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Prodigal: Interview with The Age

Midsumma hosts return of the Prodigal sons
By Michael Dwyer
January 18, 2011

The award-winning home-grown musical is back 11 years after its debut, writes Michael Dwyer. Please see full article here.

DEAN Bryant gets the coffee. Mathew Frank’s eyes roam over the heavily postered wall of the Balaclava cafe. ”Look at all the musicals,” he says. ”Where did they all come from?”

The answer is mostly from overseas, on a wave of commercial revivalism whipped up by Wicked, Chicago, Jersey Boys et al. But if there’s a note of home-grown satisfaction in the Melbourne stage composer’s tone, it’s deserved.

Eleven years ago, the two drama school graduates from country Victoria could see few precedents for their first co-written and independently staged musical, Prodigal, at Chapel Off Chapel.

The buzz was immediate, the season extended. After winning several Green Room Awards, it played off-Broadway in New York. Since then they have co-written and staged three more musicals while Bryant travels the world as associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

So it’s rather poetic they should come full circle for this month’s Midsumma Festival with a return season of that long-ago debut. According to Frank, from its inception, the story was intended to mirror real life.

”I’d always loved musicals but when I saw The Boy From Oz, that was a revelation,” he says. ”I liked the singing in Australian accents, I liked the idea of the musical that Australians could connect with in their own way. I started thinking about my life, what story I could tell that might have that sort of impact and I hit on the prodigal son story from the Bible. I just set it in the present, made the lead character gay, [with] a family unable to accept him …”

”I thought that was instantly gettable,” director Bryant enthuses, finishing his partner’s thought as co-writers will.

”We’ve written four big-scale musicals now and endless cabarets and children’s entertainments and we’ve realised the things that work best you can tell in one sentence. Everyone knows the prodigal son parable.”

”Well, the parable is the jumping off point,” Frank clarifies, ”and then it’s about the family in crisis and how they deal with it.

”A family that thinks they’re a good family that realises they’re not, and eventually opens up and becomes a good family,” says Bryant.

Both artists owe their own families big time. As a kid growing up near Bendigo, Frank’s received musical diet was heavy on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rogers and Hammerstein. An electric organ prodigy, he began composing with dramatic and symphonic intent at the age of eight.

Bryant’s stage awakening came when his parents sent him from Shepparton to Wesley College for his final year of school, where he was cast as the lead in Evita ”five minutes after swanning in”.

The pair met at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, became romantically involved a week later and eventually took the leap of faith as co-writers.

”We gave it a bash and Prodigal happened,” says Frank.
”And we were off-Broadway two years later,” says Dean.

The dream run gave way to hard slog on their return. But negotiating the shifting administrations and appetites of various Melbourne theatre companies strengthened their skills as independent operators with shows as varied as the family drama of Once We Lived Here and Britney Spears: The Cabaret.

They say they were almost afraid to revisit Prodigal, after nine years in mothballs, but were pleasantly surprised by its construction and resonance.

Bryant says he was reluctant to alter much of the show as originally written: ”I thought it should represent what a 21-year-old wrote, because that’s what the show is about.”

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