NOBODY CAN STOP THE MUSIC
Australians adore musicals, as long as they know the song and dance, writes Rosemary Neill
THREE years ago Stephen Sondheim joked that he liked going to the matinee sessions at musicals. ‘‘ I’m the youngest person in the audience: it feels like spring,’’ quipped the composer, then a spry 74. But Sondheim also cautioned: ‘‘ That’s no good for the future.’’
At the time, Sondheim, who has been called ‘‘ the reigning genius of the American musical’’, had reason to worry. His musical Bounce — his first in nine years — didn’t make it to Broadway, while a revival of his earlier musical Assassins closed on the Great White Way soon after it had won five Tony awards.
Similarly, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s two 21st- century musicals The Woman in White and The Beautiful Game failed to ignite the box office in the way his earlier blockbusters ( Cats , Phantom , Evita ) had done.
The malaise was felt in Australia. In 2000, the home- grown Peter Pan the Musical lost most of the $ 14 million invested in it. This sent tremors through the industry, as it was the Australian theatre’s single biggest financial loss. A musical version of The Full Monty went into the red in 2004 and, earlier this year, Titanic: A New Musical sank with little trace.
Still, the theatre has weathered more booms and busts than Wall Street, and suddenly the bulls are running again on our musical stages. Highoctane song and dance shows — most of them imported revivals — are seriously back in vogue. Indeed, at least nine big- budget musicals have just opened or will soon open in Sydney and Melbourne. This does not include upstart micromusicals, from the gleefully satirical Keating! to the anthemic Respect. ( Keating! , the political melodrama we had to have, has embarked on its fifth Sydney season.)
Even Opera Australia is prepared to slum it in order to cash in on the musicals renaissance: it will stage My Fair Lady as part of its 2008 season.
Theatre insiders say they have not seen so many musicals poised to burst on to Sydney and Melbourne stages since the late 1980s, but this is stoking anxiety that the market ( particularly in Sydney) may fail to sustain the glut.
Tim McFarlane, producer with the Really Useful Company Asia Pacific, Lloyd Webber’s production company, confirms that after its present Melbourne run, The Phantom of the Opera will transfer to Brisbane and Sydney.
Demand for the resuscitated Phantom has so far exceeded expectations: it has done 98 per cent business in Melbourne, and when advance tickets went on sale for next year’s Sydney season, an astonishing 35,000 were snapped up in one day. Australian theatregoers, it seems, can’t get enough of the tried and true: along with the plummeting chandelier, Anthony Warlow and his white mask remain fixtures from the original production, staged in Melbourne 17 years ago.
Nevertheless, McFarlane expects stiff competition in Sydney, where Phantom will play against the film turned musical Billy Elliot , and sell advance tickets against revivals of Miss Saigon , The Rocky Horror Show and Shout! , a biomusical about Johnny O’Keefe. ( Shout! premieres in Melbourne in January, before heading to the harbour city in March.)
‘‘ It’ll make life interesting for us,’’ says McFarlane of the influx of musicals into Sydney. ‘‘ I fear there are too many shows around, but it is hard to say which ones are going to do well.’’ McFarlane says although the forthcoming shows are good ones, ‘‘ there is a hell of a lot for people to choose from’’.
The Elton John- composed Billy Elliot opens at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre next month, while this month Spamalot, a musical ‘‘ lovingly ripped off’’ from Monty Python’s 1975 Holy Grail film, opens in Melbourne. Spamalot will play against Shout! and the extravagant frockfest Priscilla, Queen of the Desert , which is to travel to London’s West End next year.
Shane Jacobson, who shot to fame as the Portaloo plumber in the film Kenny , is to star in a revival of the 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls from next March in Melbourne. Joining him will be Magda Szubanski, Lisa McCune and Garry McDonald. Stage star Marina Prior also gets a guernsey.
Clearly, producers believe that coupling nostalgia with celebrities is a marriage made in box office heaven. While wrinkly rockers John Paul Young, Glenn Shorrock and Colleen Hewett have been cast in Shout! , gen Y crooners Anthony Callea and Nikki Webster star in the contemporary rock musical Rent , which is playing in Perth. A pared- back, portable revival of Miss Saigon ( it has an animated rather than the life- size helicopter of previous productions) has toured Melbourne and Brisbane and runs in Sydney until Christmas, while the time warp will continue with a Rocky Horror revival in the new year.
