What the hell is Edges?

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An exploration into Rebel Theatre’s next show

There is a wonderful dichotomy when putting on a show that is unknown to the majority of people. For the few musical theatre buffs out there, Pasek and Paul may seem like household names but for the rest of us, our musical theatre vocabulary doesn’t extend beyond the words Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cats. Putting on a show like Edges is an awesomely scary venture, because it allows audiences to see something new, something challenging, something where they will leave the theatre, much like the end of a Game of Thrones episode, with more questions than answers. Bringing a new show to Auckland can also be a double edged sword, providing a chance to present new work but potentially at the cost of audiences not knowing what to expect or whether to come. For this reason, we thought we’d give you an inside look at our upcoming show in July, Edges.

Rebel-EDGES-CastA bit of background

Edges is a musical written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul in 2005 when they were 19-year-old undergraduates in musical theatre at the University of Michigan. They decided to write their own show after being unhappy with the roles they were assigned in musical theatre productions at the school.

Since then, Pasek and Paul have been Tony nominees – some of their works include A Christmas StoryJames and the Giant Peach, Dogfight (which has was seen on the Auckland stage in a brilliant award-winning production by Auckland Music Theatre in 2015) and more recently Dear Evan Hansen. They’ve had their original songs featured on NBC‘s Smash and were winners of the 2007 Jonathan Larson Award, named after the late Rent composer. Not bad for ten years’ work!


Edges is a song cycle about coming of age, growth and self-discovery. The songs deal with different issues and the ‘edges’ faced by many of us today.

Director Jason Te Mete says “Edges is about those points in your life when you’re on the brink of something – whether it’s ending a relationship, knowing that you need to change something, letting yourself love or finding self-acceptance. It’s told through a series of vignettes – self-contained stories told through song in a way that makes stories accessible to everyone. Each one of us will take something different from it, so everyone should leave from it having connected it.”

Our Edges: Why it’s relevant to us

Edges has been performed all around the globe and we’re pretty damn excited to be bringing it to New Zealand. We’ve been talking directly with Pasek and Paul about making this story relevant to the New Zealand audience, which has led to them graciously allowing us to adapt the work to make it relevant for Kiwis – a pretty unique opportunity!

It’s about storytelling and speaking to real situations that people face every day. The last few years have seen several tragic deaths and situations where young people have felt on the brink of something or at a point of despair and it’s with this context that it feels even more important to be putting on Edges. In the words of the show, “Let go of feeling you are anything but beautiful. Let go of thinking you can’t do this on your own. Let go of being scared that you might not be good enough. Let go of saying you were meant to be alone.” These are just some of the edges we face. They are universal. They are shared experiences and we need to be supporting one another through them.

What you need to do

Can I tell you much more about the show? Not really. Go online and Google or YouTube it. Hell, even Bing or Yahoo it (if you are fond of terrible search engines). Listen to some of the songs online. And book a ticket. Seriously, book a ticket. It’s a beautifully moving show that you won’t want to miss.

The New Zealand Premiere of Edges opens on 7 July and runs until 16 July. Tickets are available at iTicket. Edges stars a stellar cast of Leanne Howell, Jonathan Martin, Awhimai Fraser and Tainui Kuru.


Why should we be telling Kiwi stories?

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12842468_10153492902108947_1628372292_oIn Conversation with Jason Te Mete

This week we talk to actor, musician and director, Jason Te Mete. Jason received outstanding reviews for his performance as Mitch Albom in the NZ premiere of ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ (Newmarket Stage Company), and his recent performance and musical direction of the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival season of ‘K’Rd Strip’, Okareka Dance Company’s highly acclaimed devised work received 5-star international reviews.

Kit: As both a director and an actor working in New Zealand, what do you think are the challenges that face young creatives in regards to a career in Musical Theatre?

Jason: If we are talking about producing musical theatre in the traditional American style (from Rogers & Hammerstein to Sondheim, and the more contemporary stuff from Schwartz to Robert Brown etc), the biggest challenge is the cost. A published musical is much more expensive to produce than a play – the performance rights are more expensive, you need to employ a musical director and a choreographer, you have to factor in musicians, and there are sound requirements and subsequent costs amongst other things.

From a performer perspective, the biggest challenge is the lack of professional opportunities in NZ to gain experience through performance. I mean you can do hundreds of lessons, workshops and little concerts here and there, but it is the journey through a whole work that is the most satisfying and effective way to develop and hone your craft as an actor, singer and dancer.

Kit: So are there opportunities in New Zealand at all? What channels are available to people out there?

Jason: There are two main channels. There’s the amateur scene that in many ways is our biggest musical theatre industry; that’s where you get the majority of opportunities. However, although I consider many of these productions to be priceless opportunities for growth and development, as a professional pursuing musical theatre as a career it can be difficult to commit to the often-lengthy rehearsal commitments without a pay check.

Professional companies Auckland Theatre Company and The Court Theatre in Christchurch offer one musical a year (usually). There are very few other professional opportunities.

