Fifteen years since he wrote it, and after many productions and a hugely successful film adaptation, writer Tony Briggs can still sit through The Sapphires and love every minute of it.
“Even now, I still love the music, I love watching the audience react,” he says. “And as I’ve gotten older with it, I really love seeing the whole age spectrum getting into it.”
A jukebox musical full of classic Motown bangers, The Sapphires tells the story of a quartet of Yorta Yorta sisters from country Victoria whose Supremes tribute show catches the eye of a talent scout.
But this is 1969 and the girls aren’t destined for the club circuit or a spot on In Melbourne Tonight. Instead they’re shipped out to Vietnam to entertain frontline troops.
Briggs’ script zeroes in on the discrimination and prejudice faced by the young women and captures the social upheaval of the era, but the emphasis is on celebration: of the peerless hits of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records; of Aboriginal culture and its resilience.
“Actually, a lot of people now don’t realise it was a stage musical before it was a film,” Briggs says. “In a theatre, it’s a really intimate experience and you have a live band and the girls are singing live right at you. It’s vibrant, full of joy.”
Briggs has directed a new production of the play, which is touring nationwide to more than 140 venues. The cast includes Ngaire Pigram (a veteran of the 2011 London season of The Sapphires), Mindy Kwanten, Matilda Brown and Lorinda Merrypor. It touches down at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, September 24-28.
It’s a chance for Briggs to put his stamp on a show that is more than personal for him. The Sapphires is, with some elaboration, his mum Laurel Robinson’s early life. “I wrote the story as a result of some conversations I had with my mother and there was a point where it occurred to me that she was talking quite a lot about her time in Vietnam,” Briggs says.
“I just picked up a pen and started just writing down stuff, because some of the things she was saying were quite fascinating. And still, at this point, I wasn’t intending to write about her. I was just taking notes, really.”
As the notes piled up, it became apparent to Briggs that his mum’s experience was an extraordinary one. Aged 21, she was a witness to history and sometimes she was dangerously close it.
“At one point she was held up at gunpoint with some of the band members,” says Briggs. “She had a gun to her head at one point and the Vietnamese translator they had with them basically saved their lives.
“Later in the tour she was shot at in a helicopter. She thought they were fireworks. Stories like that just blew me away.”
Only a very few works for the stage have been written about Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, Briggs adds. “It’s something we usually see it through American eyes and mostly in film. I thought it was important to tell about the other people who were there – who served in their own way. That’s how I see what my mum did now. She served.”
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Over the past decade and a half, The Sapphires has been a showcase for some of Australia’s brightest acting and singing talents. The original cast featured Deborah Mailman, Rachael Maza, Lisa Flanagan and Ursula Yovich. Christine Anu and Casey Donovan starred in later productions. Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens and Jessica Mauboy graced the film adaptation.
“I’m loathed to pick anyone out of this production because they’re all so great and so talented,” says Brigs. “But Lorinda Merrypor is someone every theatre producer in the country should look out for. She’s a very talented individual and absolutely loves what she does.”
One of the joys in directing The Sapphires is being able to cast emerging talents and spotlight them, says Briggs.
“It’s part of my business plan for this production because there are so many incredibly talented young performers out there – girls who have grown up knowing this story from the film or seeing it in a theatre. They want to be a Sapphire.
“An American friend said to me, in the vernacular, ‘it ain’t no fun if your homeez can’t have none’, and I really get that. What is the point if you can’t do something for love and do it for the people you love?”
Way back, says Briggs, someone approached him with the idea of turning The Sapphires into a play for an all-white cast.
“My first reaction was to laugh,” says Briggs.
“Later, I thought about that moment and well, if I had no morals, no respect for my people or my mother, I could have done that and made a mint. No one would have known. But that’s not who I am and today I’m proud that’s never been who I am.
“This show has created so many opportunities and if I never write anything else again, never do anything else in my career, it wouldn’t matter. I did this.”
The Sapphires plays Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, September 24-28