New musicals are often inspired by popular novels, movies or Disney stories, but according to award winning playwright Alex Gibbs, his new musical Butterfly Lounge was born of an image of a man in a bar who shouldn’t be there. According to Gibbs, the image had been inhabiting the recesses of his mind for more than a decade before he brought him, and his story, to the stage.
Independent of the image came the title and Gibbs was moved to “squish them together at some point” and suddenly the bar was called the Butterfly Lounge and the man who was not meant to be there, was no longer just inhabiting his mind but had now well and truly moved onto the pages of Gibbs’ script.
Gibbs’ interest in 20th century American history, and in particular the culturally intensive period which sprung from the oppressiveness of government control of alcohol – producing both the classic early 20th century imagery of gangsters and jazz nightclubs in dark and dingy spaces – became the scene for the Butterfly Lounge of Gibbs’ imagination.
Gangsters, crime and detective stories are central to the idea America in the 1920s, and although Gibbs weaves elements of crime into the narrative, he moves it beyond a simple detective story and describes the show as “one man and all of the women in his life”. The man is hiding from maturity, and while he is attracted to women of greater intelligence he is brought to Earth by those same women. Gibbs describes it as a story of a “man retreating into his own personal fantasy and that fantasy fighting back”.
But as strong as the narrative that underpins this show is, it is the music that makes most musicals.
At the time of Gibbs’ original inspiration he was warned off doing a musical, but as the idea developed and was expressed on stage in earlier and simpler versions, the strong musical themes evident in 1920s America became an obvious and necessary element which Gibbs utilised to develop, not a musical, but rather a play with music.
When Gibbs moved to the Border region and approached The Other Theatre Company, he was inevitably asked what he had to offer and his answer was a play – but also cautioned that “there’s some music involved too”. TOTCo jumped at the idea and as original ideas are not foreign to TOTCo, this one was beginning to tick all the boxes.
While Gibbs had always had in the back of his mind that the play would benefit from an original score, he never really thought it would be achievable – until he met the incredibly talented local young musician and composer Katja Jorgensen.
Jorgensen is driven to compose, and while she is well known as a member of the orchestra pit of many musicals in the region, and well known for her orchestral compositions, this was her first time writing a full score for a musical, and the focus on jazz was taking her out of her comfort zone
From the beginning of the composition process, Jorgensen was full of ideas, guided by the mood scenes in Gibbs’ script, but was still seeking the formula which would bring the compositional threads together. It was at this point that Jorgensen brought in well-known local musician, arranger, teacher and jazz expert Tony Smith to work with her to bring the whole thing together. Smith admits that while at the start jazz was a bit outside Jorgensen’s comfort zone, it is now well and truly part of her extensive creative abilities.
But music in a musical is not just notes on the stave, and good lyrics are essential to drive the story forward and to provide character to the colour contained within the score. But unlike most musicals where the actors must fit themselves to the songs, Jorgensen and Smith had the unique opportunity to be able to develop songs for the actors after they were selected for the show.
Jorgensen admits she had no idea what she was looking for at the auditions, and it wasn’t until people walked through the door that her ideas began to gel with character provided by the actors themselves. And although the whole score has been written in less than two months, the benefit of being able to develop the music for each actor in the context of their character, has brought the characters to a place way beyond what Gibbs says he could have imagined for them by the script alone.
The staging is all 1920’s lived in art deco design, and the Butter Factory is the perfect intimate space for this show. Combined with the fact that the band is not just there to provide the music, but is on stage and is part of the performance, from the moment you walk in, you’ll feel as though you are part of a 1920s speakeasy.
New musicals are rare, and even rarer premiered in regional Australia, and for that reason, plus the brilliant script and new score, it should not be missed. Show opens Friday 13th of October for just two performances.