KEATING!I’d had the idea for KEATING! early in 2004, but put it aside for one reason or another. I started talking about it again to David Hornbeck, set-designer and cameraman extraordinaire, while we were both working on Bec McIntosh’s Love TV in December of that year; Dave’s enthusiasm for the notion got me thinking about it more seriously and, in a fit of something-or-other, I registered it with the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

KEATING!, for those who don’t know (and I presume the number is ever-increasing), is based on the rise and fall of Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, a colourful parliamentary performer with interesting sensibilities – in a conservative country obsessed with sport and inclined to ignore the uglier truths of its past, he championed the arts, pushed for an Australian republic, and attempted to steer the country into reconciliation with its indigenous population and closer ties with its geographical neighbours. Excoriated at the time for what was perceived to be financial mismanagement, and heading up what was generally regarded as a wearying government, he lost the 1996 election to John Howard, who was Prime Minister for the next eleven years. Eleven long, long years.

And there were several aspects of Mr. Keating’s career that seemed well-suited to musical theatre – he even described himself once as “the Placido Domingo of Australian politics”, though in quite another context – so the right form for his tale seemed sure to be a song-cycle summarising his journey. I wrote the songs over January and February 2005, trying to make sure that each of the songs was in a different musical style (and I think I almost succeeded, though I think two power-ballads and two tangoes kinda slipped in there).

All of the Northcote Country Soul Drowsies came back on board, tighter than ever. Long-time Drowsy Drivers Mike McLeish and Jason Cleeland joined the onstage troupe for the production, Mike essaying the title role. The crew of friends assembled were top-notch, including several drastically overqualified folk, and the whole shebang was overseen on the production side by Cath Woodfield. And it turned out very well indeed – so well, in fact, that the experience was slightly hallucinatory.

To wit: in the last week of the show’s four-week run, we played to five sold-out rooms; we met the inspiration himself (in the company of Bill Kelty and Mary Stuart) and had a lively chat over drinks for an hour and a half; we won the Barry, the Age Critic’s Award and the Golden Gibbo (a relatively new award dedicated to the memory of Lynda Gibson), and we played at Melbourne Town Hall on the Sunday night as part of the Moosehead show. It was, to say the least, an unexpected turn of events.

In August, we performed the show for a week in the Studio venue at the Sydney Opera House, a singular experience, and Mr. Keating himself finally got to see the show. The Keating family was well-represented over the course of the Sydney run, actually, and we also clocked the first attendance of a fleeting character’s real-life counterpart when the wonderful Kerry O’Brien attended (and didn’t sue! Yay Kerry!)

The show returned to Melbourne in the summer of 2005/06 for a two-week run at Trades Hall in the stifling, boiling, steaming heat of January – including two, count ’em, two double-header days where the temperature passed 40 degrees Celsius. Can we pick ’em or what? Crowds were lovely and generous, especially considering the oppressive conditions – those folks in for the second show on the hot double-header days deserved merit badges or somethin’.

The show next popped up as part of the lovely Adelaide Cabaret Festival, marking the (we thought) last appearance of Justin Ludowyk in the show and Caitlin Murray in its stage management, and a good time was had by all in sending them on their way (Justin then jumped on a bicycle and rode through Northern Pakistan; that’s how we roll, you ride through the Himalayas to unwind after a Drowsies gig, baby).

The band then geared up for a five-night stand at the Brisbane Powerhouse, followed by a couple of special nights under the stars in Darwin. It was a Very Special Experience. “Flash” Dan Tobias joined the band on acoustic guitar and Kernot (Justin was still unwinding), Clare “Bartybear” Bartholomew stage-managed for Brisbane and Catherine Woodfield for Darwin (Caitlin was required at her work and couldn’t make the journey northward).

