The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - DIANA SIM­MONDS on STAGE MU­SI­CALS

IN the words of Max Bi­a­ly­stock — ac­tu­ally, of Mel Brooks in The Pro­duc­ers — the first rule of stage mu­si­cals is: Don’ pu’ cha own money in da show.’’

This is great ad­vice. But pro­duc­ers are hope­less gam­blers, un­able to re­sist the thrill of

maybe this time’’. Yet it’s vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to pick a win­ner or loser by any known for­mula. Per­haps that’s what makes the whole bizarre busi­ness so be­guil­ing: you never know.

A sure- fire hit? Can’t miss at the box of­fice? Bound to be a smash? Even Cameron Mack­in­tosh, the most suc­cess­ful pro­ducer of mu­si­cals, has ex­pe­ri­enced the flop: Moby Dick ( also known as Moby! , Moby Dick — the Mu­si­cal or, its orig­i­nal ti­tle, Moby Dick, a Whale of a Tale ). It’s pos­si­ble to divine from th­ese that Mack­in­tosh never quite got it sorted. This is a pity be­cause it could con­ceiv­ably work in Aus­tralia.

Moby Dick is set in a girls board­ing school where they’re stag­ing a mu­si­cal ver­sion of Her­man Melville’s doom- laden clas­sic of a man and a very big fish. The head­mistress ( cast as a male in drag, by the way) plays Cap­tain Ahab and the rest — if Tony Shel­don were in the role — could be Aussie gold. Now there’s an omen for the in­vestor: Shel­don. Af­ter a se­quinen­crusted ca­reer, from child star to mu­si­cal and cabaret star, Shel­don is — since his scen­esteal­ing turn as Roger De­Bris in The Pro­duc­ers and con­tin­u­ing as Ber­nadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — the clos­est thing we have to an in­di­ca­tor of mu­si­cal theatre suc­cess. Af­ter 40- odd years Shel­don is an overnight sen­sa­tion with the chick show set.

Priscilla is a chick show. Mamma Mia! is a chick show. Menopause — the Mu­si­cal is the chick­est show of all. They’re the ones that at­tract, by word of mouth, groups of girl­friends, work­mates, house­wives, sis­ters, aun­ties, grannies and their daugh­ters. They sud­denly aban­don pro­pri­ety and be­come joy­ous, mer­chan­dis­epur­chas­ing, cock­tail- swill­ing, good- time girls. Find a show that taps into that mar­ket and not only do you have a hit but one where a size­able per­cent­age of the au­di­ence keeps com­ing back.

You need a bat­tling hero­ine ( Donna in Mamma Mia! ; Ber­nadette in Priscilla ; the en­tire cast of Menopause ) who ex­pe­ri­ences heart­break and set­backs be­fore win­ning through and singing sev­eral show stop­pers. Sounds sim­ple, but the fact there are so few box- of­fice win­ners of this kind sug­gests oth­er­wise. They’re hard to pick and im­pos­si­ble to fake.

Yet if au­di­ences go for the bat­tler, they’re still picky. Peter Cousens’s Kook­aburra com­pany chose the ul­ti­mate bat­tler show in Floyd Collins . An Amer­i­can prod­uct from the late 1990s, it en­joyed mod­er­ate suc­cess in the US, won awards and was staged in Lon­don ( in a tiny fringe theatre). Its his­tory, how­ever, is lit­tered with mixed re­views and praise from Stephen Sond­heim.

It tells the story of a young, real- life Ken­tucky miner in the 1920s who got his foot stuck while down a deep cave and spent 17 days, which takes up much of the show, wait­ing to be res­cued. Then he died. No won­der it was can­celled be­fore the first per­for­mance. By com­par­i­son, the mu­si­cal Ti­tanic looks like a har­bour cruise, al­beit on one of those fer­ries that keep crash­ing into jet­ties, plea­sure craft, one an­other, and lose money as well.

Au­di­ences like ro­mance with their tragedy, which is where Puc­cini and Verdi still have it over many lat­ter- day mu­si­cal mavens. In La Bo­heme , La Travi­ata and Madama But­ter­fly , the girl is from the wrong end of town so she must die while singing some of the most glo­ri­ous mu­sic writ­ten. No won­der Miss Saigon ( But­ter­fly trans­ported from 1890s Ja­pan to 1970s Viet­nam) is such a rip­per, even if it is lum­bered with the soggy French bal­ladeer­ing of Alain Bou­blil and Claude Michel Schon­berg. The un­cer­tain bet that is the mod­ern mu­si­cal is en­cap­su­lated by the work of this pair: Miss Saigon works, Martin Guerre sort of did af­ter a lot of work, The Pi­rate Queen did not. Yet their Les Mis­er­ables is Lon­don’s long­est run­ning mu­si­cal at 22 years. Why? The hero­ine dies be­fore in­ter­val and ev­ery­thing goes to hell, as it did dur­ing the bar­ri­cadestorm­ing events por­trayed.

And the West End is not the only place they love it. Last month Mack­in­tosh an­nounced a deal with the China Arts and En­ter­tain­ment Group of Bei­jing to mount his most suc­cess­ful shows there with Chi­nese cast­ing, and in trans­la­tion. Bit­ter irony that Les Mis will be at the mag­nif­i­cent new Na­tional Grand Theatre be­side Tianan­men Square’’, yet it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to imag­ine Phan­tom , Miss Saigon, or Mary Pop­pins in Man­darin. Per­haps the new Prime Min­is­ter would en­joy them.

Does this mean there’s no room for new shows? Af­ter all, Billy El­liot , Rocky Hor­ror , Spa­malot , Lit­tle Women and Guys and Dolls ( all play­ing or due to open in Aus­tralia) are golden oldies or adap­ta­tions. Who knows? Who dares: with­out $ 10 mil­lion to $ 20 mil­lion in the kitty it’s un­likely a show will make it to Broad­way or the West End, while an Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion such as Priscilla con­sumed a for­tune be­fore it got go­ing and con­founded early crit­ics. ( At the same time, freak cabaretcham­ber mu­si­cals such as Hed­wig and the An­gry Inch or Keat­ing! are the ex­cep­tions, not the way for­ward.)

A new pro­duc­tion of Shout! , the Johnny O’Keefe mu­si­cal, is hap­pen­ing. But Aus­tralia has yet to turn up a home- grown Andrew Lloyd Web­ber or Rodgers and Hart/ Ham­mer­stein or Cole Porter or Leonard Bern­stein. Al­though, to be fair, nei­ther has Broad­way or the West End. In such com­pany El­ton John just doesn’t cut it; nor do other con­tem­po­rary suc­cess sto­ries, de­spite box- of­fice queues.

Nev­er­the­less, ev­ery time the mu­si­cal is writ­ten off, it comes roar­ing back. Not men­tioned so far: Oklahoma! , Kiss Me Kate , A Cho­rus Line , An­nie , A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic , Sweeney Todd , Evita , Chicago , Cabaret , Cats , The Sound of Mu­sic . . . they all seem ob­vi­ous now, but who knew for sure be­fore the cur­tain rose on open­ing night?

So stick that up your over­ture and play it.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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