A new musical matches the memorable music surrounding the Vietnam War with the stories of some of four fictional characters
Think of the Vietnam War and music comes to mind. Loud and angry combat songs like 'Paint it Black', 'All Along the Watchtower' and 'Run Through the Jungle'. But also the quieter protest movement songs like 'What’s Going On' and 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. The soundtrack of war was never so memorable, and no other conflict before or since has had such a symbiotic relationship with the music of its era.
It’s something the makers of Rolling Thunder Vietnam are keen to harness. A rock concert of sorts, peppered with monologues, the show is opening soon in Toowoomba, before a national tour that will take in most Australian capitals and some regional centres. Time Out spoke to writer Bryce Hallett during preparations for the show’s opening.
Bryce, what can audiences expect when they come to the show?
Rolling Thunder tells the story of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War through the eyes of four fictional characters. Johnny has come from the country to enlist, leaving behind his girlfriend Sarah, whose views on the war will change while he’s away. We’ve also included Andy, a fellow soldier who befriends Johnny. And the American soldier Thomas, gung-ho and righteous. In some ways, he represents the different approach the Americans took to fighting this war.
And Australia and the US did differ in their approach to battle, didn’t they?
Yeah, they did. The Australians tended to use strategy more, hiding in the jungle. They’d use their socks to cover up their watches, to avoid detection, whereas the Americans weren’t about to cover up their Rolexes. They felt they belonged in Vietnam, and didn’t care so much about strategy or stealth. Some veterans told me that if you couldn’t see the Americans coming you could smell them, their cologne and cigars. The show plays good-naturedly with this difference in national character.
How have you structured the piece? Do you use scenes and dialogue?
No. The characters are linked but don’t converse. I’ve used soliloquies to tell the story, and was interested in the motif of the letter. Letters were the most important thing in the lives of the soldiers and their families and loved ones. Of course, there was no Internet or mobile phones, so letters were the only way to stay connected with home. There were often postal strikes at the time, and some veterans told me how annoyed they would get with Australia’s postal services.
Also, there is something so personal and intimate about reading out a letter. So many of the songs of that time are epic, lyrically and musically, and I wanted a way of tapping into the deeply personal. Letters gave me a way to do that.
Did the project require a lot of research?
Yes, I read a lot, but mainly I just hung out with some Vietnam vets, who were incredibly helpful and good-natured. I went to Vietnam with some of them, and was struck by their humour and generosity. Many ended up marrying Vietnamese women, and really falling in love with the country and its people. So they were my main resource, I suppose.
Why do you think so much music was written about Vietnam?
You know, people say, "If you can remember the '60s, you mustn’t have been there", but I find that incredibly glib. Young people at that time were really engaged with the world, and I think the songs reflect that. It was also the first televised war which, coming from a journalistic background, I find really interesting. This was a very switched on generation, and the music reflects that.
You have a young cast, which of course reflects the ages of the people who fought in Vietnam. Is there also a desire to make the era engaging to young people?
Definitely. I remember in one of our first read-throughs, with the cast singing a capella, being incredibly moved by the image of these young people channelling the emotions of young people from generations earlier. They got it, too. They were really engaged with the material, and most of them had some connection to the war, family members who’d fought, etc. I also think young people can empathise with the era because it too was a time when everything was in flux. Everything was changing. And music was leading the change.
So what makes the Vietnam conflict still relevant today?
Well, lots of things. We have a Prime Minister who is basically reiterating the notion that Australia will follow the US into any future conflicts. It’s reminiscent of ‘all the way with LBJ’ and shows us that not much has changed. We’re also still trying to grapple with the legacy of war, not just the financial costs, but the emotional ones.