This play is a bold experiment. Julia Robertson (book and lyrics) and Zara Stanton (music and orchestration) have adapted Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist movie Metropolis to weave a dark tale of betrayal, revenge, power and cruelty. It is a dystopian, science-fiction tale about a futuristic city that exists above the bleak hidden reality of exploited human labourers working tirelessly to uphold the running of a machine that powers the city above.
Produced by Little Eggs Collective in association with Hayes Theatre Co, Metropolis features a talented cast of 12, and an impressive life-sized robot puppet, Futura – created by scientist Rotwang (Thomas Campbell) in dedication to his deceased lover, Hel, who was taken from him by the master of the city, Joh Fredersen (Joshua Robson).
The score is rich with menacing jagged discords and sparse orchestrations accompanying the relentless melodrama of the plot. The ensemble, as is to be expected in contemporary Australia, are highly trained and skilled in movement, acting and singing – reflecting the one thing this country does well in its home-grown musical theatre industry. However, the play is also symptomatic of the state of Australian musical theatre in other ways.
Stephen Sondheim laid down three principles for the writing of musical theatre: 1) the content dictates the form, 2) less is more, and 3) God is in the detail. This necessitates that musical theatre requires extensive and arduous periods of development, try-outs, workshopping, rewrites and restagings to ensure that there is nothing gratuitous in the form, that simplicity is allowed to cut through and that the layered iterative process provides a depth and richness to the musical narrative and performative content.
In the US and the UK there are well-worn, well-funded pathways for development, not only of performers, but of writers, composers and companies. In this country, such pathways are certainly unfunded, and almost non-existent. Clearly formidable talents, such as Robertson and Stanton, must develop in their own time, at their own expense, with resources drawn mainly from their shared love of and commitment to the musical theatre form.
Given sufficient time and support for development, Metropolis, in concept and execution has the potential for greatness. However, despite their indisputable abilities and the viability of the concept, the less than six months that the creators and the cast had to work with has led to a bold, provocative, but somewhat patchy outcome. When dealing with dark and heavy themes, the characteristically heightened idioms of musical theatre book and performance must tread a fine line between melodrama and genuine affective impact. Sometimes in Metropolis, this balance misses the mark. There are also times when the rich, complex, demanding and difficult harmonic landscape of the ensemble singing does not quite gel.
Still, as mentioned, the courage and audacity of the project, and the undoubted commitment, dedication and skills of all concerned, make this a show worth seeing. The more support we can give in this country to artists of this calibre, who are prepared to push the limits, the more we can develop our local musical theatre talent and industry to allow them to reach their full potential.
Metropolis, Hayes Theatre
The Little Eggs Collective
Book and Lyrics: Julia Robertson
Composer: Zara Stanton
Director: Julia Robertson
Music Director: Zara Stanton
Scenic Designer: Nick Fry
Costume Designer: Ella Butler
Lighting Designer: Ryan McDonald
Sound Designer: Christine Pan
Assistant Director: Natalie Low
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Tom Dawson, Sam Harmon, Selin Idris, Dominic Lui, Amanda McGregor, Tomas Parrish, AJ Pate, Joshua Robson, Anusha Thomas, Shannen Alyce Quan, Jim Williams
Metropolis will be performed until 21 May 2023