It is the musical of the film of the play – and Baz Luhrmann is running things as strictly as ever.
Drew Forsythe seems to have spent half the morning placing a vinyl record on a turntable but there is no pleasing Baz Luhrmann, who asks him to repeat the move yet again.
It is just a few weeks until audiences get their first glimpse of Strictly Ballroom: The Musical at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, and there are still plenty of songs to learn, dance steps to practise and script rewrites to memorise.
But Luhrmann, renowned for his perfectionism and notorious for delays, is fixated on what appears to be a minor detail in an insignificant scene – closing time at Kendall’s dance studio.
He strides across the rehearsal room inside Carriageworks in Eveleigh, past his fresh-faced and impossibly fit cast, to where Forsythe is standing, LP in hand, vintage turntable stacked on four milk crates. He peppers Forsythe with questions about his character, Doug Hastings, father to the show’s protagonist Scott and henpecked husband of ballroom dancing teacher Shirley. He makes minute adjustments to the turntable’s position. A stage manager is beckoned to measure the height of the stack of milk crates on which it sits.
The process is painstaking and some of the younger performers begin to fidget as Luhrmann reminisces about a relative who collected thousands of records, diligently cataloguing each and every one.
Forsythe, again, practises putting the record on the turntable while the rest of the cast tries to appear interested until finally Luhrmann is satisfied. ”Now you have a world – Doug’s world,” he says.
Welcome to CSI: Strictly Ballroom. Luhrmann’s directing is forensic as he conducts a searching examination of every single line spoken and movement performed. Nothing escapes his attention, not even the way leading lady Fran clears away coffee mugs, how the dancers leave the studio or how a door is opened and closed.
The plot of Strictly Ballroom - rebel dancer teams up with ugly duckling and wins over the crowd, if not the judges – is so well-known it is barely mentioned on the musical’s website or in press material. But making a song and dance out of the film requires more than dusting off the costumes and tutoring the 44-member cast in the finer points of the paso doble. ”In a film, you can do a lot with the camera,” Luhrmann says, ”and you can do a lot with what’s not said. But in the theatre, you do have to make things really clear.”
He says the musical also has to confound expectations that it will just be ”the movie with a bit of dancing”.
”It has to be both familiar and completely surprising and ambitious,” he says. ”Enough of an experience that audiences are able to let their lives go. No one buys a ticket to the theatre to see people play safe.”
Given the success of Strictly Ballroom in 1992, when it launched Luhrmann’s film directing career, it is hard to imagine audiences not embracing a musical version of the story.
Three decades and a slew of big-budget films later, Luhrmann is a red-carpet regular, but he is putting his reputation in the hands of two young actors – one of whom, Thomas Lacey, was not even born when Strictly Ballroom opened in cinemas.
Both Lacey, who plays the tempestuous Scott, and Phoebe Panaretos, as his dance partner Fran, are in awe of Luhrmann. ”He’s just creating magic,” Panaretos says. The NSW government is also starstruck, banking on Luhrmann’s star wattage to put bums on theatre seats and a dent in Melbourne’s crown as Australia’s musical theatre capital.
Typically secretive, the state government’s tourism and events agency, Destination NSW, will not reveal how much taxpayers’ money it has poured into Strictly Ballroom.
A spokeswoman for Destination NSW, Holly Hearne, says factors considered when investing in a stage show include its capacity to attract overnight visitors. Past investments in shows such as The Addams Family and Blue Man Group have sometimes met with indifferent reviews, so pressure is high.
Further financial backing comes from Global Creatures, the theatre company behind War Horse, How to Train Your Dragon and King Kong. Carmen Pavlovic, the chief executive of Global Creatures, will not reveal the cost of staging the musical, but says it is cheaper than her company’s animatronic shows.
Surprisingly, she says Luhrmann’s original concept was ”very high-tech and fancy”, but that was soon discarded.
”I remember a moment in New York when Baz said to me, ‘I’ve realised the truth of the piece. I have to be able to stage it in my backyard with fairy lights and a piano,”’ Pavlovic recalls. ”It was a breakthrough moment and what he did was take the show to its very honest, simple roots.”
The NSW Premier, Barry O’Farrell, estimates the musical will be worth $20 million to the state’s economy and generate jobs in hospitality and entertainment. It is already denting the unemployment rate judging by the scores of actors, musicians and backstage crew working ever-longer hours in the lead-up to the show’s first preview on March 25.
