Putting songs in the mouths of silent characters

Julia Robertson. Top: A scene from the film of Metropolis. Photos supplied.

How do you possibly turn a silent film into a musical? That was the question puzzling composer Zara Stanton when writer/director Julia Robertson approached her about collaborating on an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis. But Stanton describes Robertson as “one of those people who I would follow into battle. So I thought if she thinks it’s a good idea, then sure, I’m on board.”

Besides, Robertson had an answer for Stanton’s question. The musical would not be so much based on Lang’s film, released in January, 1927, as on the source novel of the same name, penned by Lang’s wife (and screenwriter), Thea von Harbou. (Theirs was a fraught relationship, by the bye, plagued firstly by his infidelities, and then by Lang, a Jew, escaping Germany’s Nazification, while von Harbou embraced it.)

Set in an unspecified future, the story, like 1984, continues to prove both visionary and pertinent. It depicts a battle between capital and labour, with the workers living and slaving underground, before being rallied by the zealous Maria into believing a new world order is possible.

Another scene from Metropolis. Photos supplied.

The film was revolutionary in its scale, and its impact on Robertson made her seek out the book. “It’s very dense,” she says, “and the world is even bigger than what the film presents. It feels colossal… Every character has a lot of specificity and detail, and once you read the novel it sort of makes it clearer as to what the film was getting at.”

A criticism made of the story is that the ending is tied up story with an excessively neat bow and unabashed moralising. “We’ve tried to complicate that a bit,” says Robertson, “and present it in a way that’s a little more nuanced.” Similarly, she has sought to build more shades of grey into the originally black-and-white characters.

Having a penchant for scenarios in which we watch how people fare in extreme versions of the world, Robertson find Metropolis relevant to modernity on many levels. “And it just seems to get more relevant,” she says, “which is a little bit terrifying, but also wonderful fodder for us… I know for me the climate crisis – the apocalypse looming – has felt very present in the work, especially having someone like Maria as a young activist, like we’ve seen over the last 10 years: these young women who are incredibly eloquent, calm and strong in their messages.”

Robertson also finds equivalencies to the contemporary tech giants existing in a sphere above government and regulation while, as she puts it, “controlling what we’re seeing, thinking and hearing in some ways”. Then there’s the massive wealth divide (partly a commentary on Germany’s 1920s hyperinflation), which reminds Robertson of friends who “are waiting among a hundred other applicants for one apartment, and how unaffordable it is to live in Sydney, generally… But we’re also trying to find the light and shade in there, and really play with it, as well.”

Emphasising that light and shade has been a big part of Stanton’s task in composing the music, which owes nothing to the original score. Nor has she listened to the music that Georgio Moroder put to a truncated version of the film in 1986. “Partly because this process has been so condensed,” she explains, “we got straight into, ‘Okay, what is our version, and what does our version sound like?’ I think it was helpful to not get too bogged down in what have other people done. It was nice to be able to start fairly fresh with what our sound for Metropolis would be.”

Zara Stanton. Photo supplied.

In this Hayes Theatre iteration, that sound will be made by Stanton (keyboards, clarinet) plus trumpet and cello, with the hope that a future production may allow for an expansion of both band and cast, the latter currently sitting at 12, with Shannen Alyce Quan starring as Maria.

Robertson leaned on a German-speaking friend to help her delve deeper into von Harbou’s work, “to make sure that we’re getting the right atmosphere that she’s generating, because it is really dense and luxurious.” Translating a sense of the film’s monumental scale to the little Hayes Theatre, meanwhile, has been an obvious challenge, but Robertson insists that it will still be quite a spectacle, thanks to work of designer Nick Fry.

As well as wanting the production to succeed and return in expanded form, Robertson hopes it may prompt people to see the film, which is readily available on YouTube. “It’s a wonderful visual feast,” she says. “It has some of the most iconic images in film history. I always refer it as the original Blade Runner, and there’s so much of Frankenstein in it.”

Metropolis: Hayes Theatre from April 21.