Aaron Joyner is a producer, director, writer and advocate for original Australian musical theatre. He is the founding Artistic Director of Magnormos, a production company specialising in producing both Australian, and landmark international musicals.

He spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.

Aaron JoynerWhat inspired your journey into musical theatre?

The first musical I really remember 'getting into' was Phantom of the Opera, although my mother took me to a lot of theatre shows growing up, and we had regular family sing-alongs to the Grease soundtrack! I was given a copy of the cast recording of Phantom by a family friend and I became obsessed, listening to it on my little cassette tape walkman over and over until I stretched the tape so far I couldn't listen to it anymore.  From there I ventured out into other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and then I discovered Stephen Sondheim through Into The Woods, and I've been a fan of all of his works ever since. 

What do you love about Sondheim?
I love the detail in Sondheim's writing, that every time you listen to one of his scores, or see them performed live; you can find something new and have a brand new discovery. 

I also love that he has chosen to stay true to the art of writing, and not indulge in spectacle or fluff (not that there's anything wrong with fluff) for box office success (and not that he hasn't had that). His music sets the perfect mood to tell the story, and his lyrics are equally poetic and character driven. I've had the pleasure of performing in two Sondheim musicals (Into the Woods and Assassins) and it is so very gratifying as a performer to 'sink your teeth' into the characters he creates, and the journey's that his songs take the characters through.

And what do you love about the abundance of musical theatre on the stages right now?
In Melbourne it is so great to have so many wonderful theatre experiences on offer all through the year. We're really lucky to have theatre at all levels of the spectrum, from the major commercial works, the independent theatre companies, and right down to an extremely strong amateur theatre community. Australian's love musical theatre and we have so much talent in our industry that we are able to put on world-class productions at home without having to import stars in any more. We still import most of the actual musicals, but that is starting to change too, with Australian writers starting to 'break through the barrier' in getting their works performed. Television shows like Glee have helped to make musical theatre 'cool' for the younger generations, so the future is looking very bright for the art form indeed!

What do you feel all this tells us about the zeitgeist right now, its darker side, what audiences want and need?
Audiences today are very savvy. While there is still a huge market for the spectacle-driven works, there is also a strong market for musicals that have genuine issues to explore, or complex themes. In 1964 when Anyone Can Whistle premiered (the third musical in our Sondheim Triptych) it ran 9 performances. It's a highly political musical which takes pot-shots at American values such as religion, consumerism, conformity and corruption in government, and at that time, not all that long after the McCarthy era - it was rare to explore these issues on the major commercial stages, and in musicals they were a definite taboo. But nowadays, the climate is completely different, and an audience can not only appreciate dark satiric humour but they revel in it. Due to the editing in film and television, modern audiences are also highly attuned to pacing in theatre, and would not suffer the long delays that once were necessary to move bulky scenic elements between scenes. In the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, there was almost always a refrain of a few more verses after a song finished, to give the stage hands time to change the sets for the next scene, but nowadays an audience sits through these repeats tapping their feet in impatience waiting for the next thing to happen because we're used to fast cuts and snap changes into the next scene. 

For those not in the know, tell me about [title of show]?
[title of show] was originally conceived as an entry into the inaugural New York Music Theatre Festival. The festival called for new musicals, and two 'nobodies in New York' Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell decided to write a musical to enter, and found that the best things they were writing about was actually writing about writing the musical to enter. So [title of show] - which is the first question on the festival's application form - was born, and it is a cheeky insidery look at the process of developing a new work of musical theatre in a culture dominated largely by revivals and reality TV shows. In fact, it's kind of like watching a reality TV show on stage, as the two writers and their lady friends Heidi and Susan (with the help of Mary on the keyboard) put the show together and enter the festival, then develop it further and find investors and backers, and eventually open on Broadway, receive a Tony Award nomination, and win themselves a legion of fans across the globe. If you love your musicals, there are plenty of insider references that will have you chuckling with self-appreciating humour, but even if you're not a musical fan, the writing is so clever and accessible that you can't help but be taken on the journey. The musical actually pokes fun at the conventions of Broadway musicals, so if you're the type of person that laments when someone just suddenly starts singing in the middle of a scene - this is quite possibly the one musical that you would become a fan of yourself.

And what is different about its Magnormos return season?
Well for starters we have a new cast member, as our original Hunter, Michael Lindner, was cast in the Australian premiere season of Mary Poppins so he wasn't available for the return season. Darryn Gatt, who has replaced Michael, has brought a brand new energy to the piece, and this has inspired changes in the rest of the cast as well. We've also 'touched up' some of the staging and tweaked the design slightly, but we've stayed true to most of what we originally created because it was so well received the first time, and we think we got most of it right then anyway! We were fortunate to have members of the original Broadway company (Jeff Bowen, Heidi Blickenstaff and director Michael Berresse) fly out to Melbourne to see our last two shows in the original season, so it's wonderful to know that we have their blessing with this production.

You founded Magnormos in 2002, tell me about the premise behind the company, tell me more, tell me more?
Magnormos was originally created to be a production company that would support Australian writers, and premiere landmark international musicals, and nearly a decade later - I'm proud to say that we've stayed true to this mission. Of the 17 musicals we have staged, 10 of these were written by Australians, 6 were Australian premieres of international works, and 1 was an Australian adaptation of a Broadway work (WORKING), written in collaboration with the writer Stephen Schwartz. We've also produced the annual OzMade Musicals concert which has supported over 50 Australian musicals, and workshopped two brand new musicals by Australian writers. I've met amazing people through my work with Magnormos, extremely talented and generous artists who have supported the Magnormos mission and ensured that our quality is always above the standard of our ticket prices! 

Receiving a personal email from Stephen Sondheim recently would quite possibly be up at the top of my 'highs', as well as having dinner with Stephen Schwartz when he was in town for Wicked but seeing a writers face as they watch their work going from 'page to stage' during a rehearsal process, and then receiving accolades on opening night is always a special experience for me as well.

I haven't had that many lows, but all of these would be around the difficulties in making all of this magic happen on the budget of an unfunded independent theatre company (we have survived on the generosity of artists, project support from the City of Port Phillip and key sponsorships such as Yamaha Music Australia and Theatre Works). I've learnt to be a scrupulous budgeter, but there really isn't anything more depressing than an empty bank balance! Fortunately we've managed to make a profit (however small) or break even on all of our productions, so we're still around while many other initiatives have unfortunately dissolved or dissipated, but it is very challenging when theatre is a business that you need to outlay a lot of money before you start seeing any return.

Who has inspired your own journey so far as a director, writer and performer Aaron?
I've had a few amazing mentors in my career, Jean McQuarrie who was a lecturer at Monash University when I studied there (Jean was the musical director for most of the Melbourne Theatre Company's Sondheim productions), and also Peter Fitzpatrick, who was the head of the Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies (and funnily enough is the father of Laura Fitzpatrick who is playing Susan in [title of show]). Both Jean and Peter have taught me that passion is just as important as talent (and both of them have equal amounts in abundance), and that treating people with respect is paramount to creating a good team environment. From his own career, Stephen Sondheim himself has inspired me that you can stay true to your artistic vision and not feel you have to 'sell out' to achieve success, and I am frequently inspired by the casts, creatives and administrators who come to work for Magnormos.

[title of show] is now playing at St Kilda's TheatreWorks. Until September 11, 2010. Details»

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