Troubled Waters says he won't lose the plot. By: Jason Steger. 10 Jun 1995. THE SUNDAY AGE
JOHN WATERS was stunned. It was the small hours of Tuesday morning and he was sitting in the bar of his Melbourne hotel, seething as he read out the review of his new show in the morning paper. They were all there: his co-star, co-writer and co-producer, Stewart D'Arrietta; his wife; the band members. All anxiously awaiting the first edition and the verdict on `ReUnion'.
For Waters, it couldn't have been worse. `The Age' theatre critic, Guy Rundle, had weighed in with all guns blazing, describing the show as ``appalling, disastrous", the script as ``flat and long-winded" and co-star Jackie Weaver's singing as occasionally hitting a right note.
The criticism was just one voice in a rising chorus. The `Herald Sun' labelled Weaver as cruelly miscast while `The Bulletin' would claim the play to be ``blindingly trite, sloppy and meaningless".
But it was `The Age' review that really hurt. ``It was just beyond belief," Waters said. ``A total outrage, really. Bad reviews are part and parcel of show business, but I've never seen such a childish, vitriolic attack. This sort of thing occurs when people go beyond criticism to establish a reputation as a hatchet man. If someone writes John Waters has come up with a piece that is poorly structured, unimaginative blah, blah, blah, that's a review that's within the boundaries."
D'Arrietta lasted for the first few lines of the reading of the blistering attack before beating a hasty retreat: ``I don't need to read this s. . .," he said, and stormed off to bed.
Waters stayed in the bar for quite a long time. When he eventually dragged himself up to his room, he couldn't sleep; the critical mauling was a nightmare that kept him awake most of the night. ``When someone kicks you in the balls, it's hard to sleep."
If this was New York and `ReUnion' had received the type of reviews it did last week, then it would have sunk as swiftly as oneAustralia in the America's Cup.
Still, the damage was immediate. Crucial group bookings were cancelled, $15,000 worth of tickets the day Rundle's review appeared and that had risen to almost $40,000 (1180 seats) by the end of the week. ``The damage from a bad review, I don't think, would have led to cancellation of party bookers. The damage from something that implies this is a piece of slime that's not worthy for the public eye, of course, is going to a bit more extreme," said Waters.
But 10 days after opening and copping one of the biggest serves yet from local critics, the show is still doggedly playing the Comedy Theatre, delighting its audiences, if not the critics.
It relates the spiritual and emotional angst of a one-time rock star turned stock-market wizard. Waters plays the singer, D'Arrietta the part of a now-dead friend from his band, and Jackie Weaver his true love and first wife, both of whom appear to effect a change of heart in the hero. Its form is a series of monologues linked by songs from the '60s and '70s and original music by D'Arrietta.
`ReUnion' received a warm, if not entirely enthusiastic, review from `The Australian' when it opened last month in Newcastle. The first hint of local hostility came in last Saturday's `Herald Sun', but no one in the show was prepared for the review in `The Age'.
The critic was sticking to his guns yesterday. Responding to Waters' comments, Guy Rundle said: ``I don't think being vitriolic and harsh is necessarily childish. As for trying to gain a reputation as a hatchet man, it's quite the contrary because I work as a TV script writer, among other things, and the last thing I need is enemies. I don't think there is anything wrong with being forthright. I think there should be critical honesty."
As independent producers, Waters and D'Arrietta lack substantial backing. ``We haven't got a great wad of money behind us," D'Arrietta said. ``We're not rich, which is a real bloody unfortunate situation." Both stand to lose money, and D'Arrietta's position is such that he might have to re-mortgage his house. ``The debt is substantial but it won't be around for a long time. I'm going to get rid of it. It'll be done because the show is good."
And Waters? ``I don't know at this stage. We haven't got the sort of figures like a `Miss Saigon'. They have to make $10 million or something like that and they have to play for a year or 18 months at full capacity. Ours goes up and down like a bride's nightie.
Basically, we're strolling troubadours who hold out a hat in comparison with someone like Cameron Macintosh."
The hostility from the critics with the exception of the `Sunday Herald Sun' was in marked contrast to the response of audiences. A random selection this week unanimously enthused about the performances and the music. The last Australian musical to suffer an equivalent blast, `Manning Clark's History of Australia', staggered on for six weeks before closing with six-figure debts.
