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The musicals of Nick Enright: a scattered and incomplete appreciation

Nick Enright was one of Australia’s leading playwrights and teachers for many decades: loved, revered, respected and celebrated. His plays include Blackrock, Good Works, Daylight Saving, On the Wallaby, and Cloudstreet. In 1993, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay of Lorenzo’s Oil.

support_daily_reviewBut for Daily Review deputy editor Ben Neutze, who started his career in arts journalism well after Enright’s death in 2003, it’s Enright’s reputation as one of Australia’s greatest musical theatre writers that holds the greatest interest.

2005

I’m scrolling through pages upon pages of illegally shared cast recordings and musical theatre albums when I stumble across a name I know: Hayden Tee.

As a 15-year-old musical theatre tragic, I know that Tee is the hottest new thing in Sydney cabaret, even if I haven’t seen him perform. (My mum is not so keen on me going to Tee’s late night cabaret/talk show in Kings Cross.)

So I download his self-titled debut album to hear the voice which Sydney has fallen in love with, and it’s entirely unique and gorgeously connected to the material.

But it’s not so much the voice that captures me as the ninth track:

Someone like that has no finish and time can’t diminish the good works he made on this earth
Time will just burnish those memories that furnish our minds with a record of his endless worth…

Someone like that holds a pen, or he enters a classroom, or theatre and nothing’s the same
Someone like that left this world, and for me, I’m just grateful, yes grateful he even remembered my name

I google the words “Someone like that”, trying to work out who wrote this song, and nothing relevant comes up. So I chuck a full line of lyrics into the search engine and discover the song was written by another young Australian cabaret star I know of, but have never seen perform, Eddie Perfect.

Perfect wrote the song about Nick Enright who, according to David Marr’s Sydney Morning Herald obituary, was: “a prolific and influential playwright, a fine teacher and an endless source of ideas, advice and generosity.”

***

Nick Enright died when I was 13. I never met him.

I’ve seen quite a few of Enright’s plays and read many of them, and I’ve seen Lorenzo’s Oil, for which George Miller and Enright’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. But it’s his musicals — or at least the idea of his musicals, and his work as a lyricist — that have always fascinated me.

As is the fate of most Australian musicals, most of Enright’s were never given published librettos or cast recordings. I’ve never sought out Enright’s musical works with any great concerted effort, but the legend of this man and his musical works has come up constantly over my (relatively short) career as an arts journalist.

May 2010

“Nick Enright saw me in a production of Anything Goes in Canberra, and told everybody they had to see me.

“I mean, it was Nick. Enright. There were all these shows I couldn’t get auditions for, but I came to Sydney after that and got all these phone calls from people wanting to see me for different roles.

“I always credit him with my career.”

I’m interviewing one of the most generous actors I’ve ever known, Queenie van de Zandt. It’s my first ever arts journalism interview, for a university assessment.

I don’t really have arts writing in mind as a career — too precarious — but I notice there’s some hunger in me to hear more about Queenie’s work and this community of artists.

“There were a whole bunch of actors and artists when I was young, including Nick, who were about 10 to 15 years older than me, and who I thought were fantastic performers and creators. But they were also so generous and really took me under their wing.

“I remember thinking — when I grow up, I want to be just like them.

“There were two types of artists as they got older: the bitter and twisted ones who might still be really talented but were threatened, and then there were the ones who were excited by new talent and would say ‘come, play with us’. That was such a tick of approval from somebody you admired.”

April 2006

I’ve convinced my parents to take me to the gala concert launching Peter Cousens’ ill-fated Kookaburra National Musical Theatre Company. Our seats are restricted view, but a lot of performances make a huge impression, including Drew Forsythe’s take on a very funny number, Jindyworoback.

This song is just so Australian. I’ve never heard musical theatre writing anything like this, and as I search through my program I discover the song’s lyricist is Nick Enright. From that Eddie Perfect song.

August 2006

I’m flicking through my program for the arena version of The Boy from Oz, with Hugh Jackman, when I discover that the musical has a book by Nick Enright.

And it’s far from a great book, but apparently Enright’s work was adapted substantially by American writer Martin Sherman. I wonder what his original book looked like.