One of the most ardently anticipated shows will be Broadway’s latest juggernaut, Wicked , described by The Washington Post as ‘‘ a breathtaking success story of a magnitude not witnessed since the peak years of The Phantom of the Opera .
The Grammy- winning Wicked opens at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre next July and will cost tens of millions of dollars, according to its Australian producer John Frost. Subtitled The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’’, Wicked has taken $ US500 million ($ 540 million) at the box office since it opened on Broadway in 2003, making it the world’s most lucrative new musical.
The 21- year- old Phantom holds the record for the most successful entertainment event, grossing more than $ US3 billion at the box office worldwide, more than any film. It’s interesting that in our multimedia age, such an old — some would say arthritic — art form has such economic staying power.
Frost agrees musicals are enjoying a revival. ‘‘ There was a period when things went ( into a) lull,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Full Monty didn’t get to Sydney and there was an exodus of producers.’’ Though production costs had risen, ‘‘ at the end of the day you have to blame the producers, because they weren’t producing the shows the audience wanted to see.’’
As well as bringing Wicked to Australia, Frost is a co- producer of Phantom , Priscilla and the Hairspray musical, which has been running on Broadway since 2002.
In spite of fears of a glut, he says that in Australia ‘‘ there doesn’t seem to be a show at this stage that is having a tough time ( at the box office). The public’s appetite for the musical seems to be getting stronger and stronger.’’
Why? Producers are savvier about marketing these days, he says. In a sign of just how big bigbudget musicals have become, when Wicked ’ s Australian season was announced, then Victorian premier Steve Bracks treated it as a photo opportunity. The auditions for Wicked , to be held in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland next month, are also being pushed by Frost’s PR people as a news event. ‘‘ Producers are selling our productions much better than we did 10 or 15 years ago,’’ Frost explains. ‘‘ The days are gone when you could throw an ad in the paper or on TV and hope your lead actor gets an interview . . . It’s no different to selling football or cricket. This is entertainment, as sport is. It’s vast.’’
Most of the forthcoming musicals are retreads. Does this suggest that in the midst of unprecedented prosperity, theatre audiences have become more conservative, seeking to relive the big nights out of their youth?
Frost disputes this, saying that ‘‘ if anything ( the rebirth of musicals) shows that the country is growing up and becoming more adventurous’’. He believes many Australians, including twentysomethings, are enjoying their economic good fortune and experimenting with the art form for the first time.
Online technology has made it easier for consumers to buy theatre tickets, he adds. He has also noticed a new eagerness on the part of sponsors and investors to put money into musicals. ‘‘ With Wicked , we have had people beating our doors down, wanting to be partners,’’ he boasts.
But not everybody is comforted by the renaissance. Some point out that it is dominated by older shows or jukebox musicals largely comprised of popular songs, slung around flimsy excuses for plots.
Writing about this trend on Broadway and the West End three years ago, David Benedict, a critic for London’s The Independent newspaper, thundered that ‘‘ the bottom of the barrel is being scraped’’. He said ‘‘ there’s little from the past left to do’’ and that compilation shows such as the Ben Elton- Queen vehicle We Will Rock You , only work ‘‘ as a greatest hits on legs’’. Benedict concluded that as an evolving art form, the musical is ‘‘ virtually dead’’.
McFarlane disagrees emphatically. ‘‘ Why don’t people say the same thing about opera? That is what the public wants. The public will always want a mixture of new work and revivals.’’
McFarlane says fears that film versions of musicals would kill off the stage versions have also been proved wrong. Billy Elliot and Priscilla
were adapted from films, and Phantom was made into one, yet these musicals continue to generate muscular ticket sales. The movie Hairspray is an adaptation of an adaptation: it started out as a John Waters film, then morphed into a Broadway musical before being reincarnated as a feelgood movie, with John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman.
