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Variations – The Musical

Neglected Musicals presents VARIATIONS – The Musical by Nick Enright and Terry Clarke at Theatre 19 (ex-Darlinghurst Theatre), Potts Point.

VARIATIONS – The Musical, Book and Lyrics by Nick Enright. Music by Terry Clarke. This is the ninth neglected musical presented by this company, and the first Australian work. It was quite a thrill to have the composer, Terry Clarke present, and to understand that he was an active assistant to this staged reading of the work. The original production of VARIATIONS was directed by John Bell and played at the Nimrod from December 2, 1982 – January 8, 1983 and starred Robert Alexander, Philip Dodd, Vivienne Garrett, Nancye hayes, Brian James, Patricia Kennedy, Kim Krejus, Deidre Rubinstein, and George Spartels. VARIATIONS has had only the one production (is it true the music score was ‘lost’?).

Considering the pedigree of both the ‘writers’ this is a surprise – other co-authored works being: THE VENETIAN TWINS (1979) and SUMMER RAIN (1983). The work was a nostalgic delight.

The book for VARIATIONS by Mr Enright, on hearing it the other day, probably could do, for an audience in 2013, with a tighter and more economical plotting lens for the interwoven stories of his four heroines: Molly (Maggie Blinco); Meg (Margi De Ferranti); Fran (Amanda Bishop) and Alice (Belinda Wollaston), in their exploits of love and life in Sydney, in 1982. The first act almost an hour and a half long! The locations in the text are unambiguously famous and bursting with redolent connections for the Sydney audience – one savoured them instantly – but, what Melbournians or other cities’ audiences would make of those subtleties, maybe more than a moot point – a reason for the work not been taken up, so enthusiastically, outside of Sydney, perhaps? The characters and their travails, too, are drawn with a loving observation, but do have imbued in them that tendency of most of Mr Enright’s work, to have too much sentiment, which sometimes becomes unabashedly sentimental, an Irish-Australian (dare I say, Catholic) trait of some of our storytellers/playwrights of yore/recent past (I am thinking, as well, of Peter Kenna, for instance). On hearing it the other afternoon, I felt it just a little , stickily mawkish – it will be a matter of personal taste, however.

On the other hand, the score by Mr Clarke goes some way to rescue the book and lyricist’s ‘romantic’ tendencies. VARIATIONS seems, to me to be A Play with Music, rather than a musical. There is, still, allowing for that definition, considerable musical input. The score has a kind of restraint and cooling emotional tone for the language circumstances given to us by Mr Enright. The music is sophisticated in its heritage, with layers of classical music knowledge present and an influence of the mathematical mind of, say, a contemporary of Mr Clarke’s, Stephen Sondheim – a faint influence, but there, I’m sure. Like Mr Sondheim, Mr Clarke’s music serves the story and creates a cocoon for the lyrics, the sentimental yearnings of the characters, with a gentle acerbic control. Dare I suggest, as opposed to the Irish-Australian Catholic sentiment of Mr Enright, a more English Presbyterian emphasis? They balanced each other well, I thought. I understand, talking to some of the participants later, the score is also, like Mr Sondheim, “fiendishly difficult”. One does wish that Mr Clarke was still at commissioned work. His voice is considered, inventive and disciplined. The music comes from an Australian authenticism, a loving organic spirit, layered with a knowledge of the musical muses of the past. Too valuable a resource not to be at service to the contemporary Australian theatre scene.

Is he?…. Is that a deafening silence?

As usual with the Neglected Musical presentations, this was a hands held reading with very little rehearsal preparation. Compared to other performances I have attended: ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY and SHE LOVES ME, there was a more obvious nervous tension to be seen. Perhaps, having the live composer present, and having the emotional connection to Mr Enright (and Mr Clarke), the sense of the responsibility and honour of this presentation showed? Ms De Ferranti, carrying the leading role of Meg, sang Meg’s Act One finale, IN SOLITUDE, with power and conviction. Amanda Bishop boldly embraced the comedy of her character. Maggie Blinco was delicately touching and  Belinda Wollaston as thoughtful in her performance both as a singer and actor, as always.

Martin Crewes creating Steve, drew dramatically and musically a more than credible character – one wished Steve a happy ending! (Who is the sentimental one now? But then, like Nick, I, too am an Irish-Australian Catholic!) It was a very assured and accomplished performance. Tyler Burness seemed to have an understanding of the young Geoff, the humour and hidden sensitivities, undercutting any sentimentals. He sang “If I Don’t Have You” in a very affecting and truthful manner. The really wonderful surprise was the work of Doug Hansell, a young 30 year old, who took on, fairly late in the preparation, I’m told, the 70 year old Willy Rosenthal, and pulled off a performance offer that dissipated any ridiculousness of such casting in the event. He created a dignity and gravitas that was entirely unexpected and was understatedly very moving. James Millar and Kate Parry completed the company of performers with sturdy support. Musical Director, Andrew Warboys did a remarkable job with Issac Hayward as his assistant and music maker. Christopher Hurrell staged the piece simply, but, without much practical insight or directorial depth.

VARIATIONS is worth investigating and would be interesting to see in a revival production. Griffin, Belvoir, STC? The Ensemble ‘s Director was there, watching. Maybe, over there, then?

 NEGLECTED MUSICALS have made a very valuable contribution to the re-examination of the resources of the Australian Theatre history.

With much thanks.

1 replies to “Variations – The Musical”

  1. It's interesting – Variations was always the "middle" Enright/Clarke musical in the history, and the one that didn't get revived like Venetian Twins or Summer Rain. And there was never a lot of publicly available information about it.

    It also falls into the period before Enright was a major playwright (in the early 80s he was better known for translations and adaptations, like his involvement in the "Servant of Two Masters" that Bell still used only recently, and translations of Moliere and Beumarchais) – he really didn't break through til 1989's "Daylights Saving" seemed to open up the floodgates to a decade and a half of brilliance before his too-soon demise.

    I don't know the reasons why it wasn't explored further at the time (was it just the "Australians Can't Do Musicals" thing, was it, as Bob Ellis has claimed elsewhere, Williamson stealing all the oxygen?) but it'd be interesting to see if it could be picked up and run with now.

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