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Photograph by Rueben Radding

Time has its artistic markers too you know: there are ways to measure its passing that don’t involve lines on the face or a sudden turn to listening to talk radio. For example, it used to be that when a rock or indie artist hit their 30s and 40s they would grow a beard and loosen the jeans, let the hair go natural and talk about nature, and start making country and folk records.

Maybe though, musical theatre is the new country/folk. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask Greta Gertler Gold.

Brooklyn-based, Bondi-sprung, Gertler Gold, made her name locally both as a solo artist and in the chamber pop group Peccadillo (not forgetting co-writing Blow Up The Pokies and Charlie #3 for the Whitlams), and then, after moving to New York and marrying musician Adam Gold, with their ornate pop group, The Universal Thump.

But when she performs at Newtown’s Leadbelly on September 13, with a cast of local luminaries* including Jak Housden (of the Whitlams), Jodi Phillis (of the Clouds), and Justine Clarke (of anywhere you look on TV, and children’s albums), the major ingredient in the show will be theatre. Musical theatre.

The night will be combination of songs she has written for musicals in collaboration with playwrights and writers such as the Australian duo Alexandra Collier (their coming show, Triplight) and Hilary Bell (The Red Tree, based on the book by Shaun Tan, which premiered at Parramatta in 2017 and may well return in 2019 to a major stage), and songs she has written “just for the hell of writing songs … before the theatre world started to infiltrate my brain”.

Phillis will be singing a song from Triplight, a show about a singer from the ‘90s who loses her band in a freak accident and then much later “a music journalist discovers her and they bring each other back from hard times”.

Oh hello! A music journalist doing good, at the centre of a production? Hallelujah, what’s not to love?

“Yes, it’s a heroic music journalist,” says an amused Gertler-Gold, before pricking that balloon almost immediately. “He is actually a free-form radio DJ, not a journalist. But he wants to go back to that time when he was on the radio discovering new bands; and she’s living on her own with a demonic mixing board in her apartment that brings up the faders on her memories.”

Well, demonic mixing board notwithstanding, clearly this is an opportunity lost by Gertler Gold and Collier to really show the humanitarian work of a noble, middle-aged print journalist – a character type criminally undervalued and underused in popular culture - but let’s move on.

“I like working with musicians in a theatrical way now,” she says. “I think it’s really exciting to combine the theatricality of the music world with the more conscious theatrical world. It’s a big challenge and really difficult, but also exciting when I see it work on stage. I’m really interested in storytelling on a larger scale now.”

And when she says larger scale she is not kidding.

“I feel like [Triplight] could take place on a gigantic rotating record player stage and everyone might get a CD with the songs on it, as the program.”

Although the show emerges from the demise of the music industry and the search for musical meaning elsewhere, Gertler-Gold says it is “my personal history” that has led her to musical theatre, rather than despair at her old ways.

“I was always influenced a lot by musicals but I didn’t realise it. When I was a kid, some of the music I listen to and could participate in a school was musical theatre, songs like Day By Day [from Godspell] or like Meat Loaf even.”

What? Wait.

She laughs. “Not that [Meat Loaf] was a major influence. But I was in musicals as a child and one of my teachers wrote musicals for the kids at the school and cast me in them. It made a huge impression on me but I didn’t realise until a lot later. I didn’t know what the range of possibilities in a music career could be.”

Now she knows her range is not limited to a pub room or a commercial radio station, Gertler Gold has been getting some useful tips from a couple of people who might know a thing or two, the writers of songs for Frozen, Avenue Q, The Book Of Mormon, Kristin Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez.

“I taught their kids piano for a while and I asked their advice about musicals. Bobby said just be prepared to write every song over a trashcan,” Gertler Gold says, half sighing, half laughing still at the memory.

“You can’t get too attached in that world to the songs. That’s been a big lesson that I’ve learnt. When I was writing songs just for myself I would be very, very attached to the songs but in the collaborative context I have to let things float out there and try not to take things personally. As much.”

So, um, just let it go? ……….. Sorry. Not sorry.

Greta Gertler Gold and friends will play at Leadbelly, Newtown, on September 13

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