Tag Archives: musical

A short time and a sweet time

14 Sep

Yesterday was the closing night of Short+Sweet Song 2014 in Auckland. I was the Artistic Co-ordinator – a job that I in essence created for myself. A bit of back story:

Short+Sweet is an internationally franchised festival of ten-minute theatre pieces. It’s been running in Auckland since 2010, but last year they added Short+Sweet Song, an adjunct category for musical theatre. I entered a two-hander called Annie & Joshua:

It was not a large show last year: only five pieces in total. I went to the producers and said they needed a specialist to run the Song side of things, and suggested myself. They gave me the job: Artistic Co-ordinator.

logo-song-green-backgroundThe job was to encourage submissions and expressions of interest from writers, directors, musical directors and performers. We ended up with nine pieces in total (review 1, review 2). There was everything from 10-minute excerpts of projected longer pieces (Monopoly – The Musical! and Love and Other Mysteries), an adaptation of a student film (A Girl Like Maria), a story formed around songs by the director’s friend’s band (This Paper City), plays with songs (The Might of Aphrodite, Henry & Hyde), and another piece that went freely in and out of speaking and singing (Cushion).

The Judges’ Choice was Flatmates, a sung-through trio musical written by Wellingtonian Rose Duxfield, directed by Katie Flood and musically adapted by Zac Johns. I’m very glad that Rose had come up to Auckland for the final night – she wasn’t expecting to be showered with quite so many certificates and bottle prizes.

Karaoke Heaven won the People’s Choice Award. Written by Jun Bin Lee (script and backing track), it starred Amanda Grace Leo and Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho as owner and trainee waiter of a karaoke establishment, promoting their venue. This is the second year that Jun Bin has won the People’s Choice Award – last year’s Ninja musical had arguably catchier hooks than Karaoke.

It’s been really satisfying putting this together, building the festival, and spreading the word. The musical theatre community in Auckland is a strangely hybridised and often disconnected beast of occasionally professional, establishment amdram, “emerging theatre practitioner”ish and high school – in fact many private high schools have larger production budgets than some professional shows. It was valuable for my own connections as well as those between those different strands.

Best of all, the casts of the nine different pieces didn’t stay siloed; they interacted and socialised together. They had common warm-ups, they shared dressing rooms, etc etc. I think Short+Sweet’s new venue has really helped. While the Herald Theatre at the Aotea Centre is a nice enough space, spending time within the officialness of a Council-controlled environment like Auckland Live can be stifling. We’re now at TAPAC in Western Springs, which is a small, friendly, nimble performing arts centre with a common foyer area for users of the theatre, hirers of the rehearsal rooms, and audience. I’ve also noticed much greater cross-over support between the different weeks of Short+Sweet (Theatre, Song and Dance), which can only be beneficial.

Someone else will have to be Artistic Co-ordinator next year since I’m leaving the country, but they’ll have great help: Festival Producer Sums Selvarajan, Stage Manager Max Thompson and Technical Designer Michael Craven are utterly professional and hugely helpful, as is everyone else on the team.

I paid tribute to them (and others) just before the awards were handed out last night, in the form of a parody of all nine S+S Song pieces. (I rewrote lyrics to the same music, and sang and played from the piano.) Sardonic reflections on the tech and dress day aside, it sums up my feelings accurately.


[Karaoke Heaven]
If you love singing, then you should know
How magical Short+Sweet Song can be!
Nine great pieces in a single two-hour show…
Sweet, this all came together!
This song is for all of you
Who have been part of Short+Sweet Song.
We put out the call, and you came running;
Now Short+Sweet Song is bigger than before!

[The Might of Aphrodite]
We spread news everywhere, hoping that you’d notice us:
The Big Idea, at TAPAC, and on the side of a bus,
But we were fine; we got our nine
Submitted pieces in.
With directors, writers, MDs, actors,
This thing’s full of win!

[Monopoly – The Musical!]
A nice little slice of theatre,
Just ten minutes or less.
A nice little slice of theatre…
Plus or minus 30 seconds, I guess.
It’s going great, it’s going sweet,
I simply cannot wait to meet
All the beautiful people in this slice of theatre!

[The Might of Aphrodite]
It made us feel all special
That so many folk would join,
Though I got kinda nervous when I saw that a person
Had a singing flesh-tone groin…

[A Girl Like Maria]
Easy running was the pre-production;
Easy running with amazing producers.
I went to them to ask for 32 lapel mics;
They said, “Go fuck yourself, do you think we’re made of money?
We’ll just get actors with impeccable projection
Over pianos and keyboards and tracks,” and I said,
“I want a piano with a big motherfucking sheet,”
And they said, “Yeah, we can do that.”

