Theatre company Morphic Graffiti, founded by Stewart Charlesworth and Luke Fredericks, is behind a bold new interpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which officially opens tonight at the London fringe Arcola Theatre. Cameron Smith catches up with Stewart Charlesworth…
It started with a typo. In 2011 Stewart Charlesworth, along with co-founder Luke Fredericks, created a new production company dedicated to musical theatre. They called it Morphic Graffiti.
“We were going back to Greek theatre and we found a phrase called ‘Orphic graffiti’ which described things inscribed on the walls at the back of amphitheatres in praise of Orpheus,” Charlesworth explains. “When we were bouncing it back and forth, someone put in a typo and we ended up with Morphic Graffiti.”
Clearly the theatre gods were with him. The name happily captured something of what Charlesworth hoped to achieve with the company.
“The idea of morphing something – turning it on its head, putting a different slant on it. We wanted to create a company that would take musical theatre to the next level.”
The providential good fortune continued with the choice of their first project, a revival of Jekyll and Hyde.
“We got the rights completely by accident and we sat looking at the letter thinking, ‘God, now we have to do something with it’. On the back of the successful BBC series of Sherlock, Luke and I came together and thought ‘let’s set it modern’. We fitted this concept on top of the existing libretto and it made these characters so real.”
This was followed by the Leslie Bricusse musical The Revenge of Sherlock Holmes which, in keeping with the Morphic approach, was reimagined as a piece of Victorian music hall.
Now their latest production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel is playing at London’s Arcola Theatre with a cast including Gemma Sutton (Blues in the Night, Drunk, Chicago) as Julie Jordan and Tim Rogers (Jekyll and Hyde, Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind) as Billy Bigelow. Luke Fredericks directs and Charlesworth himself has designed the set and costumes. Other creative credits include Lee Proud as choreographer, musical arrangements and orchestrations by Mark Cumberland, musical supervision by Larry Blank and musical direction by Andrew Corcoran.
The classic musical, set in a fishing community in Maine, New England, tells the story of the complicated relationship between a mill worker, Julie Jordan, and a carousel barker, Billy Bigelow. This production, however, is making one major change. Taking inspiration from the HBO series Carnivale, the action has been shifted from the 1870s to the early 1930s, a switch which has put a new slant on a number of aspects of the story.
“It’s the beginning of the Great Depression, so for Billie and Julie to turn down work becomes an important thing. The mill girls at the beginning – the head of the mill workers’ union was actually a woman and the mills were being pushed to pump out as much product as possible and there were a lot of strikes going on. There are a lot of mentions of alcohol and we’re in prohibition. We’re also able to cover the fact that the whaling industry had basically ceased to exist in America by exploring the idea of bootlegging and the sailors turning to black market means to supplement their income.”
Perhaps the most poignant consequence of the change comes in the famous finale. The original musical opened on Broadway during the last months of the Second World War and, at that time, reflected the losses and hopes of a grieving nation. That idea can now be brought into the show itself.
“By the time we get to the end of Act II, we’re in 1945. So in ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, not only is Julie singing it to [her daughter] Louise, but the song has a resonance with every single character on the stage who has just gone through the war.”
Alongside this desire to do something different with the show is, paradoxically, a deeply-held respect for the original text, as Charlesworth explains: “We’ve been able to explore a different meaning to the text without having to change a word or a sentence or a note. With any Rodgers and Hammerstein score, if an actor is struggling with it, they need look no further than the text, everything is there. It’s like the top range Ikea furniture. You get it home, all the instructions are exactly right, all the parts are there, you assemble it and it’s done!”
That combination of tradition and innovation, old and new, may well prove to be a winning formula. Indeed, for Charlesworth, having an understanding of the classic musicals is essential for new musical writers: “Always go back to the beginning. They hand you a manual on how to write a perfect musical.”
* Carousel runs at the Arcola Theatre until 19 July.
* The cast also features Amanda Minihan as Nettie Fowler, Vicki Lee Taylor as Carrie Pipperidge, Joel Montague as Enoch Snow, Valerie Cutko as Mrs Mullin, Richard Kent as Jigger Craigin, Paul Hutton as The Starkeeper, Susanna Porter as Louise and Michael Carolan as Enoch Snow Jr. The cast also includes Joseph Connor, Katrina Dix, Anton Fosh and Charlotte Gale.