But both Waters and D'Arrietta are adamant their show will go on. Its run at the Comedy Theatre will not be curtailed and its tour, which takes the show to Adelaide, Hobart and Perth, will proceed. ``There's a thing in the theatre called word of mouth and that's basically what we're trading on. Our sales are on a slight increment but it's purely on word of mouth," said D'Arrietta.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAID.
``My God. This show was awful. Worse than awful. Appalling, disastrous. It is so utterly, transcendentally bad that it commands a horrified fascination, like a ``schlock movies of all time" night at the Valhalla."
Guy Rundle, `The Age, 6 June.
``Jacki Weaver is cruelly miscast as Jerry's wife. Weaver is a pleasant stage actor but her singing is not sufficiently confident or accurate for the demands of this show."
Chris Boyd, `Herald Sun', 3 June.
``ReUnion is so blindingly trite, sloppy and meaningless that it almost inspires awe."
Fiona Scott-Norman, `The Bulletin', 13 June.
``This show is a massive disappointment - the tight band the best thing in it. Narrative, characterisation and thematic development aren't much in evidence."
Steven Carroll, `The Sunday Age', 11 June.
WHAT THE AUDIENCE THOUGHT.
Maree Irving, 44, housewife.
``I thought it was fabulous. I was a bit worried at first because I didn't like the opening with the screen. John Waters doesn't lose any of his integrity with this show."
Ray Crowe, 42, doctor.
``It was fantastic. Coming from a similar era Vietnam and rock'n'roll it addressed a lot of the thoughts we had. The music from the time was great . . . I'm so upset at the critics: I'd like to see them get up and do it. John Waters is the best thing to have happened to Australian musical theatre."
Simon Janes, 30, doctor (and musician).
``I really enjoyed it, particularly the music, all the songs. The band was sensational. I wasn't offended by any of the singing. I liked the theme behind the story of doing what your heart tells you. It was well delivered."
Louise Varney, 23 , teacher.
``It was better than I expected. I had heard that Jacki Weaver was really unable to cope with her role, but she was adequate: she's no Marina Prior. John Waters was brilliant. The set was simple but effective and meaningful. And the songs were well chosen and meaningful."
Karin Junker, 25, student.
``It was very refreshing, they all fitted the roles very well. Jackie fitted her part beautifully...I'd see it again".
REUNION. THE AUSTRALIAN. 19th MAY 1995. By: MAREA MITCHELL
REUNION premiered at Newcastle's Civic Theatre last Saturday prior to a national tour and, from the first bars of Stewart d'Arrieta's original music, the full house was treated to a magnetic performance from the composer. D'Arietta's singing and performance are outstanding, his stage presence is compelling and he displays immense talent as a composer.
The narrative, such as it is, centres on Jerry Burke (John Waters), alias Jerome Burkovitz, Jewish boy turned rock musician, as he attempts to deal with the ghosts in his life. Some of these spirits are the memories of the dead, such as the presence of exkeyboard player and mate Vince (d'Arrieta).
The musicians themselves, performing on a mezzanine at the back of the stage, are echoes of the past.
Yet Annie (Jacki Weaver), Jerry's first wife, is alive and lurks wistfully in the corners of his mind, perhaps representing the muso's lost innocence.
While the narrative serves to link the songs together, it lacks conviction. The relationship between Vince and Jerry is more engaging than that between Annie and Jerry, but the presence of Annie does introduce a variation in tone and pace, both musically and dramatically.
This hybrid thing, the musical, is particularly strange in the combination of rock music and conventional theatre. Where one would have you participating, singing and joining in, the other literally positions you as static spectator. These contradictory pressures occasionally left me feeling awkward, slightly cramped and aware of the formalities of theatre. Something happens to the experience when a participation sport becomes a spectator sport. Listening to the CD afterwards - see the show, buy the CD, wear the T-shirt - I was more reassured about the value of combining theatre and rock concert. Being there is very different to listening to the CD, no matter how good (although, disappointingly, this is not a complete recording of the show).
And would you get a theatre audience to go if it had been promoted as a rock concert?
Still, having got people there and royally entertained them with superb music and musicianship, some kind of challenge or stimulation would have added to the night. The piece certainly isn't complacent or nostalgic, but more could have been made of the tensions between theatre and rock, between the 60s and the 90s. The relationship between music and story was particularly problematic in the second act.
One wonderful percussive piece by d'Arrieta was the backdrop to a scene in which it appeared that Jerry had died and seemed to be reunited with Annie. I must have lost the plot here because I thought she was still alive, but the music was so gripping that concern with the story-line was made secondary.
Musically, the evening could only be scored a roaring success.