[Love and Other Mysteries]
(bong bong) Tech day!

The day is bright and sunny!
The sun’s a ball of energy,
But we’re stuck inside, it’s funny
How pasty our skin can be.
So Max is sorting props and set
And Craven’s got every fresnel.
We keep on going to swiftly get
Through this phosphorescent hell!

[Henry & Hyde]
Cause we’re a mean machine,
A theatre-making mean machine!
Figuring out that change of scene
And how to get that cyc so green!

[Karaoke Heaven]
And nothing suits us better
Than getting a 7-foot-4-tall love heart through 6-foot-6-high double doors.

But we’re here for you,
We’re here for you,
Whatever scene and set changes you do.
At least until your 45 minutes are through!

[Love and Other Mysteries]
Twenty minutes down, you’ve barely started lighting;
Haven’t yet decided where that chair goes.
Thirty minutes down, it’s time to start a full run
So you stop and start, continuity blows.
Forty minutes down, you’re barely halfway
And everyone’s frustration grows and grows…

[This Paper City]
You’re all like:
“Take your time, now rewind, now do it again, rehearse it right yeah”

[Love and Other Mysteries]
Forty-seven minutes and we’re giving the hint
That you really don’t have time to complete a new run.
Fifty minutes down and we’re telling you “Get off,”
There’s another team waiting, I think that you’re done…

[This Paper City]
Cause we’re all
Running on empty (running on empty)

I’ve got no idea how I’ve managed to survive this long.
Have we finished tech times yet? Oh it’s now the one with the giant dong.

[Love and Other Mysteries]
Sixty minutes out and we’re giving the briefing
Telling all the cast how to do curtain calls.
I get a little note, all of you should come forward,
But I only tell Amanda, not the rest of you, balls!
Forty minutes out and we’re having sound issues;
Craven’s banging his head against a digital desk.
Twenty minutes out and it’s getting no better;
Why’s the stage-right foldback not fucking routing?

[This Paper City]
Craven is just hanging on!

[A Girl Like Maria]
Cause he’s got leather jeans on!

[Love and Other Mysteries]
Zero minutes out, Craven’s swapping out the mixer;
Using old equipment is often the best.
Twenty minutes late… but I couldn’t care less…
Cause your pieces get going… and they’re bloody brilliant!

If worse came to worst, this could have been a mess,
But directors, you minimised all of my stress.
(Though I can’t say the same when I gave Sam a fright:
I forgot to plug his keyboard in opening night.)
As I conclude this self-indulgent review,
I just want to say thank you.

The “wow” moment – Part 1

18 May

I have a habit of writing blog posts at airports. But that is apt – airports are portals for the beginnings and ends of journeys. Palaces of taking stock. Palaces of excitement of what is to come and reflection on what has been. And palaces of not enough power points and intrusively annoying WiFi networks. Yes, I’m at LAX.

I’ve been on the road 127 days on my longest travels yet. I’ve been in two improv festivals, gone to the world’s largest musical festival, seen improv, comedy, music, theatre, ballet, musical theatre and opera. I’ve entered five countries, three Canadian provinces and twelve US states (four of which I was in for transit only).

I’ve identified 15 performances in which I had a “wow” moment. Or a “whoa” moment. Or “Fuuuuuck.” Put simply, they amazed.

I can rattle off honorable mentions by the dozen, but for the time being, here’s the first half of my abiding memories from Travels 2013.

1. Roberto Fonseca & group
Thursday 24 January 2013
La Zorra y El Cuervo (Vedado, Havana)

Originally from Cuba, jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca divides his time between Havana and New York. He is a demon on the keys, and his band were equally virtuosic. The final number of their first set was a relentless 15-minute fast rock groove, with a head so fiddly and complicated (yet memorable) that most musicians couldn’t even attempt it. Solos lasted an age but maintained momentum the whole way. I sat with a Uruguayan couple who told me I had my mouth open for the last 80% of that number.

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

Clint & Buck Vrazel, from Twinprov. (Source: their Twitter.)

