THE TRUE HISTORY OF NED KELLY THE ELECTRIC MUSIC SHOW
In the early 1970's I was on tour playing in Harry M Miller's celebrated production of Hair; browsing in a bookshop one day in Aukland N.Z. I came across a book on the life of the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, as much a hero figure today as he was reviled during the late 19th century throughout Victoria. Almost immediately I thought the material might be the basis for a stage show, a stage 'musical'. The gestation of my Ned Kelly had a protracted and extremely complex history, it took many years to fashion, it's shape had many forms and many re-writes, and long before it was eventually seen in a theatre a recording of the songs was released commercially featuring Trevor White and Jon English, the Jesus and Judas of the show they were starring in when we all went into the studio. The music had been written by Patrick Flynn my vibrant colleague from both Hair and JCS, also the musical Lasseter we'd written together.
At last in 1977 the Festival Centre in Adelaide offered to produce Ned Kelly there during the January holiday period of 1978 with a season planned in Sydney later. Auditions unearthed an encouragingly strong line-up of talent; by the time we had settled the casting Nick Turbin, Doug Parkinson and Geraldine Turner were among those playing featured roles.
This was an occasion where I was not one of the performers, rather my time and efforts extended to directing the show, also designing it. The main stage of the Adelaide Festival Theatre is quite simply huge, the challenge of filling it with scenery was something else, I had plenty of ideas while the producers had provided plenty of money. The budget was considerably more than had been made available for local fare previously, a homegrown musical on this scale had never been attempted. Realistically, however, compared to what it costs nowadays the amount was piddling.
Rehearsals were held in a much more confined space than the one we would inhabit once it was time to move into the theatre proper; listening to the remarkable voices of our cast in those more intimate surroundings lent immense strength, a real sense of musical power, the close proximity was almost too much to bear sometimes, the passion and feeling was very moving. The nature of the show immediately altered when we confronted the stage; the scenery had arrived and looked spectacular, but the up-close and personal moments of the music and lyrics had to battle the wide open spaces. Still we had to get used to them, and adjust we did.
Ned Kelly is a very demanding piece, it has elements of Music Theatre, Rock Opera, of REAL Opera, also Vaudeville and Burlesque. It asks a lot of its performers and of the audience. In the mix was the wonderfully inventive contribution of the choreographer Keith Bain who had the ability and great gift of being able to convince those in the company not accustomed to creative movement and dancing that they COULD do those things, in some instances startlingly so.
The show certainly was a milestone; as is generally the case with any work in the theatre it had its champions and detractors. We'd definitely hit our straps by the time we opened in Sydney, the reviews across the board were good, all contained the right words: "stunning"; "brilliant"; "big, brave, brassy all-Australian theatre". Doubtless Brian Hoad's perspective published in The Bulletin was the one that put us in the best possible light. "In the ambition of its scale, in the depth of its content, and the brilliance of its execution it is a remarkable achievement. It can stand comparison with both Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar - less trendy and more coherent than the former, less saccharine and more subtle than the latter, meatier and more demanding than either".
Postscipt: I was saddened to learn of the death of my colleague Patrick Flynn during late 2008 in California where he had lived for many years. Patrick died September 10 of a heart attack, aged 72. He was currently Music Director and Conductor of The Riverside County Philharmonic, and Music Director of Michigan's Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, also Guest Conductor with the Finnish National Opera and Holland Sinfonia. Vale Patrick.
Photo: Nick Turbin as Ned Kelly