The first thing that will pop into most people’s heads when they hear High Fidelity is the Stephen Frears-directed, John Cusack-starring film, featuring music by the Beta Band, The Kinks and Bob Dylan. Some might think of the Nick Hornby novel, or even possibly just think of stereos. And Ellen Burgin and David Ward will think (and probably dream) about the musical.
High Fidelity is a fairly new musical, debuting on Broadway in 2006. However, due to various factors, director David says “its history on Broadway was fairly disappointing. It’s much better suited to independent theatre.”
Marketing Director Ellen and the rest of the Pursued by Bear team eventually chose High Fidelity as admirers of Tom Kitt’s work (they ran Next to Normal last year), and getting the rights was a long process, but one that was relatively painless.
Still, “for someone to entrust this production that they wrote with such a young production team (all the team are under 30) is massive,” Ellen says, and there’s a huge responsibility to make the work as good as it can be. David too is very conscious of the responsibility he has, and as High Fidelity fans, both of them are invested in making High Fidelity‘s Australian debut the success it should be.
Set to open on the 11th September, High Fidelity the musical is making its Australian debut at Chapel off Chapel. It’s also its first time outside the US. (There were rumours of a German production – untrue.) Plot-wise and stylistically, the musical is far closer to the book than the film, which director David Ward wants to make very clear. He’s aware that the name High Fidelity will pull fans of the film, which the musical isn’t actually based off, and doesn’t want to disappoint them. “We’re trying to get as far away from the film adaptation as we can,” David says, especially at the start of the musical. A huge fan of the book (but not so much of the film), he finds Hornby’s writing acerbic and biting, and much more interesting than the film.
On the other hand, Ellen, who is more lenient on the film, thinks that it was an honest adaptation, but didn’t go as “deep” as it could have (and should have).
All three (the book, film and musical) star the character of Rob, whose failed relationship with his girlfriend leads him to reevaluate his life. While the film is “kind of wiffly-waffly” about Rob, Hornby’s original writing reads as deeply critical of the character, something that David wanted to bring back: “He’s a nice sort of middle ground between the two.”
They auditioned close to 100 people for the role, and eventually chose Russell Leonard as Rob.
As Rob, Russell Leonard is the linchpin of the entire production, and rarely leaves the stage. So he has a lot on his shoulders, especially with some big numbers inspired by real musicians (the songs are all original and written for the musical). At the same time, there’s a lot of interplay: all the supporting cast have been “nicely fleshed out,” despite all revolving around the character of Rob. (The whole show takes place in about “ten seconds in Rob’s mind”.)
The music is all original and are all directly influenced by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, the Beastie Boys and Guns’N’Roses. “From a sonic point of view, it’s always changing, always evolving, and always representing something that’s going on in Rob’s friends.” Unsurprisingly for a musical, the music is one of the best parts.
“That’s the conceit of musical theatre: when emotions reach a pinnacle that can’t be expressed through words, it breaks into song.” Another conceit of musical theatre is breaking the fourth wall, and it has been since Shakespeare. That’s an element of the film and the book that has easily been incorporated into the musical, and works well.
One thing it does retain from the film is its location in the US, but even that has been changed: “The book’s written in the UK, the movie’s set in Chicago and the musical is set in Brooklyn,” Ellen Burgin explains. While there were some thoughts about transposing the piece back to its original UK setting, David says the musical is so “intrinsically American,” and there are so many rhymes and references that are really only American, that it couldn’t be “convincingly transposed” to either the UK or Australia.
Fun fact: if they had moved it to Australia, it would have been Melbourne. “I can’t think of any city in Australia that has the same culture of music engrained in it,” David says.
High Fidelity opens at Chapel off Chapel on September 11 and runs till September 21. Check out the Pursued by Bear website for more information and to buy tickets.