Last week, one of the world’s greatest musical theatre actors was in Australia to perform concerts in Melbourne and Sydney. Audra McDonald, who has more Tony Awards than any other performer, makes a strong case for musical theatre being counted amongst the most intelligent and sophisticated art forms.
She chooses material that is often obscure and risky but connects with both the head and the heart in a way that all musical theatre should. She is an artist with an undeniably extraordinary voice and dramatic skills that place her amongst all the greatest stage actors. She is both dangerous and completely assured. She represents material which is the polar opposite of the commercially successful but artistically dire revivals of major musicals we’ve seen in recent years (e.g. Grease and Rocky Horror). She is the type of performer that all performers should aspire to be like, and there were certainly many coming away from her concerts last week in awe of her craft.
It was the perfect prelude for Sydney’s musical theatre community to Monday night’s Rob Guest Endowment gala concert. The event saw six of Australia’s most promising young musical theatre performers compete for the $20,000 prize designed to support the performer and assist in their development.
Daniel Assetta, who is currently appearing as the rapping Rum Tum Tugger in the Australian tour of Cats, took out the top prize. He performed two soft rock/pop, middle-of-the-road numbers from recent American shows, Goodbye from Catch Me If You Can and Memphis Lives in Me from Memphis. Neither song contains anything even remotely resembling a dramatic arc and Assetta’s acting skills seemed rather limited.
Of course, nobody wants to rain on anybody else’s parade in musical theatre, but Assetta’s win (like a few Rob Guest Endowment winners before him) left many in the industry scratching their heads.
Assetta is an undeniably talented entertainer and unlikely to offend any audience member. He has a superb, clear and powerful pop tenor and bucketloads of charisma. I have no doubt that he will have a massively successful career.
He is the kind of performer who will be able to recreate the performances of Broadway or West End actors in replica productions for decades to come. The judges for the award, three senior artists in Australian musical theatre — Gale Edwards, Kelley Abbey and Peter Casey — said they were looking for somebody who was “super cast-able”, and Assetta certainly fits that description.
But his win reflects an attitude problem in Australian musical theatre. Almost the entire commercial musical theatre is in service of the artistic vision of wealthy white men from New York or London, and rather than supporting artists with the potential to transcend and exceed the dramatic expectations of the genre (in the same way that McDonald and other iconic musical theatre performers have done so), the panel went with the safe and inoffensive performer who is exactly what the commercial giants are looking for.
Hilary Cole, a young performer who has been a regular star in Sydney’s independent musical theatre scene over the last two years, delivered the two most dramatically accomplished performances of the night, starting with an extraordinarily nuanced and captivating reading of Sondheim’s obscure and intimate I Remember from Evening Primrose. In the interests of transparency, I should mention that I know Cole better than the other six contestants, but since Monday night I’ve received many messages from other people wondering why Cole was overlooked (and similar comments have been published on industry website Stage Whispers, which said Assetta was outshone by other contestants and that Cole was a “knock out”).
Blake Appelqvist also showed genuine dramatic skill and bravery, even if he is, perhaps, a little too raw (he graduates from the Victorian College of the Arts this year).
These are both artists who are able to create unique and compelling performances from the ground up, and the type of performers we need working in the industry (particularly in the development of new work).
Where Assetta is safe, comforting and somewhat predictable (not necessarily bad qualities for a performer to possess) Appelqvist and Cole are dangerous, brave and delightfully surprising. But our musical theatre is currently all about the safe and comforting.
There’s a clear lack of bravery within Australia’s musical theatre community and a continued subservience to international interests. No artists within the local industry — not even its leaders — are willing to stand up and defend the art itself. Nobody is willing to cause offence or rattle cages.
There’s so much that the community refuses to engage with. There are discussions which need to be had and are being neglected. There has been a debate raging in Australia for many decades about the lack of female creatives working in the theatre, but the musical theatre community has been largely reluctant to engage.
And when a particular controversy pops up — like racially inappropriate casting, or major producers casting offensive non-performers, or our national opera company reproducing a replica museum piece production of a 60-year-old musical — it’s usually met with silence from the industry. Of course, there are plenty of hushed whispers happening around theatre foyers, but very few artists are willing to engage in these conversations publicly.
Even as a critic, I feel the pressure to be excessively polite about big commercial musical theatre in a way that I don’t feel in most other art forms. (When writing this piece, I wondered whether I should publicly label the recent tours of Grease and Rocky Horror “artistically dire”, even though I wholeheartedly believe they were.)
But musical theatre — like all art — should be challenging and, at times, shocking and discomforting.
Many of the most beloved musicals of today courted controversy when they were first performed, and their creators stuck firmly to their guns, even though they were risking commercial failure by doing so. The most obvious example is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s refusal to cut You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught — a musical indictment on racism — from South Pacific, after lawmakers in America’s south attempted to have the song banned. Two decades later Hair premiered, attracting controversy all around the world, from violent protests and legal issues in the US and the UK over the infamous nude scene, to the bomb threat which halted the musical’s opening night in Sydney.
It’s now more than four decades later and it seems the art form has regressed into a polite and comforting rut that almost never surprises its audience. And if commercial musical theatre in Australia keeps opting for the inoffensive and serviceable over the genuinely transcendent it will eventually find itself with no audience at all.