Moonlite is a new Australian musical opening at the Midsumma Festival. It tells the story of one of Australian history’s most intriguing characters: Captain Moonlite.
“It’s hard to boil Captain Moonlite down to one thing; he started out as a solider before going on to be a pastor, a bank robber, a frontier farmer, a mental patient, a prisoner, a lecturer and finally a bushranger. His life is so full of incident and contradictions, but to us two things united all the disparate threads; his love of his own legend and his equal love for James Nesbitt, a fellow inmate at Pentridge who didn’t leave Moonlite’s side until he was killed during their last stand in Gundagai,” explained Melbourne playwright Gabriel Bergmoser.
“Moonlite writes beautifully about James Nesbitt in his death cell letters, saying ‘Nesbitt and I were united by every tie which could bind human friendship; we were one in hopes, one in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms.’ Moonlite’s final request was to be buried with Nesbitt, a request that was denied until he was finally exhumed and laid to rest next to the love of his life in 1995,” continued Bergmoser.
“Prior to his death, Moonlite suggested that for his gravestone ‘a rough unhewn rock would be most fit, one that skilled hands could have made into something better. It will be like those it marks, as kindness and charity could have shaped us to better ends.’ Those words are now engraved on a rough, unhewn rock above his final resting place.”
The story of Captain Moonlite is a fascinating part of Australian history, although details are limited.
“Records of Moonlite’s life are pretty thin on the ground and full of inconsistencies so we decided to lean into that rather than pretend this is a historically accurate depiction. The show takes place during his final stand at Wantabadgery Station and essentially plays out as a lengthy debate between gang member Tom Rogan and station owner Faulkner McDonald as to whether Moonlite is a hero or villain, bushranger or charlatan. As they make their arguments we see the stories they refer to in flashback; except, of course, we can never be sure whether those stories are true and sometimes we see the same event retold from the perspectives of several different characters with different biases. Essentially, it calls upon Tim Constantine, who is brilliant as Captain Moonlite, to within minutes shift from being a grandiose statesman to a sleazy criminal to a bumbling idiot depending on who is telling the story, all in service of exploring the question; who was the real Captain Moonlite, and ultimately does it actually matter?”
Bergmoser has his own opinion about Captain Moonlite.
“Moonlite, to me, is an example of a man who was born too soon, a man who refused to compromise who he was and lived life exactly the way he wanted until the day he died. This play, in the end, is about more than just spinning a great yarn, it’s about paying tribute to one of Australia’s forgotten legends, sharing his story and raising a toast from a more forgiving present,” said Bergmoser.
Bergmoser is the winner of the prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Award for Scriptwriting and already has an extensive list of play credits to his name. Moonlite is his first musical. I asked Bergmoser what prompted him to write a musical.
“The project in its earliest form had been conceived as a musical by composer Dan Nixon, and I was lucky enough in that he approached me to collaborate. I’ve always loved Australian history and Bluegrass style music so bringing those things together in this project was immensely exciting to me. I was on board from the first pitch. Once I delved deeper into Moonlite’s life it became clear that this was the best form for his story to take,” explained Bergmoser.
Bergmoser said that while there were some differences between the process of writing a musical compared with writing a play, in some ways it was very similar.
“I was very upfront from the start that musical theatre is not an area of expertise for me, so my focus was always squarely on the theatre side of the equation. In that it wasn’t hugely different from directing a straight play, with the occasional gaps where a song was going to be added,” explained Bergmoser.
“Everyone involved is a working professional so finding the time to rehearse was a bit of a nightmare that became worse when we had to factor in the band as well. It’s been a juggling act but having seen everything integrated now I’m breathing a sigh of relief that it seems to all be working beautifully.”
Writing a musical also meant collaborating with a composer. Bergmoser wrote the book for the piece in the same way he would approach a straight play, knowing songs would be added later. He admits Moonlite is not a regular musical.
“The process was largely separate; we conceived the show together, then went away and came up with our parts more or less in isolation before bringing the two halves together and blending them into a cohesive whole. Luckily we were very much on the same page stylistically so despite having written the script essentially as a straight play, I can’t imagine it without the songs now. It would just feel incomplete,” said Bergmoser.
The cast of Moonlite includes Tim Constantine, Ryan Smedley, James Coley, Megan Scolyer-Gray, Daniel Cosgrove, Katy Nethercote and Saxon Gray.
“The cast are all professional musical theatre actors who have done a beautiful job bringing this story to life and I can’t speak highly enough of their work. It’s a great show, unlike anything I’ve done before, and I’m so excited to see it come to life.”
Bergmoser describes Moonlite as a “a wild, rollicking, hilarious jaunt with catchy songs and an emotional punch designed to be a huge amount of fun for all ages”.
Moonlite is playing as part of the Midsumma Festival in the basement of the iconic Grace Darling Hotel (a pub frequented by Captain Moonlite himself) from January 17th to February 4th.