To say that The Iliad is the basis of western literature and, in fact, culture, would definitely be an understatement. It is an idea that few could question, given the fact that we are always returning to it, discovering its eternal truths and finding new ways to tell this story.
“Apart from the Bible, it is the most famous story of all time,” agrees Neil Gooding, the director of yet another adaptation of the Homer epic, this time, in the form of a rock opera – and not just any rock opera. Composed by the late Jon English, Paris is a fine example of Australian rock songwriting at its best, as proven by the enduring popularity of the original cast recording that Jon English crafted in 1990. Although marketed as a soundtrack, this was actually more of a concept album, as the musical did not get an amateur theatre debut before 2003 (in Sydney and then 2004 in Melbourne).
“It’s a show that I’ve loved since I was 15 years old,” says Gooding, who is directing the concert production of the musical produced by Music Theatre Melbourne.
“I’ve had a couple of chances to work with Jon English, the composer of the show”, he remembers. “He and I had talked about Paris, on and off, for about a decade.”
After Jon English’s sad demise last year, Gooding, who in the meantime had risen to the status of one of the most acclaimed musical directors in Australia, ‘jumped at the chance’ to finally direct the musical.”It’s one of the great unproduced works of Australian music,” he says.
“It was never really released on a large scale. If it was, it would have gone around the world as Australia’s first major musical.”
According to the legend around it, Jon English first wrote a song, Oh Paris about the Homeric hero, to see if the audience would pay attention to the lyrics and understand that this was not a song about the French capital. A whole cycle of songs spawned from that quirky, playful idea, telling the story of the mythical Trojan prince who was made to choose between the love of two goddesses and then eloped with Helen, urging her husband, King Menelaus, to start a war with the kingdom of Troy.
“What makes Paris great is that it’s based on this epic tale,” explains the director.
“The Trojan war is a really fertile ground for storytelling. It features larger-than-life characters and sweeping love stories and tragedy; it deals with humanity, in both its ugliest and purest form. It features gods interacting with people, heaven and earth, love, revenge, war, killing, people being doublecrossed; there is everything in one story, which makes it tricky to put onstage. The main challenge is to navigate through all of these characters and sub-plots and find a way to tell all the stories with clarity.”
As for the story’s relevance in the current context, Neil Gooding has no doubt about it: “we’re still going to war fighting over bits of land and natural resources, and obviously people keep falling in and out of love,” he says.
One year after Jon English’s death, the play has another kind of relevance; being a tribute to his musical brilliance.
“He could write great melodies, using single forms that any child can sing, which [get] stuck in people’s head. And he was also the quintessential old rocker, using lots of guitars and lots of drums; Paris has the best of both worlds, beautiful, soft ballads and loud rock’n’roll for people going to war,” Gooding says.
“It is this great Australian rock opera, which deserved to be staged with a large cast in a beautiful venue. It will be a celebration to what a great show it is and also a tribute to Jon, who wrote an incredible score. Ideally, Jon would have been here to see it. He spent half his life waiting for it to happen.”
The Music Theatre Melbourne production of ‘Paris’ is being staged at the Melbourne Recital Centre (Cnr Southbank Bvd and Sturt St, Southbank, VIC) from Thursday 13 to Saturday 15 July. For bookings, visit melbournerecital.com.au or call (03) 96993333.