Paul Galloway chats to playwright Aidan Fennessy about turning a favourite album into a modern romance.
In 1999, Tim Rogers, frontman for popular band You Am I, moved to Melbourne, and something about the changed environment and finding himself alone with some time on his hands got him writing a sheaf of songs. Most were about love in a modern world: getting it, holding on to it and losing it, which was where he was at in those days. With his band caught up in a contractual hiatus and the songs being a little different from his usual work, Rogers decided to record them himself. The album, What Rhymes with Cars and Girls, wasn’t a wild commercial success, but it won Rogers the ARIA Award for Best Male Artist that year. And it found its audience. Those who liked the album tended to love it, to find something resonant within it, something simple, deep and true. It’s a favourite album of playwright-director Aidan Fennessy.
‘The songs on the album are articulate about love,’ he says. ‘Love is a confusing business and the album, for me, just puts it all into words. The lyrics are strongly vernacular, which I like as a writer. And the way Tim writes is dramatic. In each song there is a small mise-en-scene, an incident or moment, and often there are character voices. There’s only one duet on the record, but in fact the whole album felt to me like a conversation between Tim and a lover, whoever he was imagining when he was writing.’
However, the idea of turning the album into a theatre work took hold only recently. ‘There was one day I was listening to it when I was struck by the musical diversity on the album. It is not a rock album strictly. There’s a bit of Dixie, and swing, and a waltz in there – and literally I had one of those moments when I thought, “This sounds like a musical.” And I put my mind to how that might work, and took it from there.’
Once the idea took hold and before he wrote a word, Fennessy arranged a meeting with Rogers to pitch the project.
‘We talked for about an hour: about where the record had come from, how he made it – that sort of stuff. And at the end of the meeting, he asked me: “So what have you got?” And I said, “Well, I kind of got nothing. But give me a week and I’ll flesh out a story. So I wrote and sent him a four-page narrative, which he liked. One thing – he was very keen that the story would not be about him, and once he saw the story would be a complete fiction, he said, “Go on, have a crack.”
Although this is his first attempt to integrate music into his work, Fennessy already had drawn a bead on the best way to approach it. He had been Associate Director and Literary Manager at MTC a few years ago during the development of Poor Boy, the musical that Matt Cameron created integrating the songs of Tim Finn. Fennessy recognised the potential for songs to create the emotional weather for an otherwise realistic narrative. He also was influenced by Midsummer, by Scottish writer David Greig (Yellow Moon), whose small-scale story set in Edinburgh seemed to gain wider appeal through the universality of its pop-folk tunes.
‘It was written in the vernacular, set in a very specific postcode, yet went on to be translated and picked up by companies throughout Europe. It seemed to me that What Rhymes, very specifically a Melbourne story, could explore similar emotional territory, the love story of two people who come from different worlds.’
So What Rhymes with Cars and Girls will be a special type of musical: not Jesus Christ Superstar and certainly not, he jokes, What Rhymes with Guys and Dolls. Forget the big, brassy Broadway musical experience and think of something more reflective and emotional.
‘It will have a looser, rock feel to it’, Fennessy says. ‘The songs are very gentle. And I’ve written in a vernacular in accord with the lyrics that Tim Rogers wrote. These two characters are really trying to work out love, work out their problems, and, I think, to accord with the intimacy of the story, we won’t be swept into rock operatics.’
Those fans of Tim Rogers and You Am I will have the pleasure of seeing him perform in the show. He has re-arranged his songs and will lead the three-piece ensemble every night, but he won’t be singing. That will be the job of the two young performers Sophie Ross and Johnny Carr, spinning out the contemporary tale of class-crossed lovers. Nevertheless, the show uses every song on the album and Fennessy resisted the temptation to sneak in material from Rogers’s other albums that might have suited his narrative better.
‘For people who know this record,’ he says, ‘it holds a special place in their hearts and I ended up feeling honour-bound to stick with the entire record.’
What Rhymes with Cars and Girls is playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio from 13 February to 28 March.
This article first appeared in Scenes, MTC’s quarterly subscriber magazine