No matter what
Many artists are driven not only by talent, but a commitment to carry on no matter what. Writer and composer Chris Williams takes us inside his world and shows what it takes to get to the opening night of State Highway 48.
Torture and obstacle courses
My story starts in my living room at the house we used to have on the outskirts of Hamilton. As a business owner and busy father of four, my encounters with the black dog of depression were frequent. One true escape for me was to sit at my piano, come up with song ideas and play and sing them to an audience consisting of my wife, kids and two cats. This evolved to creating enough songs to make an album, which I put together with the help of a very patient and capable sound engineer over a 12 month period.
It was during this time that I developed what is now the opening riff of State Highway 48. At the time it felt like a TV show theme or a motif for a musical production. So it was then I decided it could be the start of a rock opera. A couple of other song ideas followed and State Highway 48 was on the road. Given where I was in life, what I’d seen going on around us I thought a story about the journey of middle age would fit. I was asked recently what inspired me to write this show, and my response was “everyday life”. To me, everyday life is beautiful. We need to celebrate it more – the simple things like hanging with the kids, meeting mates for a beer, going on a date.
However, I am sure everyone who’s created a new work will relate to both the torture of writing and the obstacle course we’re all required to conquer in order to get to the stage.
Little slices of life
There have been a few key elements and some very important moments fired by the encouragement and support of some very committed people.
There are times when “the road” has felt like one big long steep hill. The show is a story told over 26 songs which in themselves are little slices of life, all of which are woven together to form the overall story. One thing that kept me going was that I told everyone who asked what I was doing musically that I was writing a rock opera about the journey of middle age. For a long time I said it was about half finished. I reckon there’s a lot of half finished work still around!
Slowly but surely, one word and one note at a time I got through it. At Christmas in 2011, I took my family on an adventure to the USA. We had Christmas in New York. It was there that I got a call from the sister in law of my best mate, Gordon Clarke. The news was that Gordy had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and was terminally ill. We were all devastated. In a bowling alley on Broadway, next to the theatre where School of Rock was playing, I made a commitment to myself to finish the show, get it on stage and dedicate the first run to Gordy. We always used to compare notes on our creative projects – Gordy had a couple of books and a screenplay on the go, and would have got them out but time ran out. We all have a “book” in us in one form or another. The time to get it out is now.
Tears, sweat and hunting funding
One of the vital things I learnt in making the work was that the people you need are those who believe in the product and can bring something extra to build on the foundations created. I got asked if I’m going to star in the show, direct it, play in the orchestra. Even though I had little idea of what I was doing, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do half as good a job as all the people who took these roles. Knowing your strengths is important, knowing your weaknesses is even more important.
Knowing your strengths is important, knowing your weaknesses is even more important.
Auditions, rehearsals, band practices, marketing, blood sweat and tears followed as we made our way to opening night. One of the most exciting nights of my life was sitting in the audience as they applauded after the first song. It was an unbelievable feeling. But even then, we knew we had more work to do.
We kept developing. Someone had the bright idea to apply for funding. We’d be a shoe-in I thought. Declined. No real explanation. Oh well, let’s keep going anyway, no matter what.
Then there was another development season in 2015 before planning our first professional run in 2016. We were back in Hamilton performing followed by an eight venue tour of the North Island. It was incredibly hard but went really well. We applied again for funding for this stage. We had earned our stripes, got great reviews. Declined. Oh well, let’s keep going anyway, no matter what.
And now we head to Auckland
Two of the old cast, all the rest are new. A new director, creative producer and music director and some fresh energy. It’s coming together well. It’s been 10 years since the inspiration came along, eight years since Gordy motivated me, blood sweat and tears all the way. And with the input of incredibly talented people State Highway 48 is running hot on the road. We’re loving it and reckon it’s a road that could go anywhere. Who knows, some funding may follow…