Australia in the 1890s – a time where a woman’s role was that of a housewife. But young Sybylla wants to break the mould and pursue her dreams of a ‘brilliant career’.
Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel My Brilliant Career marked the author’s literary debut, establishing her as one of Australia’s most prolific Australian feminist writers. The novel has since been a staple of Australian culture, and recently saw a film adaptation starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill.
Now, MLIVE is presenting a brand new musical adaptation of the novel, penned by acclaimed duo Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank. The second production as part of the Jeanne Pratt Artists in Residence program at Monash University (following last year’s The Dressmaker), students have been given an opportunity to collaborate and workshop a full-scale musical alongside industry professionals in both the cast and production team.
Dean and Mathew met studying Music Theatre at WAAPA, and their shows have been produced both nationally and in theatre capitals such as London and New York. Some of their shared credits include Prodigal (Green Room Award), Virgins: A Musical Threesome, Once We Lived Here (Green Room Award), and The Silver Donkey.
Dean is the Associate Director at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), where his productions include The Lady in the Van, An Ideal Husband, Wild, Vivid White, Born Yesterday, and the upcoming Kiss of the Spider Woman, Torch the Place, and Fun Home. Further directorial credits include Sweet Charity (Helpmann Award), Little Shop of Horrors (Sydney Theatre Award) and Assassins for Hayes Theatre Co., Anything Goes for Opera Australia/GFO, and numerous shows for The Production Company including Jerry’s Girls, La Cage Aux Folles, and The Producers. He has penned cabarets for Australian icons such as Trevor Ashley and Hugh Sheridan, and is the Worldwide Associate Director for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Mathew has done composition/sound design for shows such as The Lady in the Van, An Ideal Husband, Born Yesterday, Skylight, and Private Lives, all for the MTC. His Musical Direction credits include The Drowsy Chaperone and Next To Normal for MTC, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum for GFO, and The Pirates of Penzance, La Cage Aux Folles, and Jerry’s Girls for The Production Company. He is currently the Head of Music at Showfit.
I had a chat with Dean and Mat on their time workshopping My Brilliant Career at Monash ahead of its opening next week.
Could you both tell me a bit about your history with theatre making? What drew you to writing/composing?
Dean: Mathew and I met at WAAPA, both studying musical theatre performing but he was already composing musicals. I was aiming to be a director, but fell in love with him and his music, and when he didn’t have a writing partner, we started writing together. He wasn’t very keen at first! But the first musical we wrote together, Prodigal, ended up being produced off-Broadway two years after we premiered it in Melbourne, with an incredible cast including Kerry Butler and Christian Borle. It was an incredible thing to have happen at 25 and kept us writing when we may have drifted away from it, as it’s so difficult to get your shows on in Australia. But we love telling stories through music – we’ve both always loved musicals, I think you have to to write them. Since Prodigal we’ve written a ton more, but in the last decade our directing/MD careers have taken precedence, so writing My Brilliant Career has been beyond rewarding.
What has been the most exciting part of adapting My Brilliant Career for the stage?
Mat: There have already been so many highlights. First, re-reading Miles Franklin’s incredible novel with the knowledge we were going to put it onstage in a musical and feeling how resonant it is in 2019 – about outsiders claiming the right to have their voice heard – and how logical it was that a girl who adores the piano, singing and writing would naturally frame like a singer-songwriter. Another thrill has been having James Simpson’s orchestrations come in – working with a big band for the first time is a treat for us. At the end of the workshop week we performed it for a small audience with our lead cast – it was a thrill to feel how exciting and moving it was. Seeing Chloe’s designs, Petra bringing it alive…there’s been so many highlights so far.
And what about the hardest part?
Dean: Musicals are just hard by their nature – there are so many moving parts in any musical, let alone an original piece that hasn’t been seen before. Getting a big book with so many juicy bits streamlined down to a story that pounds forwards was a challenge. Also, it’s so about the outdoors, which is a challenge to put onstage – and I gave our director Petra an entire song that revolves around raising a cow back on it’s feet, which she has solved incredibly well.
How have you found working alongside a student ensemble?
Mat: The students are enthusiastic and have a real passion for musicals, which is a lovely energy to be around. They’re not trained, so it’s fascinating to find a working process that blends professional actors and them into an organic whole. But when it works, it’s really potent.
I believe that this show has been a passion project of yours for a while – how has the piece evolved since its first inception?
Dean: We’ve wanted to write this show for about 5 years – we wrote a song a while ago that Esther Hannaford recorded for Matt’s 40th birthday as a surprise present – that really spurred us to write the show around it. But it was this incredible residency, funded by Jeanne Pratt, that got us sitting down and seriously writing. And it has been thrilling and satisfying to write Sybylla’s story beyond anything we could have imagined. She’s such a powerful and funny and gorgeous person to bring to life through song.
Why do you think Sybylla’s story is still so culturally relevant?
Mat: It’s probably more culturally relevant in the last few years than at any point since it was first written. Finally there’s a hunger to hear from outsiders, from people who haven’t been given a seat at the table, and that’s Sybylla’s raison d’etre. That’s what she’s railing against – if she lived now, her life would have been something else entirely. But there’s also a generosity in the Sybylla we’ve found – someone who sees that her gift may not be about raising herself, but inspiring others to speak up, to raise their voices, to demand to be heard. Thinking beyond yourself is revolutionary.
What can audiences expect from My Brilliant Career?
Dean: A real thrill-ride of a musical. Sybylla, as brought to life by the unbelievable Luisa Scrofani (nominated this year for a Helpmann), is utterly intoxicating. You can’t take your eyes off her. And when she meets Hal – another extraordinary young performer, Andrew Coshan – the chemistry between them is so thick you can feel it. Which makes the famous end of the story so devastating and so courageous. I get so moved watching those two performers tell this story – surrounded by award-winning legends like Anne Wood, Natalie O’Donnell and James Millar – it’s a pretty heady mix for a new Aussie musical.
My Brilliant Career | October 18 – 25
My Brilliant Career is presented by The Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, The Centre for Theatre and Performance and Monash Academy of Performing Arts in association with the Jeanne Pratt Musical Theatre Artists in Residence Program.
For tickets and more information, please visit the MLIVE website.