Peter Novakovich is a musical theatre composer and director, and a science fiction tragic. It is appropriate then, that members of his Woftam Productions group honoured his twentieth anniversary in the industry by naming a star after him. And not just any star. Woftam Nova 2.0 sits appropriately on the right shoulder of the Southern Cross.
“You can’t see it with a naked eye, you need binoculars,” Novakovich says. Even so: “How many theatre companies have a star named after them?”
Novakovich has written ten original musicals and worked as director or pianist on many others, with various production companies around Sydney, including many with Woftam, the theatre company he founded in 1991. Woftam stands for World of Fine Theatre and Music, and over twenty years, the company has produced a number of diverse projects on the stage at the Town Hall in Campbelltown.
“The theatre has a very small stage, a one-metre wing and no fly tower,” he explains. “But I have managed to swing a barricade in Les Miserables, land a helicopter in Miss Saigon, and float a cat up to heaven in Cats,” he says.
Not bad for a director who only had intentions of staging one show: his 1991 writing debut A Bedtime Story. “That was supposed to be it for me, but the cast and crew had such a good time on that project [that] we decided to keep it going. Soon after I was granted rights to stage Les Miserables … and that somehow made me ‘legit’.”
The company has developed a reputation for original and independent shows. “We’ve veered from blockbusters to indie-type shows like Assassins. Another local theatre group here stages the run-of-the-mill musicals like Oklahoma, Annie and High School Musical and we’ve become known as the group that does the ‘other type of shows’,” he explains.
But one thing he has always wanted to do is stage an Australian musical, so for their thirtieth show Woftam is producing Casey Bennetto’s hit Keating! A Musical. “[We wanted] to celebrate Woftam’s twentieth birthday this year and Keating! was right up our alley.”
This will be the first amateur production of Keating! since its 2005 debut at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, but Novakovich says that the rights were surprisingly easy to get. “I’m hoping we’ll see more productions of Keating! once theatre companies find out how easy the show is to get,” he says. The show follows the story of the rise and fall of former Prime Minister Paul Keating and is part political satire, part biography, part farce.
Novakovich decided to cast mainly young actors with whom he had previously worked, and says that the main difficulty he encountered with casting was that the main characters are all still alive: “The look-alike factor did weigh heavily … An audience today will not fall for a short fat blonde actor playing Keating, no matter how talented. I like to think that when enough productions are staged of this show – or once the real-life figures have passed away – we may start seeing departures from lookalikes.”
23-year-old computer programmer and actor Cameron Baker was cast as Keating, and Mitch McCausland, another young actor, plays John Howard. He was just two years old when Keating became Prime Minister in 1991, and says “At the time, I didn’t have much interest in politics. But I laughed a lot when I watched [the original production]. It’s a lot of fun.”
When Keating was Prime Minister, Baker’s family were living near his electorate. “I have not asked how they voted,” he says. “[But] when I told my mother [that I was playing Keating] she said, ‘you are not going to play that bastard.’ I assume they voted Liberal.”
Novakovich, who lived through the Keating years in Australia, says that he asked the cast to hold off on researching the historical facts of the era before the show until after the show had been blocked. “The average age of our cast is twenty-two, so most of them were in nappies when the real life events were occurring. Luckily the show is written in such a way that you don’t need to know the history of what went on to enjoy it. Without making the cast do the research, I found they were able to interpret the script in a fresh way.”
A few changes had to be made to adapt the show for the Campbelltown Town Hall. While the original production had a cast of three, with the band onstage doubling as the Ensemble, the Woftam production has a cast of ten. “In our version the band is in the pit and we’ve replaced them with a Chorus of dancers and singers.” Set design was also kept simple. “We’ve avoided the rotating block used in the original – we have a small theatre. Fancy and complex sets work when in big spaces, but in a small space fancy sets just swallow the cast.” But Novakovich says that there was no need to change the script in any way, even in light of recent political changes. “We didn’t change anything. I like how the script is quite flexible in that you can stage the show with any size cast or set.”
He says that this is the secret to the show’s wideranging appeal. “Even if you have no interest in politics this show is broad and general enough to appeal to a wide audience. You don’t usually get that with political satire, but shows like Yes, Minister prove that when political satire is done right, anyone in any era can find it funny and Keating! achieves this.”
Keating! The Musical is on stage from Friday 30th of September until the 8th of October at the Town Hall Theatre in Campbelltown. Bookings: http://woftam.atspace.com/