Feature: Driftwood the Musical returns with a revamped feel for its new tour
- A more "sophisticated" and "haunting" atmosphere awaits audiences in the return season of Driftwood the Musical says the show's director and lyricists -
Interview by Justin Clarke
Set inside the Armadale Baptist Church, the production team behind the new Australian musical, Driftwood The Musical are hard at work revamping their sold-out production for a new tour. The musical will be returning to Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel from 3 – 20 May before traveling to Sydney playing in three venues Glen Street Theatre, 24 – 28 May, Riverside Theatres, 31 May – 4 June and Eternity Playhouse, 7 – 18 June.
Driftwood The Musical tells the inspirational story of the renowned Austrian/ Australian sculptor Karl Duldig and his artist-inventor wife, Slawa Horowitz-Duldig. We follow their lives in pre-war Vienna, the family’s narrow escape from Nazi Austria, Slawa’s ingenious invention of the foldable umbrella, and the incredible chain of events that took place after miraculously escaping the Holocaust and rebuilding their careers as artists in Melbourne.
This epic story covers three continents and three generations and has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Jane Bodie, based on the original memoir by Eva de Jong-Duldig. It features original music, lyrics and arrangements by Anthony Barnhill with lyrics by Tania de Jong AM and Jane Bodie. The show is directed by acclaimed theatre-maker Gary Abrahams.
Whilst visiting Melbourne for the International Comedy Festival, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a morning rehearsal and having a brief conversation with Gary Abrahams, Anthony Barnhill and Tania de Jong AM about the musical’s return to Melbourne, their tour to Sydney and what exactly has changed since its premiere season.
Driftwood The Musical is returning for the first time since you had your sold-out season last year, what’s different about this version?
Gary: It’s had quite a long journey, from Eva's Memoir which was launched in 2017 and then Tania commenced work to adapt the Memoir. It was originally conceived just as a straight play with a few songs, which was written by Jane Bodie. But because of [Tania’s] world and the world that [she inhabits] as an Opera singer, and the family’s love of music and art, there's a strong musical throughline with the family's history itself.
I came on board the project quite late and when I encountered the material, I just thought that it could go so much further in becoming a piece of music theatre. The emotion of the music had a place within the story - me and Anthony we’d never met. We had never worked together but the minute we started working together it felt like we shared a similar vision for the show. It stopped feeling like a play with songs inserted and started to become much more of musical theatre. We found that the storytelling of music and text and character were kind of more integrated.
But we had such a brief time. It was the craziest sort of experience that three weeks. I was rewriting stuff and Anthony was rewriting stuff.
Tania: He was composing songs overnight.
Gary: We were completely crazy in this three-week intensive workshop rehearsal. And how we got something up on the stage? I don't know.
But people responded positively to it. Yet we both knew that it had another leg to go. So, when the opportunity came around, and when Peter and Tania committed to doing this return season, both Anthony and I said, well if we're going to do that, let's take it to where we know it can get to.
Anthony: I mean, for me, when you ask what’s changed from last season? It's about how music is integrated in the piece for me. It's the biggest change. It’s the entire show, the musicians don't stop playing. The music carries through but it's not an Opera. It’s how music moves to underscore the scenes. The music's the thing that keeps pushing the story forward from beginning to end. I feel like this season, there's more elegance.
Gary: It feels more sophisticated. It feels more mature. The music has matured and the actual sound of it is just more complex, and it has more musical references.
Is it representative of the plot as well and reflective of the themes?
Gary: It wasn’t an easy thing at first kind of going, “Gosh. Can you really do a Holocaust era story as music theatre? Does that work?” But I feel like we're finding a way that it does. The heightened emotion of the family story makes the music serve as a subject.
Anthony: The central prayer that ends Act One is a song. The text translates to, “darkness and light are both a part of you,” and I think that's perhaps why this musical is so powerful because even though the story is heavy there's certainly a light element.
Gary: The other thing that's really changed is the role of Eva. For me, I'm really interested in my own family story. And I know many people share this, that intergenerational trauma and what it is to be somebody who didn't know a lot about their parents’ past until much later. You start to go through their archives and their letters, and their journals and you start to discover the truth of what happened to them that you were protected from and shielded from. So that is a core of the story, Eva discovering for herself her family's legacy and what that means for her and how that changes her as a person.
Tania: It’s a story for everyone. It really reflects all our collective stories and one of the things that we really found about last season was how many people came up to us and said, “that's inspired me to start sharing more of my own story and telling my own story.”
As a result of this musical, we've set up the Umbrella Foundation which is a charity set up to tell stories that matter, especially through musical theatre. We're very interested in important, true stories. It is meaningful to tell true stories that are representative of so many different and important themes.
For me, one of the important themes here is division. There are so many walls between people, and we can and must build bridges between diverse people. This piece shows just how important that is. When we discriminate against any small group, whether it's Jews, people with disabilities, First Nations people, whoever it is, that is what has always created the worst atrocities throughout history.
Gary: I think the other thing that we were really interested in, particularly with a new Australian musical, is that it’s small enough to tour. It’s less expensive not needing, you know, a 24-piece orchestra, although it would be lovely to have a 30-piece chorus. We have three musicians on stage and that's a lovely style of work we're creating with musicians as part of the performance, not in the orchestra pit. It means for producers and for presenters it's something that they can look at and it becomes affordable to make so that this work doesn't just stay in a capital city. It has the opportunity to go regionally to cities, and definitely internationally.
How would you describe the style of the music then?
Anthony: I’ve tried to find a sound for this world as I suppose any composer would and that draws upon a few things. I think to me, it's sits somewhere between the influences of Jewish spiritual music that these characters would have been immersed in and I’ve tried to give some of the score a Jewish flavour. But some of it draws upon the style that might be credited as establishing a sort of a storytelling piece of music theatre. So, it’s about finding somewhere that lands between both of them so that it feels like the world of these characters, but it’s still very story driven. It's incredibly haunting.
Photos by Cameron Grant, Parenthesy. For tickets to any of the show's touring performances, see the links below.
“It is so timely, that it’s both poetical and painful. The stagecraft is mesmerising. The music is sublime. The acting and singing are superlative. This story and stunningly crafted musical deserves to tour the world as a beacon of hope, and a reminder to avoid history repeating itself.” Australian Stage
“Driftwood comes together with so much talent and commitment. The singing is excellent. Based on a true story, this show has heart.” The Age
“This is a production that’s compelling for the charm of its drama and relationships and its thoughtful dramatization of a particular period in time.” Arts Hub
“Quite meta in its execution, this is a show prepared to take risks and challenge theatrical conventions head on.” Theatre People
“A home-grown Holocaust musical is a rarity on the Melbourne stage…” Jewish News
VENUE: Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel St, Prahran SEASON: Wednesday 3 – Saturday 20 May PRICES: from $39.90 BOOKINGS: https://chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/driftwood-the-musical-2/
VENUE: Glen Street Theatre, Cnr Glen St & Blackbutts Rd, Belrose SEASON: Wednesday 24-Sunday 28 May PRICES: All tickets $65 BOOKINGS: https://glenstreet.com.au/whats-on/driftwood-musical
VENUE: Riverside Theatres, Cnr Church & Market Sts, Parramatta SEASON: Wednesday 31 May – Sunday 4 June PRICES: $39.90 - $69.90 BOOKINGS: https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/driftwood-the-musical/
VENUE: Eternity Playhouse, 39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst SEASON: Wednesday 7 June – Sunday 18 June
PRICES: $49 - $89 BOOKINGS: https://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/driftwood