2. Twinprov (workshop)
Friday 15 February 2013
Jet City Improv (University District, Seattle)

Two white guys from Oklahoma do an improv rap show. Not a promising description, but these guys are deserved megastars of the North American improv scene. Twinprov is the twins Buck & Clint Vrazel, and I met them at the Seattle Festival of Improvisational Theater. They bring it for a show, no doubt, but more significantly they are the most effective workshop teachers I’ve ever seen in improv. Teaching music to non-musicians is a difficult prospect – if adults have had negative experiences with music when young (like being told they aren’t good at it), it’s so hard to get them to open up. Rap is a more intimidating genre still. But Buck & Clint are f**kin’ mint at breaking down those barriers – Nick from Canberra, if you’re reading this, get these mofos down to Improvention some time.

3. 3 For All
Friday 1 March 2013
BATS Improv (Fort Mason, San Francisco)

All down the west coast I’d been told “book for 3 For All, book for 3 For All, they will sell out”. For reasons of geography, this long-tim trio gets together only three or four times a year, so it was lucky coincidence that I was in San Francisco the same weekend. The thing I took away from this was the superb physicality they exhibit. I don’t mean that they are frenetic and full-of-energy, but rather their immaculately controlled movements to indicate changes in time, place, setting, character. I once heard it said about Jane Austen’s writing that you never need to see “said so-and-so” after lines of dialogue; you instantly know who’s speaking by the precision of her writing style. The same applies to the actors of 3 For All – the moment you look at them, you know where the story’s at.

4. Dudamel Conducts Firebird
Sunday 3 March 2013
Walt Disney Hall (Downtown Los Angeles)

I hadn’t intended to go through Los Angeles so early in my trip. I had booked to spend a week in the area at the end of my four months and have a single direct flight home. However, when I saw the LA Phil‘s offerings for early March, I changed my plans: Stravinsky’s Firebird and a brand new John Adams work within five days of each other, both conducted by His Curliness, Gustavo Dudamel. My eye-wateringly expensive ticket for Firebird meant for one superb seat at eye level with the front desk of the first violins. And Disney Hall has such a clear sound! I do love the Auckland Town Hall for all its fond memories for me, but it is a wallowing Brucknerian shoebox that doesn’t do any favours to my own compositional style, or many other composers’. As for the playing, what an all-encompassing sound. Stravinsky’s jagged string writing sounded so full and rich, the brass was immaculately balanced with the winds, ogh, it was heaven.

5. Matt Davis Gets a Girlfriend
Tuesday 5 March 2013
UCB Theatre LA (Hollywood, Los Angeles)

A very pleasant surprise! Taking a look at the offerings of the main comedy and improv theatres in Hollywood, I came across this intriguing one-man musical on the UCB website. Matthew Patrick Davis performs his show solo from the keyboard, in the first person, and has this rich Sondheimesque linkage of themes and motifs that inspired me so much. Some still linger in my head: “I’m gonna get a girlfriend”, “I’m gonna die alone”, etc. I got inspired by all the thematic threading and repetition of musically-associated phrases, and designed my libretto to Annie & Joshua around that principle. Now I’ve got my own phrases like “None of your business”, “Okay, okay”, “If you must know”, “Please, please, please go on a date with me!”, etc. (More on Annie & Joshua another time – Bridget Costello and Callum Blackmore perform it in Short+Sweet Song, 11-15 June at the Herald Theatre in Auckland.)

The Bolzen Beer Band's album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

The Bolzen Beer Band’s album cover. (Source: Bandcamp.)

6. Bolzen Beer Band
Tuesday 12 March 2013 (or early Wed 13)
Corner of 6th Street & Trinity Ave (Downtown Austin)

I went to SXSW. It’s probably the biggest music festival in the world. I saw Coolio. I saw The Specials. I had a great Saturday night watching the most amazing mélange of styles (see below). But the Bolzen Beer Band made me lose my shit in the geekiest way possible. They’d done one single official SXSW showcase that Tuesday night – a lowly slot, to put it mildly – but they didn’t care. They were just going to jam the shit out of the rest of the festival, on the street, in indie gigs, wherever. I’ve recounted this story enough: they are a polka punk band from Lincoln, Nebraska. They have an accordionist, a tuba player and a punk drummer. They wear Lederhosen. The one hook of theirs that is still in my head is “We love weed and beer, my friend, we love weed and beer! / Pour a glass of ice-cold weed and score a sack of beer!”. And the coup de grâce (grass?) was when the lead singer went into a half-time rap breakdown IN GERMAN. They had all the right spirit.

