Cog In The Machine: A New Theatre Piece From Sally Whitwell

Composer Sally Whitwell
Creator of Cog in the Machine Sally Whitwell

” I must be crazy!” exclaims Sally Whitwell.

Perhaps she is… just a little bit. More to the point, she’s bursting with creativity and it’s this energy that she has channelled into her latest venture – a new musical production called Cog in the Machine for which Sally has written both the libretto and the music.

Cog in the Machine  premieres in Sydney this weekend and Sally is understandably excited. “It’s very new for me – it’s the first musical I’ve written.”

Prodigiously talented, Sally Whitwell is a pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, teacher and recording artist. She has recorded four solo albums and her debut album Mad Rush: solo piano music of Philip Glass won the 2011 ARIA for Best Classical Album. This success was reprised with her third album, All Imperfect Things: solo piano music of Michael Nyman which won the 2013 ARIA Award for Best Classical Album. Her 2015 release I was flying stayed in the top ten of the ARIA Core Classical Charts for five weeks and garnered a nomination for the 2015 ARIA Award for Best Classical Album, as well as a nomination for the Australian Music Prize.

Described as a ‘family Christmas tale with a twist,’ Sally observes “A musical seemed to me to be the best way to tell the Christmas story I’ve always wanted to tell, about children and the over-commercialisation of Christmas. The story of the Helpus family is about the corporate manipulation of people through advertising. But don’t worry,” she hastens to add, “the kids win in the end. They have to, it’s a musical!”

Premiering  Cog in the Machine is Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ outstanding youth choir VOX, led by music director Liz Scott, joined by some young soloists from the Sydney Children’s Choir.

Describing the creative process, Sally says “I definitely had my story after which the first things that came to me were the instrumental and vocal textures for the workings of the machine in the play. I was inspired by the musical Once which has all the people in the cast also playing the instruments – they are the band. I was thinking about VOX and realised they could be the orchestras as well as playing characters and singing words.  I quite liked the idea of using them and their skills to create these textures that are abstract but necessary. Then the characters started to come alive – some of child characters are very forthright and know exactly what they want which is probably not exactly what society thinks they’re meant to be like – but they’re very driven in their desires to be themselves.”

That said, Sally says there is very little of the characters in Cog in the Machine that is based on real people except for one song that is performed by the Helpus parents. ” It’s about a friend and I – a friend I’ve known for about 20 years after we met in the moshpit of a Smashing Pumpkins concert in about 1996 and we’re still friends – the parents have a bit of a back story with my friend.”

In the production Sally will play the piano along with an array of toy instruments – a toy piano, melodica, some percussion instruments – a triangle, tambourine and an ukulele.  “There are a couple of tracks which are comic advertising tracks for which I wanted a very plastic sound,” she explains.

The cast of less than ten comprises the Helpus family and the staff of the company LIES International, an acronym for Legerdemain Incorporating Evasive Solutions – “a big, evil corporation.”

Is it dark? “It’s a little scary, a little bit dark,” says Sally. “One of the kids said to me the machine music is a little bit scary – but that’s a good thing. There are pop songs and there are sing a longs and some quite punchy immediate laughs. I’m bad at finding a word to describe it – and once you use that word it sets up an expectation. If it fails to meet that expectation or it’s slightly different, people may be disappointed.”

Sally’s creative team includes director and playwright Christopher Harley, whose play Blood Bank recently premiered at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre. “He’s a fantastic playwright and he has taught me so much about theatre and how to use text in a compelling way.”

Too often, premiered  works are confined to the archives due to the cost of reprise performances or recordings. “The story is so kid friendly” says Sally, “it’s designed for kids and family. I just love the energy of young people performing and if I could make it into a version that a primary or secondary school could perform  that would be something I would love to see.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Click here for more information on performances of Cog in the Machine. 

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