Prodigal is one of Midsumma’s key events of the 2011 festival. It debuted at Midsumma eleven years ago, won several Green Room awards and a successful season off Broadway. It is the Fringe Musical that firmly established talented duo Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank as auteurs.

Paul Andrew talks to co-writer Mathew Frank about his early inspiration and about why inspirational musicals like Prodigal matter.

Dean Bryant and Mathew FrankWhat is your earliest memory of being at the theatre?
Seeing local productions of Godspell and West Side Story in Bendigo – they married three art forms that I was interested in from a young age, so it seemed what I wanted to do and later travelling to Melbourne to see Cats and Seven Little Australians

What do you love the most about musical theatre?
It’s the three disciplines – acting, music, dance – purely focused on storytelling. Good musical theatre seems to be efficient, unlike operas and ballets.

The playwrights who first inspired you?
I’ve always been inspired by the writing of Stephen Sondheim – as has most of the musical theatre world – not that he writes the books for his musicals, but his music and lyrics seem to do enough to progress the story that an album is enough to fall in love with. My favourite writers from musical theatre are Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza.

And the music that transported you ?
I remember hearing The Crucifixion scene from Godspell and thinking it was so evocative of the pain Jesus felt. 

Your early theatre experiences?
I started doing amateur musicals in Bendigo when I was age eleven, and trained in organ, singing and dancing up until I was aged eighteen. I was state champion at the Electone Festival, playing my own compositions. At age eighteen, I was accepted into WAAPA – I’d seen graduates being interviewed on television and that seemed to be where I wanted to go. I loved the training at WAAPA but when I graduated I was more interested in writing musical theatre than being a chorus boy. 

Was musical theatre always a/the destination you had in mind?
Yes, in one role or another. 

How would you describe Prodigal in seven words?
Prodigal is a musical about a family.

How does it feel right now to have Prodigal back on a Midsumma stage eleven years after it debuted?
It feels like such an important show that you could do it every year for Midsumma and it would feel right. It’s nice to know that people still find such joy in the material.

Looking back now, so much happened after that debut – what was truly exciting about that first Midsumma for you?
Being the first proper musical that I’d written, it was nice to know that what we were doing was good and could touch people. I suppose it gave us the platform for our careers because everything spun out of that production. 

Would you describe the play as semi-autobiographical?
I’d say elements of the show are based on both mine and Dean’s backgrounds – we’re both from the country – but more so the show seems to be a bad version of what could have happened to us, or any gay guy. So it’s an imagining rather than a personal history.

Writing is often considered a solitary journey, tell me about the process of co-writing Prodigal?
We started writing the show when Dean had finished second year and still had a year to go – so most of it was on his summer break, which was a fun way to spend a summer. We had no expectations or craft really, so just wrote whatever, taught people how to sing it and then saw how it would land. After workshopping it with Dean’s year we realised we had a piece that was entertaining, moving and seemed to work.

Tell me about the music?
I don’t really think I was aware of what I was trying to say as I was writing – I was just trying to write within my own voice – and that didn’t seem based on any other genres or styles. It feels pretty much like just what I wanted to say musically – it was very young, busy and energized, like the leading character. I certainly wouldn’t write anything like that now, being older, wiser and more cynical. But I enjoy it for what it is. 

Prodigal has had quite a journey since that Midsumma debut?
After we did the initial production at Midsumma we moved to the bigger theatre at Chapel, picked up by producers, won some Green Room awards and did a return season six months later. The cast recording was picked up for a reading in NYC and then programmed for a season off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company in 2002. A cast recording of this production was produced featuring Kerry Butler, Christian Borle and Alison Fraser. After this time several productions have been produced, both in Australia and overseas. 

We started the process this time around with the licensed script from Hal Leonard but Dean has made some updates to part of the script that felt slightly dated. 

How would you describe the cultural climate at the time the musical made its debut, why is Prodigal an evergreen?
I would like to think that people are a lot more accepting of homosexuality in society. Considering we’re still not allowed to get married, things haven’t progressed very far since we wrote it. And with the amount of bullying in high schools, gay bashings and suicides the story of Prodigal seems to be very relevant. 

What do you love about Midsumma?
The Carnival – It’s fun.

Prodigal opens Jan 19, 2011 at fortyfivedownstairs. Further details»

Image Credit:-
Top Right - Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank. Photo - Jennifer Stenglein

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