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Is it you or is it me? Shortland Street – The Musical's journey to the stage

It's been 26 years since Shortland Street started on New Zealand screens, and now it's getting an injection of song and dance. Shortland Street – The Musical starts in Auckland this November, before touring the country in 2019. We talk to writer Guy Langford and director Simon Bennett about what that soap will look like on the stage.

By Caitlin Salter | July 31, 2018 | features

Guy Langford and Simon Bennett

Nearly six years ago, an idea popped into Guy Langford’s head that's gone on to change the course of his life. While studying clown at École Philippe Gaulier in Paris, he suddenly thought about how fun it would be to write a musical based on Shortland Street.

Fast-forward to 2018 and Langford has written the musical alongside long-time Shortland Street producer Simon Bennett (who is also directing), and is preparing to take the show on tour to eight cities, starting with Auckland in November.

As soon as the thought popped into his head, Langford quickly realised all the positives of this one, random, idea. New Zealanders recognise the show and, perhaps especially those who live abroad, consider it to be part of the nation’s identity. So far, so many broad appeal boxes ticked. Langford has now been working seriously on developing Shortland Street – The Musical for four years, two of which nearly full-time.

But Langford is no Shorty Street die-hard fan. His feelings towards the divisive show have historically been apathy bordering on cheerful disdain. It was watched closely by his sister, and Langford’s father, Peter Langford, even designed the original sets for the show, but he was never a nightly viewer.

“I have to be honest, at drama school we’d been snobby and thought we would never want to be on Shortland Street. Now I’ve dedicated several years of my life to trying to make something that honours the show.

“I’ve come to really respect the show and understand what it does socially. There’s a tendency for New Zealanders to not take Shortland Street as seriously as other shows. Fair enough, but the fact that Shortland Street has reflected who we are and what we do every night for 26 years now is meaningful.”

Bennett’s relationship with Shortland Street has been much more deliberate. Before resigning from the show in 2016, he had worked as a producer, director and executive producer on Shortland Street since 1996. He left the show to return his first love as a theatre director. He was looking forward to moving on from the show when he met Langford.

“At first I was working with Guy as a mentor, because I know intimately how the show works and is structured. After a year it became obvious that I was the right person to direct it,” Bennett says.

Many New Zealanders consider the days when Dr Hone Ropata roamed the hospital corridors with Dr Chris Warner as Shorty’s golden years. The iconic and oft-quoted “you’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata” line actually occurred during the show’s very first episode and is now firmly set into the nation’s vernacular. And while Langford’s research revealed endless amounts of television genius, he couldn’t stop thinking about the original line-up.

“There are so many stories, characters and moments – years of content. To put that into a stage show of two hours is impossible, it’d be like reading Wikipedia. I knew it had to have the 'Guatemala' line so that set the show firmly in the 90s.”

The musical has had many iterations over the last few years, as Langford and Bennett tried to figure out how to compress 26 years of episodic drama into a two-hour stage show. The first outing of the musical was a 15-minute performance with a full cast, based on the show’s first episode when Dr Ropata starts work and Dr Warner has an affair with the gym instructor next door. The performance introduced the opening number, 'Kia Ora Shortland Street', and the song everybody’s keen to hear: 'You’re Not In Guatemala Now'.

This initial performance set the tone of the musical to come, which is based on five iconic storylines in the show. Director Simon Bennett says it’s tongue in cheek, but the essence of Shortland Street is there. The musical was first pitched to South Pacific Pictures and TVNZ three years ago, and also had a test run at last year’s Auckland Arts Festival.

“When you compact five classic storylines into a show, the condensed nature really heightens how crazy they are. The characters in the musical don’t know they’re in a TV show but they do know that everybody in Ferndale is very good looking and someone always dies at Christmas. The audience will enjoy that it plays with soap opera conventions,” says Bennett.

"We love the show and we don’t want the audience to feel like the musical undermines the show, but it’s also a piss-take. And New Zealanders love to take the piss out of Shortland Street.” 

One of the biggest differences between the television show and the musical is that the live version is a comedy, full of soap opera tropes and is a light-hearted, affectionate parody of the genre. But as Bennett says, the original format has always had a strong comedic thread throughout.

“One of the reasons the television show works is because it’s never called itself a comedy. In New Zealand when you call a show a comedy, people will say ‘go on then, make me laugh, I dare you’. By not calling itself a comedy, it’s been able to succeed in making people laugh.”

Shortland Street purists who may be worried about where the musical fits into the canon of the show can rest easy, it doesn’t change history too much. Small changes have been made to fit the musical’s narrative arch: Dr Warner goes to Guatemala searching for Dr Ropata, and a few scenes play with the timeline. But some of the most ostentatious scenes in the musical actually did happen in the TV show: Rachel McKenna genuinely did get struck by lightning, finding herself to be suddenly in love with a friend, only to be cured when she is accidentally electrocuted.

“Looking back over the years, there are a lot of ‘I can’t believe they did that’ moments. Ninety percent of the musical actually did happen. We love the show and we don’t want the audience to feel like the musical undermines the show, but it’s also a piss-take. And New Zealanders love to take the piss out of Shortland Street,” Bennett says.

Langford says one of the biggest inspirations for how the musical would relate to the show was the much-loved 1998 film, ‘Shakespeare in Love’. The film is full of Easter eggs (many of the props make reference to Shakespeare's plays), and it has a distinct Shakespeare ‘feel’, but it is not a work by Shakespeare.

“It influenced how I approached writing the musical. I wanted it to feel like Shortland Street but it’s not strictly like the TV show, it has to be something else. The challenge has been how to make it live in the theatre, because you can watch Shortland Street every night for free, and we are charging money,” Langford says.

A big part of transferring the show to the stage was to play with theatre conventions that are not available for a dramatic television show. Soap operas by nature have to appear naturalistic – even though they are highly contrived. A stage show is more stylised, and Bennett and Langford have both enjoyed being able to play with time.

In the song ‘Five Wives of Doctor Warner’, Dr Warner hallucinates while under anesthetic for a gunshot wound. His five future wives (seen on the show, but not in the musical) appear and pull out his organs for the wrongs he will commit against them. The song ‘Be a Villain’ features well-known future Shortland Street villains who try to convince Dr Warner and Dr Ropata to come to the dark side.

“You couldn’t do that stuff on a television show, but they are fun and very satisfying to watch on stage. We’ve been constantly asking what is the best and most entertaining way to bring the show to life,” Langford says.

Both Bennett and Langford insist there is something for everybody with the musical, whether they’ve been watching since the first episode in 1992, are too young to remember the original lineup or have no interest in Shortland Street at all.

“I hope the musical is accessible to not just people who love the show, but the people who love to hate it too,” Langford says. “I think the haters will love it because we are gently mocking what they mock themselves around the water cooler.”

Bennett says even people who have never heard of Dr Ropata (surely everyone knows Dr Warner, by now) will recognise the character.

“Even if you weren’t watching the show back then, you’ll recognise the types of stories and characters that make up the soap opera genre. Shortland Street is this enormous machine, and it does end up recycling stories. The community of characters are based on archetypes. The warrior, the hero, the king, the queen. People will recognise the game the show is playing,” he says.

Langford is also starring in the show as Dr Chris Warner, and is currently working on getting back into shape as a performer before curtain up in November. Behind-the-scenes, pre-production is well and truly underway. The songs are currently being arranged for six-piece band by Auckland-based musician and conductor Penny Dodd, and the set and costumes are currently being designed.

Shortland Street – The Musical opens in Auckland on 14 November before touring to Dunedin, Christchurch, Blenheim, New Plymouth, Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga in early 2019.

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