Songs in the key of life

Last updated 05:00 12/09/2012
White Cloud creators
GREAT RETURN: The creators of White Cloud: Songs & Stories, from left, playwright Ken Duncum, songwriter Tim Finn and director Simon Bennett.

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It has songs and it has stories. But the high-profile creators of White Cloud: Songs & Stories, opening in Wellington tonight, want to make one thing clear: it's not a musical.

''This is very different. It's definitely not a musical and I'm not in it, which not everybody seems to get,'' says Tim Finn, who arrived in Wellington on Monday for rehearsals at Bats Theatre.

Finn is one third of the dream team behind White Cloud - having joined forces with leading Wellington-based playwright Ken Duncum and director Simon Bennett, a television and film veteran, including Outrageous Fortune and Sione's 2: Unfinished Business.

All three have combined music and theatre before. In 2002 Finn collaborated with playwright Toa Fraser on Feedback. That, says Finn, ''was an attempt at writing a musical and it was only partly successful. Nevertheless, it gave me an insight''.

Play Poor Boy, performed in Melbourne in 2009, featured songs from Finn's back catalogue, including his Split Enz days, and starred Hollywood actor Guy Pearce. ''Every time I do it I want to keep doing it. It's a strange animal and very challenging.''

Bennett and Duncum's links go back to  Blue Sky Boys, based on the story of the Everly Brothers and featuring their music. The show was an unprecedented hit when it premiered at Bats Theatre in 1991 - not long after Bennett relaunched the theatre. The show was so popular it was later staged at the much larger St James Theatre and toured.

Finn's new songs for White Cloud are performed by a five-piece band. The show also includes two actors - Dena Kennedy and Stephen Lovatt.

But Bennett says it's not a case of a song, then the actors performing, then another song and so on. ''Hopefully it's all seamlessly integrated, so there's music under spoken word and spoken word over song and everything flows and develops into the next piece.''

''It's intensely musical in that the speech is often very rhymic as well,'' says Duncum. ''The idea was that we would begin and the musicians would start to play and they would basically carry us all the way through to the end of the show.''

The stories that underpin the songs and also drive the show come from real life - in this case Finn and Duncum's family histories.

The two were familiar with each other's work. ''Ken had tried to find me about 12 years ago. He thought he might write a play about a week in the life of early Split Enz, which I thought was quite an interesting idea. We emailed - but [email] was in its infancy in those days and there was no such thing as broadband. It took ages.''

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Duncum says he remembers having to fax Finn instead.

Two years ago Finn saw a production of Duncum's Horseplay, directed by Bennett, about a fictitious meeting between writer Ronald Hugh Morrieson and poet James K Baxter. It spurred Finn to finally work with Duncum. At the time the playwright was in France, having won the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize, but they could communicate by fast broadband email.

''It just flowed from there. We didn't want it to be something where I would say 'why don't we do something about this?' or Ken say 'here's a storyline, why don't you write some  songs?'.  It was 'where can we meet completely in the middle?','' says Finn.

That middle was dipping into their own backgrounds, including family photographs and letters. Finn says he was especially haunted by one of his mother taken on her honeymoon. ''A lot of it became about mum, who is no longer with us, and her story. We use parts of her memoir. But it is more than that. Hopefully everyone will feel something when they watch it.''

Being in France and away from family mementoes, Duncum says he instead fed off his ''memory and imagination''.

''And of course there's nothing like being away from New Zealand to get some kind of perspective on it''.

''Ken would send me a piece of verse and I would send back a song or half a song,'' says Finn. ''It was a really nice way to work. We finally did meet in the flesh when the thing was practically written.''

Says Duncum: ''We wanted it to be new work for both of us and working in slightly different way to how we work individually and that's really come off well.''

Bennett says when he became involved one aspect that struck him was that while the stories came from Finn and Duncum's lives, it was universal rather than autobiographical. ''I don't think the audience will watch and listen to this and think 'Oh, there's a bit of Tim, there's a bit of Ken'. I think they will be immersed in waves of music and memories and recollections that they will have first-hand knowledge of.''

Duncum and Finn agree that White Clouds isn't like anything either have done before.

''Every playwright wants to rise up above the level of the ordinary and one of the best ways to find yourself above that level is with music,'' says Duncum.

''There was a lot of luck and good timing about it,'' says Finn. ''It's the right time to do this for both of us. I could never have done this 10 or 15 years ago. Somehow now it just feels so exciting to me.''

Finn's also been stoked by encouragement from his own family. His father, now 90, rarely travels outside Cambridge.

But he will be in Wellington for the last show of the season, accompanied by Finn's two sisters. ''When I told him about the show and I was trying to explain it a bit, but not too much, he got it.

''He said, 'it's about time'.

''I thought that was kind of nice.''

The details:

White Cloud: Songs & Stories, Bats Theatre, Wellington, tonight, 9pm until September 22.

- The Dominion Post

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