Ben Neutze interviews members of the creative and design teams of An Officer and a Gentleman to piece together the anatomy of a major musical…
With Smash lighting up our TV screens, there’s never been more interest in the way musical theatre is constructed. Audiences are beginning to understand that to get a musical onstage, hundreds of parts need to work together in harmony to create a show that is smooth, sleek and completely professional. We decided to put Australia’s latest mega-musical An Officer and a Gentleman under the microscope, talk to some of its key creatives and examine some of the elements that go into the show.
The ‘Ultimate Date Night’
An Officer and a Gentleman is one of those movies that just lingers in the back of audience’s minds. As the writer of the film and stage version, Douglas Day Stewart says, it’s crawled into the ‘world culture’. The final scene of the movie is so iconic it’s been imitated by at least fifteen TV shows, including Friends, The Simpsons and The Office.
But Stewart says although he always hoped the film would be successful, he never could have imagined how much of a cultural impact it would have.
“The world seems to know it,” he says. “I have people come up to me constantly and say ‘I asked my wife to marry me by taking her to the movie and carrying her out in my arms.’”
Fans of the movie will remember the way the film tackles both the brutal masculinity of the military as well as a very tender love story. Stewart says that maintaining this balance was in the front of his mind when rewriting the story for the stage. Because of this, Stewart calls the musical the ‘ultimate date night’.
“Both men and women will love it,” he says. “It’s a very muscular production.”
It’s long been a dream of Stewart’s to adapt the story for the stage, but he says it’s taken a long time to get the right talent to bring the story to life. Leading the creative production is director Simon Phillips, the man behind the musical hits Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Love Never Dies. Stewart describes Phillips as a “true visionary”.
Stewart thinks the movie is a natural fit for the transition to the stage and jumped at the chance to flesh out the story even further. “Taking these characters and putting their inner voices to song – it soars,” he says.
But to get this right, he says he needed the right composers…
Ken Hirsch and Robin Lerner are best known for their work in the pop music world, having written hits for singers as diverse as Barbra Streisand, the Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, Faith Hill, Mary J Blige and Placido Domingo. But they’ve also both had several experiences writing for musical theatre.
“We wear a lot of hats,” says Robin Lerner. “I think [musical theatre] is our favourite.”
According to Douglas Day Stewart, it was absolutely essential that the music developed naturally out of the script and served the story: ”In today’s jaded world, people won’t accept people just blurting into song without some kind of motivation,” he says.
He believes Hirsch and Lerner have perfectly captured the essence of the original movie, penning a score which is at once “accessible, sing-able and exciting”.
Hirsch and Lerner say that in spite of the pop sensibilities, An Officer and a Gentleman is a traditional musical score at heart.
“There are a lot of different feels, songs and moods within the score,” Hirsch says.
The biggest challenge in writing the score, according to Lerner, was finding the right musical vocabulary for a navy base. “It needed to speak to us and to an audience and be really evocative,” she says. “When we stumbled our way onto it musically, it made it fairly obvious how the storytelling would proceed from there.”
But the creative process, which has lasted six years for both Hirsch and Lerner, has not been without a few bumps, especially in the rehearsal period."Songs which we loved are gone… an entire new song was written for the second Act in the last six weeks of rehearsals"
“We had four workshops and each had changes,” Hirsch says. “Songs which we loved are gone, but we had to pump up certain parts of the story that weren’t being exposed as much as we’d like them to be.”
An entire new song was written for the second Act in the last six weeks of rehearsals.
“The whole thing is a work in progress,” Lerner says. “When you’re writing something, just Ken and I in our living room and singing it to each other – that’s the infant stage. But when you add actors and a director and sets and costumes and an orchestra, then it’s something different.”
Changes were definitely made to the score when the cast came into the equation. The keys of many of the songs were lowered to suit Ben Mingay, who plays Zack Mayo.
“Ben has a very elastic voice,” Ken Hirsch says. “Even though he can hit the notes, a lot of the time it’s just not right dramatically, so we’ve lowered the key to suit the mood of the scene.”
Joining Mingay is Amanda Harrison who originated the role of Elphaba in the Australian production of Wicked, Kate Kendall, Bert LaBonte and Tara Morice, who famously played Fran in Strictly Ballroom.
Douglas Day Stewart says the Australian cast has really fleshed out the characters in the way that he had hoped. “These are really amazing people,” he says.
Adorning the cast is a mixture of custom made costumes and late 1970s and early 80s vintage finds. All the shoes in the show were handmade by Manhattan Shoes in Melbourne and every wig was handmade over a six-week period. The man who has undertaken the mammoth task of sourcing, fitting and tailoring the show’s 350 costumes is Billy Roche, the wardrobe co-ordinator.
“We scouted throughout Australia looking for the period between 79 and 84, which is quite hard at the moment because everybody thinks that is the great fashion, so not much is available,” he says.
All the original pieces were fitted to the cast members and then altered at a workshop in Melbourne if necessary. Roche says that it’s fairly unusual to use so much vintage clothing on a show of this scale, but the unique pieces add to the character of the show.
To get the authentic military look, every male cast member has had their head shaved to a number one. The iconic white officer uniforms have all been tailor made from original US military design and fitted twice on each performer.
Roche says each costume had to please the director, the designer and the performer. “We have a lot of people in the show who are buying vintage clothing and wearing it themselves,” he says. “They were very happy when they actually saw some of the stuff they ended up with in the show because it’s what they wear every day.”
The set, by Dale Ferguson, features a number of large white steel staircases and walkways which reconfigure over two large revolves to represent everything from a US navy base to a Filipino town. Writer Douglas Day Stewart described the set as a “real stunner”.
“People aren’t going to be able to believe what they’re seeing,” he says. “It’s like seeing transformers.”
In charge of ensuring the set operates smoothly and quickly on the stage of the Lyric Theatre is technical director Nick Eltis.
Eltis says the technical rehearsal of the show has been challenging because there’s no precedent.
"To ensure every part would work when the set was built in the theatre, the entire set was assembled off-site before moving into the space"“We’ve had to build it from the ground up, so we’ve had to take a new design and deliver it into some kind of reality,” he says.
“It is a big set,” he says. “Getting it into the venue and building it in such a way that it fits into several theatres is tricky.”
To ensure every part would work when the set was built in the theatre, the entire set was assembled off-site before moving into the space.
Eltis says the amount of movement required by the set has presented its own challenges. The technical crew had five full days of rehearsal before the cast even arrived in the theatre.
“With all those moving parts, you have to overlay the crew on top of that to make sure they’re safe and then of course the cast,” he says. “We really need to make sure we know where everyone is at all times to keep everyone safe.”
Getting An Officer and a Gentleman to the stage has been a long process involving many of the world’s and Australia’s finest creatives. Some have been working on the project for over six years, so Friday’s opening night will surely be a momentous occasion. Only time will tell whether the show is a critical and commercial success, but all involved have hopes that after a successful Australian season, the show will find its feet in the international market and eventually make it to Broadway.