By Guy Webster

In a year like the one we’ve had, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that another occasion marked 2021. Almost 90 years ago to the day, a young Pamela Travers travelled to Suffolk from her London flat with a pen in her hand. What she would write during this time would become the first iterations of Mary Poppins. While many might be familiar with this classic tale, less is known of the enigmatic figure behind its conception.

Paper Stars, a new musical from Salty Theatre, looks at the life of this fascinating author with stars in its eyes. Born in Maryborough, Queensland as Lyndon Goff, P.L. Travers was only 25 when she set sail from the docks of Sydney Harbour in the pursuit of a new life in London.

For the show’s director, Miranda Middleton (Voldemort and the Teenage Hogwarts Musical Parody, Salty Theatre; Not Today, Rogue Projects), these formative years see Lyndon Goff buoyed along by ‘dreams of becoming a great writer in London’. Once she arrived, Goff chose to ‘reinvent herself as P.L. Travers’, says Middleton. With a new name and a new place to call home, Travers goes on to write what is, for Middleton, ‘one of the most beloved stories of all time’, Mary Poppins. Paper Stars, says Middleton, follows the intrepid Travers during these early years of her career.

The inaugural musical created through Salty Theatre’s Hatch Lab Musical Theatre Residency, Paper Stars tells the true story of P.L. Travers’ life with what Middleton describes as ‘a healthy spoonful of imagination’. The result is a musical that retains much of the whimsy and joyfulness so central to Travers’ Mary Poppins. In terms of atmosphere as well as style, it is a piece intent on reawakening what Middleton terms ‘a sense of joy and wonder within audiences.’

For Middleton, who penned the book for the musical with ‘dear friend’ Grace Chapple, ‘Mary Poppins was one of my favourite movies as a kid; for its music, whimsy, and of course Julie Andrews’ scintillating performance. But it also left me with a question which has stayed with me throughout adulthood – why did Mary Poppins have to leave?’ This question, says Middleton, became ‘the creative itch’ which would continue to fuel this ‘passion project’, for which award-winning composer Luke Byrne (Between the Sea and the Sky, New York Musical Festival; Harp in the South, Sydney Theatre Company) came on board to furnish with music and lyrics.

What Middleton discovered in her research on Travers – which included ‘many days’, she says, ‘reading her letters journal entries at the State Library of NSW’ – was an ambitious Australian and what she describes as a ‘fierce female storyteller.’ ‘She had such an extraordinary imagination and way with words’, says Middleton, ‘so it felt like a great responsibility and honour to bring her character to life.’

Bringing P.L. Travers to the stage is Helpmann-nominated performer Luisa Scrofani (In the Heights, JRP Australia; My Brilliant Career, MLive) who found herself similarly drawn to ‘the headstrong, strong-willed and unyielding nature that P.L. Travers displayed as a woman with the drive to be published, especially being that she lived 100 years ago — a time where women were expected to settle down quickly, and put a career to the wayside.’ In this, Scrofani says, Travers ‘echoes the sentiments of other female authors with similar stories whom I admire — fellow Australian Miles Franklin, or Louisa May Alcott.’

Scrofani also echoes Middleton’s penchant for the whimsical in theatre. ‘An hour or so of total escapism and joy’, Scrofani says, ‘feels like a safe, nurturing piece to offer to audiences now.’ Paper Stars, Scrofani acknowledges, offers just that—a ‘whimsical, bittersweet, tender’ theatrical experience that tells ‘the story of a woman with such’ an indelible ‘legacy’.

This is not to say that Travers’ life was not also marred by tragedy. ‘Paper Stars’, Middleton acknowledges,has a decent dose of darkness within it’. It is, she says, ‘at its heart, a story about losing people you love’, one that asks of Travers – ‘But can she learn to love real people as much as her magical characters?’ Yet, what ultimately emerges from the darker notes of Travers’ life is a story about what Middleton describes as finding ‘the glimmers of light and hope’ within, and despite them.

In a particularly acute example of ‘life imitating art’, the path to getting Paper Stars on its feet has been similarly shrouded by bouts of darkness. Like many shows, its season was postponed as a result of Melbourne’s lockdowns this year. Yet, for Middleton, who describes her ‘main mission as a theatre-maker in 2021 to reawaken a sense of joy and wonder within audiences’, Paper Stars has proved an illuminating experience amid these difficulties. It is this luminary quality which she hopes to impart through the piece – ‘[e]specially amidst the looming threat of climate change and Covid-anxiety,’ she says, ‘the only gift I really have to offer people right now is an hour or two of refuge and restoration in the magical, imaginative space of a theatre.’

Scrofani echoes such sentiment, hopeful that audiences will ‘enjoy the escapism, the magic, and the rediscovery of their inner child’ promised by the show. It is a magical atmosphere, Scrofani goes on to say, which she has similarly found reflected in the rehearsal process. ‘Despite the stop-start nature we’ve dealt with this year’, she says, ‘our incredible creative team has been nothing but supportive, passionate, and certain that this show has a stage. It’s been a beautifully collaborative process.’

The results of this collaborative process will be shared to an industry audience this Sunday, 5th December at Theatre Works’ new development space, the Explosives Factory. It is, I expect, not the last we will be hearing of this magical show.

Paper Stars is a development from Salty Theatre’s Hatch Lab initiative. Its book is by Grace Chapple and Miranda Middleton Music and lyrics are by Luke Byrne