Dubbo. Wrestling. Rock and Roll. What more could you want from a musical?
There’s not a spare seat in the Dubbo Dome. Ozzy the Aussie Battler flicks his cape and steps into the ring, and the crowd go troppo. This is Dubbo Championship Wrestling, the hilarious new Aussie rock musical that will change everything you thought you knew about professional wrestling, regional Australia, and musical theatre itself.
The musical follows Rose, a young woman with wrestling in her blood, who turned her back on the family business and Dubbo’s stifling small-town ways. When circumstance brings her back to her hometown on the eve of Dubbomania, the biggest wrestling tournament of the year, Rose is drawn into a monumental battle over family and identity, featuring capes, choreography, and some of the most colourful characters you’ll ever meet.
After several years of postponements, Dubbo Championship Wrestling is finally making its premiere at Hayes Theatre Co in May. Leading the charge is director Sheridan Harbridge, who is thrilled to be working on this new Australian musical.
Sheridan is a director, actor and author of plays and musical works. She authored the acclaimed musical Songs for the Fallen, which won Best Musical at the New York Music Theatre Festival 2015, Best Actress, and a Green Room award for best artist, and has toured the major Australian & New Zealand arts festivals. She co-wrote and directed the musical bloodbath NOSFERATUTU, or Bleeding at the Ballet, for Griffin Independent & Glenn St Theatre, and co-wrote and directed REG: The Reg Livermore Retrospective commissioned by Kate Cebrano for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. She directed The Blueberry Play by Ang Collins, a Griffin Award finalist, and The Sentimental Bloke for the Neglected Musicals series at the Hayes Theatre. She wrote and hosted the Hyde Park Stage Festival First Night Performance for Sydney Festival 2012.
Alongside her own work, she has forged a career as an Actor Writer, having been part of the workshopping cast, dramaturgy, and premieres of many new Australian works such as the musicals Muriel’s Wedding, Dream Lover, Melba, The Detective’s Handbook, and plays North by North West, The Speechmaker (Working Dog & MTC), The Sugar House, The Dog/The Cat (Belvoir), Prima Facie, Kill Climate Deniers, and Jump for Jordan (Griffin). As an actress, the NIDA graduate has appeared on the stages of all the major Australian companies, most recently to acclaim for her work in Prima Facie for Griffin Theatre, and Calamity Jane at Belvoir. Her screen work includes RAKE and the Justine Clarke Show, Dr.Blake and Jim Sharman’s Andy X, playing Judy Garland and Valerie Solanas.
Can you tell me about your history with the show?
Sheridan: I had originally been employed as a dramaturg before the show had been properly commissioned as a production. I was helping them discover the possibilities of the script. That would have been like… 2018. And that eventually morphed into them asking me to direct it. And Dan and I had formed a great relationship, so it was a really natural progression.
The show has been postponed twice due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Have there been any silver linings to that extra time?
Sheridan: It’s bought us development time. You know, for a new work where we’ve got to keep finessing, tinkering, things like that would usually happen in… perhaps the next season. I’ve got time to reassess choices, which is what you don’t get to do. You have to commit. This seems like it was the right thing at the time, but then the script shifts four weeks later. You lack the ability to pivot with choices. But we’ve gotten to keep now tinkering on what the set is as well as the script and cast, and that’s been a really extraordinary time. Often I think it’s because there’s not an enormous music theatre industry in this country – a lot of writers are working in isolation. There’s not a big community of people writing shows like you would find in the West End and New York. This [process] has been great to build a community of people making a show together over this long period of time, not just cutting it together, you know, two months before to start prep. Also, in the first year of the pandemic, The Hayes commissioned the cast and album of it. And because there was the time and people all in lockdown, the quality of that album, and then inevitably the development of the music, was just so exciting. The arrangements are sort of… iconic Aussie rock. They’ve had time to make the music as strong as the concept and the script. When I heard [the album] I went, “oh my god, I’ve been given a gift with this show.” We’ve all been on this show for three years. Everyone’s really invested, having created it together.
