Dean Bryant is the scriptwriter to Matthew Frank’s fabulous musical direction in the prodigious musical theatre pairing known as Bryant and Frank. Their newest theatre foray Britney Spears: The Cabaret is a juke box up close, personal, unplugged with the pop starlet herself, played by her uncanny look alike, new diva on the block Christie Whelan. Paul Andrew manages to catch Dean Bryant for five minutes on Broadway.

Dean BryantWhat are you doing in New York right now?
I’m rehearsing Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with the Broadway cast – we’ve just finished our fourth week of rehearsals in the Hilton Studios on 43rd street. We open in Toronto in a month’s time, then on Broadway at the Palace Theatre next March.

And today, what happened?
Today I flew to Toronto for the day to cast the 8 year olds who are in the show. It was a massive travel – it’s only an hour away by plane, but you need to check in hours before, being internationally – so I ended up being in transit for 9 hours and in auditions for three hours. But kid auditions are fun, they’re so funny at that age.

What else is unfolding?
Besides rehearsing Priscilla, another cabaret show I wrote for Hugh Sheridan (Packed to the Rafters), Newly Discovered, is playing a night in the Snapple Theatre on Broadway as a benefit, in the hope of a season next year in the US. Hugh played a season at the Sydney Opera House a few months ago. I’m also casting a musical for the Melbourne Theatre Company next year, my directing debut for them.

What do you love about Melbourne and New York?
Well, they’re both built on a grid – so I love that they’re easy to get around. I live right in Collins Street, in a 1925 converted art deco building, so that’s kind of like a mini Manhattan when I look down the street.

Well the vibiness of New York is pretty hard to find anywhere else in the world. The coffee is appalling here, though we found a recipe at Starbucks (double shot espresso with steamed milk on the side) that is almost like a really mediocre flat white. I love Melbourne city – the cafes down the alleyways, the run around the Tan, eating at world-class restaurants like Press Club, Ezard etc, the proximity of all those beautiful theatres.

What theatre did you do throughout your schooling years ?
Highlights were doing Evita at Wesley College, where I popped in for Year 12 – I decided I wanted to get into law at Melbourne Uni one day before final year started, so my parents rang around the private schools to see who had room – I got them to ask what musicals each school was planning and chose Wesley based on that. Doing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at WAAPA in our final year was a lot of fun – it’s so well constructed. And Joan
Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War was great for my year – playing all those different characters – and probably influenced my revue-style of writing more than I’d really realized this just then.

Tell me about your WAAPA training?
Singing, dancing and acting from 8am-6pm 5 days a week.

I went there to be a director, though went into the performing course because John Milson, the head of the course said that doing that would be the best training I could get in terms of understanding how musicals worked. He was right.

Was there a particular instance that inspired you to write for musical theatre?
Listening to my partner Matt’s music and hearing how good he was, is! I had never personally thought of writing musicals before meeting him. What inspires me now is seeing good theatre of any kind.

Who do you count as inspirational forces in your life?
John Milson was a huge influence – he was a big supporter of my ability, especially regarding directing and later, writing. And his love and knowledge of musical theatre was inspiring. My parents, who raised me to think I could do anything – except once my mum said I sang flat and I think I’ve been scared of singing flat ever since. Aubrey Mellor was great in pushing the Australian side of our writing voice, which culminated in Once We Lived Here last year.

Perhaps the biggest influence has been Simon Philips, who commissioned Virgins, brought Matty and I into the MTC as Assistants, then Associates on their musicals, Urinetown, Spelling Bee and Drowsy Chaperone, and me onto Priscilla.

These jobs have all been great, but the invaluable part has been seeing him work up close – his sense of humour, constant focus, kindness to all people, unflagging energy – and of course, technical skill at directing. Plus he really likes to eat and drink well, so rehearsals always have a pot of gold at the end of the day.

