Politics and pop meet when the Black Swan State Theatre Company take to the stage to present Clinton: The Musical.
Part factual historical account, part extrapolated from sensationalist rhetoric, the musical – like former President Bill Clinton’s legacy – leaves audience members wondering just how much truth was in the gossip and how much hype was in the man’s promise.
Paul Hodge wrote the book, music and lyrics, and here talks about making musicals with a quasi-political, quasi-satirical bent…
Congratulations on the huge success of Clinton. You must be pinching yourself. How did a bloke from Queensland end up writing a hit musical about an American President? And why?
It has been an amazing journey! The idea first came when my family went to see Keating: The Musical and my dad said, “It was good, but I’m not sure politicians make the best subject matter for musicals… except maybe Bill Clinton.” And an idea was born! I think the Clintons are fascinating people. The show initially started at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and because of the fantastic reception, it kept moving on to other versions in London, the New York Musical Festival and Off-Broadway.
Was there any resentment that an outsider should be poking serious fun at the Clintons, an American institution, especially in an election year?
I don’t think there was any resentment at all. I think more important from an American perspective, rather than outsider or insider, was Republican or Democrat. And I think that’s why people enjoyed having Australians writing it, because we’re neither Republicans or Democrats so that allows us to come at it from a fresh perspective.
Have either of the Clintons seen it as far as you know?
I don’t believe either of the Clintons have seen it – unless they were very well disguised! But I was told that people from their camp were sent to watch it and they laughed a lot!
If you had picked an Australian politician to work up a treatment, who would it be?
I have actually been commissioned with Stephen Carleton by JUTE Theatre Company to write a musical about Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s going to premiere next year in July in a co-production with the Brisbane Powerhouse and then tour. Contrary to what my dad said, I think a lot of politicians would make great subject matter for musicals. I think Rudd and Gillard would make a fantastic opera. And of course Queensland has no shortage of maverick politicians like Katter, Palmer and Hanson. There must be something in the water.
I noticed in your bio that you are working on two musicals with Louis Nowra and Kate Mulvany, both substantial figures in the theatre world here, what is it about the musical genre that attracts you?
I think music is such a big part of popular culture and songs have always been an important part of telling stories in all cultures since time immemorial. I like that music theatre can be many different things and brings together a whole range of modes of expression like song, dialogue and dance.
Last year, Black Swan produced the Tony-winning Next To Normal – a serious and powerful theme at its core. What can you say in a musical that you can’t in straight theatre or music?
I don’t think there’s anything you can’t say in one form that you can’t say in another. I think it just depends what you as the writer/composer feel will be the most effective way to tell the story. I feel like there needs to be a bit more barrier breaking between different genres and forms to create fresh work.
Where do you see the musical sitting in terms of political commentary?
I think we don’t come at the story as Democrats or Republicans (though obviously the Clintons are the heroes of the story). We just wanted to look at politicians as human beings… and human beings are funny! So we make fun of everyone. In the world of the 24-hour news cycle where politicians stick to their talking points, it becomes harder and harder to see their genuine humanity, so I think the idea of showing a bit of your messy humanity in politics is one of the themes of the show. But most of all we just wanted to entertain.
‘Clinton: The Musical’ is presented as part of the Winter Arts Festival 2016 and runs at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until September 11.
Book at Ticketek or phone 1300 795 012 (groups 8 +1300 364 001).
Photography by Daniel James Grant.