2009

At a cabaret, Margi de Ferranti introduces a song by the late, great Nick Enright. She performs a scorching, heart-wrenching rendition of I’ll Hold On, from the musical Miracle City.

There’s an Australian musical somewhere out there with a showstopper as affecting and galvanising as this?

When I get home that night, I google Miracle City. I can’t find much — certainly no recordings of any material from the show — but learn that it’s a musical which follows a live-to-air televangelist broadcast. It got some glorious reviews when it premiered, and in the coming years I’ll hear anybody who managed to catch it rave about this electric night of musical theatre.

Did Nick Enright already write the Great Australian Musical everybody in the industry seems still to be waiting for? Was it somehow forgotten? Will I ever get the chance to see it?

September 2013

I’ve just had a meeting at the Guardian Australia offices for my first major professional arts journalism gig: five days at Brisbane Festival, interviewing artists and reviewing performances.

Instead of heading straight home, I decide to drop in on the Australian Institute of Music production of Rent, with a few friends.

At intermission, I meet the show’s director Tyran Parke, and for some reason mention to him that I’m obsessed with Miracle City. Or at least the idea of it; I’ve only heard one song, and read nothing more than the synopsis and a few reviews.

He’s also obsessed with Miracle City, but tells me that Enright’s collaborator, Max Lambert, won’t let anybody near it. Lambert wants the show preserved in the memories of those who were lucky enough to see it.

May 2014

A media release from Sydney’s new Hayes Theatre lands in my inbox to announce the company will stage Miracle City.

I’m both overjoyed and shocked. I feel dizzy. All day.

June 2014

“I thought we should just leave it as being mythical. I didn’t mind if it’s just this thing people talk about that they once saw; like the phoenix. I thought that’s fine. It’s taken a long time for me to be comfortable with the idea of doing it again and the right circumstances to come up.”

I’m interviewing Max Lambert about Miracle City, for a piece explaining the unusual shadow this show casts over the Australian musical theatre landscape.

October 2014

I’m usually nervous at an opening night if I feel particularly invested in the work, but the opening of Miracle City is something different altogether. This has to be good. I’ve put so much faith in this work on the basis of basically nothing.

Halfway through the opening number, I realise the young woman next to me is a fidgeter. Surely I’m not meant to experience my first Nick Enright musical next to a fidgeter? I tell her to sit still, and she shoots me a shocked, outraged, and slightly injured look.

But the show is good.

The next morning, I get to review my first Nick Enright musical.

“When the lights come up and the roof-raising music has ended, Miracle City is a harsh look at what we choose to believe. It’s about the dangerous way our illusions can carry us away and the crushing reality that follows. As all good religious tales are, it’s an allegory — not for the dangers of religion, but for the American Dream and its victims.”

March 2015

Currency Press is launching its latest publication, the Nick Enright Songbook at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse (which has a bar downstairs named after Enright). It’s a landmark release, making sheet music for 50 of his best songs available to the public.

Genevieve Lemon performs several songs and notes that while musical theatre buffs worship Stephen Sondheim for his intricate, incisive lyrics, Enright had a lighter, seemingly effortless touch.

But it’s not just that. I realise that you never hear Enright in an Enright lyric; you hear the character. Sondheim might throw in a “while her withers wither with her” and remind you that he’s present, but Enright is happy to cut to the core of the matter with something as simple as “I’ll hold on; each morning I feel so glad, I held on; a brand new day ain’t so bad.”

It’s also the first time I hear a song from Enright’s musical Mary Bryant.

November 2013

“A myth-making colonial story, [Mary Bryant] should have become a major commercial success but, like so many of Enright’s musicals, it didn’t. Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbusters were dominating the commercial stage and freezing out local works, just as Gilbert and Sullivan had done earlier in the century.”

I’ve just moved to Melbourne for my first full-time position as an arts journalist at Daily Review. One day at lunch, I explore the local library and pick up theatre critic for The Australian, John McCallum’s book Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. I read the section on Nick Enright, including the quote above.

I’ve met John once or twice, and I think it’s pretty cool that I know the man who wrote the book on Australian playwriting in the 20th century.

February 2016

I’m in a huge second-hand bookstore in Fremantle, on a quiet day of Perth Festival. Amazingly, the bookstore has a decent section for playscripts, right at the back of his warehouse space.

