When elephants take off, they can fly quite high

When a friend told Marco Lucchesi he was writing a musical about Rasputin, Lucchesi instantly replied, “Rasputin? I’ll do you one better: I’ll do the Elephant Man.” As he uttered those words, the melody and lyrics for a song popped into his head, and he sang, “Oh, you might not think it’s relevant, but he was sired by an elephant, and that’s why he’s the Elephant Man.”

The cast goes to town. Photos: Paul Scott.

And so a musical was born – albeit a decade later. Lucchesi had always been fascinated by what he calls “this grotesque man who had this beautiful soul” in David Lynch’s Elephant Man movie. The problem was that Lucchesi’s usual habitat was Melbourne funk band Vaudeville Smash, and, not knowing how to proceed, he shelved the project until a friend and fellow musician, Jayan Nadagopan, was in town on shore-leave from his cruise-ship gig. Lucchesi played Nadagopan his song, they wrote a second one together, and then suspended the project once more.

This time the stalemate was broken when Nadagopan brought along his wife Sarah, a pianist who’d accompanied singers auditioning for musicals on Broadway, and they showed her what they’d done. “As soon as Sarah played along with the couple of songs that we’d written,” recalls Lucchesi, “we thought, ‘Wow, now we can really do something.’ At first it was literally just to make us laugh, and try to get a few songs under our belt.”

But gradually they became more confident that they were on to something, and then COVID gave the threesome the precious time to the complete show’s book, lyrics and music, which detours from the history of the real Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick – renamed “John” in the Lynch film and this musical. “We call it ‘an inaccurate and irreverent retelling of the Elephant Man story’,” says Lucchesi. “We wanted to give the guy a happy ending, and obviously it’s a comedy, so we couldn’t stay that true to his life.”

They have retained some elements of the real Merrick’s tragedy, however, and it was this that drew in director Christopher HF Mitchell when he saw an early staging at Melbourne’s Jazz Lab before he was involved. “I was really moved by it,” he says. “I looked around the room at one point, and people were genuinely tearing up… Then the next minute people are just laughing their arses off. I was really inspired by it.”

Marco Lucchesi. Photos: Paul Scott.

As were diverse others, from Mitchell’s mother in her 70s to people in their early 20s. “Everybody responded so well to it,” he says, “that I kind of knew that it was a hit.” That audience diversity was replicated when it moved into full production, with Mitchell saying that many people also came back to see it repeatedly.

“It really feels like an archetypical, gothic, romantic comedy,” he observes, “but it’s completely new. It just touches on those tropes and archetypes in a way that feels incredible authentic, and like it’s a story that’s been told for a few hundred years rather than a couple of years.”

When Mitchell, who had directed independent films, made music videos (including for Vaudeville Smash), and run a Melbourne cabaret venue, was invited to join the team, he knew little about mounting stage musicals. “So,” he says, “I headed to Edinburgh to try and work out what our trajectory would be to get to the West End eventually. And so far it’s shaping up!”

While in Edinburgh, Mitchell met Olivier Award-winning director Guy Masters, who has The Shark is Broken currently playing on Broadway. He, too, was enthused enough to become co-director, bringing dramaturgical skills the others lacked, and helping them attract international attention.

They had a run at the Adelaide Fringe (where they won the local Critics’ Circle Award), then a brief sold-out season in Melbourne, and now they bring it to the Sydney Fringe, playing in the Spiegeltent, which Lucchesi says is perfect, given the show’s Victorian setting, Ring Master character (which he plays) and freak-show element. Adds Mitchell, “It creates an atmosphere that transports the audience into that world immediately, without the need for big budgets for sets.”

So what does Lucchesi hope people take away from the show?

“I hope people go there and they laugh their arses off, because it really is funny. And then I hope that they’re moved as well, because are certain moments in the show, where I think you see Ben [Clark], the guy who plays John Merrick, you can see his soul.”

Meanwhile Edinburgh is confirmed for the next year, and the West End beckons. Mitchell would ultimately love to see the show made into to a movie, and with the wind clearly in its sails, don’t rule that out.

The Marvellous Elephant Man: September 1-October 1, Entertainment Quarter.