Aus­tralians adore mu­si­cals, as long as they know the song and dance, writes Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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