The Green Room Awards have played host to more than a few upsets over the years. 2023 wasn’t one of those years. Everyone expected Kip Williams’ excellent The Picture of Dorian Gray to sweep the boards and it did.

But the 2024 awards may feature a surprise or two (or three, to be exact), because there’s an underdog.

The Marvellous Elephant Man: Annelise Hall, Kanen Breen, Sam Harmon and Marc Lucchesi. Photo © Paul Scott

In less than 18 months, an original, independent Australian production rose from complete obscurity to headline the world-famous Spiegeltent at the 2023 Sydney Fringe Festival. At the upcoming 2024 Green Room Awards, this same show has been nominated for Best New Writing for an Independent Musical plus two Best Lead for an Independent Musical nominations. That show is The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical. Its creators call it “an irreverent and inaccurate gothic fairy tale“, which is apt, but the critics have been more explicit.

BEAT magazine described the show as “Beauty and the Beast meets Book of Mormon. ABC Radio Smart Arts went one further: “The Book of Mormon meets Beauty and the Beast, f#@%ing Rocky Horror Picture Show, seducing Young Frankenstein, as told by Billy Connolly!”

Like anyone with a molecule of music in their heart, I adore those productions, so when I went to see The Marvellous Elephant Man during its Sydney run, my hopes were high.

The show began at the ‘freak show’, where the enigmatic Ringmaster (played by Marc Lucchesi) led an all-singing, all-dancing, whole-ensemble musical introduction to the hapless John Merrick – AKA the Elephant Man (played by Ben Clark) – and the dastardly Dr Treves (played by Opera Australia star Kanen Breen).

The Marvellous Elephant Man: Ben Clark and Kanen Breen. Photo © Paul Scott

What followed was 140 minutes of “outrageously entertaining” (Adelaide Advertiser) musical comedy gold, where a refreshingly traditional story about love and acceptance was enriched by a barnstorming score and big belly laughs.

During the performance, I discovered that the Rocky Horror comparisons weren’t just justifiable, they were unavoidable. The shows share the same electrifying irreverence and subversive swagger.

Needless to say, by the show’s end, I was on my feet – along with the rest of the audience – giving The Marvellous Elephant Man the Musical the standing ovation it deserved.

Given the production’s very first showing was in the 100-capacity Brunswick JazzLab in mid-2022, the fact the musical was headlining the 650-person Sydney Spiegeltent just 15 months later is an achievement in and of itself – especially when you consider the play was composed by accident.

“We had no realistic plans to ever make a musical,” laughs Marc Lucchesi, one of the three musicians behind the production. “We started out writing songs that made us laugh, while drinking cheap wine in Jay and Sarah’s two-bedroom apartment. We only started writing stuff down because we thought maybe our friends might laugh at it, too.”

Writer/performer Jayan Nandagopan; producer/co-director Christopher HF Mitchell; writer/performer Marc Lucchesi, and writer/musical director Sarah Nandagopan. Photo © Paul Scott

Despite the show’s spontaneous beginnings, the production’s success becomes progressively less surprising the more you know about the team behind it. Written by three world-class musicians – Lucchesi (of the funk band, Vaudeville Smash), Sarah Nandagopan and Jay Nandagopan – the reason for Elephant Man’s superb, genre-spanning score becomes apparent.

Shortly after the show’s debut, the independent filmmaker Christopher HF Mitchell joined the production as Director. Mitchell then travelled to the Edinburgh Fringe, where he recruited the Olivier Award-winning Guy Masterson as his co-Director.

The new, extended creative team then set to work polishing the production and recruiting a world-class cast (including the aforementioned Clark and Breen) in preparation for the Adelaide Fringe Festival debut. In Adelaide, the company earned 18 five-star reviews and the coveted Adelaide Critics’ Circle Award for Best Show.

The Marvellous Elephant Man. Photo © Paul Scott

And, as far as the creative team are concerned, they’re just getting started. The show is currently in development for international audiences, and there’s even talk of a film adaptation. It’s easy to see how the production could be scaled up. At the Sydney Spiegeltent showings, top hats and tails jostled with creaking crimson bodices while a literal gilded cage descended from the roof.

But this is still an indie production, and a relatively new one at that, so it’s easy to see how serious investment could transform the musical into a West End-worthy show.

Patrick McDonald of the Adelaide Advertiser agrees: ” … [it’s] the equal of any top-notch Broadway or West End show! It’s ribald and politically incorrect – and the audience laps that up with every gasp of shock followed by howling laughter and applause.”

But according to Co-Director, Christopher HF Mitchell, there’s another, more telling indicator of the show’s future: “We’ve recorded audience members returning three, four or five times – each time bringing new friends and family to see the show. One fan came back eight times, and took two inter-state flights … Guy [Masterson] and I have started calling them the ‘Elephanatics’.”

As of time of writing, the results of the 2024 Green Show Awards remain uncertain, but one thing is clear. As to the question of whether The Marvellous Elephant Man is a musical destined for greatness. The people have spoken!

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