It was a love of musical theatre that brought Kurt Kansley and Oliver Lidert together and would ultimately lead to a successful writing partnership. They first met when they were both performing in The Lion King in London’s West End.
“It was my final year of The Lion King and Oliver joined, so it was a bit serendipitous I think. We’d both geek out over music theatre,” laughed Kansley.
Lidert agreed, “Yeah, very much so. I came in as a swing that year. Kurt and I just started chatting about musical theatre nerdy stuff!”
They explained that the London cast of the The Lion King consisted mostly of international performers of African or Caribbean descent, generally with no background in musical theatre.
“Kurt and I were musical theatre trained geeks and so that’s how we connected and our conversations started from there,” said Lidert.
“One day we just decided we should write a musical. It was almost a bit of pipe dream in a way,” said Kansley.
Kansley left the cast of The Lion King, while Lidert stayed on for another two years. It took three years after that initial conversation before they finally did write together.
The pair kept in touch but it was a random meeting that prompted the pair to reignite that dream of writing together.
“I was about to perform in The Book of Mormon,” said Lidert.
“I think I was about to do Saigon?” added Kansley.
“And we met and said, ‘We really should get writing together again’. We decided to do a cabaret show – to write a cabaret show for a pretty well established West End performer: Rachel John,” Lidert said.
Rachel John had performed in The Lion King with Kansley and Lidert and was currently starring in We Will Rock You. Kansley and Lidert wrote a one-woman show for her titled The Songs I’ll Never Sing.
“Obviously, Kurt and I being of ethnic backgrounds, and Rachel being of Trinidadian background, we decided to do it about all the songs she’d never get to sing,” explained Lidert.
Kansley and Lidert altered song lyrics and changed the song arrangements.
Kansley explained, “For example, we changed the lyrics of Hair to be about a black woman’s hair. We changed the style of ‘Far From the Home I Love’ from Fiddler on the Roof and made it more calypso, so it had a Jamaican flavour.”
Lidert added, “We did ‘My Favourite Things’ in a jazz 5-4. We did a Disney montage. We had a lot of fun with that show!”
The show also included some original songs, and it was then that Kurt Kansley and Oliver Lidert realised they really could write together. The show was a hit, received great reviews and enjoyed a sold out season at London’s St James Theatre.
People encouraged Kansley and Lidert to write more – and so they did.
Their writing is very much a collaborative effort, although Lidert admits the chord patterns are left to Kansley. They want to avoid having rigid roles as either composer or lyricist. Otherwise, Lidert feels there is a risk that all the songs will sound very similar.
“We don’t have a set structure in how we write. It comes from an idea. We’ll have an idea and we’ll sit and discuss it,” said Kansley.
“We sit down at the piano together – and play,” said Lidert.
Kurt Kansley is currently wowing Melbourne audiences as Che in Evita the Musical. Oliver Lidert is the standby Genie in Disney’s Aladdin in London’s West End. They admit working together has its challenges.
“Partnerships like this are difficult because of two things. Obviously, emotionally, people are very tied to their work, and sometimes don’t like adapting things, which can be difficult. And secondly, when they’re in a partnership in order to make this stuff work, you have to commit in terms of time.”
In between the Sydney and Melbourne seasons of Evita last year, Kurt Kansley returned to London for one week to write with Oliver Lidert. They managed to write three complete songs during that week – one for an upcoming musical and two stand-alone songs for a concert.
“The fact of the matter is, in that particular week, I love my wife very much, but in that particular week I saw Kurt more than I saw my wife, and the thing about it is, it really does take that time commitment, and in order to create that partnership you have to be willing to commit to it,” said Lidert.
“We actually live around the corner from each other and have keys to each other’s houses,” explained Kansley, with a laugh.
Last month, it was Oliver Lidert’s turn to visit Melbourne and again spend time working with Kansley.
“It really is a massive commitment!” exclaimed Lidert.
Their hard work is paying off. Their new musical Confessions is slated for a season in the West End this year.
Part of their success is their openness and willingness to accept the opinions of others.
“We wanna know what people think, what they like and what they don’t like,” said Lidert.
“I think that also comes from being performers and not being from that classical composition background that’s rigid.”
The pair have been working with the performers who will bring their songs to life in Home Grown’s Songbook Series at Chapel Off Chapel on Monday 25th February.
Kansley explained the first thing he said to this Australian cast was, “This is your song. Make it your version. What can you bring to it?”
The pair feel that because they are performers they understand the need for performers to be able to bring themselves into a role.
“I would love our songs to be performed differently, every single time!” exclaimed Lidert.
“I think that’s far more exciting. Billie Holiday is quoted as saying, ‘I never sang a song the same way twice and I love that idea.’”
When I asked the pair to describe their musical style they laughed and responded, “Eclectic!”
“We do not stick to any genre. We serve stories.”
The pair say they want to “break the mould” of musical theatre and this is helped by their ethnic diversity.
“Ollie calls himself Jamolish!” laughed Kansley, looking at Oliver Lidert.
Lidert explained, “My background is, my father was a Polish Jew whose parents escaped Poland during the war and ended up in Sweden. Then my Dad was studying in the United Kingdom and met my mother who was Jamaican – who came over to Wales and was studying in England as well. They had my two sisters and then moved to the United States, so I’m Jamaican and Polish but obviously have a Jewish influence in my family.”
Kansley continued, “I was born in Cape Town South Africa and during the apartheid we were called coloured. I don’t know what the exact mix is, but it’s a mix of African, Asian and European. Then we moved to Australia when I was a child and I was brought up here and trained in musical theatre here.”
They both consider themselves to be world citizens.
While their new work, Confessions, will have its premiere in London later this year, they would love for their latest project Autumn Rhythm to premiere here in Melbourne. It’s a musical about artist Jackson Pollock (yes, they have written a song called ‘Blue Poles’.)
“ I would love to have an Australian creative team,” said Kansley.
“It has a lot of international appeal, but it feels like it should start here, because it feels like the right place for it,” added Lidert.
Kurt Kansley and Oliver Lidert are two successful performers who are writing musicals. I asked the pair, if they had the choice, which would they most prefer to spend their time doing. The reply was immediate.
“Oh God, if I could give up performing tomorrow I would!” exclaimed Lidert.
“Same!” added Kansley. “In a heartbeat!”
Both performers are extremely grateful for the international careers they’ve enjoyed over the years, but know only too well just how much hard work it is.
However, their passion for writing is about more than just changing jobs. It’s clear they have a desire to write musicals that better represent the diversity in our communities.
“Tokenism doesn’t solve the problem of diversity, The only way you solve the problem of diversity is by people going out and saying, ‘Okay. let me create the work.’ It’s not by Cameron Mackintosh putting in an Asian Eponine and suddenly all the problems are solved. It’s by telling a new story,” said Lidert.
“I think there’s something to be said about leaving a legacy. As a writer you leave a legacy longer than you do as a performer.”
“We get more of a buzz when seeing something that we’ve created come alive; more exciting than coming on stage and doing an opening night at the Opera House, which is fantastic, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it’s a different excitement,” shared Kansley.
“We’d love to be successful enough to then help the next generation come forward,” said Lidert.
“And see more diversity come forward. Someone’s got to do it.”
Lin Manuel Miranda can’t do it all!
To experience the original work of Kurt Kansley and Oliver Lidert be at Chapel Off Chapel on Monday 25th February for a special one night only concert in Home Grown’s Songbook Series.