“That’s a great idea for a Musical”. If you’ve ever entertained this thought you have probably also imagined – or completely ignored – the measure of conceptual logistics involved in making the dream a reality.

Paul Andrew speaks to entrepreneur Kevin Purcell about how he is coping with turning an enchanting book about the indomitability of the human spirit into a magical Broadway Musical.

Kevin PurcellYour personal fave musical Kevin?
OK, that’s tough, because there are a number of musicals I adore. For different reasons: My Fair Lady for structure and skill of adaptation; The Light in the Piazza for bringing back music with an emotional core; and Marguerite (original version) for the score by Michel Legrand (a songwriting genius).

Your musical journey so far?
Both my mum and grandmother were passionate about musical theatre and my grandmother was a fabulous pianist and the best piano teacher I had. After winning a couple of major orchestral conducting prizes, I ended up working for many years in London and other places for Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. At some point after that, I got side tracked into working in tertiary music academia in Australia which was/is a precarious and difficult environment that to my way of thinking has been hijacked by management-academics who have not an iota of understanding about the requisite needs of music education.

I’m equally passionate about opera as well as musical theatre, and would like to conduct more opera in Australia.

How do you describe The Mapmakers Opera in seven words?
It’s a love story for all time.

Tell me about Sofia?
Sofia, our lead female protagonist, has a wonderful journey arc from free-spirited, independent young woman to becoming a person who ultimately stands by her principles in the face of intense family pressure and the social mores of her community.

Adapting The Mapmakers Opera from a book into a stage musical?
The journey started in 2008 with the acquisition of the underlying rights to the novel, The Mapmaker’s Opera, by Spanish/Canadian author, Béa Gonzalez, which has been published in seven languages.The book is essentially a love-story between Sofia Duarte, a young woman from Mérida, and Diego Clemente from Seville, Spain. The story is set in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1909.

The book deals with several issues of importance to us as musical theatre writers: subjugation and indenturing of indigenous people (essentially as slaves), the decimation and extinction of species of flora and fauna; and on a more positive note, the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of tremendous adversity.

Adapting the novel, musically speaking, allowed me to create a whole new way of incorporating both Spanish (Flamenco) and Mexican musical idioms into a Broadway sound. It’s been such a huge challenge, but ultimately really satisfying.

Maintaining an indomitable spirit will ring true for many and what do you feel are other aspects of the musical with universal appeal?
The story deals with all the universal themes of love, passion, greed and how the actions of just one person can change the world.

Why a musical?
The book is consciously written like a three-Act opera (the originating author is a complete Wagner opera fan!). It simply sings on every page – and I get to use all those wonderful Spanish and South American dance rhythms!

Tell me about the two residencies coming up?
Utterly wonderful! Surrounded by so much talent and people with a complete commitment to the creation of new Musicals, and the advancement of the artform. It’s great to be in the same space as writers who have won everything from Tony Awards and pretty much every other major songwriting award in America.

CAP21 is a major hub for the development of new work in New York City. Goodpseed Opera here in Connecticut (they refer to the actual theatre as ‘Brigadoon’) is the home of American Musical Theatre – by way of interest, they originally developed Annie and look where that went.

Work schedule is pretty gruelling. We have to turn out new work every day and present it at 7:00 pm in the evening and also, on Saturday evenings, we present the best of the week’s work to producers and industry professionals from the Broadway community.

What do you feel is unique or extraordinary about what you are doing?
We’ve taken a whole transmedia approach to the creation and development of this project. This means different aspects (different parts of the storyworld) in different forms, will all eventually become available across different outlets, as well as it also being a fully-fledged Broadway musical.

What have been some of the major challenges getting a commercial musical like this up and atom in Australia?
There has been a complete and utter lack of support for the appropriate and structured development of ‘commercial’ musical projects in Australia, as opposed to the enormous audience appetite for well-produced new musicals that we in Australia import from all around the world.

An example of this is The Australia Council’s new Musical Theatre Initiative (10M over 5 years) which deliberately excludes ‘creative’ or ‘development’ funding – and is applicable for only production. This is meant to be the “next stage” of their previous, rather perfunctory and misguided, seed-funding initiative for creative development. 

I don’t understand in Australia why it is assumed, erroneously, that new musicals can be developed without a lengthy process of actual writing time, followed by ‘pizza’ readings, table readings, workshops, re-writes; then more readings and workshops, and then and only then, maybe a staged reading or semi-staged production to properly evaluate the work, on its feet, with real production values.It takes years and years.

By way of comparison in the United States, the development of new musicals is a highly valued industry. It is a creative business like any other: highly competitive with the search for, and acquisition of, new talent and projects at a premium. The old broadcasting adage, “Content is King” is equally true for musical theatre.

Interestingly, the one challenge we have not faced in developing the project for the international market is that it is Australian made. We’re very pleased about that.

Why are there these types of challenges and development hurdles in Australia?
Because we lack depth in musical theatre entrepreneurs and theatre producers. Professional Australian producers such as John Frost and Louise Withers et al can’t do everything for everyone. They do enough. We also don’t give enough support or credit to companies like Magnormos in Melbourne, who have almost single-handedly waved the flag for Australian Musical Theatre writers for over a decade.

The other reason – and we’ve actually been told this by un-named Arts funding body in Australia – is that if the project is not an “Australian story” it is not prioritised for funding. This type of insular, cultural cringe factor is not helpful. On the international musical theatre stage – no one cares! Either it’s a good story well told, with universal appeal, or it’s not. End-of-story.

And your creative team?
Victor Kazan (Book/Lyrics) – British-born Screenwriter and Playwright. He’s an inspired wordsmith (I think he’s a genius). If you have ever watched the Australian film, Dalkeith, you’ll know what I mean.

As for producers, a director and other design team folk, this is all currently a topic of hot negotiation over here in the USA. I’d really love’ to tell you who they are right now, but I’m not allowed. Sorry.

Your vision for the residencies and the stage you have your sights set upon?
I don’t know a single Australian writer who doesn’t want to have their work first produced in Australia. Let’s face it, we’re proud to be Australian and want our own audience to see it first, but I don’t think it is going to happen. But we’ll try.

Almost inevitable now that the work will premiere in the USA at a LORT theatre in a 1st class production.

And the ideal outcome?
That the show finds a home, and that the audience ultimately responds to characters in the story as people about which they can care and recognise in themselves.

Visit mapmakersopera.com to listen to a selection of music, read about the story, and for Kevin's blog on all things to do with the creative development of this new Australian Musical.

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