Putting the Nation on Stage

From Greta Gertler Gold

September 6, 2017

National Theatre of Parramatta is pleased to have ARIA award-winning songwriter and composer for the production of The Red Tree based ont he book by Shaun Tan. Greta produces her own music The Universal Thump and ahs written for The Whitlams, as well as composing for film, tv and theatre.

What attracted you to this project?
I was thrilled that Hilary invited me to collaborate with her, in creating a work of musical theatre. I have been a huge fan of her work for years and have always wanted to work with her. Also, the fact that the piece is based on such beautiful inspiring work by Shaun Tan is a big draw. In recent years, my work has veered more and more in the direction of musical theatre and I am passionate about trying to create something compelling and new in that genre. Also, having the chance to work in and explore Parramatta (wow – the food is amazing!), and to be back, working on a new musical project in Australia after many years abroad.

What can audiences expect of The Red Tree?
A musical, theatrical, emotional, visually stunning, prog-rock extravaganza for all!

How do you feel the show differentiates from the book?
The book is extremely impressionistic and whimsical and open, narratively. Each page is a work of art and the reader can spend as much or as little time with and interpret it as they like. In creating a work for theatre, in which the audience is “captive” in their seats for 60-70 minutes, we’ve taken a more traditional, narrative approach. The music ranges from accessible to ambiguous to funny to dark to trippy… reflecting the lead character’s huge, emotional journey.

How different is it working on this type of music as opposed to composing with Tim Freedman and writing your own music?
Creating a work of musical theatre such as ’The Red Tree’ is very different, but draws upon many aspects of songwriting for the rock, pop, singer-songwriter worlds. When I started writing songs over 20 years ago, I originally wanted to write songs for others to sing but more in the Brill-building vein than in the musical theatre world. This didn’t seem possible at the time.. the music world favoured artists who wrote their own songs. So I embarked on a career as a singer-songwriter. I was interested in connecting in a raw way with my emotions and relaying them through song in an immediate way..and then heightening those emotions via the arrangements/ orchestrations and production. It seemed like a long shot to do this at the time, but I was inspired by Tim’s voice (I was a HUGE Whitlams fan from way back) and wrote some songs with it in mind and managed to get him a demo tape. I was thrilled that the songs resonated with him on some level,  and then he adapted/ tweaked them, lyrically, to make them more personal to his story (‘Charlie #3’ and then ‘Blow Up the Pokies’). In writing my own music for myself as an artist, I have had completely free rein – this can be difficult as there is often no “sounding board” or collaborator, and it has often felt a bit isolating to try to do it, but it’s also been an amazingly strengthening, grounding process for me. Ultimately, the songs I’ve written over the years have become almost like ‘homes’ or houses to me, as I’ve travelled through different experiences / changes/ countries/ relationships.. I’ve found the world of musical theatre way more collaborative and less lonely, with a lot more structure involved (development, workshops, readings, etc.) than the free-form world of independent music-making.  It’s been fascinating to explore and learn about the elements of theatre…they seem like a new orchestra to me!  Especially, living in NYC, I think it was inevitable that the world of theatre would seep into my songwriting. It started with various “characters” popping up in songs. I wondered who they were. I wanted to know more about them, and what the story was that they were part of.. This process now totally compels me as a songwriter and I’m thrilled to be working on a few large, narrative pieces.

What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a rock musical called ‘Willow’s One Night Stand’ with Australian playwright, Ally Collier. It’s about a reclusive singer who lives with the ghosts of her band and a demonic sound board,  all of whom disappeared suddenly many years before. It will be on in NYC at an off-Broadway theatre called The Tank next year. I’m also working on a musical about a woman in her 40s trying to have a baby and a young pop star trying to have a hit – called ‘Anna Hit’ – with Stew (TONY Award winning book writer of ‘Passing Strange’ – one of my all-time favourite musicals – this show really inspired me so much and I hope it comes to Australia someday). Then there is a ghost-rock musical called ‘The Real Whisper’ which I’m writing with playwright, Akin Salawu. It was developed at Ars Nova theatre over a 2 year period and then was featured recently at the Polyphone Festival in Philadelphia, PA. My husband and I have an orchestral pop band called The Universal Thump, and there are also a couple of other musical theatre projects I’m working on and dreaming up… But mainly, I look after my daughter, Lila, who is almost 2 years old!

What advice would you give to emerging composers/songwriters?
Collaborate as much as possible! Across all forms of expression. When you feel ready. Be honest in your work. And never be too shy to give your demo tape to your musical heroes… sometimes it works!