In its short life, Devoted: A New Musical has been through a lot. Originally conceived to show at Midsumma Festival, the Grease-inspired musical sold out two shows as Grease: A Tragedy. However, the ambitious project ran into a legal hurdle when they were sent a ‘cease and desist’ order from Origin Theatricals and the estate which controls the interests of Grease. It has now been rebranded as Devoted: A New Musical. In it, the love story of Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson is reimagined as a contemporary, queer satire: Dan is in love with both his girlfriend Sally and his best friend, Nick.
When I show up to their rehearsal at a church hall in Parkville on a crisp summer evening, the cast and creative team of Devoted are chatting, eating crackers and dip, stretching, banging away on the piano and exchanging stories about flatmates. Later on, I learn that they’re not really meant to be there: the hall is being handed over from the Uniting Church to another party, but neither of them actually “own” the space at this precise moment in time.
It’s a nice space, too. There’s an old piano (from Dresden, circa 1900), a small stage, and beautiful arched windows. The well-trodden floorboards are getting a workout from the small cast, who stretch, jog around and occasionally (and suddenly) do handstands against the wall. I get a chance to speak to director Justin Nott, writer Matilda Dixon-Smith, and two of the leads, Zak Pidd (who plays Dan) and Hannah Denison (who plays Sally).
Zak seems effortlessly cool, much like his counterpart in Grease. But think more Melbourne – he’s in a band, and is today wearing a bright orange beanie while a bandanna falls from his back pocket. This is his first musical – but he’s always performed. “It’s just in my blood, I guess.”
Hannah is quieter, gentler, with bright eyes and an impressive background in theatre, both on stage and behind it. She’s done a “little bit of training,” she says, which translates to eight years of performing with the Children’s Performing Company of Australia, amateur performances at uni and stage management and event management. “A bit of everything,” she says modestly.
The 1978 musical film was based on Warren Casey and Jim Jacob’s 1971 musical, and starred a gelled-up John Travolta and a sweet, blonde Olivia Newton-John.
“Personally I didn’t see it – we were sort of told to stay away from it,” Hannah says. “I mean, I love it, but it’s so cheesy, and we wanted this to be really true to the people that were involved to it. We didn’t want skate over the surface but rather work out all of these really massive issues that they have. But I think the essence of Sandy is still there – certainly that naivety, thinking that things will be okay in the end. “
Zac loves Grease, although he admits that, “just between you and me,” he’s not a big fan of musicals in general. “I’ve known every line of that movie for most of my life. That’s why I said yes to it in the first place. Originally I wanted to be Rizzo, because I like her. I like what it says, for the most part. There are some odd bits in there…But it’s still a nice, sex-positive movie. For this, I watched a bit, but as the process went along, the film and our show kind of separated, so I stopped paying attention to Grease, because it was kind of distracting me from my character, and stopping it from growing naturally, forcing it back into a place where it didn’t necessarily need to be.”
Similarly, the creative team (save composer Lucy O’Brien) only watched the film once. Justin recalls a previous “crazy idea” he had for a Grease reimagining: “Literally every character in it was gay, except Sandy. And the principal and secretary were going to be drag queens and it was…like actually crazy.” They’ve pared back on that idea for Devoted: “we whittled that down to a much finer idea, and a finer book.” And for those hoping for a Grease remake in Devoted: while the themes are the same, and some events are similar, Matilda says that they’ve had to forget about the movie, “or it would have been too similar.”
ON THE LOVE STORY
Conceptually, Devoted started as a 70s punk musical, before being reworked into what it is now over a period of about three weeks. In crafting it to fit contemporary Melbourne, the creative team found the themes in Grease are “pretty universal…wanting everything, having no regrets…it turns out really well for them, but we thought: what would happen if it didn’t turn out so well?” Matilda asks.
The story is at heart a tragedy, and everyone involved assures me there is a death. “There is some death,” Matilda clarifies, with Justin providing further background: “With my original outline I did, it was very Shakespearean. Everyone died.”
In any case, while the love story is about Dan, Sally and Nick, most of the people involved root for Dan and Nick. Even Hannah agrees: “I don’t think of my character as a romantic lead in any sense. It’s more the two guys.” The way she plays Sally isn’t your typical rom-com lead either. “You think of a romantic lead and you think of things ending happiy ever after. Even in Romeo and Juliet, when they were together it was great. Whereas in this…it’s not a happy relationship at all.”
