Without Sondheim, Broadway wouldn’t have had a musical theater bar that tackles suicide, but the push for emotional depth (in a form that’s supposed to be superficial) puts Travelers in the company of successful contemporary musicals such as Next to normal and Dear Evan Hansen, who both face suicide in different ways.
Composer Loclan McKenzie-Spencer and lyricist Andrew Strano have created a sensitive and flawless exploration of the subject, distinguished by the genuine sympathy and psychological realism of the characters, which give the impression of being pulled out of life.
When avant-garde artist Katie (Bianca Baykara) returns from New York to Wagga Wagga, it’s quite an adjustment to be back with her embarrassing father (John Wood), queer aunt Ginny (Penny Larkins) and his brother Matt (Daniel Cosgrove) – single daddy of Verity (Bek Schilling), a smart 11-year-old boy obsessed with space exploration.
Unknown to everyone, Matt is hopelessly depressed since his wife’s death, and the optimistic reunion turns into grief when he commits suicide, leaving the family to struggle to cope.
The sentiment is largely held at bay by affectionate humor, the delicate use of dramatic irony, and the intimacy with which family relationships are sketched. The emotional trajectory of the piece is thoughtful and precise, and if anything, the main challenge from there will be pruning off an overabundance of viable material without losing any of the vibrancy and nuance of the show.
Musically, he could use one or two other hummable numbers, some of Wagga’s nostalgic references could happily be cut off, and given the pocket rocket of a role, a Verity solo at the top of the second half may be warranted.
Yet the talent behind this poignant musical is undeniable and with Tim Minchin and Eddie Perfect now writing musicals for Broadway and the West End, the path from Australian musical theater to the world stage is here to be trodden.
As for Travelers, its take-off will largely depend on the money, so let’s hope it will be there. Sondheim, after all, has kept his sharpest lyrics for the part of artistic creation that involves its funding.
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