A little over two years ago, award-winning singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke received a phone call from Carmen Pavlovic, the CEO of Global Creatures, a company that has joined forces with Sydney Theatre Company to produce the world premiere of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical. Miller-Heidke and fellow singer-songwriter Keir Nuttall were engaged to write the music and lyrics for this brand new production.
“I think they were very keen on having an Australian woman involved”, Miller-Heidke tells Theatre People. “And I was very keen on bringing Keir into it, because I thought he had so many amazing skills and talents that would really be complementary to mine for this specific project. In some ways, it’s felt perfect for us both and that was the start of the journey. It’s been an intense couple of years.”
Tonight, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical officially opens at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre. Directed by Simon Phillips and with a book by PJ Hogan (the original writer and director of the iconic 1994 film), this is one of the most hotly-anticipated musical premieres in the harbour city for some time.
Looking back on the process of creating the production, Miller-Heidke says much has occurred even since the show’s first preview performance almost two weeks ago.
“The show has come so far since then, particularly in the last couple of days”, she says. “Everything has really gelled in such a sweet, slick way.”
The film has been loved and adored by Australians since it first hit cinema screens over two decades ago. So, did the fact of the film’s strong fan base create any pressure for Miller-Heidke and Nuttall in penning the music for Muriel’s Wedding’s stage iteration?
“I think had we not had PJ Hogan being so integral to the adaptation for the stage, it would have been a lot more intimidating,” Nuttall says. “But he’s so protective of the material. It’s his story and he made sure, at every step of the way, nothing was not faithful to that initial vision.”
Nuttall says he and Miller-Heidke were protective of the film’s legacy themselves, both being major fans.
“Initially, when we heard that he was setting it in the present tense, we were like, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that! It’s Muriel’s Wedding! It has to be set when it was set’. But, of course, PJ had a vision for why it should be on stage and he’s stuck to that since the beginning … I think defenders of the film’s legacy will be happy with the result.”
Miller-Heidke adds: “Interestingly, having PJ involved meant that, yes, the essence of every character stayed true and strong. But also, he felt capable of taking more liberties than perhaps someone else might have, and so the show has grown and deepened in interesting new ways.”
Miller-Heidke describes the collaborative element as having been both the best and most difficult aspect of the process.
“We had so many fights … We lost some of them, [and] we won some of them,” she says. “Everybody is so invested, so passionate, cares so deeply, that it’s been a bumpy road … I think that’s a pretty common thing between book writers and score writers for music theatre, and that’s where the magic happens, I think – in that tussle. PJ has always forced us to do better every step of the way, there’s been no complacency.”
“We’ve got about 50 songs on the cutting room floor … We could put out two records,” he says. “But at every step of the way, it’s been a process of improving. So, that kind of perfectionism has resulted, we think, in a book and a score that feel like they are very much part of the same voice.”
Miller-Heidke says one of the biggest hurdles the pair managed to overcome was finding a voice for the title character, Muriel Heslop.
“She’s an inarticulate character and there’s so much in the film that’s achieved with just a close up or an expression, and on stage, that doesn’t translate, so we get a sense of Muriel’s innermost feelings through song,” Miller-Heidke explains. “Figuring out what she sounded like was one of the major challenges of this, and I couldn’t be happier with the way that Maggie [McKenna] has brought the music to life. She’s a star.”
The composers also talk about cast members’ involvement.
“We were lucky enough to have quite an extensive workshop process for this, which is something that a lot of new Australian works don’t have the luxury of”, Miller-Heidke says.
“There are a few key cast members that did many of those workshops with us and came up with hilarious lines or put a new slant on something that made us see things in a different way.”
Nuttall says: “They all had ideas, and a lot of it ended up making the show much better.”
He’s also bowled over by the calibre of performers assembled.
“We’re incredibly lucky, I’m staggered by the talent on stage,” he says. “And what’s great about it is it’s very much an ensemble piece, so you get to see everybody firing on all cylinders.”
Working with Phillips on the project is an experience both Miller-Heidke and Nuttall have greatly enjoyed.
“We’ve basically had a two-year masterclass in theatre from being that close to him,” Nuttall says.
“He’s one of our favourite people in the whole world,” says Miller-Heidke. “He’s such a genius of storytelling. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Looking back on the past two years, Nuttall singles out what it is about the process of working to bring Muriel’s Wedding to the stage of which he’s most proud.
“I feel like, through the process with PJ, we managed to have the characters sing in a way that feels like they always have integrity within the character,” he says. “When we started, that was probably what I was most frightened of – being able to write for characters because usually, as singer-songwriters we’re writing for ourselves. To have done that is a great relief.”
MURIEL’S WEDDING: THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Playing now until 27 January 2018
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Tickets on sale at www.sydneytheatre.com.au or by phone on (02) 9250 1777