You may wonder what Tinder, Married at First Sight, eggplant emojis and “DTF?” have to do with Shakespeare and his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but composer-lyricist Laura Murphy will tell you they’re intimately connected.
“As a young female in 2022 [I have a strong opinion] on romantic love and what that means, and how that’s consistent [with] or differs from our version of romantic love over the last 400 years,” she tells Broadsheet. “From Bach to Beyoncé, Botticelli to The Bachelor, what is it about the way we talk about love that still remains? Love is such a human thing, it’s all we want.”
Murphy has been fascinated by Shakespeare’s tale of love, magic and mischief since she performed it in high school, but it took many years before she found the secret to unlocking what the Bard was actually saying.
“I remember how intimidated I’d felt by Shakespeare, thinking it was for smart, cultured people and that’s not me and I’d never understand it,” says Murphy.
A long-time pop-music tragic, Murphy spent hours listening to and interpreting the lyrics of Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder before realising Shakespeare was no different. “I started to enjoy the process of decoding the meaning in the same way I’d interpret a lyric of a song, because it’s the same process.”
Determined to demystify Shakespeare’s undeniably exquisite – and undeniably intimidating – language for today’s generation, Murphy set about doing it in a way that speaks their language: adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream through pop, rock, hip hop and folk music.
The result is The Lovers, a contemporary Australian musical that takes six key players from the Shakespearean tale and explores the play’s overriding theme of love through a 21st-century lens. It’s an addictive, super-fun and entertaining ride.
Produced by Bell Shakespeare, The Lovers has an enviable ensemble of cast and creatives, including The Voice runner-up Stellar Perry; Muriel’s Wedding the Musical’s original Muriel, Natalie Abbott; Rent and The Deb’s Monique Sallé; and award-winning Rent and Baby Doll director Shaun Rennie. Acclaimed music director Andrew Worboys leads the on-stage four-piece Fairy Band, which includes bass, guitar and drums.
The pop and rock musical genre may be in vogue today – think Hamilton, Six the Musical, Muriel’s Wedding the Musical and Moulin Rouge!, but when Murphy began writing The Lovers a whopping 14 years ago, the concept was yet to emerge.
“I love pop music, that’s my language, I love that it’s so accessible for everybody, and can catch immense aspects of the human experience and summarise it in one catchy chorus in a way everyone can understand. It can connect humans in a way lots of other genres can’t,” Murphy says.
Only 15 per cent of The Lovers is Shakespearean text; the show is mostly new, with 28 original songs that thread the story together.
Murphy grew up immersed in the world of music theatre. Her dad Stephen “Spud” Murphy was the musical arranger of the Tony- and Olivier-award-winning Priscilla the Musical and Dusty the musical; her mum Jennifer Murphy was the original Eva Perón in the Australian debut of Evita – the Musical.
For many years Murphy performed in, and wrote the music and lyrics for, William and Sparkles’ Imaginary Tales – a children’s series on Nine that ran for eight seasons plus a spin-off – before spending a decade performing in musicals in Australia and abroad, including Grease and Muriel’s Wedding the Musical.
She kept tinkering on The Lovers in the background, and also composed the music and lyrics for The Dismissal – a musical comedy for the Sydney Theatre Company about Gough Whitlam’s removal from office, which was set to debut at the Sydney Opera House – as well as Qween Lear for Sydney Festival. Both suffered Covid cancellations. Her latest work, Zombie! The Musical debuts at Hayes Theatre in 2023.
Murphy concedes working in the world of new Australian musicals is tough, particularly when you’re a woman, and acknowledges the importance of support from fellow female composer-lyricists Yve Blake (Fangirls) and her Zombie co-writer Hannah Reilly (The Deb).
“There’s no blueprint, we have to wing it,” Murphy says. “We work with a lot of men and we’re young, adorable women and as an industry as a whole we’re still getting used to young, adorable women being leaders.”
She credits Bell Shakespeare’s support of The Lovers as being another crucial milestone for the emerging genre. “For a new Australian musical to be debuting at the Sydney Opera House is a pinch-me moment and I hope there’s more of it. Putting on a new Australian musical is big and it’s expensive and it’s all-consuming, and Bell Shakespeare has completely backed The Lovers from day one. They want to be part of this future of establishing our voice in music theatre.”
Bell Shakespeare’s The Lovers runs at the Sydney Opera House from October 23 – November 20.