Lovin’ original Aussie musicals: In conversation with NSW musical theatre maestro Laura Murphy


What do Australian politics, Shakespeare, a Zombie apocalypse and pop music all have in common? The answer is NSW performer/composer Laura Murphy – the creative who brought us Shakespeare’s classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream reimagined as The Lovers, the musical retelling of a chapter in Australia’s political history in The Dismissal and a new production, Zombie! The Musical, set to debut in March. Her contemporary lyrics and catchy pop music melodies break the convention of ‘serious’ theatre genres – and local audiences can’t get enough.

Create NSW spoke with Laura where she reflected on her journey from music-school drop-out to full time composer of multiple original score Australian musicals.

Your musical The Lovers, produced by Bell Shakespeare premiered at the Sydney Opera House to critical acclaim in late 2022.Exploring themes of love, trust, human folly – it brings a modern voice to Shakespeare.What inspired you to tackle this classic story in this way?

When I was 15, my high school drama teacher chose Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the annual production, which I reluctantly auditioned for. Having never seen or read a Shakespeare play before, I was quite intimidated and assumed I wouldn’t understand it. It was only when I was preparing for the audition that I read the lines for the first time and discovered, to my surprise, it read just like music lyrics. I could dissect the meaning the same way I would the lyrics to a song. All the characters were totally relatable too. I knew girls who were just like Hermia and Helena, and guys who were commitment-phobes like Demetrius.

It was so empowering for me as a teenager songwriter to see this 400-year-old play was relevant for the current generation. I was so inspired to share my interpretation I started writing The Lovers as a pop musical at 15-years-old.

The Lovers performance

The Lovers Sydney Opera House credit Daniel Boud

Wow! What propelled you towards musical theatre?

I have always been songwriting and I was doing community musical theatre when I was a teenager. I come from a musical theatre family with my mum performing the title role in the original Australian production of Evita and my dad, Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy orchestrating and arranging the score for Priscilla: Queen of the Desert The Musical, so I just absorbed it from a young age.

I have always been fascinated by music and lyrics as a form of storytelling, but particularly music theatre where choreography, lighting, music, lyrics, theatre – every sort of creative storytelling – all comes together.

How did you develop your creative process?

I enrolled in music composition at the Australian Institute of Music, and gained a lot from that course but very quickly began to over-think my compositional choices and started trying to follow the “rules” of composing. I’ve never been great at following rules and prefer to be guided by my instincts and the limitless possibility of music. I ended up deferring the course because I got a job on a kids’ TV show writing lyrics and music and even performing as ‘Sparkles the Fairy’.

Performing steered me towards the stage where I worked in musical theatre again for another decade, with roles in the Australian tour of Grease and later Muriel’s Wedding.

I guess I was always curious and open to learning and developed through doing lots of musicals. I became a sponge, absorbing everything about musical theatre that I possibly could – watching the creative team work together and seeing how they made creative decisions, or asking technicians how they worked the lighting, or sound engineering, mixing, and of course, through seeing how audiences responded.

So, how did you shift from performing to writing music and lyrics for musical theatre? What opened that door for you?

I had been distracted with performing and hadn’t focused on my writing for a long time. My early work on The Lovers was gathering dust in a drawer.

Until I performed in Muriel’s Wedding. This was the first time I’d seen a major Australian musical with original music and lyrics – and it blew my mind to see audiences adore it. Previously, successful Australian musicals had been jukebox musicals – such as Priscilla and Shout. I thought, “Oh my gosh, is it time for original Australian musicals, written by Australian composers and lyricists?”

That’s when I pulled The Lovers out of the drawer. I arranged a reading with just a couple of friends of mine to read and play the demos. One of the friends was Jay James Moody. After the reading, he asked me to write the music and lyrics to The Dismissal, which he was developing.

And then I guess the rest is history. I’ve been a composer lyricist ever since and haven’t really performed since.

My fourth musical is Zombie: The Musical, which will premiere at Hayes Theatre in March, 2024.

The Lovers cast

The Lovers presented by Bell Shakespeare at the Sydney Opera House Photography by Daniel Boud

The Lovers debuted at a time when people were still wary of COVID. Were you surprised by the enthusiastic response from Bell Shakespeare and the audiences?

I did wonder what reaction I’d get and thought ‘surely this is sacrilegious!’ I used a lot of creative licence, with only about 10 per cent of Shakespeare’s original text. The rest is my text, my lyrics.

I thought it would be engaging for a young audience. What I didn’t anticipate was that older audiences received it so well too!

The show is about language – Shakespeare’s language, the language of love, the language of pop culture – told through the universal language of pop music. Pop music really does bridge generational gaps and connects us all.

When Bell Shakespeare saw the reading, they loved the new perspective as it aligned with their mission to make Shakespeare accessible to everyone. Artistic Director Peter Evans told me “Shakespeare would have loved this!”

You received a small project grant from Create NSW to help you develop the orchestration. What impact did this funding make?

The funding allowed me to develop the score and instrumentation for The Lovers by collaborating with, and being mentored by, award-winning musical arrangers and orchestrators and learning from the best in the industry! This included Isaac Hayward, the arranger and orchestrator behind Muriel’s Wedding. And my dad, Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy who has arranged, orchestrated and music supervised musicals all over the world.

With their guidance, I was able to develop and refine the sheet music, instrumentation and demo recordings which I was then able to present to Bell Shakespeare to bring this production to life. The skills and knowledge I gained during that project continue to be valuable in all of my creative endeavours.

What do you think was the show’s secret to success?

With Bell Shakespeare we had great support, and our creative team included the best people in musical theatre like Director Sean Rennie (Rent, Baby Doll) Musical Director Andrew Worboys, Choreographer Yvette Lee. Peter Evans and James Evans, from Bell Shakespeare, added invaluable support and knowledge and worked with the cast to refine the text. And then I brought the pop music. Those three disciplines combined were exactly the elements of the storytelling that we needed to connect with the three different lovers in the audience – lovers of Shakespeare, pop music and musical theatre. Plus, The Lovers is a comedy, and human silliness is just infectious and unites everyone.

What excites you most about Australia’s musical theatre scene?

The audience! Australian audiences love musical theatre and it feels like we’ve reached the turning point with demand and excitement for new Australian productions.

Learn more about Create NSW’s Small Project Grants (Quick Response)

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