Rap, jazz and film noir combine in this new musical, directed by Jonathan Biggins at the Hayes
New and original Australian musicals (especially with original music) are rare. The musical theatre sector is dominated by replica revivals from the US and London. (In the 1950s, performer and choreographer Betty Pounder used to travel to New York and, in self-devised notation, mark down every moment onstage in popular Broadway musicals, so that they could be staged as exact replicas of the Broadway original – now we just have rights agreements and resident directors to do the job at home). These shows are great for producers: they are tried and tested properties that don’t require extensive and expensive workshops, tryouts, and trial and error to be stage ready, and they come with the cultural currency of being ‘direct from Broadway/The West End!’
Not so The Detective’s Handbook. This is a brand new Australian musical, and the second production developed through New Musicals Australia’s submission process to get a staging at the Hayes Theatre (the first was a jukebox musical built on the songs of The Whitlams). Olga Solar (music) and Ian Ferrington (book and lyrics) are in their twenties, and this is their first musical. They wrote the show for the Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble, through which it premiered in 2014. The result is refreshingly original.
Simply put: The Detective’s Handbook is Brooklyn Nine-Nine meets The Music Man. It’s a screwball patter-style musical that borrows heavily from the voluble and lyrically dense structure of rap and polyphonic spoken word to create a novel take on the noir genre.
Like any good parody, The Detective’s Handbook is built on the back of genre tropes. We open in 1950s Chicago, where two police officers have been murdered. It’s up to cynical hardboiled detective Frank Thompson (a wonderfully surly Justin Smith) and his brand-new partner, the bright-eyed rookie Jimmy Hartman (Rob Johnson, brimming with likeability) to solve the case. Will they dodge the allure of a series of femmes fatale while they gather evidence? What does a Polish delicatessen have to do with double homicide? Will Thompson be sober enough to crack the case? And will Hartman’s eager devotion to ‘The Detective’s Handbook,’ a manual chock-full of era-appropriate colloquialisms and helpful hints for case-solving, help or hurt the investigation?
Unlike the great parodies, The Detective’s Handbook doesn’t entirely rise above the level of cliché. But it’s a surprisingly – and pleasingly – confident debut from Ferrington and Solar. It might be Chicago in the 1950s but the show feels distinctly contemporary. It’s structured around a joke-a-minute formula that dominates contemporary single-camera sitcoms like Angie Tribeca and The Mindy Project. Ferrington takes every opportunity he can find for a punchline, and there’s no time to pause on a missed laugh or mourn it – the next one is coming right up.
What makes The Detective’s Handbook irresistible is its coupling of this comedic approach with an homage to classical musical theatre like The Music Man – which, in its time, was at the edge of innovation in the genre, with its proto-rap stylings (rock musicals subsequently stole the spotlight and took the industry in a very different direction – which is just now being corrected thanks to the raging success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton).
Within a jazz-soaked and noirish musical score, Solar and Ferrington have developed a signature song style for the show that’s more ‘Ya Got Trouble’ than ‘My Shot’ – a garrulous, lilting patter, with internal rhyme and ambitious syntax. It’s a musical that’s in love with language, peppered with puns and other wordplay, and it’s appealingly intelligent and indulgently silly.
Characters do occasionally switch the patter for full song; Hartman sings frequently, which highlights his innocence, and the dynamite Sheridan Harbridge, playing a host of women (all named Maria – all dames are named Maria), employs a fuller range of emotion by slipping between torch songs and the house style of rhythmic speech.
Jonathan Biggins (who directed a superb production of peerless sex-farce Noises Off at STC in 2014, but is best known for his work in the annual Wharf Revue) is at the helm of this premiere and while his comic instinct is generally sound, the production would still benefit from sharper comic and musical cues. It’s unfortunate that the biggest failures in this regard fall within the first several minutes of the show. The opening number is flat – it’s not really until the detectives hit the murder scene a few songs in that the show really starts to take off.
This flatness has a knock-on effect; there are a couple of crucial character-building songs at the beginning – one which sets up an important relationship at the police station, and one which humanises the gruff detective Thompson. If they fell into the show a little later, they would help the audience better connect with the characters and care about their problems. But following a limp beginning, and preceding any discernible action, they wind up feeling unnecessary and un-earned.
The show’s keen sense of rhythm is smartly complemented by Christopher Horsey’s tap-heavy choreography. A scene where his Officer Hammett and Lara Mulcahy’s Officer Spade set paperwork to tap is just delightful, and so is Hammett’s dance break with a broom. Later, the tap solos start to feel a little indulgent – possibly because they’re not quite integrated into the scenes or scene transitions where they take place. A more smooth integration of dance and action would help these moments feel more like enjoyable flourishes than superfluous ones.
James Browne’s playful set evokes noir shadows and silhouettes with a whimsical edge – all the ominous shadows are a trick of drawn-on outlines – and Sian James-Holland follows suit with a lighting palette that leans dark and red (though a darkroom gag falls a little flat when the lighting fails to clarify after the initial punchline).
The Detective’s Handbook is dazzlingly ambitious – and it isn’t perfect yet. But no musical starts out perfect: The Music Man went through forty drafts and cut 22 songs over several years of development – the idea came to writer Meredith Wilson in 1948 and the show didn’t debut until 1957.
It has always been difficult for new Australian musicals to succeed in a landscape that trades on replica revivals from the US and London, and in which arts funding for post-premiere development and subsequent productions is difficult to come by. This show deserves the opportunity for a longer life and the tweaking that re-staging allows.
But in the meantime, The Detective’s Handbook is enjoyable already; like a jolt of caffeine for the industry, it’s bursting with new ideas, and constitutes an exciting (and verbose) declaration of musical theatre for 2016 Australia.