‘Oh God, no chance’ … but then a Tim Finn trio beat MGM to the punch

SCENE 1. A rainy day. The Melbourne Theatre Company boardroom. Talking to a journalist at one end of a very long table are three friends from New Zealand. Tim Finn is a famous singer and songwriter. Simon Phillips is a renowned theatre director. Carolyn Burns, his wife, is an acclaimed writer and dramaturg. On the table is a slim Faber edition of a short story by British Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro: Come Rain or Come Shine.

Carolyn [nodding sideways at Tim]: You know, he doesn’t remember, but I was once in one of his videos.

Tim [mystified]: Were you pedalling a bike?

Carolyn: No, I was sitting like an old lady entranced with you and I turned into a young girl.

Simon: See? He was writing music theatre even then.

Tim: But you can’t remember the song?

Carolyn: No. I just remember the money. I got 50 bucks.

Simon: Tim’s always taken care of the little people.

Carolyn: I was a science reporter then and the actor they’d booked didn’t show up. But I loved Split Enz.

Simon: Everyone did.

Tim: I think we’d have enjoyed flatting together.

They’re not exactly the three flatmates in Ishiguro’s short story: old university buddies woven together by love, friendship and music over decades of mixed fortunes. But when they concocted a plan to adapt the story into a three-handed stage musical, it seemed like a good idea to play up the parallels.

We are, kind of, Ray, Charlie and Emily, says Finn.

That’s what we wrote to Kazuo, Phillips says with a grin.

We were all at Auckland University in the 1970s, but not all at the same time, Burns explains.

The playful deception may have broken the ice, but it was their script that sealed the deal. Ishiguro liked their musical adaptation so much that the MTC production managed to trump one of the most powerful studios in Hollywood to open in Melbourne this month, with Ray, Charlie and Emily played by Angus Grant, Chris Ryan and Gillian Cosgriff.

When we heard MGM had bought the developing rights to those five stories, says Finn – Come Rain or Come Shine is part of a five-story collection called Nocturnes – we went ‘Oh, God, no chance’.

But with help from above, the studio’s potential development property proved to be negotiable. Kazuo himself, he wanted it to happen, says Finn. He’s been amazing. We had the best email you could ever hope for … He just loved our script, our second draft. And that gave us all a huge rush. Because he’s my favourite author.

It’s fair to assume that Finn’s reputation preceded him as far as Ishiguro was concerned. The multi-prize-winning Japanese-born author (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) dabbles in songwriting himself, albeit more in the American songbook tradition that binds Ray and Emily, the two platonic characters in the Come Rain or Come Shine triangle.

Phillips and Burns doubtless mentioned Priscilla Queen of the Desert, High Society and their many other successful stage adaptations. As a trio, the New Zealanders have form at the box office, too. Their Ladies in Black was adapted from Madeleine St John’s novel to win Best New Australian Work at the 2016 Helpmann Awards.

If there is a pattern, says Finn, it’s that I rush out ahead and write a whole lot of songs, just combing through the book. They’re everywhere, and I’m just bing, bing, bing, bing. I’ll write about 10 or 12 songs or something, and then I’ll send them to these guys. And meanwhile, they’re writing the script.

Prolific as he is, the former Split Enz frontman doesn’t mind when Burns opts to strip some of his songs for dialogue, because what I’ve gained in the meantime is a whole lot of good tunes.

The swathe of 19 brand-new Finn and Phillips originals in Come Rain Or Come Shine are mixed with excerpts from some of the old standards Ishiguro mentions by name – Sarah Vaughn, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee – as the glue that holds Ray and Emily together in a wobbly triangle with her Broadway-loathing husband, Charlie.

It’s an unusually absurd premise from an author better known for more moderately paced, emotionally constrained scenarios. With the introduction of a dog named Hendrix and an escalating series of unhinged phone conversations, this one rises to slapstick heights in a story about the boundless elasticity of friendship.

It’s a bit different, says Phillips. I’ve given them childhood stories, which Kazuo didn’t mind at all, just so you get to know why [Ray and Emily] love the great American songbook; what it is that brought these odd people together.

This being musical theatre, they’ve played up the unrequited love too, though the three creators are acutely aware that this story is not your typical musical fodder.

It’ll be interesting, says Burns, to see how an audience goes with it because of the almost farcical nature or the story . . .

Also, says Phillips, it has all those tropes of a short story, [including] that it ends in an enigmatic way … It doesn’t come to a classic musical kind of denouement. It has its climax, but …

I wanted the posters to just be Hendrix the dog, Finn shrugs.

For the songwriter, the musical theatre stage has been a revelation. He’s been aware of the drama in his songs since the pop chart highs of I See Red and Dirty Creatures, and in a pop-rock context, Split Enz were pioneers of theatrical presentation almost 50 years ago.

There’s a song in Ladies in Black called He’s a Bastard and probably two weeks before we opened I was saying, I think we should drop it. It’s not funny, it’s not working, Finn says. Simon persuaded me to leave it in. The first preview, we’re sitting there, and a ripple of laughter that ran through the crowd was just such a pleasurable feeling. For me, I thought, ‘This is all I want to do for the rest of my life’.

To be able to make an audience laugh is incredible. You don’t know that every song here is going to do that, of course; it may be only two or three. I don’t even know which ones. But I know that there’ll be those ripples of laughter and it’s such a joy.

Journalist: So Carolyn, do you have a secret musical bond with Tim that Simon doesn’t share?

Carolyn: Are you talking about Stuff and Nonsense?

Tim: She wants me to play it at her funeral.

Carolyn: He’s promised to do it if he’s alive.

Simon: This is a jolly conversation!

Tim: How did we get into this?

Come Rain or Come Shine is at the Southbank Theatre until July 23.

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