AussieTheatre’s resident musical guru Drew Lane sits down with Matthew Robinson for the latest in a series of interviews with Australian musical theatre writers and composers.
Today I have the pleasure of chatting with award-winning composer Matthew Robinson. His musical Metro Street won the coveted Pratt Prize, and went on to be nominated for five Helpmann Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, three South Korean DIMF Awards, and won the South Australian ATG Award for Best Musical.
His second musical Happy People was performed for Stephen Schwartz (composer of Wicked) during the Festival of Broadway in 2010. In 2011, Matthew won a 2011 Churchill Fellowship which took him to New York City for two readings of Happy People, where he was also mentored by Stephen Schwartz. A prolific performer and composer, Matthew Robinson is already garnering a reputation and following throughout Australia and the world.
1. How did you stumble into being a musical theatre composer?
When I was 12, I heard my brother playing a pop song off the radio on our family piano. He’d learnt it by ear. So I copied him and then started exploring chords, melodies and lyrics of my own. The next major leap was coming out of WAAPA and all these friends of mine needing songs for their solo cabaret projects. That was when my music really became narrative driven.
2. What was the first musical you ever wrote?
The first one was actually Metro Street which after six years of workshops and rewrites made it to the stage via the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Arts Asia Pacific and Power Arts. That was my first lesson in the value of persistence.
3. How would you describe the music that you write?
Incredibly accessible with lyrics that look at traditional ideas in a fresh way.
4. Do you prefer to collaborate or write solo? Why?
Well, the only song where I wrote music and lyrics with someone was a pop/rock tune with Dom Italiano, a dear friend who I had an original band with back when I was starting out. All the theatre songs are a solo effort. I love the idea of collaborating with someone on the book of a musical one day, but my attempts so far have been thwarted by the other person getting too busy! I’m discovering more and more the true value of one or more dramaturges too.
5. What would you consider to be your greatest writing achievement so far?
Big question! I’d say the way I rewrote my second musical Happy People in the space of four weeks while staying in New York City last year. Stephen Schwartz said he couldn’t quite believe how many of the problems I’d solved between the two drafts.
[pull_left]I have high hopes that the Australia Council will renew its Music Theatre Initiative funding, especially for groups like New Musicals Australia[/pull_left]
6. How do you see the state of new musical theatre in Australia?
Since the late nineties, I think some of our creatives have started getting a good go at making new, large-scale work with the likes of Boy from Oz, Shout, Dusty, Avenue Q, An Officer and A Gentlemen, Love Never Dies and Priscilla, but there are still only about four Australian musical theatre writers or writing teams really being heard or talked about. We don’t have the critical mass population wise to feed a healthy musical theatre writing scene. Having said that, those of us working at it are absolutely refining our skills and stepping up to the plate. I have high hopes that the Australia Council will renew its Music Theatre Initiative funding, especially for groups like New Musicals Australia.
7. What can you tell us about your latest musical?
It’s ancient, epic and ambitious.
8. Describe the process of composing a piece of music.
Once I’ve settled upon where the character/s begin and where they should be by the song’s end, I almost always begin with a melody and chord structure. The lyric is what takes the most time for me. Tunes can come out of me almost immediately, but lyrics take hours of finessing.
9. Who are your musical theatre heroes – composers and/or other?
I’m not big on the word hero. It gets thrown about so lightly from the entertainment industry to the sporting arena. Back in my teenage Rockhampton days, my performing and composing influences were Anthony Warlow, Boublil and Schonberg, Lloyd Webber, Menken, Tori Amos and anything in the Top 40. With time, Schwartz, Sondheim, Bernstein, Porter, Gilbert and Sullivan and O’Keefe and Benjamin have all made me want to become a better writer. I’m also constantly inspired by Aussie friends who go out and simply make things happen. That list of people would be too long to mention here, but Lucy Durack has been there from very early on. Finally, there’s no question that time spent with Stephen Schwartz has expanded my abilities exponentially. He’s a very generous man.
10. What do you think makes musical theatre so unique as opposed to other performance arts?
Great stories told through music that sings. Magic.