WHEN writer Jim McGrath approached a local rock musician and electronic composer to write the music for his Made in Canberra musical, “Heart of a Dog”, his initial thoughts of a deep and meaningful jazz score were consigned to the garbage bin.
McGrath’s father had been with DFAT in Moscow, then his sister showed him Soviet-era author Mikhail Bulgakov’s satirical novella of the same name. Excited by its central idea of turning a dog into a man, he worked up a script that interested Caroline Stacey at The Street and applied to the Australia Council, which forked out $40,000 to support a professional production.
But Marc Robertson, lead singer with the group Barrel of Monkeys, whose day job is behind-the-scenes at Llewellyn Hall, instantly spotted that for in this grim post-Dr Frankenstein tale of a dog implanted with the brains and testicles of a drunkard, something more like industrial rock was needed.
While declaring that the “auditions were amazing”, Robertson was less than thrilled with the “bunch of lyrics” he was given.
In retrospect, McGrath admits sheepishly, Gilbert and Sullivan had been more on his mind than grunge, but when Robertson listen to the audiobook of the novella he wanted a more ambivalent atmosphere. Matching different keys to different roles, he came up with series of showstoppers, such as the opening number,” Moscow Snow”, the pivotal “Transformation Song” and even a love song (“but I never compose love songs,” he complains) called “Over the Moon”. And there’s a little bit of Gypsy klezmer, too.
Meantime, McGrath was contending with the clichés of musical theatre. For Bulgakov’s book is dominated by blokes, a sad indictment of the Soviet-era he thinks, whereas musicals must have girls and romance. He fiddled around a bit and created characters suitable for strong actor-singers such as Amy Dunham and Moya Simpson, the latter playing the ridiculous Commissar Smirnov.
He’s thrilled with the veteran designer Imogen Keen’s amazing costumes for the show, which McGrath is producing but not directing – that role goes to comedian and improvisation expert, Nick Byrne, who has steered the show in the direction of over-the-top comic Surrealism.
So what’s it all about? “Heart of a Dog” is not just science fiction. In the show, the scruffy dog Sharik (Dene Kermond) becomes the tormented man of the same name, manipulated by the doctor (PJ Williams) and the revolutionary society that Bulgakov lampooned.
To McGrath and Robertson the show asks, “how do you make the perfect man?” and “how do you define masculinity?” The Act One curtain number is the song “Make a Man” and that, arguably, is the subject of all great drama.
“Heart of a Dog,” at The Street 2, May 22-24, bookings to 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au