Tell me a potted history of your own Directing work?
I first directed my family in a 15 minute short film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe set on our farm. My little brother, Mikey, who is now a rock musician, had to play Lucy – he was actually quite good, but shudders when that video is pulled out now. Proper directing started with Company at Melbourne Uni (when I was studying law) and then I moved onto The Last Five Years, which played 45 Downstairs, Stables and toured NSW over a period of three years, on and off. I directed my own shows Virgins and Once We Lived Here and in the last year have directed cabarets, drag shows, educational shows, etc.

What do you love about Directing?
Solving problems, making emotional sense of a scene, helping actors have breakthroughs and go further than they thought they could, shaping the arc of a show, finding visual solutions for furthering the story, using lighting to make sense of the pace. What’s particularly exciting is working with the best artists – the designers, the actors, the music staff, and creating a coherent whole.

Once We Lived Here won you both a Green Room award?
Yes, we started writing it nearly 10 years ago, straight after Prodigal. My mum’s mum died when she was 14, and she became the surrogate mum for her brothers and sisters, and she lived on a farm. I was fascinated by that idea, and the story changed and grew and became something else entirely. It took forever to get it on, but that was a blessing in disguise because the show became what it needed to be over a very long germination.  he music was inspired by a need to find a country way of singing that wasn’t really country music – kind of folksy. We did at least five workshops over the development, with tons of different actors and ideas of how it should work. It came into focus last year when we workshopped it with Esther Hannaford in the lead – she was the actress who could make the very difficult central role of Amy work – she was so inherently vulnerable that her constant hardness in all ways was understandable. We were so thrilled when she won the Green Room for Best Actress. It was a once in a lifetime performance.

Was this production where you discovered your Britney talent Christie?
Christie worked with Matty teaching kids and she was apparently a riot in the staff room. I can imagine, as I’ve never eaten a meal with her without nearly spitting out my lunch. She is wicked, funny and has a great eye for human foibles. We asked her to do Esther’s sister in the workshop and that character worked for the first time – chiefly because she’s a beautiful girl who can be equally gawky, so you could believe the story of a bookworm turned A-list party girl. I love Britney Spears songs, and was/am fascinated by her journey, thought Christie could be brilliant and thus began the journey.

Spoilers about the show Britney?
There’s no spoilers about this show, it’s not possible, don’t we all know everything about Britney there is to know? The surprises are in how we present the life story material and shape her songs to fit that biography. The big surprise is that you end up desperately feeling for her and empathising with her too.

And Matt’s musical arrangements of the Britney back catalogue?
There’s a couple of really witty musical arrangements that Matty has done – Oops, I Did It Again as a Sweet Charity-esque striptease, Toxic as a rhapsodic love song and Womanizer as a character song about taking K-Fed to task.

The Green Room Award - how does that feel, and does the Green Room thing really help a writer?
It feels great – it’s fun to speak in front of people! It was nice after so many years of work on the show to have it rewarded. Yes, it looks good on Australia Council applications, biogs and on our shelf at home.

Looking back; Prodigal, Virgins, Once We Lived Here and Britney Spears; The Cabaret tour up till now; how do you see your musical theatre journey so far?
Perhaps we’ve become more sophisticated in honing our skills, but we still care about the same basic thing – telling truthful stories about real humans in interesting and witty ways. Basically we want to make audiences laugh and cry. In a way they hadn’t expected.

What shows have you seen in New York?
La Cage was funny and moving, Memphis, though about interracial marriage, made me see how dumb it is that we don’t have gay marriage, Promises Promises had the most athletic and skilled Broadway dancing I’d ever seen. Next week is full of highlights though – Next to Normal, Angels in America and American Idiot.

What's next?
Priscilla does Broadway, Officer and a Gentleman, a new musical adaptation, a couple of cabarets, the MTC musical. You just never know what’s gonna happen.

What are you determined to do in New York before you head home?
Go boating in Central Park.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret plays at Chapel off Chapel, October 6 - 24, 2010. Further details»

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