Andrew Hallsworth’s relationship with Melbourne Theatre Company began in 2010, working on The Drowsy Chaperone. Although it was years earlier, in the rehearsal room of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, that Hallsworth met his future long-time collaborator and MTC Associate Director Dean Bryant. ‘Dean was Simon [Phillips]’s Assistant Director on Priscilla and I was Ross Coleman’s Assistant Choreographer. We became buddies on that show and have worked together as much as we can ever since.’
Together Bryant and Hallsworth went on to create the smash hit production of Sweet Charity at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Company and both collected Helpmann Awards for their efforts. The show was widely praised and solidified the theatre-makers’ working relationship. Since then, the two have collaborated on Anything Goes, Assassins, Little Shop of Horrors, and in 2011 for MTC, they joined forces on the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal. They also interpreted the wild imagination of Eddie Perfect for 2017’s Vivid White.
‘Our egos complement each other,’ Hallsworth says laughing. ‘Dean finishes my sentences in the rehearsal room … we just speak the same theatrical language and we both like to push the boundaries of what we can achieve … not to create anything grotesque, but we often say, “It’s nearly 2020 and musicals should be done with a fresh edge.” So we’re always looking to do things a little bit differently.’
When Bryant and Hallsworth created Anything Goes in 2015, Australian musical theatre icon Caroline O’Connor starred as the quirky nightclub singer, Reno Sweeney. During rehearsals, Bryant casually asked O’Connor what her dream list of must-do productions included. As Kander and Ebb’s self-described ‘biggest fan that ever walked the earth’, O’Connor was desperate to take on the role of Aurora, who morphs into the titular role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Having already appeared in West End, Broadway and Melbourne productions of Cabaret, The Rink and Chicago, O’Connor wanted to add this acclaimed musical to her mounting list of Kander and Ebb credits.
Fast-forward four years, and that dream will become a reality when the show premieres in November to wrap up MTC’s 2019 season. When Bryant called Hallsworth to see whether he’d come on board, he said, ‘Tell me when and where I need to be and I’ll be there.’ Working with O’Connor is a dream, Hallsworth gushes. ‘She’s such a pro. She loves rehearsing and brings such a good energy to the room. But mostly, she works so damn hard. She puts every part of her body and soul into everything she does. So you have to be on that level of professionalism with her. And I love that. She pushes you to do the best you can possibly do, but she also loves to have fun. And she truly trusts Dean and I. She allows us to push her down some roads she might not explore otherwise. It’s a great partnership.’
Kiss of the Spider Woman is not a new musical – it opened on the West End 27 years ago – but its themes are not only relevant today, they’re crucial. Set in an Argentinian prison last century, the story explores homophobia, transphobia, police brutality and political imprisonment. ‘You look at the world today, and there’s still a lot of torturing in prisons, especially in developing countries.’ Hallsworth says. ‘We still have issues with homosexuality. But if you looked at the streets of New York on the weekend [during the annual Pride parade], there wasn’t any traffic on the roads because they were filled with people and rainbow flags. You think of 50 years ago when those streets were filled with blood from the bodies who protested for gay rights,’ he says reflecting on the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
It’s a piece that doesn’t shy away from its darker subject matter, and in preparing to bring Kiss of the Spider Woman’s pertinent ideas to the stage, Hallsworth has been inspired by various styles of movement. He’s been studying the world of martial arts and even breakdancing, looking at how they will sit alongside the characteristic frills of Hallsworth’s notable choreography. ‘I’m looking at creating this grimy, hard, dirty vibe in the prison, and then juxtaposing that with a lot of flamboyance and theatricality for the movie dream sequences.’
There’s a lot to look forward to come October when rehearsals commence and Bryant, Hallsworth and O’Connor are reunited, and joined by a roll-call of musical theatre stars, to bring this iconic and important musical to life. ‘We’ve got such a brilliant cast. I just want to get in front of them and start executing this vision, which is currently just a series of design sketches and a script. I can’t wait.’
Kiss of the Spider Woman is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner from 18 November.
Published on 16 October 2019