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.