Not only are the cast of Dubbo Wrestling Championship singing, acting, and dancing, but wrestling too – you basically had to cast quadruple threats!
Sheridan: We really cast the actors for their for their acting and their comedic ability, not their movement ability because we thought that’s the thing that we can change the most, we can make up our own version of wrestling that’s safe. But we were delighted to discover multiple people of cast had been working with some wrestlers from PWA. We also did a wrestling workshop to discover the capabilities of the actors and what we can and can’t do. So they just got in the ring and were ready to smash everybody around, it was very funny and very exciting.
What has been the most challenging part of the process?
Sheridan: The story. It’s a sports musical and it’s that classic sports trope – the underdog team fighting to win, with big passions and the odds stacked against them. It’s that story. You know, like The Mighty Ducks or A League of Their Own. I just am obsessed [laughs]. I love the sports movie. But in wrestling, they know who the winner is already. So in the collaborative process with Dan, just trying to work out how you fulfil that journey in the most satisfying way for the audience has been hilariously difficult. I’ve been saying from the beginning that I can’t believe musical theatre and wrestling haven’t been married yet, because it’s the same in terms of big stories, big personalities, big costumes, a huge fan base who know everything about every character… There’s just this amazing presence of fans propelling this whole industry on. And I first started working with Dan, the writer, I just asked him basic questions of “what do you want the audience to be feeling when the lights go down on the final number?” And he said, “I just want them to really love wrestling.” And I think he’s written a real love letter to those wrestling and music theatre fans with this show.
The show’s set is an actual wrestling ring – that must have been a new experience, not just choreographically and directionally, but also physically given the size of Hayes Theatre?
Sheridan: It has been hilarious and difficult. Fitting a ring into that tiny, tiny little theatre has been very, very funny [laughs]. I’ve been in Melbourne and the designer has been in Sydney for a lot of the process. I’ve got all this footage on my phone of me mapping out measurements in our backyard and using my husband to fake wrestle and filming it to send back to the designer to go “it can’t be any smaller than this, it’s got to be this.” It is huge but wonderful. It’s quite an experience and it’s very close to the audience. But I feel like it will not only will transport you to ringside for a real wrestling match, but from a performance perspective, you’ve almost got to choreograph every single moment of the show around this set piece. And that is what’s totally happening. All the scenes have to be shaped around the relationship to the ring, which is super challenging, but at least it’s different. It doesn’t have to have these set changes that musicals usually have. I have to come up with other things.
Do you have a favourite song?
Sheridan: There’s some cracker songs, but this will make me sound so lame. There is a Dubbomania National Anthem that they sing and it actually makes me cry. I know, it’s so tragic [laughs]. I’m from a country town and, like every other artist, I did everything I could to get out of there as quickly as possible. But the older you sort of get, the more you go, “you can’t change what is fundamentally your spiritual home.” That still is country Australia. I was just so taken by how silly and passionate and moving the anthem was. And now that they’ve given it the ‘stadium arena’ treatment on the concept album, we’ve got David Campbell and Lucy Durack singing it and it’s so funny. I actually am so excited to deliver that. Of course it’s a comedy, but there is no way that that’s not going to be delivered without being moving. So I’m actually excited about that.
Why should people come and see Dubbo Wrestling Championship?
Sheridan: I don’t want it to sound gimmicky, but there’s something for everyone. It it really is beautiful music theatre. The music is so fantastic – it’s funny and passionate and thoughtful. And then the wrestling! There is real wrestling going on and it’s so detailed. We’re really pushing for more like female stories and representation. Dan’s really found a way to do that. Wrestling can be, from I knew, quite a masculine sport. There’s the female characters, and the female presence in wrestling is enormous and beloved. Dan’s really fed that in and we have a female protagonist coming back to Dubbo and finding herself. I think that’s been the way to give this sport a breath of fresh air. And it has that flavour of The Castle where they’ve just got big dreams and we recognise them. There are dad, there are uncles, you know. I find it really nostalgic, in a comforting way.
Dubbo Wrestling Championship opens at the Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney from May 12th. It then moves to Riverside Theatres Paramatta from June 16th.