Sean Peter is a multi award winning writer/composer having worked with many of Australia's leading arts companies including Sydney Theatre Company, Company B and the Sydney Symphony.

His latest musical theatre work, Everything's F**ked, was presented as a work-in-progress as part of the Adelaide Festival Centre's inSPACE program in 2002, winning both critical and audience acclaim. Anticipation for the project has been building ever since, with the project receiving significant developmental funding and attracting interest from a number of Australia's major festivals and venues.

Everything's F**ked finally opens on August 1. Sean spoke to Simon Piening about the project.

Sean PeterYou studied composition at Southern Cross University and have worked as a sound designer/composer in both TV and Theatre. How did you get started in composition? Were you always interested in music?

I was deeply into amateur theatre through my teens, from earnest youth theatre to daggy pantomimes. So I had a really strong theatre background, as well as having done some TV acting as a kid. I worked out I really wasn’t a very good actor just after I finished high school. I think to be a really good actor, you’ve got to want to have drama and conflict in your life, and being someone with only a slight grip on sanity, thought it’d be best to give it a miss, and so I ploughed into music instead.

I actually entered Uni as a vocal major, and was convinced I was going to be the next Michael Hutchence. After two years of that as my major I switched to composition as it was where my heart actually lay, and I thought that being able to earn a living on graduation would be a good idea.

I actually played my way through uni earning money doing a sort of Rock Piano Bar, and when I graduated worked a keyboard player and MD in a whole lot of concept shows – you know Blues Brothers, Tom Jones, that kind of dodgy thing.

These days, I don’t think I could afford the financial and mental insecurity of being a performer, though I did compere and play in a retrospective of my pieces for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and Melbourne International Arts Festival.

When did you begin composing music theatre? What were your influences ­ musically speaking?

I was writing pop songs like any deeply sensitive teenager would, only because I was listening to Cats, and Les Mis, and Chess, my songs would all come out being melodic and wordy. In the end I just embraced the fact that the songs I was writing sounded like they should be in a musical, and just went along with it. That said, I was really into Pink Floyd, (particularly The Wall)  and artists like Peter Gabriel, Art of Noise etc. As a really young kid I grew up loving Godspell and Oliver.

The other person who has been a big influence has been Weird Al Yancovic, but not in the way you might think. I loved his tapes as a kid, because it amazed me that someone could duplicate a whole track like he did, down to sounds, licks, bass – everything. It got me listening to music as a collection of parts really early, and helped really train my ear.

So towards the end of Uni, I started trying to make my own first musical, with my own original book – never finished it – it was pretty dire. When I graduated I hooked up with a script writer Barry Lowe, and he gave me a script which we turned into a musical “Dutch Courage” and that’s what officially got me started.

Your new work, Everything¹s F**ked, “deals with four 'twenty somethings' lost in work, faith and life.” There's perhaps an obvious comparison to Rent ­ the musical. Is that a fair comparison?

Hopefully the main difference will be I survive the first preview. I actually keep having these dreams and thoughts that I’ll go the way of Jonathan Larson, and I’m really looking forward to opening night and putting them behind me.

I’m a really big fan of most of Rent, but EF is a very different show. Rent is a song cycle, and EF is much more operatic in style. My score is composed much more for the recording studio, with samples, loops, and effects, rather than Rent which is written for a Rock Band.

I think EF is also not of that part of that really extrovertly annoying New York emotive thing that Rent and most American musicals slip into (for me). My show is much more about acting – closer to a TV or Film than a normal musical.

I think though, that if you like Rent, you’ll probably enjoy EF. There are (I hope) great accessible songs in both, and a really great cast that can sing the shit out of the score.

EF is described as “quintessentially Australian.” Why?

Weeeeeell… depends what you mean. No one says cobber or crikey. It’s not set in fourties, there are no good natured barmaids with accents as wide as this beautiful brown land of ours, and no one rides a kangaroo. No one has a larrikin sense of dry humour, It is not set on a farm, and it is not a hacked together plot based around a songwriters back catalog…. So it probably isn't really quintessentially Australian at all

What there is, is the urban existence that me and my friends grew up in. It’s about four young people sharing a house in their twenties, struggling with life, money, mortgage, crappy jobs, flatmates drinking your coffee, and wanting something to believe in, in a world where everything is fucked. If there is anything that makes EF “Australian” then it’s that it reflects the life that the audience seeing the show is living.
Rent was set against the backdrop of AIDS. EF has Sept 11. What is it about these events that provide a continual source of inspiration for art/artists? How do the events of Sept 11 influence the characters/story of your play?

I went to see Sondheim when he came out for Company, and he was asked a similar question. He felt that the events of September 11 couldn't be sung – and as a New Yorker I think that’s true for him. No-one wants to see “9-11 The Arena Spectacular”

We had a very different experience in Australia. This show uses the events of September 11, from an Australian perspective as a setting, not as a subject. The characters are not directly effected by the events, though one has a friend in New York at the time – they see the events on TV like we all did. It’s a different kind of far-away experience for us. For that reason, I can imagine EF would be a difficult play for Americans to get, but I suspect the rest of the world can relate.

