Tailor-made for Monash – Chatting with James Millar and Peter Rutherford about The Dressmaker: A Musical Adaptation

We have a real problem facing us – new Australian musicals are in short supply.

A stroll around Melbourne’s “East End” can show you the spread of imported shows, with the theatres filled with predominantly Broadway-created musicals. But who can remember the last time a new Australian work made the rounds of our country? (and no, Matilda doesn’t count)

Monash University’s Centre for Theatre and Performance is currently offering a unit in which students work alongside Australian industry professionals to devise and perform an original piece of musical theatre, to be performed later in the year. This unit is made possible by an insanely generous donation from the fabulous Dr. Jeanne Pratt AC, a well-known purveyor of the arts in Australia, and allows students to take part in a truly one-of-a-kind form of study and, ultimately, the creation of a new musical.

I am one of the fortunate few undertaking this unit, and believe it is important to explore and appreciate the process of creating new Australian works. Across the next few articles in this series, I’ll be running over the development process, chatting to our artists in residence and giving some sneak peaks of the new work that we will be performing – a musical based on the 2000 Rosalie Ham novel The Dressmaker.

James Millar

Our artists in residence for the year are the absurdly talented James Millar and Peter Rutherford, the creative minds behind several Australian musicals, but most notably, The Hatpin. The pair are both WAAPA alumni, however have pursued different paths within the world of theatre.

James’ name might sound familiar to most as the man behind the terrifying Ms Trunchbull in the recently closed Australian tour of Matilda, however his credits have stretched across both stage and screen, as well as his directing and writing work. His contribution to new Australian work through Musicals and Cabaret is never-ending, proven by his impressive list of assorted theatrical awards.

Peter also worked on the recent tour of Matilda, however not on stage, acting as the Children’s Music Director. Peter has extended his MD work on various different shows touring the country, as well as writing musicals and cabaret shows for other performers. Peter has even performed himself in Opera Australia’s production of The Pirates of Penzance alongside David Hobson and Anthony Warlow. His Musical collaborations with James (The Hatpin, LoveBites, A Little Touch of Chaos) have been produced across Australia as well as other major cities, and have received international acclaim.

Peter Rutherford

Between the two, there is a wealth of training and experience for us Theatre students to absorb, and it is truly a remarkable opportunity for us to work so closely to these industry professionals. We are making our way through the first stages of The Dressmaker, running through auditions and learning all about the fundamentals of creating Musical Theatre. I managed to steal James and Peter away from the class for a few minutes to ask them about their contribution to the project and for any extra pearls of Theatre-writing wisdom they can bestow on the readers.

How has the experience of writing The Dressmaker been?

Peter: One of the biggest challenges for me is to work out what the function of the music is – in the previous iterations of the piece there hasn’t been sung music. Working out the function, how it adds to the story, why it should be a musical, working out the style of the genre and economising it all down to something that’s a conceivable package for a two and a half hour show.

James: We’re actually still in the middle of [writing] it, but it has been very satisfying so far. We’ve taken a different angle to what we usually do because we’re doing an adaptation rather than our own invented piece of fiction. So we started with a big mapping out, hundreds of post-it notes, plotting the songs, all of that first so we found our structure. We found the piece wanted to sing first, so that was our starting point this time. It’s been pretty efficient and economic and mostly exciting.

Besides the novel, was there anything else you used as inspiration for writing?

James: I think that you always draw on your own stuff even when it’s someone else’s story (in this case, Rosalie Hamm’s novel). You’re always finding pieces inside of yourself or your creativity that inform the way that character sings or speaks above and beyond the page of the book. In the same way that when you read any novel, your mind invents Hogwarts, or what certain characters look like or are feeling at a certain time, you are still drawing on things within yourself to inform the writing.

Peter: To add a musical perspective, in that great tradition of great Broadway musicals, you borrow lots of styles that aren’t necessarily speaking to the time and place the you’re in, but more to character. Each year that pool of style gets broader and broader so we’re kind of drawing from all over the place to try and create a modern fusion musical.

Kate Winslet as Tilly Dunnage in the 2015 film adaptation of The Dressmaker

What’s your number one tip to make new content interesting and not fall into the trap of tropes and cliches?

James: Making sure you remain specific to the emotional life and the drive of the character themselves. So they’re not singing a song for the sake of just singing a song, but rather they’re exposing something to the audience that we need to know in order to understand what drives them. Always being specific about the internal life of the character is what keeps it interesting.

Peter: Specific enough but still remaining universal, so that you as an audience member can project onto them your own experience and kind of relate. And that way it feels like you aren’t just watching the same story over and over again.

Tips for hopeful Musical Theatre writers?

James: Write them. And just keep writing. And knowing that even if you’ve started and you don’t like it at that point, just keep going. Lots of things don’t end up in the final mix anyway but the most important thing is to start.

Peter: Learn to embrace feedback and criticism. And praise! But don’t fear the first draft. Not being afraid of failing that first time so that you end up with a better product, because like with any practiced skill you have to start somewhere and it has to be bettered by being practiced.

James: The craft itself teaches you the more that you do it. And it doesn’t mean that you’re always going to produce something better than the last thing, but you’ll just understand the process better the more you do it and the more you listen to your own stuff with a critical ear and also allow other people to collaborate – which is what we are doing here at Monash! The more people that are tasting the dish you made, the more feedback you’re getting about how to create it better.

How has working alongside the Monash students been for you?

James: In all the things we’ve written we haven’t just collaborated with each other, we have always had workshops with professional casts. You know, come into a room, have a read, give people feedback and then go away and make amendments. And in a way this is the same sort of thing, but on a much grander scale. You’re as much a part of the writing process as we are… well… maybe not as much as we are! [laughs]

Peter: We haven’t really started the main part of the workshop with you guys yet. I’m sure it will be wonderful and I can see from everyone’s contributions so far that it’s going to be great.

The Dressmaker will be performed in October at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University, with tickets on sale now at the MAPA website. Stay tuned for more insight and interviews into the creative process!

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

One thought on “Tailor-made for Monash – Chatting with James Millar and Peter Rutherford about The Dressmaker: A Musical Adaptation

  • I saw The Dressmaker last night, a fabulous dynamic performance with thoughtful and fully functioning set, powerful voices with goods diction so the story line was not lost ,as can happen in a musical. I was fully engaged for the 3 hours, well worth our drive 5 hour round trip.


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