From the Archives
First published in On Stage in Spring 2009, Peter Pinne concludes his exploration of the musicalisation of Seven Little Australians by looking at the career of composer and arranger David Reeves.
Early in 1991, while the Queensland Theatre Company was mounting its production of David Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Reeves himself was busy in Melbourne preparing for the opening of his new show, Favourite Son, originally called Once Upon a Time. This time Reeves was credited with music and concept, and Terry Stapleton with book and lyrics.
Stapleton had started writing and reviewing for The Bulletin in Adelaide in the 60s, and later became successful working in television for Crawfords, creating The Last of the Australians, Bobby Dazzler and This Man, This Woman. No stranger to theatre, his plays included Some Night in Julia Creek, Last Dance, A Few Close Friends and Say Goodbye.
Favourite Son’s plot involved a young man (Young Johnny) from the country who gets an offer from an American movie director (Sam) to go to the city to star in a film. The only problem is the director is a shark and the film turns out to be a jeans commercial.
Reeves was again the producer, Pamela French was director and choreographer, with design by Terry Ryan. The cast of 14 was headed by Terry Serio (Young Johnny), Reg Gorman (Big Johnny), Nadine Wells (Milah), Rod Anderson (Sam), Joseph Clements (Max) and Danielle Goullet (Julietta). Musical director Conrad Helfrich led a 7-piece pit band.
The show opened at the Comedy Theatre on Friday 28 December 1990. The notices were devastating. Peter Craven in The Australian (31 December 1990) called it an ‘inoffensive but undercooked piece of nonsense which has no serious claims on a city audience.’ He said ‘the score has some pleasing moments, even some memorable ones,’ and that Stapleton’s lyrics balance ‘corn and slickness,’ but the whole production seemed to have been put together by a ‘country town music master and performed by the local light opera company.’ The performers came out of it best of all. ‘Serio is about as convincing in the part of the young dolt in the city as the material allows. Goullet, as the girlfriend, sings and acts well in a Patti McGrath manner and Wells and Anderson make an engaging pair of scumbag Americans.’
If Craven’s notice wasn’t enough to sink the ship, then Leonard Radic’s in The Age (1 January 1991) certainly was. He wondered ‘how such a patently sub-standard piece of work ever found its way on to a major city stage.’ He went on to say, ‘The book and lyrics are knee-deep in clichés like “making it” and grabbing “the big chance” when it comes.’ He also thought the production had a provincial air about it, but acknowledged the chorus was ‘willing’ and the dance routines ‘snappy.’ He thought Serio was convincing in a role that was totally implausible, and that Gorman battled hard to make something of his part. He ended his notice by asking, ‘How did such an undernourished theatrical turkey ever make it to the post-Christmas table? How?’
The backers pulled their money and the show closed on Friday 4 January 1991. Its 5-night run lost $500,000. Reeves decided it was time to try his luck in London and moved his family there the following year.
Costume design by Terry Ryan for Favourite Son, 1990.
Normie Rowe as Cyrano, Cyrano in Concert, 1994.
With sponsorship from Allgas Energy Ltd, Queensland, Reeves’ version of Cyrano first saw the light of day as a ‘highlights’ album in 1992, released by EMI on cassette (HAD135) and CD (HA0135). The cast featured Normie Rowe, Penny Hay, Simon Gallaher, Kirri Adams, Neil Mason, Michael Leighton-Jones, Gregory Massingham, the Jones & Co. Chorus, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tommy Tycho. Reeves was responsible for music, lyrics and orchestrations, with assistance on the latter from Tycho and Arthur Greenslade.
Recorded at Channel 9’s Starsound Studios in Brisbane, the album contained almost 70 minutes of the show’s score. It was an ambitious work with touches of Reeves’ favorite composers, Bach, Bernstein and Gilbert and Sullivan.10
Cyrano premiered in a concert version, with the CD cast, at the Suncorp Plaza, South Bank, Brisbane, 7 November 1992. Barbara Hebden in The Sunday Mail (8 November 1992) claimed: ‘Reeves could have a winner on his hands.’ She found the music ‘melodious’ with a ‘strong rhythmic pulse’, and particularly praised the recycled ‘About You’.
Two years later, a fully-costumed concert version of Cyrano, with basically the same cast, was presented at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, from 11-15 October 1994, with Oscar-winning British actor Sir John Mills introducing and closing the performances. The show had undergone a major rewrite with Hal Shaper now being credited with book and lyrics.
Shaper, a South African, had major London credits writing lyrics for Jane Eyre (1961), Treasure Island (1973) and Great Expectations (1975), in which Mills had featured. Shaper also had success writing pop tunes, notably the Matt Monro hit ‘Softly as I Leave You’.
‘In embryonic form, Cyrano revealed easy-listening melodies sung engagingly,’ said Patricia Kelly (The Australian, 14 October 1994), adding that though Rowe was no Pavarotti, he had ‘plenty of heart and soul’. Peta Koch (Courier-Mail, 17 October 1994) was also laudatory of Rowe and singled out his songs ‘Journey to a Woman’s Heart’ and ‘Spirit Candles.’ She also liked Miranda Gehrke’s portrayal of Roxane, especially in ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore,’ and Kirri Adams as the Duenna with her show-stopper, ‘A Woman’s Work’. The use of Mills to introduce the show was criticized by reviewers as unnecessary, but there was no denying it provided a major publicity and promotional hook.
