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Helpmann Awards 2014: the biggest talking points

Everybody working in the performing arts industry around Australia has a bit of a strange relationship with the Helpmann Awards. The ceremony goes forever, the winners often mystify, the voting system confuses and the choice of acts performing in the ceremony sometimes seem to have little logic (remember how last year’s ceremony closed with Timomatic?). But many (or at least many from Sydney) still show up, year after year, as a chance to suit up and celebrate some great work by great artists.

I’ve never been sure that national live performance awards covering a country as wide as Australia and an industry as big as “live performance” make a whole lot of sense. Live Performance Australia (the organisation behind the Helpmanns) has clearly worked hard to knock their voting system into shape over the awards’ 14 year history, but every year there are complaints (and every year arts writers all around the country pull out their Helpmanns think pieces to latch onto whatever the particular hot-button issue of that year was). It really is inevitable that the awards won’t meet expectations, given the scope they’re attempting to cover and the fact that conflicts of interest abound amongst the voters.

Here are a few of the points that came up in conversation during and after the ceremony last night. You can read the full list of winners here.

Sydney, Sydney, Sydney

Perhaps the biggest criticism the Helpmanns consistently face is the geographical bias towards Melbourne and Sydney. And this year, Sydney companies dominated, particularly in the “play” categories, where every winner had played the Harbour City. To try to overcome the bias, the Helpmanns implemented a travel fund for their nominating panels to ensure they’d seen as much as possible from around the country.

But once those panels have selected the nominees, the vote goes over to industry members and representatives. Of course, it would be almost impossible for somebody to have seen every potential nominee, no matter how much money they had to spend on airfares, and by the time the nominees are announced, it’s not like a voter can then fly around and catch up — the vast majority of shows have closed by then.

Because of this, voters are only required to have seen two of the four nominees in each category they vote for, which means that shows that have been seen by more people because of the city they play, the length of their seasons, whether they toured or not, venue size etc. are automatically more likely to do better.

In all fairness, the 2013-14 season was a hugely impressive one for Sydney theatre, with plenty of outstanding productions. The current Sydney season (which we’re only months into) has not been as strong so far, so we might see a little more balance at next year’s awards.

Sweet Charity’s eligibility

There was a minor furore when the new Sydney-based Hayes Theatre Company received eight nominations for its opening production of Sweet Charity. The independent musical theatre company received a rapturous reception and completely sold out, but some questioned whether it should have been eligible to be nominated given that it paid many of the artists involved below award rates. The Helpmann Awards have a rule requiring all nominees to pay award rates unless they make a special exemption to reflect the breadth of excellent work in a particular field.

For what it’s worth, I think the criticisms are based on a few false assumptions. This is an independent theatre company which has opened with no government support and very few donors, and their first production was performed in a theatre which holds 111 audience members. For that production, the company used a full band and a large cast. The artists were all employed under a “profit share” agreement. Nobody is making bucket-loads of money and exploiting artists at the Hayes.

I don’t believe that companies that are unable to pay award rates should be excluded in the first place. There’s already a huge gap between independent and mainstage companies in Australia, with independent companies often seen as something lesser, and less valid. Let independent companies try their luck up against the big players — if they’re presenting the best, as the Hayes Theatre clearly is, then they deserve the awards. Recognition from the Helpmanns might just put a smaller company in a better position to attract sponsorship, audiences or grants. It might just help them to pay artists better.

Several people have suggested to me that allowing independent companies to be nominated would create a situation where producers might stop paying award rates. I’d be very surprised if major commercial producers feel compelled to pay their performers scale because of potential Helpmann wins.

The King and I beats Charity to the top prize

After Sweet Charity won three major awards — Dean Bryant for Best Director of a Musical, Verity Hunt-Ballard for Best Female Actor in a Musical and Andrew Hallsworth for Best Choreography in a musical — it seemed likely it would take out the top musical theatre prize, Best Musical. Somewhat surprisingly, John Frost and Opera Australia’s production of The King and I made it home in the end. This is a production that’s received a relatively solid critical response, but has faced charges of racial insensitivity from several critics, particularly for its casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the Thai King.

I’m not sure by what logic The King and I is a better musical than Sweet Charity, but the Helpmanns have long been unpredictable when it comes to the top prizes at the end of the night — Best Play, Best Opera and Best Musical. Maybe it’s somehow payback for the snubs OA and John Frost’s South Pacific suffered last year, when they were the clear frontrunner for that top prize. Or maybe voters just aren’t ready to accept that a musical in a 111-seat theatre can be the “best” musical. A true shame.

Craig McLachlan

I’ve not seen Craig McLachlan in The Rocky Horror Show yet, so I can’t comment on his take on Dr. Frank N Furter. But within five minutes of his win for Best Male Actor in a Musical, three people independently used the word “ham” to describe his performance to me. Admittedly, it wasn’t the strongest field (unlike the Best Female Actor in a Musical field, which included four excellent performances) and the two “favourites” — Martin Crewes for Sweet Charity and Matt Hetherington for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — both only played one city, for short seasons. Presumably they weren’t seen by as many voters.

Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen wins Helpmann #2

Nobody really understands why we have an award for Best International Contemporary Concert in the Helpmanns. There are enough awards as it is without including international artists who the award probably means very little to. In that category the nominees were Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, Pink and Eddie Vedder.

Bruce Springsteen last night won the award, for the second year running. I wonder if his first Helpmann has a prime position, right at the centre of his mantlepiece, just waiting for the second to join it, while his 20 Grammy Awards have been relegated to storage. Meanwhile, overnight, has Beyonce refused to take to the stage in Paris, such is her disappointment?

One response to “Helpmann Awards 2014: the biggest talking points

  1. not sure that the some criticism of the Helpmanns aren’t universally applicable to all awards…you’re not going to make all of the participants happy all of the time…I thought it was a pretty good night, the songs chosen were very strong, and the awards though lots of them were well received by the audience…not sure if it’s a bit of cultural cringe there?


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