Simon Phillips, Carolyn Burns and Tim Finn are the powerhouse creative team behind the Helpmann Award-winning musical Ladies in Black. Ever since that collaboration, they have been looking for something else to work on together and found the perfect project at the start of 2020. Although we cannot yet reveal all the details, this weekend the team will showcase some of their work – under the working title Beating the Blues – in front of a limited audience in what Phillips is treating as a truly unique development workshop.
This will be the first time you’ve collaborated with Carolyn Burns and Tim Finn since Ladies in Black? How does it feel to get the band back together?
It was fantastic to find another project that we all felt excited about! We had been looking for something to work on together since Ladies in Black – not in a frenzy of looking, but definitely keeping our eyes open for something – but we hadn’t really struck on anything that tickled all our fancies until this came up.
But it was weird to be working on it in 2020. Not impossible, but definitely strange to be working on it, at long distance. You just get sick of typing things out! Of course, Tim lives in New Zealand and always did live in New Zealand so our working relationship has always involved a certain amount of this long distance backwards and forwards. But then when the chips were down we would always be together in the same room, which obviously we can’t do right now.
‘I thought it would just be so fantastic to be able to get a first bite of the cherry on this and see how a small number of people responded to it.’
We have regularly got on a Zoom call and talked things through, but it’s just not the same as bashing it around in the room. There’s been so much positive talk in general about the learning experience of COVID, about how in many professions or industries people have worked out that they were travelling far more than they needed, and that they could still get a load of stuff done virtually, in a way that was more efficient and better for the planet. But our profession is so collaborative, so much about communication and that certain chemical reaction that comes from people being in the same space, so it was tricky.
That’s a really nice definition of creativity itself isn’t it: that chemical reaction that comes from collaboration?
Absolutely! And Carolyn and I at least have been in the same space, so that’s meant we have been developing the spine of the show and the structure of how the original short story is going to be converted into something theatrical. With Ladies in Black, Tim had found the book and written a handful of songs – eight or so songs – before he even sent them to me and said ‘Can you help me turn this into a musical?’ But with this new one, the nature of the way the narrative works means that very few of the songs could exist on their own. They had to really help propel the narrative forward, or we’d have doubled the length of the work to no obvious benefit.
But we’re all ready to go, the script as ready as it can be, and Isaac [Hayward, returning as musical director after working with the team on Ladies in Black] is arriving here this evening so that we can do some pre-production in person over the weekend.
What made you decide to present a work-in-progress as part of the Summer Series?
When Brett first talked to me about the Summer Series, I was initially thinking about something else to do, but then I thought it would just be so fantastic to be able to get a first bite of the cherry on this and see how a small number of people responded to it. There is no version of a musical that I’ve put on where at some point I haven’t done a workshop and shown it to a group of people. But usually it’s 20 to 30 people who are significantly connected to the industry, and therefore not necessarily as ‘real’ an audience as the Summer Series has been able to deliver us. So this is exciting.
‘The theatre is one thing for me ... it’s about putting a group of spectators into the same space as a group of performers and letting that fizz around in the bottle to create something special.’
I mean, whichever way you look at it you’ll be seeing something half formed, so you’re always dependent on the people watching it being able to fill in a lot more with their imagination than the real show would ever require them to do. But still, it’ll be very, very interesting to see how people react, if people laugh, all that kind of stuff.
That’s a lovely way of framing it – as kind of a glorified workshopping of the piece …
That’s definitely what it is. I’m trying to stage as much of it as possible, because it’s amazing how much more you learn when people are on their feet actually doing it, as apposed to sitting reading, but we’ll see how much we get through in the time we’ve got to rehearse. There are some farcical elements to this show too, which are obviously impossible to assess if we don’t realise them physically and see how the audience respond.
This ties back to what you were saying before about collaboration: it’s a collaboration with the audience as much as with the cast and the creative …
Exactly. Put anything – it doesn’t even have to be a new work – on a stage and, between its first preview and four or five performances later when it opens, there’s an enormous amount of work that is done in that short amount of time as you realise how audiences are responding. You’re frantically adjusting at that point.
What did you miss most about life and work during 2020, and what are you most looking forward to with the return of live performance?
I think across far more than just our industry, people rose to the challenges of the year. But I kept being the glass half empty guy about the theatre. The theatre is one thing for me: it is the chemical reaction, not just in the making but in the reason it exists; it’s about putting a group of spectators into the same space as a group of performers and letting that fizz around in the bottle to create something special. So it’s great to be to be getting back to that.
Beating the Blues is on at Southbank Theatre from 5–6 February 2021
Published on 4 February 2021