Now a superstar film director, Baz Luhrmann got his big international break in the ‘80s with his original stage version of ‘Strictly Ballroom’, which he turned into a hit film in 1992 and an Australian stage musical in 2014. It's now made its West End debut in a version directed by Drew McOnie.
You directed ‘Strictly Ballroom the Musical’ in Australia back in 2014. Why have you handed it over to someone else for the West End?
‘When I tried to do “Strictly Ballroom” in Sydney, I thought: This will be great, I’ll go back to Australia, I’ll do my old show. But halfway through it, I just went: Am I the right guy to be doing this? Why am I trying to be me 30 years ago? This is Drew [McOnie]’s show and I back his vision. It’s a bit like George Lucas with “Stars Wars” – you just have to let it go.’
What do you think of this version?
‘I saw it for the first time last night and was jetlagged. I was so worried that I was going to nod off. But somebody bought me a gin and tonic the size of a fishbowl and I just had a fantastic time. All the clever visual stuff in it was their idea; it was great to just be the audience.’
The weirdest story I read about the pre-film, non-musical stage version of ‘Strictly’ is that you took it to a theatre competition in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia in 1986…
‘At the time it was a lot more Brechtian; there were bits where we’d all turn to the audience and shout “FUCK THE FEDERATION.” When we left the stage they were all cheering “Bravo, Australia” – except the Russians, who were all sitting there stone-faced. Everyone could read the metaphor of triumph over oppression.’
Did you know the film would be a hit?
‘When we first screened it in Australia we were in one cinema with one guy in it and afterwards he phoned and said “That was the worst film I’ve ever seen in my bloody life.” So anyway, I’m going up the coast to lick my wounds and I’m in a caravan park where somebody had died the night before by being hit on the head by a coconut, so I’ve got a bucket on my head, it’s raining, and somebody says “Baz, there’s a man on the phone for you with a funny accent.” He said “ ’Ello, I am from the Cannes Film Festival. I would like to offer you a screening.” The rest is kind of history.’
The musical feels a lot more ’80s than the film does. Why is that?
‘I think I can admit it now, but I always made films for the future, not for now. We don’t put technology in that dates it. “Romeo and Juliet”, for example I was thinking about having rollerblades but Leo [DiCaprio] said, “that will date it” and he was right. So in “Strictly Ballroom” you never see any technology that dates it to the ’80s. But because ballroom dancing has become kind of cool now, they’ve specifically set the musical in the ’80s to relate it to a period. It’s important that we know it’s uncool!’