Composer Elliot Wheeler has worked with Baz Luhrmann on several prior projects including The Great Gatsby, and they’ve teamed up again for the soon-to-be-unleashed musical version of Strictly Ballroom. We chat about the nature of musicals, and the challenge of facing an audience so familiar with the story.
Sydney is not shy about staging musical adaptations of notable screen gems. Strictly Ballroom may be the production on everyone’s tongue at the moment, but it follows on the heels of An Officer & A Gentleman, Legally Blonde, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The latter two are of particular note; both comedies that were critically acclaimed but of which only Legally Blonde found success on stage. I wonder if Elliot is concerned when the temperature of musical audiences is now so very difficult to anticipate.
“All you can really do is try and concentrate on making sure you’ve got a compelling story, which I think is one of the grand things about Strictly Ballroom,” he says. Elliot has an infectiously affable manner, and though you sense he has certain go-to responses, his conversation is easygoing. “Coming into this process we all knew that it was something that audiences have really responded to, that pulls people along, really takes you through some emotional journey. I think it’s impossible to anticipate the vagaries of what an audience will think. You should be just pouring your energy into creating the best product that you can, and we’re acutely aware of what it means for a couple or a family to give up that time and money to come and see the show in the first place. So we’re trying to create something that really gives people an experience that’s out of the ordinary, something that takes them out of their everyday lives. And I think that’s what theatre can do, give you a real sense of magic for a night.”
I have to ask about his ongoing collaborations with Luhrmann – if there is some kind of blackmail material that Elliot has stumbled upon that fuels their relationship.
“Ha, it’s true,” he confirms. “I worked out the secret to the elixir that gives him all his power. Honestly, I can’t speak for what it is that Baz finds enjoyable, but for me it’s that he has so much energy and takes you on such a journey. He’s constantly searching for new ways of doing things, pushing ideas, everything is examined and stretched in new ways, and you come up with something that you could not have conceived on your own. It’s an incredibly rare thing.”
Given this is a story that the majority of its audience will already know inside-out, I wonder if he was ever concerned he would find his compositions stymied into a certain style or sound.
“We’re very aware of the history of the show, and there was so much amazing music in the original soundtrack. Our whole team has been very conscious of people wanting to hear those flavours. We’re hoping that everything you loved is still there, but there’s also a whole bucketful of new surprises. Those flavours we know are in the film are like a resource, something to dip into when we need it, to use them to develop into something else. Of course you do your research, you see how other musicals are structured. But you try not to limit yourself by looking at only what’s been working in a similar field. You try to have a comprehensive exposure to musicals that didn’t quite work, to went to unconventional places. But I guarantee there’s so much wonderful new material. We didn’t want to just give people the film on stage.”
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is on from Friday April 11 at Sydney Lyric Theatre, The Star.