Dirty Dancing , the musical produced by Australia’s Jacobsen Entertainment and heavily based on the ’ 80s Hollywood film, has proved to be box office bullion. Launched in Sydney in late 2004, this adaptation is still touring the world, and recently sold its one millionth ticket.
But Peter Cousens, founder of the troubled music theatre company Kookaburra, points out that most of the revived musicals staged here have been created, directed, choreographed and designed offshore. He feels this distorts the local industry and does little to advance the creation of original musicals or productions here.
Cousens says most glossy Australian musicals that have succeeded at the box office ( Priscilla , The Boy from Oz, Shout! and Dusty ) have drawn their musical content from existing songs, rather than original scores and lyrics. ‘‘ We have been fed on a diet of the jukebox, which for a producer is a great money- making opportunity, but it doesn’t serve the interests of the art form,’’ he argues. Three years ago, when Cousens was planning to set up Kookaburra, a non- profit company, our musical stages were relatively empty; now, he feels, they are somewhat crowded.
Because of this — and a difficult first year — Kookaburra will have to be ‘‘ very careful about when we program next year’s productions’’.
Kookaburra recently axed its first show for next year, the local award- winning musical Sideshow Alley . In a statement, Cousens said: ‘‘ Sideshow Alley is a wonderful Australian musical, but we want to protect it from the crowded 2008 season.’’ This comes hard on the heels of another cancelled Kookaburra show, the little known American musical Floyd Collins , about a trapped Kentucky caver, originally scheduled to open this month.
Earlier this year, Kookaburra lost money on its inaugural production, Pippin , and broke even on the Sondheim musical Company . However, Kookaburra upset Sondheim and attracted a slew of negative headlines when one cast member fell sick and the show went on, minus that performer’s scenes.
Kookaburra is to announce a revised program for 2008 early next year. ‘‘ We need to balance our short- term passions with the long- term interests of an Australian musical theatre arts company,’’ Cousens says. Of his company’s first year, he concedes that ‘‘ we probably expected too much too soon’’. Others say the company’s first season was poorly chosen.
Even so, Cousens is not alone in arguing that local product has a hard time competing with slick imports.
When it comes to Australian musicals, ‘‘ the evidence suggests that is true,’’ Melbourne- based producer Jim McPherson says.
He says he lost ‘‘ a lot of money’’ on a Brisbane production of Sideshow Alley earlier this year, despite positive reviews, standing ovations and a Helpmann award for live performance. On the other hand, the affable producer points out that Keating! , also a home- grown musical, has been a huge success for Sydney’s Company B and has played to sold- out houses across the country.
McPherson’s most lucrative recent show was the improbable hit Menopause: The Musical , which has played to more than 520,000 people in Melbourne alone. ‘‘ It’s just extraordinary,’’ he says of this US four- hander, which alternately celebrates and sends up women’s struggles with ‘‘ the change’’. This production starts a regional tour in February. Another McPherson show, Respect , which tracks women’s empowerment in the 20th century through a parade of classic pop songs, opened this month in Sydney. It has already played to 70,000 theatregoers on its national tour.
In an age of computerised buses and helicopters on stage, why have these modest productions resonated so strongly with audiences?
McPherson says he sets out to keep ticket prices below $ 50, partly to attract the retiree demographic. And ‘‘ production values have moved up enormously from what they used to be. They’re so much better than they were 10 years ago,’’ he says. ( His company spends more money on sound, lighting, sets and costumes than it would have in the past.)
But whether we are talking humble fourhanders or bloated extravaganzas, McPherson has no doubt fans of musicals want the familiar. ‘‘ People are not wanting to be challenged in the theatre,’’ he says. ‘‘ Whether they ever did, or whether that was a fallacy we were all brought up on, I’m not sure.
‘‘ If they did want to be challenged, they certainly don’t want to be now. They want the fun, the comfort, the relaxation of something they know well. They don’t mind if they’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera three times.’’
Real performer: The micro- musical Respect
Money spinners: From far left, a scene from the Broadway musical Wicked ; Anthony Warlow and Ana Marina during rehearsals for The Phantom of the Opera ; Leo Tavarro Valdez in Miss Saigon