{xtypo_quote_right}There was a time when I’d let my expectations of the work paralyze me for a while, but in the end, what happens once we open is mostly beyond my control, and I can't let myself worry about it{/xtypo_quote_right} I spent a lot of time working out whether or not to include September 11 in the script. The original drafts were very specific, using the footage, and sound. I took all of that out and while it’s clear what’s going on, the events are only mentioned obliquely, and only insofar as they effect the characters. We never see it.

I included September 11 because this one event directly challenges the beliefs of my characters – who believe in work, TV, technology and Travel to provide them with fulfillment in their lives. What happens from there is not about September 11, but instead about the resilience, faith, and love between Jack, Red, Belle and Adam.
It’s not a show about 9.11, or America, or politics. It’s about what happens to four people who have various crises of faith on that day.

Technology is one of the themes you explore in this production, as well as employing a great deal of technology within the production itself. How do you think technology has influenced the current generation?
Well, the obvious things like internet, email, Voip etc are changing the way we communicate to each other. I have had computers in my life from the age of eight, so I have no doubt they have effected me and how I relate to the world.

I think the main thing in the last few years is that computers can now do what would have years ago needed lots of really expensive equipment. So it has made it much easier for us to make video, and music, and digital art. This is mostly a good thing, though it does mean there’s a whole lot of bad or mediocre work to trowl through.

I wrote this score for the recording studio, rather than a live setting, and so hopefully that is one of the good and unique things about the score. We also have a strong video element tied into the creation of the play. I guess having worked as a theatre technician for many years, I’m aware of what can be done, and keen to push it further.

Everything's F**ked is a pretty bleak title for a show, but ultimately this is not a bleak play. Your characters find solace in 'faith, love, and resilience'. So there is hope?

There’s always hope, as long as there’s belief that things can be better.

EF is about the journey from Everything’s Fucked to Everything’s All Right.

EF has been in development for well over 5 years ­ - is it hard to maintain your enthusiasm or vision for the project over such a long period?

Enthusiasm – weeeel, I’ve had great people work with me like (director) Geoff Crowhurst, (producer) Nick Skibinski , as well as others like John Milson and Jonathan Maher encourage and improve the script. I’m also pretty stubborn, and would hate to have made such a great workshop and have it fail from there.

Vision has never been an issue – if anything 5 years has really helped clarify my vision.

You’ve collaborated with director Geoff Crowhurst before ­ - does that make it easier when working on a new production?

Geoff and I have a fantastic working relationship, and we have worked on EF together for such a long time that we are pretty much on the same page for this piece. We’ve only worked together on my shows so I’ve only worked with him on new productions. He’s fantastic at letting everyone in the rehearsal room contribute, and knows when to lead, and when to step back.

Everything's F**KED | AutoPilot ProductionsThe project has received enormous financial (and moral) support from various sources. It's also been touted as a project with significant touring potential. Does that weight of expectation influence the development of the work?

I’ve never had any pressure to “play safe”. I am by nature a writer that creates a journey for the audience, so that’s never entered into it. I hate indulgence on the stage. I also have never tried to make anything commercial – only to make a show that I would want to see, and love.

There was a time when I’d let my expectations of the work paralyze me for a while, but in the end, what happens once we open is mostly beyond my control, and I can't let myself worry about it. In the end my responsibility is to make a great story, with great music, and great lyrics.

The main changes through the project have been about tightening up the book, and clarifying the journeys of the characters. Not for any reason other than to make it a clear and satisfying journey for our audience.

There seems to be a significant increase in the number of new Australian musical theatre works at present ­ - Keating!, Sideshow Alley, Virgins, Eurobeat etc, etc. Has there been a shift in the general level of support for developing new works? Funding? Training?

I don’t know about a shift in funding. Perhaps it’s because audiences really like musicals when they’re done well? I would note that as far as I know, none of those shows mentioned were initially developed by any of our funded flagship companies who seem to be happier bringing in American shows. From my perspective (and I could be well be wrong on some of these) Keating was picked up by Company B after it's initial season. Sideshow developed from the Pratt Prize, Eurobeat was produced by Glynn Nichloas… What was the last original commissioned Australian musical that MTC or STC or STCSA did?
As far as training – WAAPA and VCA keep pumping graduates out. Where is the training for the writers that are going to make the shows for these new generations of performers?

Everything's F**ked opens August 1 at The Space. Further information»

Photo Credits:
Top Left - Sean Peter
Bottom Right - the cast of Everything's F**ked: (l-r) Abbie Cardwell, Andre Eikmeier, Lisa Sontag, Alexander Jenkins and Sean Peter (rear)

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