Left – Mary Lou Kolbenshlag and Eric Michaud. Cover – Al Samuels, Ashley Ward, Mary Lou Kolbenshlag, Jordan Stidham, Leslie Collins and Eric Michaud. Photos – Prudence Upton
Rarely has the launch of a satirical piece of theatre been more timely, more up-to-the-minute when it comes to its source material. Although THRONES! The Musical Parody has been touring the world in various, continually-updated iterations for some years now, this latest and quite possibly ultimate reworking of the musical has opened in Sydney less than a month after the controversial final episodes of Game of Thrones have just aired.
Widely described as “the biggest show on television”, and perhaps the last gasp of the great tradition of water-cooler-conversation sparkers, HBO’s sumptuous adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic (but as yet incomplete) series of novels scarcely needs much introduction.
Over almost a decade, the wildly successful television show was a phenomenal breakthrough from the traditionally geeky genre of medievalist fantasy into mainstream popularity. The conclusion of its final season has left cable channels scrambling to staunch the bleeding of subscribers cancelling their services, that many only took up to legally access what became one of the most pirated shows in history.
This ratings juggernaut flowered in a media landscape that has been increasingly fracturing into more niche and specialised streaming platforms. With the public’s diversified viewing habits shifting the entertainment consumption culture, GOT’s success is even more remarkable. On a simpler level, it became a show with a truly rabid and subculturally diverse following, that cut across a lot of mainstream tastes.
To such an extent, in fact, that it almost became a hipsterish badge of pride for those disinterested in the show to tell its legions of evangelical fans “I don’t care about Game of Thrones”, shooting down their overzealous proselytisation in flames.
This sense of peer pressure to join in the GOT phenomenon is at the heart of THRONES! The Musical Parody. Rather than simply presenting a face-value send-up of the fantasy saga, this production’s internal narrative concerns a Friends-esque group of adults who descend upon their recently-divorced companion. They attempt to cheer her up by watching the final episode of Game of Thrones together.
However, when they discover to their collective horror that she has, in fact, never watched the show(!), they resolve to catch her up on the entire eight-season story by forcing her to join them in re-enacting the saga, with improvised costumes and props foraged from around her own apartment. What follows is a deliriously funny, energetic, anachronistic, barely linear, and seemingly slipshod summary of the complex, sweeping narrative of this bloody, sexy, memorable epic.
The resulting musical celebrates as much as it lampoons, touching upon the many high and occasional low points of the series. They wryly skewer its borderline pornographic levels of eroticism and blood-curdling violence, convoluted plots and despicable villains, while implicitly lauding its propulsive storytelling, engrossing world-building and addictive characterisation.
Examining some of the clichés that have popped up in the cultural discussion surrounding Game of Thrones over the years is also on the agenda. Seeding these observances through the production serves it well in deepening the satire beyond that of a simple spoof. For example, the musical doesn’t shy away from cocking an eyebrow over those who justify the base pleasures to be found in much of the TV show’s lurid content as life-lessons from “identifiable” flawed characters, most of whom are, frankly, pretty terrible people. It is suggested instead that such predominantly corrupt or amoral (and mostly white) individuals are at best only debatably representative in evoking a presumed universality of human experiences.
Similarly, more than a little side-eye is thrown at those viewers championing the series as having legitimately feminist narratives while also periodically injecting additional scenes of sexual violence not present in the books, allegedly as a questionable distraction from the showrunners’ writerly shortcomings. Yet anyone concerned that the musical is relentlessly “woke” may rest assured that the production has its tongue very much in cheek. The performers clearly delight in GOT’s vicious debauchery as much, if not more, than they critique it.
One of the delights of the production is that it utilises many different musical genres. These range from classic Broadway-style numbers evoking battles or bonking, to power ballads for Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, or duets for Jamie and Cersei or Jon and Ygritte. We even get a rapid-fire song listing the innumerable character names reminiscent of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Memorable sadists Joffrey and Ramsay espouse the joys of torture in a hilarious vaudeville styled double-act, complete with canes and boater hats. The crowd is sent off to interval on a high note, with an uproarious hip-hop recounting of the gory excesses of the infamous Red Wedding.
Impressively, the show even has the confidence in their musical and tonal versatility to play one song completely straight for dramatic impact. The personification of beloved character Hodor absolutely brought the house down in something akin to a stirring battle hymn, commemorating one of the most heartstring-tugging scenes in all of Game of Thrones.
While the whole ensemble were very talented, I particularly applaud the work of the feisty and funny Mary Lou Kolbenschlag who took on the roles of Daenerys and Ygritte, as well as the impressive Eric Michaud who portrayed Tyrion, George R. R. Martin and especially Hodor, with sparkling élan and genuine power.
The cast’s improv-theatre background evidently put them in good stead for a show of this nature, and has undoubtedly helped them keep it fresh and rejig the material at short notice. Nowhere is this more evident as in updating the musical over only the few short weeks before opening night to incorporate new material concerning the conclusion to the series’ final season, and the phenomenon of vocal fan-dissatisfaction that it has inspired.
Indeed, the aforementioned focus in THRONES! on the TV programme’s cultural impact, as much as its textual content, really comes to the fore here. This inevitably involves some rather canny satire on the perceived shortcomings of the much-maligned ending and the “rushed” season leading up to it. Yet crucially in turn, they are also undercutting the current cultural moment in which the phenomenon of “fan entitlement” is reaching a fever-pitch. When a story that perpetually defied audience expectations for the better part of a decade can somehow still engender shock and outrage for not delivering the specific ending[s?] that many viewers seem to feel they were owed, it is ripe material for satire.
The musical takes some wonderful potshots indeed. There appears to be at least one new song, and apparently some recontextualising of material from earlier productions. This includes parodying the phenomena of fan-fiction and the contested reputation of book author G.R.R. Martin, as both a dawdlingly slow writer and bloodthirsty “murderer” of so many (of his own) beloved characters. Revolted by the official ending, the musical’s characters decide they can create their own wildly absurd conclusion to the narratives of Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion, but their own kinks and preoccupations quickly derail the story into even greater absurdities. At this point the friends are violently visited upon by GRRM himself, manifested as writer-turned-serial killer, disgusted with the presumption and ingratitude of his would-be fans. Martin proceeds to dispatch the lot, while belting out an aria of authorial authority.
Fast and ferocious, frequently profane and fleetingly profound, THRONES! The Musical Parody is a hilarious romp for both diehard GOT fans and casual viewers… if there even is such a thing! There will probably never be a better time to catch this show than right now, when you’re still awash with either satisfaction or disappointment from the canonical climax to the just-concluded TV series being parodied herein. Either way, this raucous satire will serve as the perfect debrief and palate-cleanser.
Sydney Opera House presents
THRONES! The Musical Parody
by Chris Grace, Zach Reino, Albert Samuels, Nick Semar and Dan Wessels
Director Chris Grace
Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 5 – 23 June 2019
Tickets: from $45
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com | 9250 7777