When you're heading to an island as remote as Bougainville, you'll need a good book.
That's what Tim Finn figured as he stood in a bookshop at Brisbane Airport and surveyed his choices. It was 2012 and Finn, the legendary singer/songwriter from Split Enz and Crowded House, was on his way to work on Mr Pip, the film adaptation of New Zealand author Lloyd Jones' novel.
Finn, who co-wrote the music and also plays ukulele on the film's soundtrack, knows you should never judge a book by its cover but Madeleine St John's 1993 novel, The Women in Black, caught his eye.
He liked the illustration on the front and the fact that authors such as Helen Garner, Clive James and Sir Barry Humphries sang the book's praises. When he arrived in Bougainville 16 hours later, an idea to write a musical based on the book was already taking shape.
"Here I was in this place about 5 degrees off the equator and more 'off-grid' than I had been before and I would dip into this book of crisp, cool prose, says Finn. "I like sentences that you can savour rather than just a sound bite."
Ladies in Black is now a hit in Australia after its debut at the Queensland Theatre Company late last year and a tour to Melbourne's Sumner Theatre. It's now the centrepiece of Sydney's annual arts festival in January, which features 450 performances and 150 events by more than 1000 artists at about 46 venues.
You have to have something special to stand out from a crowd of theatre, dance, music, circus and visual arts events at a festival which, during its 40 years, has attracted artists such as Bjork, Brian Wilson, Grace Jones, Elvis Costello, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Lepage, Peter Sellars and Sir Ian McKellen.
Given its reception, it looks as if Ladies in Black does has the X factor. It won this year's prestigious Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work and was nominated for five more awards. The Age newspaper declared it was probably the best Aussie musical since Priscilla went global while The Australian wrote Finn had created "an immensely engaging score filled with gorgeous melodies that make you care about the characters singing them."
Adapted from The Women in Black by Australian screenwriter Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Love Never Dies), Finn wrote 20 songs for the stylish story of fashion, friendship and 1950s Australia while designer Gabriela Tylesova produced some 30 custom-designed dresses and suits.
"The story is set in Sydney so now we are bringing it home before heading back to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra," says Finn, as proud as a new father is of an addition to the family.
Any chance we'll see it in New Zealand? Naturally Finn, one of our most cherished sons, would love to see Ladies in Black on stage at home. Describing opening night as "pretty terrifying", he relaxed at half-time when he could hear positive remarks and knew the story was working.
"There's a song called The Bastard Song and when the audience heard it, they started with a chuckle then open laughter and then everyone joined in and I thought, 'I want to do this again!', because to make people laugh with a song is the best feeling."
But Ladies in Black might not be the musical many would expect from Finn. Set in Sydney in the 1950s, it centres on school leaver Lisa who joins the sales staff in a fashionable department store, F.G. Goode's, to work in its women's clothing department during summer.
Surrounded by characters approaching turning points in their varied lives, Lisa is about to confront what it means to make her own decisions. Her domineering father intends to railroad her into a career as a secretary, but Lisa has bigger dreams which newfound friends - unlucky Fay, frustrated Patty and the compelling European refugee Magda - help her to realise.
She wants to be a poet - something Finn says he can relate to.
Growing up in Te Awamutu, he says he didn't get much experience of big department stores although occasional visits to the likes of Auckland's Smith & Caughey's enthralled him. "For a child, all those mirrors and lots of women immaculately dressed in black was like a kind of magic."
Working in his uncle's menswear shop during holidays from Sacred Heart College, the Auckland boarding school he attended, was less enchanting. Finn recalls his time as a callow adolescent too nervous to approach customers to ask if they needed help - "that was a terrifying moment" - and the humiliation when the girl from the shop opposite popped in to say hi.
"There was a very pretty girl who worked in a shop on the opposite side of the street and she came in with a friend and I simply couldn't speak. Her friend said, 'well, you stare at her all day - aren't you even going to talk to her?' and they walked out."
Confessing he was a "pretty awkward teenager", Finn says he now rejoices in his naivety and acknowledges part of the appeal of Women in Black was seeing shades of his younger self in Lisa.
He worked with Simon Phillips on Poor Boy, a play featuring Split Enz songs, and sought Phillips' advice about how to adapt The Women in Black.
Phillips loved the book so much, he agreed to direct and Finn started writing its score.
He says writing songs for a musical is, in some respects, more straightforward because the story provides a structure; a world to write for.
Besides, he'd been contemplating what it would take to write a musical since he saw a production of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in Louisville, Kentucky more than a decade ago.
But there were times when Finn had to learn to let his work go and trust Phillips with it.
"One of the great things I learned from Simon Phillips is that it's all about transitioning from speech to song then back again and that you can 'interrupt' a song with dialogue. For a while, I felt my songs were being torn apart but then I came to see how effectively it works."
Finn says he's also learned that he will never star in a musical.
"I can't act - and I now know for something like this, you need actors who can sing rather than singers who can act! I love being the guy behind the scenes."