Musicals: big, bright, family-friendly fun.
Plays: drab, dramatic, high-brow and a sometimes a little weird.
While that’s boiling it down way too far, many a theatre-goer would recognise a clear distinction between musicals, “straight” theatre and the pre-loaded misconceptions that come with each. But Full Throttle Theatre Company will seek to blur the lines this year, as they present a season of plays that were ultimately adapted into monumental musical marvels. We sat down with Full Throttle’s Creative Coordinator Todd Barty to learn more about this exciting season, which opens on 24 April 2019.
What exactly is the concept for Full Throttle’s season and where did the idea come from?
The season is a season of plays which have since become well-known musicals. Musical theatre is the world’s most popular live entertainment. More people go and see musicals than go and see straight plays or live music and that’s certainly true here in Townsville. Townsville is a big musical theatre town with a thriving music theatre community and certainly the shows that are the big events of the theatre season, in terms of publicity and in terms of being in the public consciousness, are the musicals. Over the years I’ve kind of wrestled with why that is, to some extent, but I think it’s the popularity of variety … So I kind of thought ‘What can Full Throttle do… to plug into that [popularity] as a straight theatre company?’ A lot of musicals are based on other things first – a book, a film, sometimes a true story, but in many cases very good plays. There are a lot of very good plays that have almost fallen into obscurity because they’ve been eclipsed by their musical variant, so we’ve chosen three of those to make up our main stage season for Full Throttle this year.
Which plays-turned-musical are on the line-up?
The three we’ve landed on are Pygmalion, which is the basis for My Fair Lady; I Am a Camera, which is the basis for Cabaret – I Am A Camera itself is based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, which then became the play and then the musical, with a few films of both along the way; and finally Sweeney Todd, which is of course Sweeney Todd. The Sweeney Todd story is very old, however, the playwright Christopher Bond made a more sophisticated narrative for him and gave him a back story and motivation that he didn’t have previously. And the Christopher Bond version of the play is the one that the musical by Sondheim and Wheeler was based on.
Are you hoping to win over some musical theatre loyalists with this programming?
I hope the musical theatre crowd – and certainly the people who are involved in musical theatre, which isn’t a small group of people – as well as our regular audiences, [will be interested] in these three very good plays.
You’re Directing (and appearing in) Pygmalion as the first production of the season. How does Pygmalion, the play, compare its musical counterpart, My Fair Lady?
It’s interesting. Pygmalion’s had a long history of being tweaked, largely because of the unsatisfactory nature to many audiences of the original ending. Well, not so much the audiences as to nervous theatre promoters who were looking for some kind of conventional happy ending; they’d be quite happy if Eliza did end up marrying Professor Higgins, if he did kind of thaw somewhat and compromise. The musical doesn’t quite give that solution, but it does make a compromise to have some kind of unity at the end; the ending of the play – I won’t give it away entirely – but it is much more inconclusive and it’s interesting to speculate where these two characters might go following the play.
Other people have asked me about the horse racing scene which is quite famous in the musical – the Ascot scene – and I have to say that it’s not there. There are things that people will be familiar with from the musical that aren’t there but it has glittering dialogue, incredibly funny dialogue, so caustic that people are surprised that in the Victorian-Edwardian era something so lacerating could be written. Certainly, I think the cast was taken aback on the first reading.
George Bernard Shaw first presented Pygmalion in 1913 but some of that commentary on the haves and have-nots, women and men and the changing tolerance of certain behaviour from group to group seems as relevant as ever, don’t you think?
Yes, he probably foresaw the discussions that were coming very well and of course he was a social commentator. Pygmalion is probably one of his lighter plays but there’s still a rich vein of social commentary there. Higgins’ views on gender equality and social equality are quite progressive really. His behaviour is uncompromising so it’s interesting to watch him and Eliza kind of driving at the same thing, but at odds in the same way because when it comes to Higgins modifying his own behaviour and understanding the sensitivity that other people need, he’s very challenged. He understands the connection of language to culture and civilisation because that’s his field, he’s kind of autistically obsessed with that but he doesn’t understand manners, he regards them as a pretension that people wear to side-note their status.
Danette Potgieter (Samson, Road to Midnight) will play the iconic role of Eliza Doolittle. What was it about Danette that lead you to cast her in this role?
Working with her in The Road to Midnight last year, [I learned] she’s a very game actress. She’s disciplined in the rehearsal room, but she brings that kind of focused playfulness that theatre needs. If there’s no playfulness it’s harder to work with an actor, if there’s no discipline either and it’s just entirely playful then that’s not really what’s needed in a rehearsal room. But she brings that kind of risk to the table, she’s extremely open to direction, extremely flexible, very good actress with very good training; so I decided to do Pygmalion during The Road to Midnight and asked Danette to be Eliza, quite soon after.
You’ve taken on the role of Professor Higgins yourself. How do you handle directing and acting in the same show?
It comes from having a very particular idea. The characters that I play are characters that I have a very particular idea about how I see them and it’s just at a point where I feel I need to do that myself to have exactly what I want. It is a challenge and I often have to do things like do a run where I read my lines from off stage while I watch everyone else or this time, I’ll probably have someone when I do that in my place on stage. It is hard and I usually can’t give notes immediately. I have to go away and reflect and write down everything and then kind of post it to the actors or talk about it at the beginning of the next rehearsal. I have wanted to play Higgins for a long time and he is a delightful role to play in the things he gets away with saying.
Who else have you cast?
Max Lenoy (Waiting for Godot, We Will Rock You) is Pickering; Barbara White (Summer of the Aliens) is Mrs Higgins and Sam Audas-Ryan (The Graduate) is Freddy Eynsford-Hill. He’s the young man who’s smitten with Eliza. He’s a young man from a historically wealthy family but not a currently wealthy family and the two Eynsford-Hill children are quite air-headed.
What should people who are either new to this story, or familiar with My Fair Lady, expect from Pygmalion?
Don’t be prepared for heightened realism – there won’t be singing. Some of that wonderful Chauvin dialogue is in the musical, but be prepared for that to be amped up because the caustic insults and the comic vitriol add another level in the stage play, I think. It is rich in its social commentary, but it is light as well. It’s kind of caustic champagne. There are some debates around class and gender, but I don’t think it makes any conclusive judgement. There are statements in there, but it’s not brutal and I think people will be very entertained by it.
Full Throttle Theatre Company will present Pygmalion at the Courthouse Theatre 24 April – 5 May. I Am A Camera will be staged in June, and Sweeney Todd in October.