More amazingly, on a dusty shelf is a copy of Enright and Terrence Clarke’s musical Summer Rain, for $8.

I read it on the flight home. It is an excellent book of a musical: smart, funny, Australian in voice and spirit, and exactly the kind of writing I’ve come to value and love from Enright.

2011

I’ve just stopped reading Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man halfway through. It’s a glorious piece of writing, but a little too heart-wrenching to take in all in one week. It’s the most important Australian work ever written about the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Nick Enright is in there, a friend of Conigrave.

It takes me two months to feel ready to read the last half of the book.

May 2015

It’s the opening night of queer theatre maker Adena Jacobs’ The Wizard of Oz at Belvoir. John McCallum comes up to me with a smile on his face. He’s been sitting in on rehearsals.

“I think you’ll really get a lot out of this”, he says to me.

The Wizard of Oz goes on to become the most critically divisive production in Sydney that year. I fall head over heels for the piece. Jacobs is one of the most distinctive theatrical voices in the country, and while her more abstract work might seem a million miles away from the work of Enright and his contemporaries, there’s a familiar tension between cynicism and beauty which is distinctively Australian and distinctively queer.

The next day, John let’s me know that he’s a fan — both of the show, and my review. He tweets that it’s a “great review”, and it’s such a tick of approval from somebody I admire.

The reviews for The Wizard of Oz are, to a great extent, divided down generation lines — most of the younger critics have fallen for the piece while most of the older ones are unimpressed.

But John, in his 60s, seems to have endless curiosity and excitement for Jacobs’ daring, fresh and collaborative approach to theatre-making. While there are those critics who, as they get older, seem to grow tired and close off a little to fresh ideas and talents, there are others who are excited by new voices and ways of working.

I might be a “grown up”, but I can hear familiar words in my head, echoing Queenie van de Zandt: when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

June 2015

It’s the world premiere of Neil Armfield’s film adaptation of Holding the Man. I’m sitting in the grand circle at Sydney’s State Theatre, and it seems half of the gay men in Sydney are there.

Mitchell Butel — an actor as generous as any you’ll meet, who worked with Enright over the course of his career — has a brief cameo. And then, to my surprise, there’s Peter Paltos — an actor who is part of the young queer theatre movement I’ve tried to document in my work — playing Nick Enright.

August 2016

A scratchy image appears on the screen in front of me: Genevieve Lemon walking across a darkened stage, calling out to her family. This is the opening scene of the 1996 Sydney Theatre Company production of Miracle City. The legendary one that is still spoken about today and only exists on one DVD disc in Sydney Theatre Company’s archives.

Gale Edwards’ directors note in the Miracle City program begins: “This is a workshop production. That means it’s a testing ground, an experiment to develop an idea, a flexing of artistic muscles, a sneak preview. It is the beginning of a journey rather than the completion of one.”

I’ve finally booked myself a slot to explore all the material STC has stored on Miracle City as well as its two productions of Summer Rain. And it’s all there — set designs, lighting plots, blocking for scenes, programs, fabric samples for costumes, stage management records. I can finally understand the weight of that initial production of Miracle City, and see just how much was changed between the 1989 Summer Rain and the 2005 Summer Rain.

What surprises me most is not so much what I see in the recordings — although I’m astonished to hear how gorgeously Enright and Clarke captured the ennui of the Australian outback in Summer Rain’s Nothin’ Doin — it’s the way these shows were written about in reviews.

The Sun-Herald review for the 1989 production concludes: “Australian musicals are rare as Malcolm Fraser’s jokes and this lack of tradition is no less a problem for our audiences (and critics) than for our creative teams. When one is as good as Summer Rain it is as welcome as an icy beer in a drought.”

It feels like a sentence I could still write about a new Australian musical today, I’d just have to swap out the Fraser reference for something on Bill Shorten’s zingers.

The Daily Telegraph review of the 2005 production of Summer Rain includes the words “An Australian musical is rare enough.”

Will I still be writing variations on that phrase in 20 years from now?

