Composer Steve Toulmin wins acclaim for Black is the New White

When audiences break out with laughter at the hit Australian comedy, Black is the New White, Springwood native Steve Toulmin can take part of the credit.

The 33-year-old composer and sound designer describes his role as making the audience “feel like they’re watching a rom-com like Love Actually”.

Written by award-winning playwright Nakkiah Lui, Black is the New White comes to Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres from March 21-24 after enjoying a sold-out season for Sydney Theatre Company in 2017.

The romantic comedy centres on the riotous fallout when Aboriginal lawyer Charlotte Gibson brings her white fiance – and his conservative parents - to meet her family at Christmas.

But while the laughs might come easily for the audience, the behind-the-scenes effort is much harder.

“The musical language of comedies is so much harder than dramas,” said Toulmin. “You can put something suspenseful or ominous-sounding under a drama and it will work, but finding the comedy voice is always unique and a bit trickier.”

Judging by the critical reaction to Black is the New White, Toulmin had little trouble finding this voice. The Guardian singled out his efforts, writing: “Music is key to the play, led by the composer and sound designer Steve Toulmin”. 

Growing up in a musical family in Springwood (he now lives in Sydney), Toulmin went to Wycliffe Christian School but didn’t initially consider music as a career.

“I saw friends get into the Con [Sydney Conservatorium of Music] and they were the kind of people who were able to practise eight or 10 hours a day. I just wasn’t that person so I was like ‘okay, music’s not for me!’,” he said.

Instead, he graduated from technical production at NIDA in 2006 and “fell into” his eventual career when an opportunity arose on the original production of Holding the Man. The play’s sound designer had taken on a second project and needed an assistant so Toulmin stepped in.

“He just needed another pair of hands to make sure he could fulfill both jobs so I said yes because it was a paid gig and I needed to eat!” he said.

Since then Toulmin has been an in-demand composer and sound designer for a range of Australian independent and mainstream theatre companies. He received more critical praise for his sound design for Kill Climate Deniers which opened at Griffin Theatre on February 23 and is currently in pre-production for Blackie Blackie Brown at Sydney Theatre Company.

This hectic pace means he often doesn’t get to savour the fruit of his labours.

“One of the weirdest parts of my job is you hear about that stuff [the critical and audience reaction] but you’re not really around for it. My job is to see the production to opening; you get it over the line and then you move onto the next one.”