The sound quality was excellent, the playing and singing made you glad to be there, and all the old tracks - Wheels on Fire, full of threat and foreboding - were terrific.
Despite the limitations of the narrative, John Waters gives an earthy and intelligent performance that will linger long in the mind.
Coodabeen rock stars. By: Greg Burchall. 26th May 1995. The Age
Lennon made it to stardom, but millions didn't. John Waters's new show records the dreams of those failed contenders.
If the name Jerome Berkowitz doesn't ring any bells or crash any high- hats, you may be more familiar with his rock star stage name, Jerry Burke. Jerry Burke. The Cavaliers? They were BIG in the late '60s, early '70s, a tight-knit outfit of urban underdogs who found liberation through their music.
Commitments? There's only so long you can stand the tags ``promising" and ``up-and-coming", so Jerome/Jerry let his head stomp on his heart, disbanded the band and took a straight job.
But what if . . . ? Twenty years later, atop the corporate ladder, JB feels hollow and passionless and wonders with a ghostly visit from long-gone mate Vince and a confrontation with first wife Annie whether he took The Right Life Path.
Jerry Burke? Weeeelllll . . . does the name John Waters ring any riverboat bells? For it is he who has created and will inhabit the fictional Jerry Burke, joined by Jacki Weaver as Annie and musician Stewart D'Arrietta as Vince in the new musical Reunion that has been having out-of-capital-city tryouts in Newcastle and the Gold Coast.
It's a brave venture for the actor who is following up his solo John Lennon tribute show, Looking Through a Glass Onion, with something riskier, darker and more personal. He knows a lot of Jerry Burkes. ``There's a ton of them out there. The archetypal nice guy. Very common, very lovable character. He's a street boy, but a survival instinct led him away from music to secure his future, to be a player, a high flyer. Turn money into more money. But all his passion's gone; he's lost his happiness, he's lost his anger. He's trying to remember when he last had a vibe in his life."
John Waters still has that vibe. ``Survivor" is condescending praise, but in 25 years and only one insurance ad, Waters has even weathered the double-whammy risk of working with kids (Playschool) and animals (The Australian Sheepdog Challenge). He juggles formula work as TV detective John Stamford on Singapore Sling with risky business of the show kind as his own producer.
This 46-year-old Sydney-based, pool-playing, scar-faced career smoker (he started at 13) at one time regretted not being offered the ``serious dramas" especially on stage. He had that then-tarnished tag of being ``too commercial" and not classically trained, but he always Went To Work. After his career kicked off as Claude on stage in Hair and Sergeant McKellar on TV in Rush, the film parts came rolling in: Weekend of Shadows, End Play, Summerfield and Breaker Morant. He was the dark-browed brooder, as opposed to Jack Thompson's blond extrovert. There were no Cleo centrefolds.
After many more good blokes and romantic leads in such series as All the Rivers Run, Nancy Wake and Which Way Home, Waters finally got to get nasty and kill people on film (Grievous Bodily Harm) and TV (Alice to Nowhere). Then followed a run of mid-life crisis films: Going Sane, Boulevard of Broken Dreams (for which he won an AFI best actor award) and, in what was almost a precursor to Reunion, there was Heaven Tonight, in which his fortysomething rocker Johnny Dysart tries to make a comeback but the record company, headed now by a former band member, signs Johnny's son instead.
Waters's two children with actor wife Sally Conabere are in their early 20s and are involved in music. Waters himself says he thinks he might have been a rock star if he hadn't ``accidentally" followed his father into acting. In his late teens he was bass player for the Riot Squad ``It was the first flush of adulthood, you felt the juices really flying." But the band never quite hit the heights of its southwest London pub band neighbors the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann.
He remembers all the Johnny Dysarts and Jerry Burkes. ``There are many rock singers who are actually singing and writing better now than they ever did but nobody's paying any attention to them," said Waters. ``It's such a young game. There's a similar situation in acting: as you get older, the parts get better, but less frequent. But this can cure laziness, too; you can get out there and create your own work."
Other actors of his generation, such as Bryan Brown, are also doing more off-screen producing than on-screen droving these days. Waters would also like to write and direct for film, but will never retire from stage or screen. ``I may not be the Dashing Lead forever, but I'll always be a performer. That's always there. Because it's in me."
Waters's John Lennon tribute, co-written with Stewart D'Arrietta, began as a five-week pub show in Sydney and ended up with a three- month run in London, where it lost $200,000 after a belligerent British press made no secret of the fact that it resented an ``Australian" playing a son of Liverpool. But then, the press of an earlier day had given Lennon a hard time, too.