March 2015

As I sit on a train, heading home from the launch of the Nick Enright Songbook, Caroline O’Connor’s glorious recording of the Maltby and Shire song The Story Goes On from the musical Baby comes on iTunes shuffle:

Yes, all that was is part of me, as I am part of what’s to be. And thus it is: our story goes on.

It’s a song about motherhood; the moment a pregnant woman first feels her baby kick, and understands that she’s part of a legacy.

A fairly schlocky ‘80s musical theatre ballad, a million miles away from my experiences.

But in that moment I have some small understanding of why I gravitated towards arts journalism: in some small and, I fear, completely insignificant way, I want to ensure that an art form as ephemeral as theatre finds a somewhat more lasting expression. And I want to ensure that these Australian artists, who create glorious work against all possible odds, aren’t forgotten or neglected.

I want to honour them, whether that means lavishing them with praise or asking them to be better than they are.

I’ve found my place — just on the edge of this community of curious and indefatigable creators.

***

There are still plenty of Nick Enright works I’ve never seen, read, or heard. The play scripts are mostly easy to come by, but I’ll never experience some of the musical works in any form.

Sydney’s New Theatre’s production of Summer Rain opens tonight. I’ll be there.

12 responses to “The musicals of Nick Enright: a scattered and incomplete appreciation

  1. This is a lovely article, Ben, and not nearly so scattered nor incomplete as you would have us believe.

    As unlikely as it may sound, when I was writing an article about Nick’s lyrics for The Canberra Times in 2004, it was to the Australian Defence Force Academy that I went, for they had the archives of his material ( a programme they’d undertaken to preserve the works of playwrights!)

    I hope it’s all still there: drafts, scripts, notes and demo casettes of Mary Bryant, The Good Fight, sung by Nick himself, with David King at the piano.

  2. Nice article Ben. I knew and worked with Nick and other collaborators on The Betrothed. I was also lucky enough to perform in a production of The Venetian Twins, one of Nick and Terry Clarke’s best. You might like to hunt out Variations which was produced at Belvoir, and of course On The Wallaby and Orlando Rourke and the list goes “on, and on, and on….”

  3. For your information, Ben, the script for the Arena Production of The Boy From Oz (as with all Australian productions of the show) was Nick’s. Martin Sherman’s script was only used in the Broadway production.

    1. I saw the Broadway Production as well as the Australian Original Production. The Broadway version was more episodic, with Hugh often narrating rather than the very entertaining original production where whole scenes unfolded the story. In many ways totally different shows. Broadway was more of a songbook with some scenes.

  4. He was amazingly encouraging to younger playwrights and generous with his time and knowledge. He just opened the door and said come on in. Great to read this account of his work.

  5. Back in the 1980s I took my two small gilrs to Nick Enright’s “On the Wallaby” at the New Theatre. It was their first experience of live theatre and they were utterly entranced. We’d just bought a video recorder. As we were leaving the theatre the younger one demanded that it be rewound and played again – so I had to explain to her the nature of a unique experience. I don’t think it has ever been revived – but it should be.

  6. Ben, thanks for this. I was part of the NIDA graduating year of 1983, for whom Nick and Terry wrote Summer Rain. I was a relative non-singer and was initially resistant and ungracious about having our final showcase production a musical. I came round! Recently, I and a fellow from that cohort listened to her ancient, precious cassette tape of the live recording of that original production. – the only one known to exist. And then a group of us from that cast went to the NIDA archives to reminisce over production photos. My published copy of the play is signed by Nick and Terry. What a journey. I’m looking forward to a few of us being there at the New for their performance on Monday 28th in support of the Actors Benevolent Fund. What a journey.

  7. Beautiful, Ben. Thank you. Nick still sits inside the beating heart of this industry. I feel so blessed to have been supported by him when I arrived in Sydney with nothing but a swag and an exercise book of play ideas. He is dearly missed, but I still look for him at every single opening night. Beaming, eyes sparkling, making everyone feel like they have a part to play. And indeed, they do.

  8. Just noting that Muftee (Hayden Tee’s late night cabaret at The Stables) ran in 2003. I remember because I was a guest artist! :)

    I believe Eddie Perfect first sang that awesome Nick Enright song at the 2003 City of Sydney Cabaret Convention (its last year)- he totally floored the room with it.

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