Kit: Would you say there is less pressure in the amateur world?

Jason: Maybe. Perhaps not ‘less’ pressure, but it is a different pressure for actors. An amateur production is exactly that – amateur – a cast and crew who do it for love, have a huge amount of talent and nerve, and a much longer rehearsal period (usually after hours). Therefore, their investment in the show is to do their best to make it successful, have a great time, and then go back to their day job when it is all over. If the show bombs, of course it is a shame, but actors move on and get on with their lives – and will audition and/or volunteer to be part of the next one and see how that goes.

As a professional, your paycheck and your career is on the line. A production can make or break a performer, particularly if it flops. Even if the individual performance is really good, people can be like “oh you were part of that show, we heard all about it. You can’t have been that good if it flopped.”

From a producer perspective, the pressure is simply the same:

Good show = good profit = success.

Average show = break even = lessons learned.

Crap show = debt = fail.

Kit: So, do you think we should or shouldn’t be telling American or foreign stories?

Jason: I don’t think it matters where the story is from, I just think that we need to be creating or producing musical theatre that is relevant to us here in NZ, and communicating those stories in a way that is familiar to us.

Kit: Are there kiwi Musical Theatre stories? What do they look like?

Jason: Yes! Heaps! We just need writers to write them. But of course that is not as easy as it sounds! The workshop process of any new work takes years and years, and there is definitely a need for more programmes designed to assist writers’ getting their stories onto the stage.

Kit: What’s something you’d like to see turned into a musical?

Jason: I’d love to see the Prince of Egypt turned into a stage musical – it has songs in the film, but I’m not sure how anyone would build the pyramids and part the Red Sea on stage very easily though haha. Who knows…

But there’s a lot of great stuff already out there. The style of musical theatre is changing a lot too. In a lot of the more modern shows, the songs aren’t as catchy as individual songs but in the context of the whole show they work incredibly well. Whereas in big classics, like Oklahoma, everyone knows, for example… (Sung) “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow”.

Oklahoma was one of the first shows to start segueing the dialogue into music (scene to song). That was a big stepping-stone in musical theatre, trying to create a seamless transition, not scene scene scene scene and now we’re going to sing a song just because it’s pretty.

Kit: I wanted to ask you about what is being done in the current market to create new works. We’ve seen the success of the That Bloody Woman by Luke Di Somma, which has now been picked up by Auckland Theatre Company. Tell us a little bit about that and other material being created.

That Bloody Woman is a great example. Luke studied musical theatre writing/composing in New York at Tisch School of the Arts. That Bloody Woman is a collaboration between him and Gregory Cooper who wrote the book, the great story of NZ’s very own Kate Sheppard and her influence on the political world. It’s a great place to start, you’ve already got a solid character and a musical version (Luke’s forte) seems only natural! I haven’t seen the most recent version but I was Musical Director and adviser on the first two workshops. Every version has been considerably different – keep and master the bits that work, ditch the bits that didn’t work. Musicals take years before making it to Broadway (if they’re really really good), that’s the reality. A little bit of the kiwi mentality is, if it doesn’t work the first time, scrap it.

Kit: It sounds a little bit like the ‘too hard basket’. So are there any opportunities to learn about musical theatre writing here in New Zealand?

Jason: I don’t know what tertiary programmes are taught around NZ, but in reality our industry is quite niche and for anything severe to happen with regards to musical theatre, it is a much bigger picture. There needs to be a cultural shift in the way the New Zealand public view musical theatre – they should want to go because of the story, and connect to the music, not go because a Shortland Street star is the headliner. That’s not an easy fix and it will take a long time.

When I was in London last year, I would wander around Leicester Square wanting to get tickets to something, and although there were at least 20 big shows on, in 2000+ seated venues, they were all sold out every night (or over £100). So there is a huge market for musical theatre over there.

We (in Auckland) don’t have that; we have the occasional musical at the Civic for a one/two-week season, and a handful of smaller chamber works at Q or the Basement.

Kit: Why is there such a difference in our industry, and what do we need to do?

Jason: I think we’re doing it the wrong way. Instead of trying to force people to like musical theatre as we know it and as it is traditionally expected (whether you like it or loathe it), we should be creating our own stories in a way that resonates with kiwi’s, which a lot of people are starting to do. It’s about exploring different ways and styles – shows like Daffodils and K’Rd Strip have been extremely successful. They’re new, kiwi stories with well-known kiwi pop-songs lyrically entwined into the story so in a way it is musical theatre; it’s just not the format that we know.

Kit: Oh absolutely. There definitely is a move towards writing musical theatre & cabaret that uses existing music/pop songs.

Jason: Yeah, but I think there is definitely a whole industry of writing that is untapped. I think it goes back to what I said before, if it’s got potential, keep working at it and only ditch it if you have truly had a good go at it. Which you haven’t.

Kit: Do you think we can retell stories in our own narrative? Can we adapt foreign stories to be relevant?

