What can you tell us about yourself for those who may not know of your work?
Well I’m a musical theatre writer – a composer and lyricist. Additionally, I’m also a conductor, musical director and teacher. I’ve done a lot of different things across music and theatre but I’m a musical theatre guy in my bones really. I’ve been living in London but I’m heading to Melbourne to start teaching at Federation Uni and pursue the next phase of my writing life.
Were you deeply involved in the arts from a young age? If so, how? If not, when did you first start becoming interested in stagecraft and music?
Yes I was – I learnt flute as a kid, and then learnt saxophone and dabbled in piano. I also sang in choirs and even did barbershop! I was one of those total music geeks at school, a rehearsal every lunchtime sort of thing. My parents took me to see a lot of shows and concerts as a kid and I am grateful to them to this day for identifying my interest in the performing arts and fostering it.
You’re a graduate of the Tisch school at NYU. Was this your first time training abroad and how has Tisch influenced your approach to composition?
Yes, this was my first time studying overseas. There aren’t enough keys on my laptop to explain how profound an experience NYU was for me. I really learnt about theatre – about how to tell stories through music and about the specific techniques of writing and the dramaturgy of musicals. I also just started the process of working through what sort of composer I was and beginning the life long process of learning how to write as truthfully as possible.
You’re show That Bloody Woman has been a hit all around the country. The story focuses on a more modern approach to the life of Kate Sheppard. How important do you feel it is to focus on uniquely Kiwi stories?
I had this epiphany about telling Kiwi stories while I was at NYU – we had a really international class and seeing how everyone brought their own background and aesthetic to their work was really interesting. I sort of realised that there are a thousand and one American musical theatre writers writing American musicals but what makes me different (from an international perspective) is that I could be a Kiwi musical theatre writer and tell NZ stories; by no means the first, but I saw an opportunity to do something profound with NZ stories in MT. I have, and will continue to work on non-kiwi shows as well, but I’d like to think I will always be developing work specific to Aotearoa because that’s who I am, and I think That Bloody Woman showed that we actually love seeing our stories on stage in a way that’s also commercially sustainable.
Speaking of Kiwi stories. CIMTSS (Christchurch International Music Theatre Summer School) has been creating a dialogue between New Zealand, Australia and America for nearly a decade now. Can you tell us about the early origins of CIMTSS and what made you realise that Christchurch in particular would be the perfect place to host such an event?
Bloody hell – nearly a decade haha. Well we started in 2014 and I guess CIMTSS came out of two different places – one was that I saw a need (and a niche) for a really good summer school for both high schoolers and our older “emerging professionals” and two was that I had these incredible contacts that, frankly, no-one really seemed interested in using! So I decided to do it myself. I came out of NYU with a lot of energy, ideas and opinions (!) and sort of needed a vehicle to impart some of that. I was just really desperate to share what I had learnt and I knew I had access to world class people who could help. Plus I thought it would be fun!
Tell us a little about your personal journey with CIMTSS. What would you consider that your students learn that they can’t get anywhere else in NZ and what have you learnt from your students?
That’s a great question. Oscar Hammerstein wrote this great lyric in The King And I – “by your pupils you’ll be taught” and I feel that very strongly every CIMTSS. The high school students remind me what’s it’s like to be fearless. They love each other so much. I know the EPs do too, but the SS students have this raw and uncompromising energy which I love. And the EPS (our older emerging professional students) remind me what it’s like to be getting started – they’re learning to understand and appreciate what makes them unique and that’s cool to be a part of.
On the personal side, I learn so much from our tutors – and not just the Broadway ones, but our Aussies and Kiwis too. This sounds odd, but I don’t really have musical theatre mentors in NZ, and I have to say that people like Andréa Burns and Peter Flynn have become that for me – I learn SO MUCH by working with them and watching them teach. I really am as much of a student as the students at the course.
In terms of your question about what are they learning at CIMTSS that’s different – to be honest, aside from a session with the students at Unitec in Auckland (who were awesome!) I’ve never taught at a tertiary musical theatre institution in NZ, so I can’t speak for what they do or don’t teach because I don’t know. What I can speak to is what I see and hear – and there are two things that I hope people get out of CIMTSS that I’m not seeing enough of in NZ – one is better acting in musicals honestly. We’ve got some masterful MT storytellers in NZ, but I wish we were better at telling story through song across the board – too often I see work that is presentational, and not as real or authentic as I’d like. Secondly, we need to be much better at auditioning; and I mean both actors and companies. From a company perspective our audition practices are not great and, mostly due to a lack of opportunities actors often don’t audition well. There is something in our psyche that prevents our performers from really getting out there and selling ourselves properly and we need to get better at it.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Leonard Bernstein is one of your favourite composers of all time. Are there any other artists, past or present you’d give your conductor’s arm to work with?
Yea, I love Lenny! I think it’s because he was a composer and conductor and worked in lots of different genres, and he was an amazing teacher. His music is just so exciting, energetic and beautiful all at the same time. In terms of who I want to work with – I guess I’d love to keep working with great librettists and directors. I love MT because it’s so collaborative – TBW wouldn’t be TBW without Greg, Kip or Jennifer. I just want to work with really smart people who are going to push me to be better. Specifically I think Jeanine Tesori is perhaps the greatest musical theatre writer of our generation and I’d love to work with her again (she taught us for a few days at NYU and she’s incredible.)
Any shout outs you’d like to make? Upcoming projects of your own or words of advice?
We have a saying at CIMTSS – “If you love it, do it” – and that’s as much about the DO as it is the LOVE. I am still learning this, but there is no substitute for the doing – for working hard, being proactive and developing good relationships with people. How we work with and treat people is the most important thing. It’s such a huge gift to be able to do what you love for a living and it should never be taken for granted. Come and say hi in Melbourne!