Finally, the Drowsies were invited to do their last performance of the show at the opening of the 2006 Fringe Festival in North Melbourne Town Hall. Folks turned up from everywhere – many making their second trip to the show – and the original cast were reunited. Emma Mildern, the third Dog of Damnation in the original production, came back (on spot? I think? Em?); Michael Jankie, the trafficlight ubermeister of the Brisbane and Darwin jaunt who managed to plot an entire run of the show in the outdoor StarShell in Darwin between 2am and 5am (when the sun came up and it was impossible to plot anymore) and got it stone cold perfect, came back in on lights, and on sound who else could you have but the immaculate, brilliant Sam Redston, lighting and audio designer for the first three seasons of the show and operator for the very first run? I’m tellin’ you, it was like SuperLineup. Caitlin Murray encored in her Dog duties (she was the longest-serving third Dog of Damnation and a stage management whiz for many runs) and the evening concluded with a ceremonial smashing of the John Howard glasses. Voila!

Sample poster from Belvoir tourOf course, in the most bizarre twist of all, the show was then picked up by the Belvoir and a six-week run commenced in November/December 2006. Neil Armfield directed, John Clarke offered dramaturgical advice, John O’Connell choreographed, Damien Cooper designed the lighting, Steve Francis the sound, Jennifer Irwin the costumes. They cleverly chose to cast Mike McLeish in the lead role, and Enio Pozzebon and myself were also included in the Belvoir version of the show, which I expanded by six songs; Terry Serio came on board to essay Hawke and Howard (and won a Helpmann award in so doing!) and the show also included, at various points in its run, Eddie Perfect and Brendan Coustley playing both John Hewson and Alexander Downer.

The run was a sellout and extended first into January, then into a return March season after a zip ’round Canberra, Wollongong, Albany and Perth. It did a long April/May Melbourne season at the Comedy Theatre, then returned to Sydney for another three-week season in June/July, then another five in November/December before embarking on its long, long Australian tour of 2008 which concluded at the Seymour Centre on August 31st. It was broadcast live on ABC2 on August 20th, 2008, and the DVD of that performance was released in mid-November of that year by Madman. Seriously. I’m not making this up. It’s the Belvoir’s version, however, not the Drowsies’, so I guess it doesn’t really belong here – check the Belvoir’s website for details. Through the entire Belvoir season of the show, the powerhouse Belvoirs were the backing band, comprised of Enio, Mick Stuart, Alon Ilsar, Eden Ottignon and an acoustic guitar seat that started with Guy Strazz and headed to Emmanuel Schmidt before working its way under the capable buttocks of Matthew Stuart.

Which version’s better? I honestly don’t know – it’s Sophie’s choice for me now. I loved the momentum and dry compactness of the Drowsies’ show, but I’d be loath to lose some of the newer songs. Both bands were terrific. Obviously, the Belvoir one was better-directed (let’s see, me or Neil Armfield? Hmmm…) and the lighting, costumes, sets etc were astoundingly professional. Aww, who can tell? And who cares, in the end? Either way, it’s a bunch of silly, fun songs, which is all it was ever meant to be. In the original version of the show, they were ordered thusly:

01) Overture
02) My Right-Hand Man
03) Do It In Style
04) I Remember Kirribilli
05) It’s Time
06) Ruler Of The Land
07) Dogs Of Damnation
08) On The Floor
09) I Wanna Do You Slowly
10) Antony Green
11) Freaky
12) Heavens, Mister Evans
13) Power
14) Choose Me
15) The Light On The Hill
16) Historical Revisionism

The Belvoir had always been interested in an expanded version of the show, for aesthetic reasons as well as practical and financial ones, and I’d had a few ideas about things that could be expanded and new songs that could be included. A couple of chats with the sterling John Clarke helped clarify some of those, while others came from elsewhere (it was Neil Armfield’s passion for the “Redfern” idea that really got it up and running, for instance). With the new songs came a new, expanded overture; “Dogs Of Damnation” was replaced with “The Beginning Is The End” (well, rewritten as, really); “Sweet” was introduced to close the first half, “The Arse End Of The Earth” to open the second; “Redfern” and “Ma(m)bo” fleshed out Keating’s time in office a little more; John Howard’s story was expanded with the introduction of “The Mateship”; and “Historical Revisionism” was revised – in a not-wholly-satisfactory manner, but then the end of the show was something that was never truly solved. (I do prefer the batshit insanity of the Drowsies’ one, where a postal worker from the Mawson Base in Antarctica arrived with the postal votes to put Keating over the top, to the more panto-ish ask-the-audience flavour of the bigger production – but I do acknowledge that a parody of a bad deus ex machina is still, um, a bad deus ex machina…)