Lollipops, Milkshakes & Crack

22 August 2012 | 6:00 am | Paul Ransom

“The music is what sells that era and sells the nostalgia... Music in that day and age told a story, which it kinda doesn’t do anymore. There’s so much heart in the music that you forgive everything else.”

Welcome to Springfield High. It's 1958 and there's not a Simpson in sight. Instead, there's a gym full of prom queens and a juke box full of girl pop. That's right boppers – it's time to frock up with The Marvelous Wonderettes and lipsync your adolescent heart out. When the Australian premiere production of Roger Bean's off-Broadway hit transforms Forty Five Downstairs into a high-school gymnasium, complete with photo booth and '50s-themed bar, the skirts will be big and quiffs suitably stiff.

For the show's Australian director Noah Sharwood, the attendant nostalgia for an era of imagined innocence is a plus. “The music is what sells that era and sells the nostalgia,” he states simply. “Music in that day and age told a story, which it kinda doesn't do anymore. There's so much heart in the music that you forgive everything else.”

The Marvelous Wonderettes unfolds around a cavalcade of camp lollipop hits, including Stupid Cupid, Lipstick On Your Collar and, you guessed it, Lollipop, but more than that it taps into the iconographic power of the late '50s, with its newly emergent youth culture and unblinking white-bread prosperity. As Sharwood explains, “It was the first time that there were clothing lines invented for young teenage girls. Everything just exploded; there was this music that told stories and they were able to dress in a way that told a story about them. That era is iconic because it set a trend which we're still living in today.”

However, in what must surely count as one of pop culture's most satisfying ironies, the wholesome prom queen aesthetic and its teen melodrama soundtrack has been co-opted and nursed back to health by the gay community. Noah Sharwood laughs at the idea but has to concur. “It all comes down to the music and the fashion and the costumes. Who doesn't want to put on a big sequined dress and prance around the place? Y'know, I had someone come to rehearsal the other day and say, 'Oh my God, it's like four Disney princesses on crack.'” 

The princesses in question are best friends and in Wonderettes we see them at their prom and then ten years later at their high school reunion, where we discover “who slept with whose boyfriend”. To fill the four roles, Sharwood auditioned 178 girls and confesses that the eventual winners - Angela Scundi, Erin Herrmann, Karla Hillam and Lauren Midgley - were chosen as much on appearance as voice. It was essential that all four had a 1950s look. “What it came down to was a body shape; and also to how they looked with each other because we're selling the four and you've got to believe that they're best friends, otherwise the show goes nowhere. So yes, it was a very strange audition process.”

For creator Roger Bean and Sharwood, the other big challenge was making the show more than a night of covers. “As a musical it works because the base of the entire show is the relationship between the girls. I think an audience will see themselves in the four girls. Y'know, they're quite stereotypical characters in a sense so you can think, 'Oh, I was you in school.'”

The Marvelous Wonderettes is an avowedly camp time capsule, or as Sharwood explains it, “There's a lot of hidden depth and societal comment but it's all caked in sugar and spice; which is why we like it.” With the show's sequel having already opened in New York, the prospect of further episodes on crinoline skirts swirling with renewed teenage vigour are assured. As for the lollipops …

The Marvelous Wonderettes opens tonight, 7.30pm, until 1 September, Fortyfivedownstairs.