The legendary first novel of an Australian literary giant is being made into a musical

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Football, politics and a musical version of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career head up the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2024 program, alongside four Pulitzer Prize-winning plays.

Twelve plays have been announced for 2024, seven of which are Australian stories.

Anne-Louise Sarks and Sheridan Harbridge are teaming up for Melbourne Theatre Company’s My Brilliant Career, a musical based on the novel by Miles Franklin.Credit: Chris Hopkins

“I came on board with a mission to bring Australian stories to the stage, and to really get the wider public excited about live theatre,” says artistic director and co-CEO Anne-Louise Sarks. “In 2023, we’ve proven that there’s a hunger for stories about us. That’s really galvanised us.”

The MTC’s new adaptation of My Brilliant Career, co-written by Sheridan Harbridge and Dean Bryant with music by Mathew Frank, reimagines the novel as a “folk-rock musical”. It’s been adapted multiple times, most notably as a film in 1979, directed by Gilliam Armstrong and starring Judy Davis and Sam Neill.

“In the film version, Sybylla is a resilient warrior, beautiful and smart,” says Harbridge, who in the 2023 season performed one-woman show Prima Facie to great critical acclaim. “What we value now is embracing chaos, joy, and raucousness. She’s chaos in the book. A mess, a pest and a flawed heroine. She’s got this constant rage exploding out of her, this impassioned, self-righteous chaos. And that’s something a musical can express really well.”

Sarks adds: “Music is a beautiful way to get inside that emotion and wildness. It’s a really fun piece. It’s a musical I wish I’d seen as a young girl.”

Melbourne Theatre Company will have 12 shows in their 2024 season. Clockwise from top left: English, 37, Golden Blood, SeventeenCredit: Jo Duck

Coming of age is a recurring theme in the program. Matthew Whittet’s Seventeen will launch the year on January 15 with a cast of senior actors portraying teenagers, led by Pamela Rabe.

Elsewhere, 37 dives into the AFL’s relationship with First Nations peoples. Written by Nathan Maynard and directed by Issac Drandic, the play takes its name from Adam Goodes’ jersey number.

Sarks says the play captures the physicality of the game. “There are a lot of similarities between theatre and football,” she says. “It’s all about story and drama. Ten men on stage, and their hunger for victory, felt like something that would be infectious for an audience.

“The Matildas recently swept people up in their vision of their game, and AFLW is the same. It’s different when you start to see yourself in the game, or on the stage.”

More than half of audiences for the aged-care musical Bloom had never been to a Melbourne Theatre Company show before.Credit: Pia Johnson/MTC

Australian stories have been a hit for the MTC in 2023. The percentage of the audience who are first-time MTC attendees is at its highest point since 2018. Fifty-two per cent of audiences for the aged care musical, Bloom, had never been to an MTC show before.

There are also four American plays, all Pulitzer winners, on the program. Straight from its off-Broadway debut and Pulitzer triumph in 2022, Sanaz Toossi’s English, about four Iranian adults preparing for their English exam in a school near Tehran, is an Australian premiere. Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (Bert LaBonté’s first time directing a production for the company) and Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living are also making their MTC debut.

Tennessee William’s perennial classic, A Streetcar Named Desire, will get a new lease of life.

“It’s set in a post-war society that’s still trying to rebuild, during a seismic redefinition of gender and social expectation,” says Sarks. “That struggle has real resonance to me.”

Sarks says much of the program is about how we define ourselves through stories. “We can experience these stories together, and leave the theatre and wrestle with these ideas,” she says.

My Brilliant Career has form as a story by which we measure our national identity.

Miles Franklin (born Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin) is one of Australian literature’s great figures.

Miles Franklin in 1957.Credit:

Her debut novel, My Brilliant Career, (1901) centres on Sybylla, an indomitable teenage girl living in staid rural Australia. The novel was released just one year before women were granted the right to vote in Australia.

Today, two of Australia’s premier literary awards – the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize – are named after her.

In later years, Franklin’s politics drifted to the right, and her diaries indicate that she was heavily involved in the pro-Nazi “Australia First” group in Sydney from 1936 to 1942.

Harbridge says her debut novel is a far cry from this later ideology.

“It isn’t in the world of that novel,” says Harbridge. “She’s not there yet. Sybylla is very aware of the disenfranchised around her, and is aware of racial inequality. It’s about a young woman exploding with frustration and asking: why isn’t there more?”

Harbridge wants to harness that rage and contradiction in this new musical version.

“It’s a chaotic first novel, and we’re trying to embrace that,” she says. “That’s what’s wonderful about it.”

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