7. Red Baraat
Saturday 16 March 2013
Stage on Sixth (Downtown Austin)

This looked like a pretty good night at South By: long-time LA-Mexican party band Ozomatli, home-town favourites Grupo Fantasmo, and Bajofondo from Argentina. But Red Baraat killed me. Hailing from Brooklyn, their frontman plays the dhol. Combine that with a rhythm section; a sousaphone for the bass line; and horns that include the unusual bass trumpet, you have a bitchin’ crossover of Bollywood dance rhythms and New Orleans bounce. My first ‘wow’ moment came when the frontman called for a sousaphone solo. Perfectly synchronised, every other band member ducked down low to the ground, flashed their attention towards the sousaphone’s bell, and the lights snapped to put a solo spot on him. These mofos finished their set with a procession out onto the floor of the venue and being right up and close with us dancers and punters. They were drenched in sweat by the end, having given their all. What an impressive group.


Part 2 of my “wow” moments will take in the Chicago Improv Festival, a diverse range of Broadway offerings, one of the most novel theatre shows I’ve ever come across, and a live dog. You can look forward to that in a few days.

Only because someone blogged about me.

31 Mar

Right now I’m ensconced in Chicago. The change in climate from Austin’s glorious spring sun to the Lake Effect has been shocking – far worse than when I made a similar transition from Guadalajara to Seattle in mid-February. Last week I bought my first ever pair of gloves, for instance.

I designed my trip so that I’d be able to catch up on projects now, instead of constantly travelling. With three weeks in Chicago, I have no pressure to see all the sights in a short time, and I’ve been able to spend lots of time in the public library and a café being a creative.

First I had to edit my 15-minute segment about SXSW for Music 101 on Radio New Zealand National. Embedding is disabled for this piece of audio, but you listen to it here. Then the deadline approached for show and workshop submissions for Improvention 2013 – that had to be adhered to.

Since that time, I’ve been flitting from project to project. Arrangements for a band I want to form when I get back? 15% complete, then BAM I hear about Short+Sweet Song, a festival/competition of 10-minute musicals happening in Auckland a few weeks after I get back. I buckle down, attempting to transform a Thomas Sainsbury playscript into a singable libretto, but that’s haaaaaaaard.

Then Jess Rodda tweets me out of the blue asking for a short piece for her horn, trombone and tuba trio. Why not procrastinate on a new creative project? I write 95 seconds of fiddly ragtime music in just under four hours.

I first call it Rag to a Bull (geddit? geddit?), then Trolling the Trio. I settle on Trolling the Tuba because it’s an inherently funnier word.

Two days ago I got “commissioned” and wrote the notes, yesterday I revised and tidied up the score and parts, last night Jess blogged about it (complete with my programme note) and today I complete the blogging echo chamber. All within 46 hours.


The red piano.

26 Sep

Last week I was in Wellington and I had the opportunity to play He Kōrero Pūrākau mo te Awanui o Te Motu, that bright red piano ornately carved by Michael Parekowhai. I had a friend video some of the performances at Te Papa.

Here’s the YouTube playlist. It contains attempted Maori strum in Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi (yes, bajingajink on piano), a singalong on Poi E, a New Zealand music lesson on Pōkarekare Ana, the Split Enz classic Message to My Girl, and Beyoncé’s Single Ladies.

And as a bonus, here’s Trubie-Dylan Smith’s Das kraftwerkische Blenderlied performed at the last Song Sale:

Last of all, a quick notice: on Friday, Improsaurus performs their first ever long-form improvised musical. It’s called Improv: The Musical. We’ve been working really hard to get this up and running, I’m looking forward to it.

Book advance tickets here, or passively hit attending on Facebook and risk there being no door sales.

LEN LYE a review

7 Sep

I’m in Auckland until this afternoon. I came up on Wednesday to see my former composition lecturer’s new piece LEN LYE the opera, and to review it for Theatreview. (Actually there are more like four of my old teachers among the core creative team…)

It’s “a major statement of advocacy for the overlooked genius and forward-thinking artistry of Len Lye”. My review’s here. The NBR and the Herald carry shorter write-ups.

Today I meet with Penny Ashton, Thomas Sainsbury and James Wenley about musicals in various stages of development.

Next week I sing as a “baritone” on the stage of Marama Hall in Dunedin and play with the Court Jesters in Christchurch.

The week after I get to play Michael Parekowhai’s red carved piano at Te Papa in Wellington, and I do my first gig in Invercargill.

Life’s pretty good.

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