State Highway 48, a New Zealand rock opera featuring 26 original songs, is making its Auckland debut this October. The story follows a typical Kiwi family as they encounter the challenges of middle-aged life, including changes with family, work and friendships. Through these, the main character Dave struggles with the black dog of depression. Chris Williams, the writer and composer, utilized his struggles with mental health to develop the play. We chat with him here.
What makes State Highway 48 unique?
As a musical, it’s not your standard song and dance show. It’s a depiction of life, raw and real with songs replacing dialogue. I’m not aware of any other shows that deal with this subject matter with all music while dealing with some very heavy themes. It’s made in New Zealand, and we want to take it to the world.
What were some of your inspirations for this project?
In 2009, I was in quite a big hole as far as my mental health was concerned. One way I could escape this was to play music. One night I developed a riff that I felt was more suited to a TV show or musical. So I decided to start developing a musical.
I was 48 back then (hence the title) and had seen a lot of friends and associates experience all the highs and lows of middle-age life – both at home and work. At the same time, my own state of mind was something I never talked about as I no doubt gave the impression that all was ok – four amazing kids, a lovely wife, nice property, a growing business etc. What could possibly be wrong? But the nature of depression is that it can occur in the most unlikely places, so I thought all these elements would be great subject matter.
When I was about ¾ of the way through writing State Highway 48, I took my family to New York for Christmas. A few days before Christmas I had a call from the family of my best mate, Gordon Clarke. They told me Gordy had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour. I was devastated. It was there that I made a promise to myself and to Gordy that I would finish the show and get it up and running. Gordy never got to see it but his family did– I dedicated the launch season to him. Gordy had always wanted to write a book, but he didn’t get the chance to finish some of the work he started. So his death inspired me to push through and make the show happen.
State Highway 48 features characters struggling with mental health problems. Was it challenging to try to portray these earnestly? Why did you find it important for mental health to play such a central role?
It was important to me to show that the black dog is personal. By that I mean everyone who gets visited by the black dog has their own journey. The consistent elements are that he can strike at any time and is relentless in his attacks. Often there’s no rhyme or reason as to who suffers depression; it can occur in the most unlikely places.
Based on my own experiences, the challenge was in giving the character the appropriate mix of charm and evil, while showing the effects that can happen if he latches on with deadly intent. There’s a scene, very powerful, where the black dog lures Dave to his balcony and tries to push him off. This is a metaphor for suicidal thoughts and proves to be the catalyst for Dave to start talking and taming his black dog.
To make sure I had created a faithful portrayal of depression, I had the script assessed by the Health Promotion Agency – the people who created the John Kirwan campaign. I also invited their Mental Health Manager, Virginia Duncan, to the launch of our professional run in 2016. She sent me a glowing endorsement of the portrayal of depression.
It was important to me to include mental health in the show because it’s so prevalent in our everyday lives and is the cause of a great deal of struggle for many people. One of the biggest problems is that many people, particularly men, don’t talk about it. I wanted to include it since no story about the road of middle age would be accurate without it, plus I’ve always thought that even if we get one audience member from every show talking then we’ve made a difference.
What was your goal with this play?
First of all, I wanted to finish it to honour Gordy. I also wanted to entertain people – make them laugh and cry, give them a great night out while provoking them to think and talk. Also, I wanted to demonstrate that it’s not unusual to feel down; in fact it’s very common. But the secret to start dealing with it is communicating.
There’s so much to celebrate in the everyday. As our lives become more complex and busy, sometimes we forget that it’s the little things that can make us happy.
Our aim is to tell this story on as many stages around the world as we can.
What styles of music does the play feature?
The music is deliberately accessible so as to allow it to depict everyday life. There’s a mix of ballads, rock, blues and even a couple of semi-classical pieces.
Have you written a rock opera before? How was it different from other projects you have worked on? 26 original songs seems like a bit of a challenge!
State Highway 48 was my first rock opera. I have since written and produced another show, The Quest, which is a parody of reality talent shows. I am now halfway through my third show, The Rug, which is a commentary on keeping up with the Joneses.
Writing the first one was incredibly challenging. Unlike writing a series of songs for an album, you have to make every word follow the last one, where the very first word of the first song leads to the last word of the last one! It’s a challenge. Because you’re writing a sequence of scenes, each song has to be a story or mini-opera in itself. Writing for characters is also a challenge. Not only do you have to find the minimum amount of words to depict a complex situation or set of emotions, you have to make sure each song is in character– and adding kids to the mix makes it an even greater challenge.
A couple of the songs took so long to finish. For example, one of the kids’ songs was six months in the making.
So when I get asked, how did you write all that, my response is “one word, one note at a time.”
What do you hope is on audience members’ minds after they leave a performance? Are there conversations you are trying to prompt?
First of all, I hope they’ve had a fulfilling theatre experience– that they’ve appreciated the original music and taken in the story. I’ve had many people say to me that they thought I’d been looking in their windows and had written about their lives. Others have outlined their own struggles.
If you look around the theatre at half time there will be many people drying their eyes as the end of act one is very moving.
The conversations I’d like to prompt are around things that might be affecting relationships that have remained unsaid and have caused a shutting down of communication. Further to this, it would be great to think that if some people are struggling with mental health, the show will be a catalyst to start talking.