Jason: I think so, as long as the integrity and the purpose of what the writer has intended is preserved. There are a lot of published American and English musicals that don’t require a particular ‘setting’ – nor do they have any references in the text or lyric to any certain place. So why not set it here, and use our own voices, and our own setting? I’ve had a recent conversation with a couple of musical theatre professionals from the US who’s opinion was “if you are going to make that story more relevant to your audience, of course it’s going to become a more successful work for the writer.”

I mean ultimately connecting with the audience is what theatre is all about. Have a reason for your story. Want to say something. Need to say something. Make people think. You could make something that is pretty, gorgeous, sounds good and everything is nice on the surface. Audiences will go away thinking just that. My mantra is if you don’t make someone walk out of the theatre thinking “holy shit I need to make some major changes in my life, and I should probably call my mother tomorrow”, then you haven’t done your job properly.

Musical Theatre – A dying medium?

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It was a dreary afternoon, as I sat in café opposite my friend pondering the statement that had just been presented to me. “Kit, you like musical theatre right? You’ll be going to Guys & Dolls then.” I remembered being both offended and confused by the assumption that because I liked musical theatre, I would be interested in going to a show I don’t particularly enjoy, let alone a show whose message is particularly irrelevant in the 21st century. Yes, the show has a couple of catchy and impressive numbers, but on the whole it tends to drag, as if heeding its own advice to sit down and stop rocking the boat. And it’s with this in mind that I look at whether musical theatre is really a dying medium like some people seem to think.

Divorced from reality

There is no doubt that musical theatre stands as a bizarre anomaly against the backdrop of the wider Auckland theatre scene, tending to appeal to those aged between 45-65 with plenty of disposable income. I am, of course, being slightly facetious in suggesting that only Remuera based residents enjoy musical theatre. However, it is evident that the genre of musical theatre finds itself in a silo, separated from the vibrant hub of daring arts and culture that Auckland has become. Over the last few years we’ve see an ever-growing multitude of theatre geared towards pushing the boundaries and challenging audiences. This attitude manifests itself most visibly in The Basement, a space which allows young creatives to produce, direct and perform without the traditional limitations of fully professional theatre. It is here that we can see the next generation of professional performers experimenting with new works and taking risks, and it is here, it seems, that musical theatre has taken a long-term holiday.

A three tiered system

It’s been my observation, over several years, that within the world of Auckland theatre, we are likely to see shows falling into three categories of performance. Firstly, there are those shows that exist in the realm of the amateur world. These are possible due to the die-hard theatre fans who give up their spare time to do what they love. At the centre of these theatrical performances is the community element; people go, not to see great art, but to support friends and family. Needless to say, I am not purporting that amateur theatre is not capable of producing great art.

Then there is the beautiful, some might say, unattainable world of paid theatre, filled with Shorty Street stars and occasional theatre legend. It’s the dream of every young Unitec graduate to book a show that means they can stop dressing up as a reindeer to earn a buck over the Christmas break.

The final space is those basement performers, actors who work part-time in hospo slaving away so that they can produce their art, under the guise of a profit share. Profit share is an interesting term, often bringing with it the sad reality that no one will be getting paid. Regardless, this level of theatre sees trained and non-trained actors taking the stage to create work that is daring and of a quality that rivals the professional world, which can be expected considering most of the actors doing this are professionally trained. And it is here where musical theatre fails.

Aside from Auckland Theatre Company’s one big end of year number and a few other notable exceptions, there is very little quality professional and semi-professional musical theatre in Auckland – yet that is not to say that there isn’t the need or audience.

Why do we need good musical theatre?

The thing is, Auckland needs and deserves good musical theatre. There are only so many reproductions of Jesus Christ Superstar or gods forbid, Joseph that one can see. It’s not to say that these aren’t decent musicals, but Lloyd Webber hardly provides a challenge, a fresh narrative or compelling storytelling for viewers who are seeing the show for the 10th time. Not only this, but people aren’t producing quality Kiwi-written musical theatre (although that’s a conversation for another week, namely, next week). The genius of putting on established American and British shows is that people will pay good money to see them. They are a financial cash cow; making a guaranteed killing at the Box Office. So it is understandable why amateur & even professional companies are taking the safe options of shows like Chicago (although the reinvention of traditional shows by companies like ATC does give them some modernity and make them more impressive). But isn’t it time we started taking a few risks and actually presenting audiences with the kind of musical theatre they deserve? Shouldn’t we be challenging an audience to think, to use a medium rarely considered by the New Zealand audience as a vehicle for good storytelling?

There is hope

It’s not to say that this problem goes unnoticed by those in the theatre world. More and more we are seeing organisations taking risks with new works. More recently, companies have presented shows that are an example of traditional options being tempered with the less conventional, more daring approach. So there is an audience that is looking for contemporary musical theatre as a form of storytelling. The next question is, whether there is Kiwi-written musical theatre capable of doing that?

If you are someone tired with the status quo, interested in standing up and rocking the boat, then join us in what looks to be an exciting new year.

Next Time: We Can’t Keep Just Telling American Stories – A Case for Kiwi Musical Theatre