Celebrated Choreographer Tackles First Time as Director on NINE The Musical
Interview and article by Heather Clements
In demand choreographer and dance teacher Michael Ralph has earned a fine reputation for his choreographic work on both TV and stage from the recent Channel 7 show Dance Boss and Melbourne productions of Boy From Oz, working with Caroline O’Connor and Rohan Browne, and Bring It On, to his cabaret and numerous musical theatre shows, and original dance theatre work SELF which earned an Australian Dance Awards nomination in 2017.
Originally from New Zealand, Michael has long been based in Melbourne, and is now taking on his first role as a Director with the premiere of NINE The Musical, produced by StageArt, on October 12 at Chapel Off Chapel in Melbourne. It is his first time working with innovative production company StageArt, bringing this Fellini-inspired story of a frustrated film director to the stage once again through NINE The Musical after a long absence from Australian audiences. Michael is happy in the musical theatre space and is relishing interpreting the story of NINE which celebrates the role and influence of women on not just one man’s life, but society overall.
We spoke to Michael Ralph about how he is approaching his new role as a director with both confidence and excitement in his efforts to bring this oft-forgotten Broadway musical to the stage once again, with a strong and talented female cast leading the way.
Q: Tell me about NINE. What is the premise of the show?
It’s based on late Italian film director Federico Fellini’s film 8½, which was made in the 60s and is essentially a movie about a director who doesn’t know what he’s going to do for his next film … it was a case of life imitating art.
So, Fellini himself created this movie at the last minute after being hassled by producers, and it wasn’t until the very final moment before signing a contract that it actually came to him at that moment, that he was going to make a film about a movie director who didn’t know what he was going to make. (Laughter) It’s very amusing. Anyway, it was a brilliant black and white Italian film … it’s quite an amazing creative piece, masterpiece. And then a Broadway musical was made out of it in the 80s.
The basis of it is still about a man called Guido Contini who is a famous Italian film director. And he’s suffering a crisis of creativity, in that he is not sure what he’s going to do with his life, at this point, and what his next movie is going to be. And the women in his life all sort of fuel his creativity, so he’s surrounded by many different kinds of women: his wife, his mistress, his producer, a memory from his past, a prostitute that he met as a boy on the beach… All these female characters contribute to his history and his past and his present and his future. And so, in the show we explore how he overcomes this crisis.
Q: If it is based on a film titled 8½, why is the musical called NINE?
People mistakenly think it is because he consults nine women, but it’s actually because the film was called 8½ and they literally didn’t know what else to call it, so they took that and thought, ‘Well, I guess we’re making another Fellini story, plus a half’, so they made it into Nine. So, that’s actually what NINE means!
Q: Were you familiar with the story and the musical beforehand? And why do you think StageArt has brought this back now?
I was familiar with NINE… definitely as the movie musical version, which came out not long ago (2009) directed by Rob Marshall. I was familiar with that, but I also knew that that film version was not really the most accurate version to the traditional show. I knew that I was going to need to look back to the source material and really delve into that script to figure out exactly what this show is supposed to be on stage, rather than referring to that film. But apart from that, I only really knew a few of the songs like ‘The Italian’ and ‘My Husband Makes Movies’. So, I didn’t know a lot about it at all and really had to figure it out.
StageArt had wanted to do it for a while. Robbie Carmelotti, one of the executive producers, really loves the piece and it hasn’t been done here in Australia very much, since its original production, which was hugely successful. Also I think they’ve chosen it now because it’s a piece that almost has an entire cast of women… I think that’s something truly awesome! Having a show with the majority of roles being women doesn’t happen a lot, so I think that’s also a reason StageArt chose to do it.
Q: This the first time that you’ve directed a theatre show, as well as doing the choreography … what have been the challenges?
Yes that’s right and it is a wonderful challenge. I think just trusting my instincts, because I’m purely an instinctual person. And I think through my choreography, my experience in choreographing for musicals in particular, definitely all comes from a place of storytelling, anyway. So, I think once I knew that I could take on this job and direct a musical if I just kept to my own personal instincts of storytelling. So, once I got my head around directing really, it was just choreographing but through acting and storytelling, it kind of became a little less daunting. I really love it so far!
And getting the cast is half the battle… I’ve got a really great group of people … Once you’ve cast it’s just really about trusting them and working together to find the clearest way to tell the story, whether that’s through the choreography or whether that’s through the theme.
Q: Tell me about the cast… who should we watch out for?
There’re quite a few, actually. I think a lot of the women in the show are playing a lead for the first time, but look out for Alana Tranter … she’s incredible! She’s always had an incredible maturity in her stage presence and voice, and I think she’s been waiting a long time to have the right role to showcase that. I’m so thrilled to have her playing Luisa (the wife in the story), because she’s just an incredible actress with a beautiful voice. And I just know she’s going to really blow people away.
And also look out for Rachel Bronca playing Carla, Guiudo’s mistress. This is her debut role on this sort of level and I think she’s going to be incredible. She’s got a beautiful voice, she’s got a beautiful stage presence, she’s very funny, and she’s a stunning dancer, as well. She gets to showcase all of her abilities in that role, particularly in the song ‘A Call from The Vatican’, which is quite a physical song and dance number.
But honestly, all of the women in this show are absolute knock outs, and all of them contribute to the show equally. So, I’m really excited to see what people think of all of their characters.
Q: As NINE is set in the 60s, tell me about the choreography style and inspiration.
It is set in the sixties, but it’s an abstract piece… it really does jump between the past, the future, and the present. There’s many, many moments of many different styles. There’s a whole sequence called ‘Folie Beregeres’, which is a number where the movie producer describes to Guido that she wants him to make a musical. And she travels back in time, through the song, to tell him about the fabulous world of Folie Beregeres that she came from in the 1930s Parisian world.
It’s a beautiful showgirl French number, which is quite a big number in act one. There’s also another moment, ‘The Italian’, where the character Saraghina (a prostitute) teaches young Guido on the beach a dance about being a man, being Italian and following your urges and demonstrating to him through a Tarantella dance number how to do that.
What else is there? There’s a whole movie sequence in act two, which Guido is making in the film. He finally decides what he’s going to do, and he makes the film about Casanova. And there’s quite a lot of movement in that, that’s going to be sort of operatic in style, and quite abstract. Yeah, it’s very different, it’s very out there, and it’s quite beautiful and feminine, I’d say. The want the whole style of the show to be quite feminine.
So it’s not a traditional musical in any way, it’s quite conceptual … more of an arty piece.
I think the score’s beautiful too, and I wish more people knew it. I think once they hear it, they’ll probably fall in love with it because I think it really is one of the most beautiful scores I think I’ve ever heard in a musical!
NINE – The Musical
From October 12
Chapel off Chapel, Prahran, Melbourne