Millers Point Songbook

Music and Lyrics by Joanna Weinberg. Director Joanna Weinberg. Garrison Church, The Rocks, Sydney. 24 – 28 May, 2024

Reviewed : 24 May, 2024*

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Millers Point Songbook celebrates the story of Millers Point through the many people who have made it their home. It grew from a Heritage NSW Community Grant awarded in 2021 to local resident Anne Warr for an “Argyle Place Interpretation Plan”. That plan included some funding for a “theatrical performance” and Joanna Weinberg was invited to write the music and lyrics for a performance which would include members of Choir Rocks, the local community choir. Weinberg’s research led to this amazing musical history of Millers Point and The Rocks.

From the indigenous owners of the land whose “Children laughed upon the sand” and the three windmills that gave the area its name, to Jack Mundy and the Green Bans, and more lately, the heartless sale of Sirius, Weinberg captured the spirit of Millers Point in words and music.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

As VIVID began to light up the city on Friday 24th May, her words and music echoed from the sandstone walls of the Garrison Church that has stood guard over Millers Point since 1859. What better place for a tribute to this precious part of the city to make its debut.

Michelle Goldman, Paul Miskin and Jeremy Cook provided the music. Members of Choir Rocks were the animated chorus – and some of the historic characters Weinberg brought back to life in her stories.

Others were portrayed very powerfully by Rob Johnson, Elaine Morel and Megan Walsh. With James Hart narrating, they told of brave Captain Dawes and his refusal to “take part in killing” the real owners of the land; the arrival of merino sheep and the wool trade; and weary out-of-work dockers stretched along the “Hungry Mile”. They re-imagined the life of Miller’s Point in vivid action, vibrant voice and wry Australian humour.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Weinberg has that gift of many good Australian writers. She knows how say things simply but with passion – or humour – and real understanding. As she put her lyrics to music, she also followed the musical trends of the time, beginning with the tempo of folk songs and ballads, then becoming really upbeat as her stories and characters moved into more recent decades. Her songsters, all versatile, followed wherever she led, taking their characters through 200 years of Millers Point social, political and musical history.

There was passion when Megan Walsh as Mary Underwood sang of bringing up ten children on her own as her husband, the dashing but unethical Captain Grimes (Rob Johnson), sailed off on his whaling ship to “hunt the beast with silver flesh beneath the Southern Moon”. There was humour as Walsh and Johnson reappeared as two merino sheep bleating about their pedigree bred by Elizabeth “upon Macarthur’s faaaaarm”.

James Hart became Ted Brady spruiking on a soap box about the “injustices grave” that led to the Maritime Strike of 1890; Annerose de Jong from Choir Rock was Maybanke Anderson writing in the Woman’s Voice about equality and equity “until we have the vote”. The women of the choir became Temperance marchers in 1918 and midwives during World War II.

Elaine Morel opened the performance with the ghostly message of a time long past where:

This same water lapped at feet which

Years ago cruel fate did meet ….

And closed it with a tribute written by Sue Hunt to Australian of the Year Georgina Long and her research that is putting “melanoma in the past”.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Joanna Weinberg’s direction is as imaginative as her writing. Being able to bring the choir and principals together so seamlessly is an art in itself; bringing them together as so many characters expressing so many different emotions takes time, patience and a lot of love from everyone involved. That love shone from Weinberg and her cast especially as they became the residents of Sirius, that gem of social housing” sold “for the greater good.”

The Miller’s Point Songbook is a musical anthology of that special part of Sydney where ghosts of the past linger on the Nurses’ Walk, hide in the shadows of the Argyle Cut, skip rope on the Village Green or pray before the stained-glass windows of the old Garrison Church.

All praise to Joanna Weinberg for reviving so many of those ghosts in this new Australian musical.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance