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Barnaby Joyce is the gift to political satirists that keeps on giving. Almost a decade after he threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp’s un-quarantined teacup pups, he cheerfully agreed to take part in Andrew Hansen and Chris Taylor’s six-part ABC musical documentary series, Australian Epic, which mixes straight interviews with song and dance.
The story of Pistol and Boo, told through bush ballad, hip-hop and rousing chorus numbers, sits alongside musical interpretations of other contemporary Australian folklore – Mary Donaldson, Schapelle Corby, Melbourne’s cursed observation wheel, unlikely Winter Olympics gold medallist Steven Bradbury, and, on a sombre note, the Tampa affair.
Andrew Hansen as Barnaby Joyce with dogs Pistol and Boo in the musical comedy series Australian Epic.
“Ever since we wrote musical nonsense on the Chaser, we wanted to write longer-form musical comedy,” says Hansen. “I’ve always thought musicals are a bit naff and silly. There’s something inherently amusing about people bursting into song for no apparent reason, even if a song is melancholy. So we’re very excited to be telling these stories in a new way.”
Hansen, who plays Bradbury and Joyce, is part of a seven-piece ensemble cast that includes only two other comedians, Fiona Choi (The Family Law) and Michelle Brasier, who is a scream as Queen Margrethe of Denmark, and as Pistol and Boo’s Gold Coast dog groomer. The rest are stars of the stage – Phoenix Jackson Mendoza (Six the Musical), Sami Afuni (Hamilton), Nicholas Kong (Miss Saigon) and Amy Lehpamer (& Juliet).
Lehpamer “relished the chance” to play Schapelle Corby, who was not interviewed for the series.
“I wasn’t conflicted,” says Lehpamer. “She’s gone into reality television, so it does make her approachable as a topic because she has continued to keep herself in the spotlight … Her story is about our [Australian] privilege – how we behave when we’re overseas, what we think we’re entitled to. That extends one further to what it means to be a white Australian, and that’s something we’re only really starting to grapple with in the last few years. It’s less about Schapelle, and more about how we dealt with Schapelle as a country.”
Sami Afuni and Amy Lehpamer as Hotman and Schapelle Corby in Australian Epic.
Lehpamer, who found solace recording demo vocals for the series while COVID had closed theatres, believes “musical theatre is definitely having a moment”.
“Before Hamilton was The Book of Mormon. Bringing that South Park humour to the stage really opened up musical theatre to more contemporary comedy,” she says. “It happened in the ’80s with Les Mis. Every generation has that pull-from-all-sides musical that unites people, and gets them back buying tickets. It feels like we’re back in that heady time.”
Hansen says the series, which was shot on a shoestring budget, with Aunty Donna director Max Miller restricting the musical numbers to one take, is intended as “a warts and all celebration of Australia”. He hopes it will appeal to a national sense of irony, and prompt a rethink about some chapters of our history.
“We wanted to take people to unexpected places, and the Tampa episode, which is the series finale, is a much darker, meatier and more serious story than the rest,” says Hansen. “We hope that it’s very moving and thoughtful. It’s still got a satirical spin on it – it came out of Chris and my heads – but we were lucky enough to be able to interview [author] Abbass Nazari, who was rescued by the crew of the Tampa. He is the main storyteller. It’s an amazing story of endurance and survival and trauma and heartbreak and joy.”
The interviewees won’t see the musical numbers until the series goes to air. Hansen hopes Joyce enjoys his interpretation of his character, and viewers the details that emerge from that saga.
“Like Chris and I, our producer, Laura Wate from Princess Pictures, has a background in journalism, and she was keen to dig up new information in our research,” Hansen says. “So we’re not just retelling stories that people already know. We wanted to have some spicy little surprises in there, too.”
Australian Epic premieres on Wednesday, November 8, at 8pm on the ABC.
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