So when Waters returned to Sydney last year and discovered the oath of allegiance to the queen had been removed, he took out Australian citizenship, 25 years after arriving here on a 10-quid assisted passage.
The effusive Stewart D'Arrietta comes from a completely different direction but is just as passionate. After graduating in law from Sydney University, he ``agonised for a whole 10 seconds" before choosing the keyboard over the courtroom. Since then, he has eschewed the piano bar for recording (Side Effects) and film scoring (Whitsunday Ash, Faces in the Mob, Blood Oath). He wrote the ballet score Intrusions for the One Extra dance company and was creator, writer, keyboard player and lead singer with the band Big Storm.
Reunion includes some classic R & B songs but half the tunes are Waters/D'Arrietta compositions. There is an original score ``that glues it all together". ``It's rock 'n' roll, but it's very baroque, a lot more theatrical than Onion, which was sort of video clip style theatre," explains D'Arrietta.
Reunion also reunites Waters with Jacki Weaver for the first time since their success in the Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch musical They're Playing Our Song, which Waters remembers with ``unmitigated joy". He wanted to work with Weaver again because ``she is the one person I have worked with, one on one, throughout the years that I didn't end up hating". D'Arrietta shoots a glance at Waters but misses.
Reunion is a risky venture, to be sure: a home-grown human-scale original musical in these days of full-throttle revivals and calculated concepts. But Waters and d'Arrietta believe that with Onion they've discovered a formula ``that really works". Reunion can't trade on the Lennon name or as many familiar songs. This is a serious ``trust us, you'll have a hoot" thing. But they're sure all the right elements are in place. ``We could lose our houses over something like this," Waters considers. ``But it's great to be independent. It's great to be creating something new and to be in control."
Reunion plays from 31 May to 24 June at the Comedy Theatre. Another two Singapore Sling telemovies will be screened on Channel 9 later this year.
Reunion's schlock around the clock. By: Guy Rundle. 5th Jun 1995. The Age
MY GOD, THIS show was awful. Worse than awful. Appalling, disastrous.
It is so utterly, transcendentally bad that it commands a horrified fascination, like a ``schlock movies of all time" night at the Valhalla. Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster . . . Reunion is up there with the worst of them .
What one could call, with some generosity, the plot, involves a middle-aged rock star Jerry Burke's nervous breakdown and anguished soul searching over the death of his friend, and his redemption through his ultimate reunion with his ex-wife, Annie (Weaver). But really the narrative is so garbled and unstructured as if the whole thing had been written on a sheaf of 3x5 index cards and then arranged according to the I Ching that there's no actual story there. No development, no character, no drama, no mood, nothing.
The script, mostly flat and long-winded (``I . . . when I went on stage . . . it was like nothing else in the world really there was nothing to compare it to . . . it was better than anything" etc) occasionally girds its loins and storms the heights of bad poetry (``I never did your washing when we were married, Jerry, I'm not about to start doing your relentless emotional laundry now.").
The bulk of the songs were covers, but the lyrics of the few original compositions managed to be every bit as bad as the dialogue (and now my work is well and done/and I must travel on/into the world etherial (sic)/I've left a lovin' spark).
The staging was much better, there being none to speak of. Waters spent most of the evening hunched miserably in a chair as did many of us and Weaver appeared from various points to nag about his relentless laundry and burble on (``We're so far apart not geographically, I mean I'd say I was about 20 minutes from your place, but psychologically, I mean we've never been so . . ." etc).
The conclusion Waters staring full face into a bright shining light, with the sounds of breaking glass all about him provoked much debate in the foyer. Was he jumping through a window? In front of a train? Would the producers follow suit? Would this be a good thing?
Was Weaver's opening line (``what am I doing here?") addressed to her agent? What the hell is relentless laundry anyway? And above all, why didn't they get in a writer? Thankfully, the music original lyrics aside was much better.
It's difficult to fail with songs like Wheel's On Fire, I Shall Be Released and Go Now, and the band couldn't be tighter. Stewart D'Arrietta's arrangements are magnificent, some that of Gotta Get Outta This Place, for example faithful to, yet subtly surpassing, the originals.
Waters rarely hits a wrong note, and Weaver occasionally hits a right one. In fact, if you cut the book entirely, you'd have a moderately entertaining concert. But nothing less than a redraft from scratch could turn this into an actual show.