Robyn Grant is one of the UK’s most exciting theatremakers and has been compared to Victoria Wood in terms of talent and energy. Her work includes Buzz: A Musical History of the Vibrator and Vulvarine, a distinctly feminist take on superheroes. We caught up with Robyn to talk about Unfortunate, a musical reimagining of The Little Mermaid, which is currently on show at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant.
STARBURST: How would you explain Unfortunate to a keen writer of fan fiction who’s just discovered musical theatre?
Robyn Grant: It’s basically what Wicked did to The Wizard of Oz. Ursula from The Little Mermaid‘s side of the story. But naturally, with her being a sassy, sexy, queer icon [the original cartoon was based on legendary drag queen Divine] our musical feels much more like how she’d tell it. It’s feisty, it’s fierce, and it’s certainly NOT family-friendly!
How did Unfortunate come about? What was the inspiration?
We are big Disney fans, and having written several musicals together previously, including a gender-swapped Beauty and the Beast parody, we both agreed that exploring Ursula’s story would be great fun! I don’t think we ever realised how large the show would grow… but our blend of camp naughty comedy really lends itself to Ursula’s voice.
With Buzz and Vulvarine being original stories, Unfortunate already had existing source material and much-loved characters – this presented gifts and challenges. Figuring out how to satisfy the canon events whilst working our own spin through was fiddly but so satisfying when everything aligned.
Any chance we’ll see something like Vulvarine again?
Absolutely! We have a lovely catalogue of pre-written musicals ready to come back out to play, as well as some new stuff in the works. We’re hoping the success of Unfortunate allows us to explore more from our other shows, too. We just love making naughty new musicals!
Why The Little Mermaid?
It’s a story with a FABULOUS unexplored villain and is, at its core, about understanding the value of the female voice… It’s about power dynamics between younger and older women, beauty standards and how humans treat the ocean. It’s a much-loved classic, but it also felt super relevant.
What’s the most important thing about musical theatre?
Making goosebumps moments and being ambitious with live theatre that is focused on creating joy on a large scale! It can be a real high-budget commitment to the art of silliness and fun.
What other popular fairy tales/media franchises would you like to see given the Unfortunate treatment?
I think we’re probably taking a break from the parodies for now. But maybe it would be fun to see Minnie Mouse as a strong, independent widow in the city after Mickey gets murdered in a glue trap? Just spitballing here…
What’s your favourite moment in Unfortunate?
It has to be one of our new songs, Suckin on You, for me. It’s CAMP, ’80s, sexy joy… and Shawna Hamic and Tom Lowe are just so good together!
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a musical TV show, which is cool, whilst cracking on as the Associate Director of Danny Robbins’ awesome play 2:22 A Ghost Story – Dan and I are cooking up lots of trouble together still, of course… including a Medusa musical in the works! Watch this space!