Julia Sutherland takes a jette through the ambitious activities of The Benge Group, producers of Twisted Broadway.
Got a fantasy? Come on, fess up. We all have at least one. I don’t know much about football, but I know that even the most macho of folk spend extensive energy creating ‘Dream Teams’ comprised of their ideal players and in which positions they would like them to play. At the slightly less grunty end of the spectrum, those of us hit with the musical theatre tragic stick might spend hours dreaming of casting a show with our favourite performers and having them sing songs in a fashion never before seen. We might even dream of using the proceeds to help out a worthy cause.
Melbourne producers The Benge Group are no exception (to being predisposed to the show fantasy, not necessarily the football one), but where they differ from most of us is that they not only dreamed it but decided to do it.
Enter Twisted Broadway, a one night gender-bent cabaret showcase extravaganza, feturing cast members from Hairspray, FAME, Wicked and other biggies, as well as the likes of Drew Weston, finalist in this year’s Rob Guest Endowment Award, and Francine Cain, winner of the Rob Guest Endowment Award. Hosted by Nath Valvo and musically directed by Cameron Thomas, Twisted Broadway will raise money for research and developmental programs for people living with HIV/AIDS by donating all proceeds to Oz Showbiz Cares / Equity Fights AIDS.
Twisted Broadway is the inaugural production for The Benge Group, comprised of and driven by Daniel Benge and Kate Macdonald, two highly entrepreneurial (and somewhat theatre tragic; let’s be honest) types on a mission. The show is modelled on the five-year success of New York’s Broadway Backwards, an annual charity event featuring acclaimed performers singing songs originally written for the opposite gender.
“One of the first things we did was to contact the New York producers of Broadway Backwards”, says Kate, ‘who were 100% on board with the idea but felt we needed to develop a new name for the Australian market. One day Dan started calling it ‘Twisted Broadway’ and it stuck.”
But Daniel insists it was the cast that really put the twist in Twisted Broadway. “After pitching the idea to the performers we thought we had a good idea in regards to what songs they would choose to sing. But after getting song requests from Yentyl, Shrek the Musical, RENT as well as some shows that never left workshop phase in New York, it was evident that this was going to be an eclectic mix to say the least!”
Without wanting to spill the beans too far, Kate hints that her favourite moment in the show involves “one of our boys singing a Jason Robert Brown song he has ‘localised’. Not only will the gender be switched but also a lot of American references.” Meanwhile, Daniel is most intrigued by “a very heated and elaborate argument between two guys that escalates very quickly…”
So how did a PR student and Retail Manager (Kate) and a Performing Arts and Law (yes, really) student (Daniel) decide to join forces and become a production company? “Producing is something I always had an interest in but never knew exactly what it entailed,” Daniel says, “After working as an intern on Jersey Boys last year I gained a strong appreciation for the job, and liked spreading myself over many different departments; from ticketing to marketing, rehearsal room to event planning.” For Kate it is a logical culmination of her passion for and background in theatre, management and PR. “The Benge ‘Group’ is currently more like a duo,” she says, “ and as the project grew, so did the workload. The fortunate thing was that between the two of us we had a lot of skills and past experience that helped us to be confident with the steps we needed to make to get this project of the ground.”
The term ‘dynamic duo’ must be one of the most overused expressions of our times, yet it seems frighteningly appropriate to apply it to Kate and Daniel. Their enthusiasm and determination are infectious, and I’m curious to know what motivates them. “Theatre is a tough industry no matter what area you’re in,” observes Kate, “Over the past few years I have learned that the best way to have theatre as a constant in my life is to create opportunities for myself and for others. I would consider myself a ‘doer’ and I thrive on the thrill of acting on an idea and achieving success.” For Daniel it’s “an unexplainable affinity for theatre. Being involved with numerous projects has become an intrinsic part of my life. So it’s the desire to be a part of something that is dynamic and interesting; something that challenges me to expand my knowledge and skill.”
In the process of recruiting some of Australia’s finest talent to perform in Twisted Broadway, was there anybody who didn’t think it was an excellent idea? Daniel recalls with some amusement, “When I pitched the idea to our MC Nath Valvo, explaining that the show revolves around performers singing songs originally written for the opposite gender, he let out a long sigh and exclaimed ‘God, as if musical theatre wasn’t gay enough!’”
Daniel explains that the decision to make Oz Showbiz Cares / Equity Fights AIDS the beneficiary for Twisted Broadway came about because, “It was apt in that it was industry specific. And since musical theatre is enjoying overwhelming success in Australia at the moment, we felt it would hit home for both the performers and audience. In doing the research we discovered that HIV/AIDS has acquired new challenges in the 21st century that weren’t present in the late 80’s and early 90’s, forcing many living with the illness under the poverty line.”
So with their fantasies crystallizing and both their artistic and moral integrity in tact, what’s next for The Benge Group? “We’re planning on maintaining Twisted Broadway as an annual event that will grow each year, and hopefully acquire a following and a saved date on many theatre-goers’ calendar. Aside from this, we are looking at producing and executive producing smaller professional productions of contemporary works.”
While we’re dreaming aloud, both producers also have a strong performance background, so I ask them what song they would personally most like to perform that was originally written for the opposite sex. Kate declares, “You’ll See’. Finding a director that is willing to cast me as ‘Penny’ in RENT is on my bucket list.”. For Daniel it’s “’And I’m Telling You’ from Dreamgirls. I have a hankering for unnecessary trills and belt. Self-indulgent singing is the best kind.”
I liken their activities to the footy world’s ‘Dream Team’ shennanigans come to life in a musical theatre arena. Daniel, who is an avid St Kilda supporter “although they frustrate me to tears” appreciates the comparison. I, on the other hand, appreciate Kate’s response; “…What’s a football?”
Twisted Broadway plays for one night only on Monday 1st November at Red Bennies in South Yarra. See What’s On for details.