The problem with remaking a classic when you’re Baz Luhrman isn’t trying to recapture the magic, it’s the fact that you have to start all over again.
As the world premiere of Strictly Ballroom The Musical approaches on Saturday, the Bazmark team, including Luhrmann, wife Catherine Martin who designed everything from the costumes to the credits for the film, and the movie’s original choreographer John ‘Cha-Cha’ O’Connell and writer Craig Pearce, are all feverishly putting the final touches on the show.
“I think we’ll be neck and neck,” laughs Martin when asked if it will be her or her husband making the last changes as the curtain goes up. “Baz was saying he was going to freeze everything on Tuesday night. I was dubious. I don’t know whether that’s true.”
“That’s also the marvellous thing about theatre. It’s a living creature. You can change things from one night to the next. There was no Memory in Cats when it opened. Wicked in its preview season was a failure. And now I think it’s the highest grossing musical of all time. These are living breathing creatures and I’m sure the show in a years time will be a slightly different show regardless of whether Baz keeps tweaking or not – and I’m sure he will!
In the beginning
The history of the production certainly backs Martin’s suspicion. Strictly Ballroom began as an actors workshopped stage piece at NIDA in 1984, long before the now genuinely iconic 1992 film was even a sequin in Luhrmann’s eye.
In order to deliver its third incarnation, Luhrmann has pulled the whole story apart in order to put it back together. And in rehearsals the original play is referred to as much if not more than the film.
“I feel like I’m at drama school again its that kind of process,” says Phoebe Panaretos who plays Fran. “Every scene begins from the root. It’s pretty cool. You’d think it would be this overpoweringly intimidating creative place where you’re just a pawn in whatever their ideas are but its the total opposite. Its all embracing. We sit in a circle and we have this big discussion, this big debate. Ideas are thrown around.”
“Baz is very much thinking we’re creating our own version; its back to the beginning of it all,” says Thomas Lacey, who plays Scott, who has also been surprised at his creative input. “I feel like I’m treading on hot coals at times a little bit. It is Baz’s baby. Strictly Ballroom was one of the first things he did – you’ve got to respect that – but he’s so open to it all. What we think the characters should be is really important.”
As for the music, well of course John Paul Young’s anthem is part of a mixture of old and new songs.
Have no fear, there will be much that is familiar to fans of the film. The scene under the Coca Cola sign on the roof is there, as is a variation on the Fruity Rumba dress, though the legendary knee-slide by Scott was a matter of debate.
As for the music, well of course John Paul Young’s anthem is part of a mixture of old and new songs. “There’s the big three,” says Lacey. “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps; Time after Time and Love is in the Air and they feature all throughout the show. Then there is some really, really amazing new stuff.
“It’s a completely new production,” says Martin. “It has new music, it has old music. And it has many of the images we’ve come to know and love, but it’s for the theatre so it needs to have a different approach. You can’t just slavishly translate the movie onto the stage.”
Nor it seems will you take the actors off stage. “I’m on the whole time – literally the whole time,” admits Lacey.
“I’m on the whole time as well,” adds Panaretos. “It’s not just us who’re on stage the whole time. The whole cast is going to be doing everything.”
Cha Cha Char
The trick was getting on to that stage in the first place. Panaretos and Lacey started auditioning almost a year ago and it was an achievement to even get in front of Luhrmann. “Our first audition with Baz was a month or two down the line,” says Lacey. “They made big cuts pretty fast.
The two had already paired themselves up from the outset however. “One of the first auditions I saw Thomas sitting on the floor warming up,” recalls Panaretos. “We’d never met before but were friends of friends. I sat next to him started chatting and was like ‘do you want to read the scene together.’”
They did, and it became a habit. “At the final audition in August I arrived and Thomas was the only other one there. Afterwards, Tom was like it would be so good if it was you and me.”
It was Tom, but the Bazmark team weren’t sure about Panaretos.
“They did another big search for Fran after I’d gotten quite close. I was told to go away and the choreographer Cha-Cha said ‘I really want you to work on your ballroom. I want you to be the Fran at the end of the story she’s improved and better.’ Because I’m a jazz dancer I’d never done ballroom before, only in preparation for the audition. I had two months.”
It wasn’t just the chroreography team she had to convince.
“I remember watching [the movie] at my grandmother’s house. It was one of the first films I’d seen that had that transformation of the ugly duckling. That was a big part of my audition process with Baz I had to prove I could transform to that character.
The vivacious performer in front of me laughs at the assumption that it was the duckling – not the elegant swan – that presented the hurdle.
“The awkward geeky Fran came easily to me. I don’t remember it being the point of problem.
The transformation is complete – will nearly – and for Martin the experience of working with Lacey and Panaretos has been one of the biggest joys.
“I’ve got to say the experience of Strictly Ballroom has really outstripped my expectations,” she says.
“I think you’re always a bit dubious when you’re revisiting something, but it’s been really enjoyable, challenging, fun, great to work with a new cast. Great to be making a new production.”