The Wiggles inspired Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall to write a musical

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Aussie band Kitty Litter see themselves as the antipodean answer to Russian dissident group Pussy Riot – but their careers are stalling.

Husband and wife duo Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have created new musical Bananaland.Credit: Jo Duck

Fronted by 21-year-old Ruby Semblance, who believes in “art, music and angry choreography”, the quartet spits out original numbers such as Consumerist Pig and stages a mock musical trial to crucify British pop entrepreneur Simon Cowell as a Judas destroying the music business.

Unsurprisingly, Kitty Litter attracts few fans, until their song Bananaland – a satire of pork-barrelling and billionaire Clive Palmer’s incursion into federal politics – is mistaken for a children’s pop song about counting bananas and winds up on kids’ music playlists.

As the band heads north from Dubbo after playing another under-attended concert, families snap up tickets to their next gig, on the NSW-Queensland border. Thanks to their new-found popularity, Kitty Litter face a new dilemma: should they rebrand as a children’s band, junking their adult material?

This is Keir Nuttall and Kate Miller-Heidke’s new comedy musical, Bananaland, which is set to premiere in Brisbane next month.

Nuttall and his collaborator and wife Miller-Heidke were watching the Wiggles on television with their young son Ernie a few years ago when inspiration struck.

“We were wondering what was truly going on behind [the Wiggles’] eyes, and how they got there,” says Miller-Heidke. Becoming a children’s band “didn’t seem like something that would ever happen to someone deliberately”, she laughs.

Nuttall, director Simon Phillips and Miller-Heidke in Bananaland rehearsals.Credit: Jeff Busby

Older Wiggles fans might recall the group’s origins as the rock band the Cockroaches. Nuttall points out that the Wiggles even repurposed some old Cockroaches songs: for instance, Hot Tamale became Hot Potato.

Miller-Heidke adds: “We wouldn’t want to create the impression there’s a direct link between this [musical] and the Wiggles … something always fascinated us about them, but this is pure fiction.”

The mischief on stage is informed by the couple’s touring experiences, including Miller-Heidke’s successful career and Nuttall’s earlier days playing with his band in dive bars.

At the same time, the pair name-check the real, surreal world of children’s music making in Bananaland: “Hi-5 is worse than ISIS,” grumbles one character.

During rehearsals, Nuttall and Miller-Heidke discovered that one of their actors, Joe Kalou, who plays Kitty Litter guitarist Seb Kale, had been a member of Hi-5 in its latter years.

“He actually stayed quiet about it,” Nuttall says, with a laugh. “He never mentioned it, for some reason.”

The musical involves very physical comedy, and cast members have been adding their own playful choreography. Heading the cast as Ruby is Max McKenna, who played Muriel in the premiere season of P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, for which Miller-Heidke and Nuttall also composed original music.

Max McKenna also starred in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, for which Nuttall and Miller-Heidke wrote original songs.Credit: Lisa Tomasetti

“A lot of our writing comes out of a pop-rock tradition, and Max early on in Muriel showed this ability to straddle those two forms,” says Nuttall.

Miller-Heidke says McKenna, who uses they/them pronouns, “has been a bit of a muse since Muriel”. “I find Max’s voice to have this other-worldly beauty and power and emotion, and also [I admire] their acting chops – particularly for this role [as Ruby] because there’s a fair bit of clowning. Max is hilarious”.

Simon Phillips, who directed the Muriel musical, also directs Bananaland.

“I can’t imagine this show existing without him,” says Nuttall. “His belief in it is really the reason that it went ahead. We’ve also done two Shakespeare [plays] with him where Kate and I did the music [Twelfth Night and As You Like It], and his instinct for how music works with text is incredible. For someone who doesn’t play an instrument or isn’t a conductor, he will get quite granular.”

Nuttall and Miller-Heidke collaborated with Phillips on As You Like It for MTC. (Pictured: Christie Whelan Browne as Rosalind.)Credit: Jeff Busby

Yet the pair say the director, who doubled as a dramaturg on Bananaland, was blunt about Nuttall’s script during the development. “In terms of his storytelling instincts, both of us are still in awe of him,” says Miller-Heidke. “He’s a ray of sunshine, so charismatic and such a wonderful collaborator.

“[But] he has been brutal: this is Keir’s first script, and he and Simon have had many, many Zoom meetings [over] bottles of red wine, and he’s capable of delivering some really brutal truths.”

“Yeah, in a charming manner,” adds Nuttall, who then impersonates Phillips: “Well, frankly Keir, I mean I just don’t think your craft is good enough.” Nuttall and Heidke-Miller dissolve with laughter.

The pair prefer to compose separately, and Nuttall mostly wrote his script in cafes. Miller-Heidke says the “expansive, colourful and daring” music falls into three strands: the “bombastic” Kitty Litter songs; their “inane, catchy” songs when they become a kids’ band; and the various solo, duet and ensemble pieces where characters get to sing from the heart.

One song in the latter category is Toby, which Miller-Heidke can be seen singing online in a performance captured at Bananaland’s official launch in June, possibly inspired by her own experience as a parent. In the musical, the song is sung by Kitty Litter member Karen, desperately missing her five-year-old son while on tour: “Toby, now your mamma’s here / and for you, she would lay down her life.”

While Bananaland will premiere as part of Brisbane Festival, it is understood the musical will tour in the future to other cities including Sydney and Melbourne, with dates and venues yet to be announced.

“It’s on the cards,” says Nuttall of a tour, “but it’s too early for us to – ”

Miller-Heidke cuts in: “– confirm or deny.”

Given Muriel’s Wedding the Musical will open in the UK next year, what are the international prospects for Bananaland? “I’m not sure,” says Nuttall, who says their eyes are not on Broadway.

“It’s unashamedly Australian,” he says.“Everybody speaks in our vernacular, but it’s no more colloquial than Muriel’s Wedding, and I think a lot of the barriers to things being international is really just a [matter of] perception … A very specific cultural universe often works to a show’s advantage.”

It would be a mistake to dilute the Australianness of the show, adds Miller-Heidke: “We just want to have fun and make something good.”

Bananaland is at Queensland Performing Arts Centre from September 16 to October 1.

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