Arts / ‘Ladies’ man: How Tim Finn wrote a musical

“The Women in Black”… set in an eccentric department store closely resembling David Jones. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

MADELEINE St John’s 1993 novel “The Women in Black” seems just about as inappropriate as Dickens when you’re in the steamy tropics, but that’s where Tim Finn first read it.

It was 2012 and Finn, best known to the general public as the singer/songwriter from Split Enz and Crowded House, was heading for Bougainville to work on “Mister Pip”, based on Lloyd Jones’ novel dealing with the Bougainville Civil War.

Set in a Sydney ladies’ department store in the 1950s, “The Women in Black” centres on Lisa, who joins the sales staff at the fictional store, FG Goode’s, on a holiday job.

“It has to be DJ’s,” Finn tells “CityNews”.

“Although Madeleine denies it… we have something like that in Auckland, Smith & Caughey’s.”

The improbable premise for a musical saw the intrigued Finn writing 20 songs. After consulting Bruce Beresford, who owned the rights to the novel, he hooked up with director Simon Phillips and Aussie screenwriter Carolyn Burns to come up with “Ladies in Black”, coming soon to The Playhouse in the Queensland Theatre production.

Tim Finn…“It’s a hybrid of opera and it’s a great thrill to hear them sing my melodies.” Photo by Steven Ward

It’s been good news all the way for the QT, which laughed all the way to the bank when the show premiered during 2015, but its decision to embark on a national tour has been what artistic director Sam Strong calls “a big gamble that represents the past and also the future of the QT”, although the glamorous costumes by Gabriela Tylesova draw in a new crowd altogether.

“Ladies in Black” is set in an eccentric department store closely resembling David Jones, where black-clad ladies served from behind the counters in a bygone era.

Finn came up with a song list of memorable numbers, such as the catchy “Bastard Song”, that had audiences roaring with laughter and the Hungarian refugee’s song, “I Was a Bureaucrat in Budapest”.

“Madeleine’s novel was full of excuses for song titles… I read the word ‘pandemonium’, I had to write a song with that title,” he says.

“And then the character Rudi said he just wanted to meet a nice Australian girl and that was another song, of course – the characters were so alive, it was easy.”

Veteran director Simon Phillips, whose forays into musicals include “Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the Musical”, predicts that the show will be “the mouse that roared, a humble enough show about small hopes and dreams of small people with none of the usual brouhaha”.

“CityNews” caught up with Finn in Sydney right after he’d been singing the stage character Magda’s paean to model gowns.

Magda is a true believer in fashion but Finn, who grew up in small-town NZ, says he knows much less about the subject although he has enjoyed the musical and its verbal challenges.

One challenge was how to rhyme with the name Yves St Laurent. At first, he said, he rhymed it with “elegante”, but as he got deeper into the mysteries of fashion, he realised that that’s exactly what the famous couturier was dead against, what he wanted to achieve was not elegance but seduction.

Aha, that was the right rhyme for the song: “There’s no such thing as ordinary” – “séduisante”, French for “seduction”. But Dior, Finn says, was a piece of cake – “adore”.

It turns out that Finn’s a huge fan of Stephen Sondheim and caught a US production of “Sweeney Todd” a few years back that he says “just blew my mind”.

He doesn’t think there’s any rule about what comes first, the music or the book, suspecting that even with giants such as Bernstein, Sondheim, Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein, saying: “It depends on circumstances… I write songs, I wrote two thirds of the songs before there was any idea of the musical”.

His musical gives the actors plenty of scope, he says. It’s not sung-through like an opera and luckily, he says, Phillips is “masterful at weaving the threads together”. But he finds that the mix of spoken word and song can create difficulties.

Talking of which, Finn is busy working on an opera called “Star Navigators,” set in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Finn’s been living in Auckland for 17 years after having been away for 35 years in Australia, the West End and around the world, so is now in a good place to do research into the Polynesian geniuses who navigated the oceanic routes of the Pacific. It’s not fictional, he tells me. To research the story he went as far as Tahiti to follow the story of two navigators who couldn’t get on.

The work has been commissioned by NZ Opera, Victorian Opera and WA Opera, but he prefers to think of it as “music theatre”.

“It’s a hybrid of opera and it’s a great thrill to hear them sing my melodies,” he says.

“Ladies in Black”, The Playhouse, March 27-April 2. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.

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