When Yusuf Islam – born Steven Giorgiades, and better known to his legion of fans as Cat Stevens – returned to Australia in 2010, he showcased some songs from his forthcoming musical, Moonshadow. Named after one of Islam’s many folk rock classics, it was in some ways inevitable that Moonshadow would provide a musical vehicle for Islam’s philosophical, spiritual and painfully astute observations on the social fears and emotional foibles that characterise contemporary society. The response to Islam’s fledgling musical was overwhelmingly positive; so positive, in fact, that Islam decided to premiere the show in Melbourne.
Gemma-Ashley Kaplan, who plays Lisa in Moonshadow, was introduced to the music of Cat Stevens through her parents’ music collection. “My first introduction to Cat Stevens’ music was basically in my childhood,” Kaplan says. “My parents are both musicians, and my dad is a guitarist, so I was very much exposed to Cat Stevens’ music through what he was listening to, and playing,” she says.
Born in South Africa before moving to Australia with her family, Kaplan followed her parents into the musical environment, enrolling in a Bachelor of Performing Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in Perth. Kaplan went on to appear in various musical productions, including West Side Story (as Maria) and a number of Broadway and off-Broadway productions in New York. In 2010, Kaplan threw her hat in the ring for a role in Moonshadow.
“When Yusuf was out here in 2010 he had auditions for the show,” Kaplan says. “I did the audition on Sunday, and then I got a call on Monday, and we started doing the workshop the next week.”
Shortly after, Kaplan received confirmation that she’d been offered the role of Lisa. “I hadn’t done a musical for a while, since I’d been in West Side Story,” Kaplan says. Any reservations Kaplan may have had regarding her suitability for the role were quickly placated by Yusuf’s calm, and extremely professional demeanour. “It was pretty surreal to meet him when he was out here for the auditions,” Kaplan says. “It’s absolutely humbling to observe and experience just how down to Earth he really is. He really makes you feel at home, and the way he encourages and interacts is amazing.” As a performer and composer of 50 years’ standing, Yusuf is also, Kaplan says, a genuine professional, walking the line between collective discipline and individual creativity. “He’s such a perfectionist, but he also allows you a great deal of freedom,” Kaplan.
The story of Moonshadow begins with Stormy, played by Gareth Keegan (with whom Kaplan studied at WAAPA, as well as appearing alongside in West Side Story). Living in a world where there is no light, Stormy, alongside his childhood friend Lisa, are convinced there is more to the world than the darkness which superficially dominates their existence. “It’s a fable or parable type story,” Kaplan says. “The story is a set in a world that has no light, and it’s been going on for a few hundred years. The central character, Stormy, believes there is light to be found in the world, and he goes on a journey to find the light.”
Along the way Stormy and Lisa’s journey is illustrated via a combination of classic Cat Stevens and contemporary Yusuf Islam tracks, supplemented by material written by Yusuf specifically for the show. Not surprisingly, Moonshadow represents both allegory for the modern world’s stumbling attempts to achieve spiritual awareness, as well as providing an insight into Yusuf’s own journey from pop star to religious teacher. “There’s definitely some autobiographical element in the story,” Kaplan says. “I think for most authors there is something of them in the characters in the stories they write. And with Moonshadow, you have this character that goes to the wrong side, and then returns, which is very similar to the journey that Yusuf has taken over the course of his life,” she says.
The decision to premiere the show in Melbourne might seem a surprising one; notwithstanding Australia’s long-standing affection for the music of Cat Stevens and, more recently, Yusuf Islam’s ‘comeback’ records, Melbourne is a world away from the West End of London where he grew up. “Yusuf has had great responses when he’s been out here,” Kaplan says. “When he came out here in 2010, and he did a snippet of Moonshadow, people really liked it. And I think he also get a sense that Melbourne is a really good place for musicals.” In Kaplan’s assessment, the decision to start the show in Melbourne came down to ‘instinct’. “Yusuf would definitely like to take the show to the West End in London where he grew up,” Kaplan says. “He had a placement there, but he pulled it before the show started because he wasn’t completely happy with how it was looking.”
Kaplan says it’s been ‘idyllic’ singing the music of Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam. “It’s been idyllic because all the songs are sung in the original key,” Kaplan says. “And the original key for the songs sits very well with my voice. Most of the performers in the show are trained, but they’re singing pop songs. You try to make them your own while retaining the melodies of the original.”
The reception offered to Yusuf Islam during his 2010 Australian tour confirmed the ongoing attraction of his music. Kaplan puts this down to the melodic and narrative strength of the music. “The themes and lyrics are about eternal positivity – it’s about love and hope,” Kaplan says. “Yusuf says he thinks music gone full circle – when the world’s at its worst, music is at its best.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
Moonshadow plays at the Princess Theatre from Thursday May 31 until Thursday July 5. Visit moonshadowthemusical.com.au for tickets and more information.