for me was writing a song called the Bastard Song – and it’s not an insult. You say, ‘oh you ol’ bastard’ – it’s used in many different ways. And Frank is a standard issue bastard, which I love. Madeleine, she writes about this period without any satire or parody, there’s a tenderness and humanism in the book but there’s a lot of fun, a lot of humour, very intelligent sort of humour. In the first preview, when that song came on, the chuckles started and then it rippled, and then suddenly people were laughing out loud to that song and joining in a bit. I’ve never written a song that’s made people laugh. That’s what we saw happen – it’s quite funny because the men are not quite sure and their wives are giggling away and the men start laughing too and it’s full on.”

Timon if there will be a cast recording
“A lot of people have asked and we just haven’t gotten around to doing it yet. It’s a bit slack, I suppose, but we’re definitely going to do it. Not for this tour, if it lives on and fingers crossed it will, we’ll get it together one day. At the moment, there’s something nice about you can only hear those songs if you come to the show.”

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