As to Dan’s sexual orientation, both Zak and Matilda have similar ideas. “Something I get from the point of the show is that a lot of the time it’s not so set in stone. He’s not sure. But I feel like it’s just that element of basic human attraction that isn’t really grouped into anything gay, straight or bisexual.” There aren’t many leading men that swing both ways, but Zak finds it fairly easy to identify with: “I feel like that element of the character is something that was quite easy to access because that’s how I feel about myself, and something I hold quite close. I agree with that message a lot. I think it’s that element of exploration, which is good but not spoken about that much.”
Matilda agrees: “In my experience, attraction does go beyond labels. He’s just in love with both of them. If that’s him being bisexual, then that’s what he is. I just saw it as he was in love with Sally and he was in love with Nick too. It is real, there are just two relationships that are both real and both equal as well. And Nick has a flirtation with Raff, and I don’t think that’s false either. It’s just different.”
ON PERFORMING AT LIVE MUSIC VENUES
In rehearsal, the cast roam around the floor freely – the stage frequently goes unused in favour of the more audience-accessible space on the ground. Every so often, one performer or the other lets loose an over-dramatic line or other, and the rest laugh. It’s clear from their energy they have excellent on-stage chemistry. Additionally, the use of the floor rather than the stage is purposeful: rather than going for traditional theatre spaces, Devoted has been staged at The Tote, the Workers Club and now the Northcote Social Club. The choice seems unusual at first look, but has been received warmly.
“That’s classic me,” Justin admits. “Originally I wanted to do it on the beach. And I wanted the tragedy to be the three leads committing suicide by driving into the ocean. But I was overruled! And probably for good reason. When the contemporary thing came up…the Tote was one of the venues we had in mind, and the party idea came from Matilda.” But why three different venues for three different shows? Devoted was originally a one-night only performance, so when they tried to extend, “The Tote couldn’t accommodate us. So we thought: a pub crawl is a cool idea, it matches the vibe of the show, and I think it gives it a bit of community spirit.”
“We set ourselves a bit of a challenge – we’d have to bump the show in and bump the show out every time, and Justin has to restage the show every single time, and Rob has to redo his designs, and the sound designers and the light designers have to redo everything,” Matilda adds. “So that aspect of it was a nice challenge. It has actually been pretty exciting. It could’ve easily been a total disaster, but it’s worked out really well.”
The performers agree: “It was ambitious in a good way, and I hope that we pulled it off, but it was certainly hard getting the staging right, and making sure people could see what was going on,” Hannah says, before adding thoughtfully: “It would be very strange to have all of us on the stage and have all the audience in seats in a theatre auditorium. It’s too much distance. I sort of like everyone being so intimate.”
On a more philosophical note, Zak says: “It’s been very nice just kind of proving the idea you can do anything anywhere, especially something like musical theatre, which has very sort of specific rules. It’s just been really cool kind of fucking it up – oh sorry – blowing it off and just doing it at a pub. It’s just really satisfying, because I like theatre that’s outdoors, theatre that’s on buses…and it’s been nice changing the environment around it, because it’s changed how we perform it and how we sing it. It’s been nice having a stage but also getting rid of that fourth wall.
ON THE CEASE AND DESIST
We chat briefly about the cease and desist notice the team received from Original Theatricals and the estate controlling Grease’s interests. A bit of legal speak ensues – in essence, they believe they have the right to use the Grease name, but for the sake of this production, they changed the title and also the character names. “For me, it was a dual process of striking a compromise with the lawyers in America, and also trying to take a bit more ownership of the work,” Matilda explains. “I feel like we own it a bit more now we got to rename the characters and got to name the show. It was kind of sad but also kind of fun and interesting.
ON THE FUTURE
The creative team have discussed further development, “especially further down the track,” Justin says. “When we came to deciding to do the pub crawl, it was: do we just do one show and put it to rest for a while? But we loved it too much to do that, so we’re doing three shows and then leaving it for a while. We don’t know when that’ll happen. At this stage I can’t imagine it in a theatre.”
Matilda is in agreement: “We would like to redevelop it. To me and to Lucy and to Justin, it’s a very special show. It would be completely bizarre thinking about it in a different context with a new cast. There’d be a radical difference – we talked about things like making it a lot smaller, or making it a more immersive theatre experience. But we’ve definitely talked about it, and we’re not done with it quite yet.