Several songs from the earlier version remained, albeit with different or revised and improved lyrics: ‘The Journey to a Woman’s Heart’. ‘What are You Talking About?’, ‘Roxane’, ‘Gascons Forever’, ‘In the King’s Service’ and ‘Drink a Little Wine with Me’, but the revision did not use ‘After You’. This new version was recorded and released on Castle (CDSGP 9800) in 1994. A third recording, reverting to the original 1992 version of the score, was issued in 2007 by English Gramophone (CD HA0136).
Reeves premiered his next show, Dorian, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Arts Theatre, London. It opened on 25 September 1997 to universal pans: ‘An utter disaster that will undoubtedly die a deserved death’ (Warren Seamans, The London Theatre Guide Online, September 1997), ‘A flat, fatuous piece of writing with no subtlety, depth or wit whatsoever’ (Sarah Hemming, Financial Times) and ‘It takes a certain ingenuity to turn a 19th century literary masterpiece into a musical Penny Dreadful. Mehmet Ergen’s production makes it look like a piece of cake’ (James Christopher, The Times).
But if The Times hated Dorian, it loved Reeves’ next effort, Becket—The Kiss of Peace, hailing it ‘A masterpiece’ (Robert Thicknesse). An oratorio about the murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry II’s direct or indirect involvement in it, the work was first performed on 21 October 2000 in Canterbury Cathedral, along with works by Aaron Copland (‘In The Beginning’) and Leonard Bernstein (‘Chichester Psalms’).
OzMade Musicals’ 2006 presentation of scenes from Reeves’ James and Maggie. Megan Holt as Maggie Moore and Jeremiah Tickell as J.C. Williamson.
Flyer for Grand Central, 2006.
There are two recordings of the score, a live version of the original cast on English Gramophone (EG 000421/2007), and a studio version, recorded prior to the world premiere, with the same cast except for Harvey Brink, who was replaced by James Kanagasooriam, on English Gramophone (EG 000157/1999).
The following year Reeves was commissioned by the Festival of Peace, Italy, to write another oratorio. The result, Planet Requiem, was performed as part of the 2002 Assisi Festival.
Four years later Reeves created Grand Central, a Latin love story set in New York in the 70s, about illegal immigrants and the stand-off between Cuba and the United States. The work was given a concert performance at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle, NSW, on 21 April 2006. Peter Wyllie Johnston said it was: ‘an original work with universal themes which Australians, accustomed to the challenges of immigration, can readily appreciate’.11
A ‘snapshot’ of two excerpts from James and Maggie, a musical about the tempestuous love affair between theatrical entrepreneur J.C. Williamson and his actress wife Maggie Moore, was included in Magnormos’ OzMade Musicals on 19 November 2006 at Theatreworks, St Kilda. The featured segments highlighted the first meeting of Williamson (Jeremiah Tickell) and Moore (Megan Holt) with the duet ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ and ‘I’ve Said Yes,’ where Moore tells her mother that she is going to marry Williamson. For James and Maggie, Reeves collaborated once more with Peter Yeldham, who created the book and lyrics. The musical was first drafted three years after the professional debut of Seven Little Australians. To date there has been no production of the full show.
Reeves continued to write musicals and in 2009 created Vox a musical from an original story about Americans returned from combat in Iraq, and in 2013 Hey! Hey!—(The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) a young people’s musical set to Mark Twain’s theatrical text. Both were published by DRM (David Reeves Publishing).
In 2019 Reeves compiled and arranged Stage Door Songbook—Songs from Australian Musicals which was published by Origin Theatrical. The songbook contained songs from nine musicals, including Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Grand Central, and Cyrano de Bergerac, plus Lola Montez, Matilda, The Venetian Twins, Paris, Ned Kelly and The Boy From Oz. It was a unique publication being the first time a music publisher had ever published a collection of songs from Australian musicals. Reeves also wrote a brief snapshot of the genre as an introduction.
Program for Aunty, Armidale School, 1982.
Lyricist Jim Graham.
Prior to Reeves’ position at TAS, he was an acclaimed organist with seven organ albums to his credit. He performed regularly for the ABC and at the Sydney Town Hall, including Messiah from 1962 until 1978.
Like Edmond Samuels with The Highwayman and Albert Arlen with The Sentimental Bloke, David Reeves believed in his product, was passionate about getting it produced, and made it happen. Throughout his career he has continued to secure corporate finance for his projects. One has to admire his determination. His canon of work is certainly eclectic: four adaptations of famous literary works, one comic strip, five originals, and two oratorios. He has had his failures, yet he has also had his successes.
He hit the jackpot first time out with Seven Little Australians, but nothing he’s written since has equaled its popularity. It’s a skilled adaptation of Ethel Turner’s classic book with a very pleasant score. When it premiered in 1988 it did sound old-fashioned, but it was good old-fashioned – melodic and jaunty, schmaltzy in places, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. Audiences felt for the characters. It had heart. It was engaging, funny, and a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. One can’t ask for more than that.
Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.
Images courtesy of Peter Pinne.
- Matt Mollett, ‘Against the odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
- Margot Date, ‘Beyond the cringe with a Mosman composer’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Northern Life, 24 May 1990, p. 79
- Peter Wyllie Johnston, The Development of the Australian Musical, 1900-2000, PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne, 2007
The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Sydney, NSW), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs