A Girl's Guide To World War – The Musical Love Letter To History-Making Women

New musical 'A Girl's Guide To World War', bringing to life a true story, will take over Brisbane this February.

'A Girl's Guide To World War' - Image © Luke Monsour

It's World War One, and female doctors are keen to join the army. . . But the army tells them to 'stay home and sit still'. They go anyway.

Brisbane's own Dr Lilian Cooper leads the charge with her life partner Miss Josephine Bedford. She was Queensland's first female doctor, and Australia's first female surgeon. 'A Girl's Guide To World War' is a love letter to her, and any Brisbane (and Australian) women who changed history.

The show has already won the Lord Mayor's Award for 'Best New Australian Work' at the 2019 Matilda Awards.

So just how has this story been converted into a musical? Here, we talk to the writers of 'A Girl's Guide To World War'/the founders of Musical Theatre Australia, Queensland couple Katy Forde and Aleathea Monsour, to find out.

Katy and Aleathea accepting their Matilda Award in 2019. Image © Luke Monsour

Tell us a bit about ‘A Girl’s Guide To World War’.
Katy: Well, this is a show for people who like musical theatre, but who also enjoy uncovering an untold story. There’s an all-girl band, catchy music, lots of laughs, a few tears – but mostly it’s an exuberant, uplifting story about courage and compassion.

It was written by you both. Why did you decide to put together a musical about this story?
Katy: We are committed to telling the stories that have not been told before: especially stories about women.
Aleathea: We’re telling this particular story as a musical because it’s exciting and inspiring and lends itself to passionate love songs and rollicking rock songs.
Katy: And it had to be told as a musical because Aleathea and I only write musicals. We’re obsessed. I love pretty much every musical, but if I had to pick a favourite, it would be 'Cabaret'.
Aleathea: Mine is 'Little Shop Of Horrors'.
Katy: That’s a brilliant a musical. But god, we love every musical from 'Rocky Horror' to 'Hamilton' to 'Heathers'.

Why do you think it’s a story that should be told on stage?
Katy: The stage is so playful. The feedback between actors and audience is immediate: the sound of laughter, or the hush that falls during a love scene – a world is created in the space. That said, there is so much in the story of 'A Girl’s Guide To World War' – so many parts of the story that I couldn’t fit into the two-plus hours on stage. So maybe we will try writing a 12-part musical Netflix series next!

LilianCooper JosephineBedford
Lilian Cooper and Josephine Bedford

It has already won ‘Best New Australian Work’ at the Matilda Awards! Wow. How did it feel to get this?!
Katy: It felt absolutely surreal. And it’s opened lots of doors for us since. The awards night itself happened a week before COVID hit, and I remember it as one of the last big, innocent, cuddly, happy nights before the COVID curtain fell on theatre. I feel nostalgic for those distant times, even though it was only 2020.

When it comes to the music – how was the tone/mood approached for something like this? What was the main ‘vibe’ you decided to go for in the tracks?
Aleathea: We always make sure the music serves the scene. So before we write a song, Katy and I talk, talk, talk about the scene, the mood of the scene, the personality of the character who’ll sing the song, what they want, what they’re scared of. We talk for ages. Then I write the music, give it to Katy, and she writes the lyrics.
Katy: This is not a musical of old songs from World War One. This is a true new musical with original songs. Aleathea’s sound is freaking amazing. It is catchy yet entirely unique. If I had to try to classify her music, I’d say it’s a mix of folk and pop.
Aleathea: With a splash of rock.
Katy: Oh, yeah. Got to have a splash of that.

And what’s your favourite musical moment in the show and why?
Katy: That’s a great question, and a tricky one. At the moment, I’d have to say it’s the love song between Dr Lilian Cooper and her partner Josephine Bedford. The way the actors do the song: so light-hearted and loving and joyful. The actors manage to capture the love between the characters so perfectly.
Aleathea: Agreed, that’s a gorgeous scene. You truly believe the characters have known and loved each other for decades.

What was the most challenging thing about putting this show together?
Katy: My beautiful father Michael Forde passed away just before rehearsals started. He was a brilliant actor and director, and he’s always been such a font of strength and knowledge. But I feel like he’s still a big part of what we do. And this is most definitely what he’d want us to be doing. He will always be with us, in everything we do.

Image © Luke Monsour

On the other side of that, what’s been the most rewarding thing to come from it?
Aleathea: By far the most rewarding thing to come out of it has been working with the cast. We cannot believe how lucky we are to have this group of people working on the show. I mean, come on – Susie French! Justine Anderson! Simon Burvill-Holmes!
Katy: And my mother is in the show too – Margery Forde – who’s more well-known as a writer, but who is going back to her roots in this show as a singer. I’ve written a very unlikeable character for her to play, which plays very much against type!

What are you most looking forward to about presenting ‘A Girl’s Guide To World War’ in Brisbane?
Katy: The team at Brisbane Powerhouse, especially our producer Veronica Neave, have been wonderful from start to finish. Plus, the Underground Theatre space gives us lots of room to play, with the opportunity to work in a thrust format – this is a great format for the show because no matter where you sit in the audience, you feel close to the action.
Aleathea: The women who went to war came from all over – New South Wales, Victoria, New Zealand. But it’s lovely that Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford are Brisbane women. It’s as if we are taking the show home to them.

'A Girl's Guide To World War' plays Brisbane Powerhouse 3-20 February.


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