We Need a Song: Tim Finn on musicals, muses and Madeleine St John

Crisp, comical and containing many fabulous costumes, the late Madeleine St John's 1993 novel, The Women in Black, seems ideally suited to adaptation for the stage. Set in the fictional Goodes department store in 1950s Sydney, the novel has finally been made into a musical, now showing in Melbourne. Here the production's composer, acclaimed singer/songwriter Tim Finn, talks musicals, muses and Madeleine. 

Tim Finn. Photo: Stephen Henry

What were your first impressions of reading Madeleine St John's The Women in Black

I was up in Bougainville, researching the music for a film project (Mr Pip). Five degrees off the equator, suffering from heat exhaustion and feeling disorientated. I had picked up the book at Brisbane airport. Each night, I would slip into its cool, silky depths. I loved the way Madeleine wrote. Razor-sharp observation tempered with tenderness and humour. Elegant sentences elevating her characters to iconic heights. It was almost a miracle that her first novel had so much heart when you read about her life.

You collaborated with playwright Carolyn Burns for the adaptation, called Ladies in Black. What were the biggest challenges in adapting St John’s story for the stage?

Carolyn Burns did a brilliant job. I think the structure is always a difficult consideration. She wove the three stories together with great finesse, adding her own memorable insights and witty dialogue. And then there was the problem of what to leave out. I had a song called ‘Ghastly Brats’, which was to be sung by the doorman during the sales. Sadly his character didn't make it, so neither did the song.

Does St John’s writing lends itself to song lyrics? 

There were song titles everywhere. ‘Pandemonium’, ‘Nice Australian Girl’, ‘Got it at Goodes’, etc. Others came to me as I read and re-read the chapters. One of the Hungarian characters, Rudi, says at one point, 'I was a bureaucrat in Budapest - what a line! I should write a song!' And so I did. Sometimes I would react to a request from [director] Simon Phillips and/or Carolyn. Every songwriter fantasises about being told at the eleventh hour, 'We need a song!' The song ‘Model Gowns’ came that way.

The cast of Ladies in Black. Photo: Rob Maccoll

How important was retaining the humour from St John’s novel?

It would have been impossible to do the show without the humour. And from the first preview the laughs came in all the right places. I have never before written songs that make an audience laugh out loud. It is extremely pleasurable to see it happen. But Carolyn and I tried to always find that balance between the funny stuff and the pathos. I guess I can't help feeling proud that we made a musical which seems to work with the audience in an immediate and visceral way, but is not based on a hit film or a bestselling novel.

St John herself had a deep, lifelong interest in music and was known to be very particular about editing and translations. Did you worry about how she would have reacted to a musical adaptation of her work?

We had the great, good fortune to have Deidre Rubenstein in the cast who had been a close friend of Madeleine's. She was our conscience and our muse. Interestingly, considering the importance music had for her, Madeleine made little mention of it in the book. I am sure this was a deliberate act. It meant that things musically were wide open for exploration. I didn't want to make a 'fifties' musical. I always loved the quote about The Women in Black from Kaz Cooke: 'It evokes another time while being mysteriously classic and up-to-date.'

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