24 January 2017
Animal Farm of Candlebark School
© Sam Slicer (all images)
Last year, in 2016, I had the pleasure of writing and staging a musical adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm with the author John Marsden. The opportunity to write a show with one of Australia's best-loved writers came about as a result of my long working-relationship with John as a music teacher at the school that John founded and runs, Candlebark School, north of Melbourne. I have worked at this unique school for 10 years now, helping to create a thriving music department. In this time I have found my professional identity has slowly (and happily) morphed from composer to educator.
I had previously written and staged five student musicals at Candlebark (all co-written with various English teachers at the school) and was chuffed when John suggested that we work together on the 2016 end-of-year student production.
Around Easter-time 2016 John handed me a draft manuscript. Anyone who has read John's work knows that his teenage fiction doesn't shy away from confronting themes, and Animal Farm was no exception. It was dark. In many ways the adaption was more confronting than Orwell's original, with extra murder and cannibalism added to make the story more theatrical. I took a deep breath and launched into my first attempts at the songs. I knew pretty quickly that they were missing the mark. I had written dark songs to match the darkness of the show and it was all too dark. The show was to be performed by 5-14 year olds after all.
After many a day sitting at the piano trying to capture the right mood, I realised that catchy tunes, a sense of satire and humour, and carefully chosen musical moods would wonderfully subvert the bleakness of the show. What better way to balance a parable about the corruption of power in communist Russia than with silly humour. We needed toilet jokes to balance out the murder and cannibalism. After all, John had written lyrics such as these:
Sly and crafty, cunning and mean,
Very poor personal hygiene,
Smelly feet and filthy rump,
And a mouth like Donald Trump.
our esteemed leader,
Watches everything we do,
Feeds us lots of healthy greens,
So we make the sweetest poo
I knew that the kids would love singing the word 'poo' onstage. As obvious as it seems in hindsight, it had taken me a while to realise that satire and humour was the key. I had found the right approach for the show and I got to work.
I was keen to write something well-tailored to the young age of the cast and was keen to avoid some of the pitfalls that occur when professional musicals are performed by student groups (even if they have been adapted for children). In order to ensure the show's performance was musically strong we decided to write the majority of the songs as big choral pieces, thus diminishing the reliance on solo singers. We tied in the choral numbers by setting the first and last scene at a choral eisteddfod in a country fair, had the pigs sing a song as a large group and had all the cast join in with 'Old Major's Dream' as they took up his manifesto that 'all creatures are equal'.
The next step was to limit all of the vocal parts to a range of one octave (specifically C4 to C5). This posed some challenges when trying to write a dramatic and humorous score but I found that the solution was to modulate within each piece more than I would instinctively do. It forced me to find ways to alter melodies or modulate tonalities in effective and sometimes comical ways. My favourite of these was to use a chromatic vocal warm-up as part of a choral eisteddfod parody number.
For one of the songs, 'Snowball's in Hell', I managed to write the melody within the range of a minor third. I could then use the old trick of raising each successive verse by a semitone and the vocalist still only used a range of a perfect fourth.
Two of the songs were to be accompanied by student ensembles so I composed them with repetitive, familiar harmonic progressions and with simple rhythmic ideas. One of these pieces, 'Old Major's Dream' proved, however, to be rhythmically trickier than I anticipated. The String Ensemble had trouble getting their heads around reading in a compound metre and, in hindsight, I realise how little music they would have played in compound time. My solution was to reprint their sheet music with the lyrics written under any line that was in rhythmic unison with the vocal part. I taught the ensemble how to sing the song and, voilà, it worked beautifully. Not only were the rhythms now accurately played but the ensemble could focus on timbre and balance etc. What a difference it was!
I have learnt that you need to think laterally when teaching primary school music.
The rest of the score was to be performed by myself and two of the musicians on staff. I knew we'd have limited rehearsal time so I made each part practically sight-readable in order to achieve a confident performance. Writing music that is simple to play but doesn't sound simplistic is a skill that I greatly admire. Again I found that well-placed modulations were a very useful tool, as were melodic diminutions/augmentations, pedal tones and melodic ideas passed around the group (piano, flute and double bass). All somewhat simple devices but, in combination, they allowed me to create a catchy, easily played, easily sung, and effective musical style for the show.
Another of the challenges, perhaps the most important, was how best to set some of the more ridiculous lyrics to music. I decided pretty early on that any outrageous jokes needed to be hammed up (pun intended). Accordingly I wrote many of the verses with a prolonged final phrase in order to give the audience time to process the punchline.
By winter the score to Animal Farm was completed and I was able to edit, tweak and try out various ideas with the students. The show was to be staged in December and I was keen to start the rehearsals straight away, but John, in his infinite wisdom, wanted a more concentrated rehearsal schedule at the end of the year.
I have learnt from John to never underestimate children. While I was worried that they wouldn't be able to learn the lines, songs, staging etc. in time, he was quietly confident that it would work. He was right. While the rehearsals did prove to be pretty intense, the show was staged beautifully in December with wonderful performances by the students.
I remember getting halfway through the performance of one particular song and thinking that this was the highlight of my teaching career so far. By being careful with the performers' technical demands I had given the young performers more room to interpret. The students performed with a maturity that was beyond their years, with inflection, nuance and a wonderful sense of musical story-telling.
And, as they say, putting on a show is a real team effort. We had one of our teachers, Andrew Blizzard, make the most incredible animal masks. Our Art teacher, Joanne Croke, made fabulous backdrops with the students, our English teacher, Donna Prince, choreographed a powerful marching sequence, other staff liaised with parents about costumes, other staff forfeited their classes for extra rehearsals. And this is where a big strength of the show (and the school) lies - in the truly collegial way in which we put this show together.
A show like this is also the product of a strong music program. We are a school of 160 students that can boast eight itinerant instrumental music teachers, with half the school enrolled in the instrumental music program. We have a choir, an ensemble and a ska band. The ska band is notable because it consists of not only students but of teachers who have started learning an instrument later in life. In this environment the teachers are sometimes the weaker musicians and are therefore modelling a wonderful 'have a go' attitude. It is also such a fun group to direct.
I have since read that Elton John has attempted a musical version of Animal Farm but thankfully I didn't know this when we set out. We created a thematically brave and daring show within parametres that fostered and facilitated outstanding student performances. I am extremely proud of the show and I hope the students will remember it for a very long time to come.
Taran Carter - AMC profile
Candlebark School - http://www.candlebark.info/
© Australian Music Centre (2017) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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