Five years ago, Jason Langley was about to make his first visit to New York. A veteran of numerous local musicals and plays, the actor-director was on an around-the-world adventure and about to fly in to New York.
His ticket was booked for Wednesday 12 September 2001. Because of the horror that had unfolded in New York, Langley’s flight was delayed and he finally arrived in Manhattan days later.
Experiencing that city in the aftermath of the infamous attacks has haunted Langley ever since, but proved a valuable insight when he commenced work on his latest theatre venture, Elegies.
The song cycle musical, written by William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee), was first performed in 2002. The show opens and closes with songs about people’s experiences during the September 11 attacks.
Langley is directing the 2006 graduating class from Perth’s Western Academy of Performing Arts in Elegies, and has used the images of New York during his 2001 visit in the show.
The thing I remember about that time is the city was covered in pictures of people who were missing, he recalls.
In every subway station, sides of buildings, on every pole and even cars, there were pictures of people who had been lost -“ it was a city awash with lost faces.
So we have used that in the show. Our set is covered in pictures, and the cast walk on with photos of people they have lost. I wanted to make this very personal, and the photos watch over us as we do this.
Elegies is a collection of songs about great characters who have died who Finn was either friends with or knew of.
One of the show’s most popular songs is Mark’s All Male Thanksgiving, in which the gay Thanksgiving party where Finn met his real-life partner Arthur 24 years ago is recalled. As the song continues, it reveals that all the other men who were at that table in 1982 since died of AIDS.
Another song Venice is about an art lover friend who has succumbed to HIV-related dementia, while Peggy And Misty tells of a lesbian couple, Broadway actress Peggy Hewitt and chiropractor-to-the-stars Mysty del Giorno.
I love this show because it has such heart, says Langley. Finn has also said he was at the top of his game when he was writing this, and I think he could be right.
While Elegies is having its Sydney premiere with this season, the show first played in Perth last year with the same WAAPA cast.
Langley recalls it was early in rehearsals that the overwhelming emotions of the songs demanded to be dealt with among his cast.
I was really shocked when the actors started crying and some of them could not keep going, he says. I had to stress that this show is about celebration, and I did not want any kind of maudlin on stage.
While an -˜elegy’ by definition is a lament for the dead, these songs celebrate great lives. One of the characters sums it up in his song when he says, -˜The living is the prize, the ending is not the story.’
Elegies plays 26 and 27 November at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Bookings on 9250 1999 or at the Sydney Theatre Company website.