With a book and lyrics by Dean Bryant and music by Mathew Frank, My Brilliant Career is a musical adaptation of the classic Australian novel by Miles Franklin, which was also adapted to film in 1979.
My Brilliant Career is part of the Jeanne Pratt Musical Theatre Artists in Residence Program, a groundbreaking collaboration between Monash University Performing Arts students and professional artists that aims to create and promote the development of Australian musical theatre.
This new musical underwent an intensive workshop six weeks prior to rehearsals commencing, with considerable editing and reworking during that time. The show’s Director, Petra Kalive, is very happy with the rehearsal period.
“We haven’t needed to go back to Dean and Mat at all. The intensive week sorted out, and ironed out, any questions we had with the text, so it’s all going really well,” commented Kalive.
Petra Kalive has considerable experience in staging new works, while Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank won Green Room Awards for their original works Prodigal and Once We Lived Here.
“With our combined skills, I guess we had a really good idea of what would work on the floor and what wouldn’t.”
Petra Kalive hadn’t read the book of My Brilliant Career at school and only had a vague memory of the film from her childhood. In preparing for this new incarnation of My Brilliant Career, Kalive has deliberately avoided the film.
“I’ve definitely gone back to the book. Dean’s adaptation is from the book, so I’ve read that a number of times. I guess I’ve deep-dived into the early 1900s Australia and I’ve been reading authors of the time. I’ve been researching what people did and how they were and looking up photos and images and a tiny bit of film that exists from around that time. I’ve just been trying to immerse myself in that time period,” explained Kalive.
Set in the early 1900s in rural Australia, My Brilliant Career takes the audience into the world of “fiery misfit” Sybylla. Kalive considers My Brilliant Career to be somewhat “anti-romance”.
“We follow Sybylla, who is living with her family and very unhappy and unable to have her voice or live her purpose or passion in life. She finds a way to do that, but it means saying no to the guy and I think in today’s world that is still really relevant. So she goes on to a career of writing and the story is basically Sybylla coming to grips with how she’s going to do that in this world,” explained Kalive.
While the musical is set in the early 1900s, the music has modern vibe, which Kalive says makes My Brilliant Career a more translatable story.
“And Dean’s text manages to expertly bridge that more formal language of the book, and the early 1900s way of phrasing, and today. He still manages to have a flavour of it, but it’s still completely accessible for an audience today,” said Kalive, adding, “We don’t want a museum piece by any means.”
“I think that speaks to the translation of the novel to today and the fact that the themes about finding your voice and being authentic and following what you want to pursue in this world are actually still really modern. So we might be existing in 1901, but the songs and the scenes reflect the experiences of all the Sybyllas out there today.”
The staging of this musical provides an opportunity for second year students to work alongside experienced professionals.
“I think it’s an incredible gift for the students, and this cohort are definitely soaking it all up. They get to see professionals work, their process, what they bring to the floor, how prepared they are when they come into the rehearsal room, and then also how to take direction. It’s a really difficult thing to get feedback in a moment when you’re in a really vulnerable place, as you need to be as an actor, and these principal cast that I have are incredibly generous, and incredibly open, and the students get to witness that in the room. And I think they don’t necessarily realise they’re learning it, but if they want to pursue a career in the arts it’s going to inform them in multitude of ways,” explained Kalive.
From the start of the rehearsal process Petra Kalive ensured there was no “us and them” attitudes between the professional and student casts.
“Everyone’s in this show and there are no small roles. Everybody’s contributing to make it a whole work and a really great piece of theatre. I played a whole lot of games and trust exercises and ensemble building exercises to kind of break down any of that us and them, or professional and student. It’s just the cast. And we have an ensemble cast and a principal cast, as you would in any other musical, but I don’t see any differentiation really.”
The professional cast is lead by Luisa Scrofani (In The Heights) in the role of Sybylla.
“They’ve been absolutely wonderful in sharing their knowledge and their experience and just being approachable. The students were very nervous to start with, in approaching the professionals, but I couldn’t have been more gifted with the cast I’ve got.”
Petra Kalive believes My Brilliant Career will have a wide appeal.
“I would encourage anyone who loves a good musical, anyone who loves a good romance in a musical. Young people as well, who are looking at being inspired. Because it’s about a 16 year old girl, it has the potential to speak to that audience. Even if it is around the 1900s, it’s still relevant today. It’s a feel-good musical.”
Petra Kalive can see huge potential for My Brilliant Career.
“I think Dean and Mat have written a musical that has the capacity and legs to go on to further incarnations. What’s amazing about this musical is that yes, we can have a cast of 40, but it could also be performed as a chamber musical with very clever doubling and tripling with a bunch of 8-10 performers. So, in my mind, that makes it incredibly tourable and something that could be remounted very soon if there’s a bit of a groundswell with this project.”
Most significantly for Petra Kalive, this is a home grown story.
“Australian stories – that’s my passion. Whether that be in in the form of straight plays or musicals or film or television, more of our voices please!”
My Brilliant Career is playing at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University from Friday 18th to Friday 25th October.
Wednesday 23 October will be an Auslan interpreted performance.