Nick Enright: Lyricist

This is an article I wrote for The Canberra Times in 2004. I was trying to draw attention to Nick Enright’s overlooked achievements as a lyricist, and I’m sure you remember all the subsequent parades in the streets, and the huge gala specials on all the TV networks, where everyone sang his songs. No? Hence, a reprint today, on the 7th anniversary of his death.

Nick Enright died a year ago, at the unjust age of 52. His name is familiar through The Boy From Oz and Lorenzo’s Oil, not to mention the plays Daylight Saving and Blackrock, but in a life of seemingly endless work he also wrote original musicals. If you can recite a lyric from an Australian show-tune, the odds are about even that it was written by Nick Enright. And if you can’t think of a single Australian show-tune, Nick Enright understood why.

Nick (one meeting was sufficient for first names) had a great asset in himself as playwright, and always provided his own script. He sketched his characters with economy, making sure that when the time came to sing, there was still something to say. He also had the kind of education they don’t make anymore: he was the top student of Latin in NSW when he left school in 1967, and pretty handy at both Greek and French as well. He wore his learning lightly, but it showed in his terrific ear for the Australian tongue, and his ability to mix erudition with slang.

American lyricist Lorenz Hart was a lifelong idol, and the man who rhymed “vexed again” with “oversexed again” made his presence felt in Enright’s first and most popular musical work, The Venetian Twins (1979, and ever since). Tonino, the hero, brags that he will “squash every foe into play-dough” while “I trumpet my masculine credo.” Like Hart, Nick knew how to mimic bad operetta, never better than when super-soprano Beatrice trills “for his dancing and romancing are entrancing / And I’m chancing all for love.”

Of course, it’s not all about clever rhymes, and although not yet thirty, Nick managed to avoid the pitfalls of the young wordsmith out to impress. He grasped very early that great lyricists, like great poets, don’t rely on obscure, exotic words; they use everyday words in unexpected ways. Imagine, for example, that you have two ending lines for your villain Pancrazio. He is “a dark and brackish well”, and he has “walked the streets of hell”, but what comes first? Sell? Pell-mell? John Bell? It is, naturally, “I am fiendish, I am fell”, but it takes a professional to remember this archaic meaning, perfectly in character, of an everyday word.

The most celebrated line in The Venetian Twins is sung by the underdog of the piece, Zanetto. He longs to return to his small hometown of Jindyworoback, and announces that he’s “Goin’ back to Jindy / not Mudgee or Menindi”, and “not back to Goondiwindi”. So far, we might all have done as well with patience and an atlas, but Zanetto is also “goin’ back to Jindy” because “it’s where I went to kindy.” You should always leave your best rhyme until last, and it still gets a laugh from audiences who know every word of the song.

Having established this demanding level of craft in his first musical outing, Enright kept it up for the rest of his career. The twin sirens of Australian musical theatre sing of lucrative markets overseas, and success in the pop charts. Writers are encouraged to keep their work “mainstream”, which means don’t be too Aussie, and please write a hit song. Nick had no interest in baffling audiences for their own good, but he also never wrote down to them. In Summer Rain, first staged in 1983, it is the travelling showfolk, stranded in Tunaround Creek, who sing of the performer’s life: “Yes, nights on end, you’ve half a mind to chuck it / Stick on your top hat, give it one more chance / ‘Cause maybe tonight you’ll catch the lightning in a bucket.” The residents of Turnaround Creek include publican Barry Doyle, who remembers his dead wife Nancy:  “each morning without her something dies” and “there will never be morning like the morning in her eyes.” The songs have popular appeal, but Enright and composer Terence Clarke kept them theatrical, attached to the stage, not yearning to be out on the streets earning real money.

Nick wrote three musicals with composer David King, the first of which became The Betrothed (1993). It was based on “I Promessi Sposi”, an obscure novel by Alessandro Manzoni, himself no household name.  “I’m not sure,” sniffed a Lecturer in Voice at the time, “that the Great Australian Musical should be based on a nineteenth century Italian novel.” I’m not sure, I thought, that it has to be The Great Australian Musical, but I needed work.

They were all supposed to be The Great Australian Musical, of course – they still are – and Nick kept taking a crack at them. The Voyage of Mary Bryant (1996), later simply Mary Bryant, came up against what Enright called the “phenomenal resistance to colonial material”. But there was a fresh approach to a familiar situation in the convicts’ salute to their transport ship, The Charlotte: “Hail the floating jail / With sea for bars, wind for jailer / Prison under sail.”

Miracle City (1996), with composer Max Lambert, concerned an American family of televangelists, the Truswells, and their patriarch Ricky-Bob’s dream of a Christian theme park. It took pains to present such people absolutely honestly, and thereby sent them up rotten. Spruiking for funds, Ricky-Bob promises “You’ll be pair up two by two / Board the Ark with you know who”, and “at the feast of loaves and fishes”, customers might “win a set of baking dishes.”

The last Enright / King musical was The Good Fight (2002), a tale of boxer Les Darcy and a fictional soldier, Charlie, who was not a million miles from Nick himself. “The dux of Maitland Boys’ High School?” asks another character, “With a classical education?”  “Yes,” replies Charlie (Nick, raised in Maitland, was dux of Riverview), “So I can write about heroes.” Charlie does write, about Darcy’s exploits, embarking on “a mighty odyssey of scrapper and scribbler”.

It was, Nick said, the best of his musicals with King, and he held high hopes for it at a time when he was losing faith in musicals themselves. The form, he thought, was moribund, trapped by conventions that had run out of steam. It had to evolve in order to survive, and this task now has to be achieved without him. Fortunately we have his work: The Queensland Theatre Company is presenting The Venetian Twins later this year, and every other week, it seems, someone wants to revive Miracle City.

Nick did have a flaw as a lyricist: his technique was too good for his work to become famous. There wasn’t an “Enright” sound. He and his musical collaborators gave each show and each set of characters their own tone, and this, paradoxically, makes it more difficult to appreciate their achievements. They allowed laconic Aussie men to sing, without making them citizens of Oklahoma. They gave drained Australian women depth and soul, but didn’t trivialise their lives with a kick-line.

The last time I saw Nick was in 2001. Miracle City was part of a programme of Australian musicals, in edited concert form, and a score I had co-written was also included. I was miffed that a critic had described the music as “atonal” (twice), and while chatting with Nick at interval, I attempted to crack wise. “I should send him,” I announced, “a copy of Berg’s Violin Concerto with a note, reading ‘This is atonal.'”

“Oh, no,” said Nick, properly horrified, “Don’t do that.”

It was a stupid waste of my time, and worse, of his. I should have said, “Nick, how can we fix our play?” and “By the way, what did you think of the lyrics?”

I don’t know what he might have said, but it would have been worth hearing.

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5 thoughts on “Nick Enright: Lyricist

    • Would that I could link you to some of the music, but there’s no commercially available cast recording. Nick’s materials are housed at ADFA, in the special collections, and I listened to a demo tape he made, with David King at the piano.

      The show was the first recipient, if memory serves, of a grant from NFAM, the National Foundation for the Australian Musical, which is now defunct.

      A version was staged in Perth in 1993, with WAAPA students, and there it ended. So it goes.

  1. There’s been a gratifying revival of interest in this post since the Hayes Theatre Company announced that ‘Miracle City’ will be be one of their upcoming productions.

    I was lucky enough to see the show in its initial incarnation, back in 199whatever and, although it had a darn fine score, I thought it had, for a one-act show, second-act trouble.

    I fervently hope the newest version will knock us all on our (forgive the Australian spelling) arses.

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