Tribute to musical icons

Warren Wills and Jess Mortlock rehearse for ‘Bowie and Mercury Rising’.

Composer Warren Wills is working on new shows including a tribute to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Zelda Cawthorne reports. 

IN New York last year, Warren Wills presented two readings of a new musical based on The Happy Hooker, the best-selling 1971 memoir by one-time call girl and brothel madam, Xaviera Hollander. 

Currently, he’s working with his long-time artistic collaborator, Melbourne director-writer Frank Howson, on Chopper: The Musical, inspired by the late, notorious criminal Mark “Chopper” Read, who also became a successful author. 

The Happy Hooker musical is well into development and Chopper will be happening two to three years from now,” said Wills. 

In the meantime, the 56-year-old international music director, composer and pianist is immersed in his latest offering: Bowie & Mercury Rising, which will have its world premiere at Chapel off Chapel in Melbourne on July 26.

Devised and directed by Wills, the 90-minute show celebrates the music and lives of icons David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, through the eyes of a London actress searching for hope after the passing of Bowie. 

“I was in London when Bowie died (in January 2016) and the outpouring of love for him was unbelievable,” said Wills, who divides his time between Britain and Australia.  

“Like Freddie Mercury, he had an extraordinary impact and through narrative, music and dance, Bowie & Mercury Rising illuminates the period that defined them. It’s an original boutique musical, not a tribute show.”

It’s the latest in a long, eclectic list of productions by the prolific Wills, including 2012’s From Genesis to Broadway, which was written and directed by Howson, and also had its premiere at Chapel off Chapel. 

From Genesis to Broadway included Hebrew hymns, Ladino and klezmer music, hits by George Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein – it was music theatre bound to appeal to Jewish audiences and Wills was well qualified to deliver it.

Born and educated in Melbourne, Wills is the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants Isaac and Esther Wilynic, who arrived in Australia in 1938 and settled in Shepparton in rural Victoria, which had a thriving Jewish farming community during the first half of the 20th century.

“Wilynic was too hard for Aussies to pronounce, so it was anglicised and my maternal grandfather, Jacob Brodsky, who settled in the UK, did the same,” said Wills. 

“He became Jack Bentley – might as well call himself after a classy car, he decided – and my mother, Sheila, was born in Birmingham. In 1948, she became a British chess champion at the age of 17.” 

Wills was four when he started playing piano and 12 when he discovered jazz. His passion has endured – he presented From Gershwin to John Lennon at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival last month.

Original operas and musicals, more than 20 albums in genres from pop and jazz to world music, numerous music direction credits including with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Woody Allen – Wills can boast a remarkable career that was recognised early when he won the 1992 Carling London Best Musical Award and has made him a respected name in Europe, the United States and Asia.

Wills is also a deeply committed music educator, not just through his master classes, but voluntary work for youth programs such as the one run for troubled teenagers by London’s Haringay Shed Theatre Company.

“I used it as a template when La Trobe University asked me to run a similar program in Shepparton in 2010 – amazing to go there nearly 70 years after my grandparents – and now I’m working with the Les Twentyman Foundation on Embrace, which has just been launched in Melbourne’s Western suburbs.”

The six-month community drama program for at-risk teens, including refugees, will be celebrated with a show titled Heroes & Refugees, presented in Melbourne on August 23 and dedicated to the memory of Sir Nicholas Winton, the British humanitarian who organised the rescue of almost 700 Czechoslovakian Jewish children on the eve of World War II.

With Bowie & Mercury Rising looming fast, Wills has a lot on his plate, though he’s confident the show, featuring Zimbabwean-born Melbourne singer-songwriter Thando Sikwila and dancer Jess Mortlock, will be a winner. 

Its catchline, Major Tom and King Freddie Live Forever, will certainly strike an instant chord with the generation dazzled by those phenomenal talents who, from the 1970s, dominated pop and created indelible images – Bowie through personas such as Space Oddity’s astronaut, Major Tom, and Mercury through regalia fitting for his role as frontman of rock band Queen.

Wills plans to bring Bowie & Mercury Rising to Sydney next year.

A father of three, Warren Wills can count on a calming influence at home, thanks to his Israeli partner, pilates instructor Lilian Rodan. 

“She’s a health guru and I’m a health casualty,” he said cheerfully.