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When a friend told Marc Lucchesi he was writing a musical about Rasputin, Lucchesi instantly replied: “Rasputin? I’ll do you one better: I’ll do the Elephant Man.”
As he uttered those words, the melody and lyrics for a song popped into his head, and he sang, “Oh, you might not think it’s relevant, but he was sired by an elephant, and that’s why he’s the Elephant Man.”
Writer Marc Lucchesi and director Chris Mitchell, with actors Annelise Hall and Ben Clark.Credit: James Brickwood
And so a musical was born. Lucchesi had always been fascinated by what he calls “this grotesque man who had this beautiful soul” in David Lynch’s Elephant Man movie, which starred John Hurt in the title role. The only problem was that Lucchesi, a member of Melbourne funk band Vaudeville Smash, had never written a musical before.
Not knowing how to proceed, he shelved the project until a friend and fellow musician, Jayan Nandagopan, was in town on shore-leave from his cruise-ship gig. Lucchesi played Nandagopan his song, they wrote a second one together, and then suspended the project again.
Later, Nandagopan invited his wife Sarah, a pianist who’d accompanied singers auditioning for musicals on Broadway, to rehearsals. Lucchesi recalls: “As soon as Sarah played along with the couple of songs that we’d written, we thought, ‘Wow, now we can really do something’. At first it was literally just to make us laugh, and try to get a few songs under our belt.”
Gradually Lucchesi and the Nandagopans became confident that they were on to something, and then COVID gave the trio the precious time to complete the show’s book, lyrics and music, which detours from the history of the real Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick – renamed “John” in the Lynch film and this musical.
Lucchesi is also a member of funk band Vaudeville Smash, and will play the Ring Master in the musical.Credit: James Brickwood
“We call it ‘an inaccurate and irreverent retelling of the Elephant Man story’,” says Lucchesi. “We wanted to give the guy a happy ending, and obviously it’s a comedy, so we couldn’t stay that true to his life.”
They have retained some tragic elements of Merrick’s life, however. Director Christopher HF Mitchell knew he wanted to be involved when he saw an early staging at Melbourne’s Jazz Lab: “I was really moved by it. I looked around the room at one point, and people were genuinely tearing up… Then the next minute people are just laughing their arses off. I was really inspired by it.”
As were many others, from Mitchell’s mother, aged in her 70s, to people in their early 20s. “Everybody responded so well to it that I kind of knew that it was a hit,” says Mitchell.
“It really feels like an archetypical, gothic, romantic comedy, but it’s completely new. It just touches on those tropes and archetypes in a way that feels incredible authentic, and like it’s a story that’s been told for a few hundred years rather than a couple of years.”
When Mitchell, who had directed independent films, made music videos (including for Vaudeville Smash), and run a Melbourne cabaret venue, was invited to join the team, he knew little about mounting stage musicals. “So,” he says, “I headed to Edinburgh to try and work out what our trajectory would be to get to the West End eventually. And so far it’s shaping up!”
Mitchell joined the Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical after he was moved by an early showing.Credit: James Brickwood
While in Edinburgh, Mitchell met Olivier Award-winning director Guy Masterson, whose play The Shark Is Broken is currently playing on Broadway. He, too, was enthused enough to become co-director, bringing dramaturgical skills the others lacked, and helping them attract international attention.
They had a run at the Adelaide Fringe (where they won the local Critics’ Circle Award), then a brief sold-out season in Melbourne, and now they bring it to the Sydney Fringe, playing in the Spiegeltent, which Lucchesi says is perfect given the show’s Victorian setting, Ring Master character (which he plays) and freak-show element.
Ben Clark plays John Merrick and Annelise Hall plays Nurse Hope in the musical.Credit: Paul Scott
Adds Mitchell, “It creates an atmosphere that transports the audience into that world immediately, without the need for big budgets for sets.”
So what does Lucchesi hope people take away from the show?
“I hope people go there and they laugh their arses off because it really is funny. And then I hope that they’re moved as well, because are certain moments in the show, where I think you see Ben [Clark], the guy who plays John Merrick, you can see his soul.”
Meanwhile, Edinburgh is confirmed for next year, and the West End beckons. Mitchell would ultimately love to see the show made into to a movie, and with the wind clearly in its sails, don’t rule that out.
The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical is at the Sydney Spiegeltent from September 1 to October 1.
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