The show’s wig and make-up department is putting in 11-hour days to create elaborate hairdos and tiaras for the cast. Locks of real human hair lie on a table in the wig workroom next to polystyrene heads that have been carved to match the dimensions of each performer. The show’s ”head of hair”, Philip Cox, says ”dozens and dozens” of wigs will be handmade and pinned to the bandaged heads of almost every member of the cast. Lacey is the only one who will perform with his own hair.
”They’re after the detail with the wigs,” Cox says. ”Baz and C.M. [Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's wife and the show's costume and set designer] are big into hair. It’s really something that [Luhrmann's production company] Bazmark are particular about, so they never scrimp on that side of things.”
Throughout the day, performers duck out of the rehearsal room for wig and wardrobe fittings, dance lessons and singing classes led by musical supervisor Max Lambert.
Lambert’s rehearsals resemble a classroom; the dancers sit in a cramped dressing room, scribbling notes in their folders as he takes them through Beautiful When You Dance.
His attentive class harmonises like a barber shop quartet as Mark Owen-Taylor, who plays dance competition MC J.J. Silvers, runs through the song written by Eddie Perfect, crooning smart one-liners (”glittered and glammed, yes and dipped in fake tan”) until everyone dissolves into laughter.
Next door, seven couples are sweating through a paso doble class, each learning a different routine, with the show’s associate choreographer Kirsten King and ballroom dancing teacher Lee-Anne Bampton. Hips are thrust, feet stamped and bodies spun in a whirl of fiery Latin passion as King films their moves to scrutinise later.
”A lot of the time they’re doing this choreography and singing at the same time,” she says. ”That doesn’t happen in ballroom.”
Co-ordinating wig fittings with two-step lessons demands military precision, but the production stage manager, Anneke Harrison, has a secret weapon for corralling the show’s creative team – especially Luhrmann. ”We’ve got this daggy old armchair, it’s kinda cute, and we call it the scheduling chair,” she says. ”We shove him in that and he’s relaxed and comfortable and we extract information from him.”
Unlike the show’s youthful cast, Harrison is not starry-eyed about the mercurial director: ”He’s eccentric and infuriating and frustrating in turns, but basically wonderful.”
Luhrmann likens directing to matchmaking: ”My job is to get everyone to fall in love with the creative process,” he says. ”My specific job is to make any artist or performer as good as they can be. It’s good for the show, and the show is above us all. I’m the chief acolyte.”
Strictly Ballroom‘s lunch break resembles a schoolyard, with most of the cast and crew shunning Carriageworks’ pricey cafe for homemade meals. There is also a chocolate cake decorated to resemble a piano made by Heather Mitchell, who plays the voluble Shirley, to celebrate the birthday of rehearsal pianist Michael Tyack.
Back in the rehearsal room, Scott and Fran are falling in love to Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time. But the course of true love never runs smooth, especially with a significant script rewrite to memorise. It is the second major revision of the script.
Luhrmann analyses the scene before making his trademark call for silence that precedes each take. “Listen, is the air clean?” he asks.
The air is cleansed of noise, but a small disruption comes from Luhrmann’s white Prada loafers; he has trodden on gum, which he tries unsuccessfully to prise off with wooden chopsticks fetched by his assistant, Angus.
A more welcome interruption appears in the form of choreographer John O’Connell, who has been in hospital and is greeted with applause and hugs from Luhrmann.
O’Connell’s appearance lifts the mood as the full cast runs through a dance competition scene featuring veteran actor Robert Grubb as Barry Fife, the conniving president of the Australian Dancing Federation.
But C.M. is exhausted at the end of a long day. She woke to her eight-year-old son William telling her: ”I think the cat needs some food.”
”And I looked at my alarm clock and went, ‘Oh no, I’m due at wardrobe’,” she says.
So began a harried day of dressmaking and fittings interspersed with calls to discuss a project designing the interiors of a Miami hotel and a photo shoot for Vogue magazine.
Martin has also been flying around the world for award ceremonies for another collaboration with her husband, The Great Gatsby. This week she won two Oscars for her work on the film’s costume and production design.
And her day is far from done. ”I’ll go home and have dinner with my children and then go to the theatre and join everyone at the [technical rehearsal],” she says.
It is the same story for many of Strictly Ballroom’s cast and crew, with another two hours of running through the scene at Kendall’s dance studio followed by the technical rehearsal at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
As they should say in showbiz, the rehearsals must go on.
Strictly Ballroom: The Musical previews at the Sydney Lyric Theatre from March 25.