"I told everyone I talked to that I was writing a musicial – so I had to do it."
In 2009, Chris Williams, a Hamilton advertising industry stalwart actively involved in music and theatre, was soon to turn 48 and facing the inevitable reflections on life so far and how he wanted it to continue.
It could have turned into a mid-life crisis – marriage break-up, radical career change or the cliched shiny new sports car; instead, Williams directed his energy – flagging as it sometimes felt – into music. The father of four wrote full songs and released two albums under the name Middleman.
"Doing that was a way to deal with a dark time I was going through."
Then, while in New York, he got a telephone call to say one of his best mates had an inoperable brain tumour. Reeling – and aware of his own continuing melancholy - Williams walked out of his hotel to see a billboard for School of Rock. It was the spur to take his music further and write a full stage show to try to make sense of this thing called life.
"I just thought, 'this is what I have to do'."
Five years later, he finished State Highway 48, had two development seasons in 2014/15 where it morphed and grew then toured the rock opera through the North Island in 2016 getting uniformly good reviews – Hawkes Bay Today said, "the musical is able to balance out the darker moments with plenty of laughs, creating not only an entertaining musical, but an enlightening one". Others described it as a "cracker" of a show.
Despite the positive buzz, it skirted round Auckland. The city, sprawling and awash with live entertainment, is regarded as a tough nut to crack so Williams steered clear. Until now. Ten years after the idea first started to take shape, State Highway 48 opens at the Bruce Mason Centre next week.
"It's the kind of show that just keeps on calling me, so I agreed to give it a go in Auckland because there's so much in it that people can relate to and take something out of," he says. "There's a strong message in there that celebrates the simple things in life, which is something I think we should do more of, and the importance of family and connection."
Willliams says show-goers have praised him for helping them understand the "black dog" of depression.
"Plus it's also a really good night out. It's not a show where you laugh and scream and tap your feet the whole way through – it's a roller coaster – but it's moving and it's real and it's ours."
State Highway 48 – a nod to Williams' age when he started it – features 26 original songs telling the story of Dave, Sharon, their kids, friends and workmates along the "treacherous road" into middle age.
The 11-strong cast, all professionals, includes Delia Hannah – once handpicked by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber to star in his Aspects of Love production – as Sharon, Steve O'Reilly As Dave and Chris Tempest who plays the devil on Dave's shoulder, the black dog of depression.
Williams says he's comforted by the fact that, when times were tough, he had a creative outlet to turn to. It's something he'd like more people, particularly men, to explore.
"It's about being able to express your feelings – even if it's just learning to play the bass guitar or writing short stories. There's real dangers in not facing up to depression."
WHERE TO GET HELP NOW
If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (24/7)
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (24/7)
• OUTLINE: 0800 688 5463
• SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666
• SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
What: State Highway 48
Where & when: Bruce Mason Centre, Tuesday, October 15 – Saturday, October 19, 7.30pm.