For a lot of Queenslanders, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as premier created some of the most violent, paranoid and difficult times in the state’s history. But if there’s one thing Australians are good at, it’s taking the piss out of hardship. That’s exactly what director Kris Stewart and award-winning Brisbane-based writer Stephen Carleton have done with their upcoming musical production, Joh for PM, which debuts at the Powerhouse tomorrow night.
“When the Powerhouse first approached us to develop the show, we were a lot more focused on the true-crime aspects,” Stewart says. “We were very interested in this time in the late ’70s and early ’80s when this sinister political stuff was going on. We soon realised the most interesting part of the story is Bjelke-Petersen, this larger-than life, farcical kind of character, and it was remarkable how well he fit the musical genre.”
Once they had the idea, the play came together in a matter of months. Bjelke-Petersen’s story was perfect for the stage. “What we say about Joh is, he wasn’t necessarily a character who could speak straight, but he could definitely sing,” Stewart says. “For a musical to work, you need characters who are on a grand scale, where it doesn’t seem out of place for them to burst into song and start dancing.”
Composer Paul Hodge is no stranger to making politicians sing; he’s coming off an off-Broadway run of Clinton: The Musical to create Bjelke-Petersen’s musical landscape. Stewart says Hodge’s period-appropriate music helps to heighten the nostalgic feeling of the play. “It’s less of a classic Broadway musical, and references a lot of ’70s and ’80s pop and rock. It’s in what you’d think of as a Book of Mormon or Keating the Musical style – quite poppy and funny in the lyrics.”
Colin Lane, of Lano and Woodley fame, plays Joh as a young man growing up in the country through to the 70-year-old politician most Queenslanders will be familiar with. Stewart says the challenge for Lane was to embody a version of Bjelke Petersen audiences would recognise, without slipping into an impersonation. “You want the audience to watch the character and engage in the story and not just sit on the outside and say, ‘What a good impression he’s doing’,” he says. “Lane’s best known as a comedian but he has done a fair bit of dramatic acting and really threw himself into it.”
While for much of the audience the period of the ’70s and ’80s that most of the play is set in won’t seem like ancient history (Steward says some of the Queensland Music Festival staff remember being part of protests against the Bjelke-Petersen government), Joh for PM still has plenty to offer younger audiences.
“We’re seeing a lot of parallels to the borderline totalitarianism of Bjelke Petersen’s government in world politics – and Australian politics – today,” says Stewart. “You can kind of say that Joh starts off as a George W. Bush figure and ends up as Trump. In the beginning he’s a slightly naïve member of the right, but by the end his hands are very dirty. We can definitely relate to the kind of fear that Queenslanders must have felt at that time – I think that’s definitely given the play a kind of relevance it might not have had 10 years ago.”
While Stewart and Carleton’s focus was on making the funniest, most entertaining musical possible, Stewart says they were still conscious of representing the true nature of Queensland’s government at the time. “It was often times close to a police state, and for Australians that almost feels ridiculous, if it wasn’t so serious,” he says. “That’s the tone we’ve tried to achieve with this – trying to be truthful and not gloss over anything. We’ve tried to walk the line of treating events with respect while knowing that having some distance makes it easier for people to raise an eyebrow and see the bizarre, comical side.”
Bjelke-Petersen was in power for almost 20 years, and Stewart says condensing all the dramatic events and supporting characters, many of whom were as colourful and deeply corrupt as Joh, into a musical-length story was the biggest challenge. “Trying to find a way to tell this story with seven people on a stage at the Powerhouse, working out how to distil it down to its most crucial elements, that’s been hard, but also part of the fun. It was so quick to write and make, and it’s felt so natural … we see that as a really good sign. We think we’ve got something that a lot of audiences can enjoy.”
Joh for PM, presented by Jute Theatre Company, is playing at The Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the Queensland Music Festival from Fri July 7 – Sun July 16. Tickets are available on the Powerhouse website.