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The problem with musical theatre in Australia

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.

Featured image: Craig McLachlan in The Rocky Horror Show, photo by Jeff Busby

47 responses to “The problem with musical theatre in Australia

  1. I’m sure no-one would disagree about the wages and skills and contacts gained from working with the large commercial companies. As you say, every level of activity is valuable.

    But this has been the problem in Australia for some decades now: if music theatre is a broad church, there’s no way to get from the pews far up the back to the good seats up front. We don’t have the kind of approach we’re seeing on Broadway at present, where a show like ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Fun Home’ starts at a smaller theatre company, works out its writing kinks, does well, and then – and this is the crucial stage missing here in Oz – attracts commercial producers, develops further as a piece, and moves uptown.

    Importantly, both of these shows are challenging and risky. And both of them are thumping great box office hits with the public. The basic message of my posts is that investing in new work is, in the long run, sound commercial practice. And I think we need all kinds of new works.

    As for how it tends to go here at home, the most telling example I can think of is ‘Miracle City’, first presented at STC with a big injection of money from Cameron Mackintosh (a commercial producer investing in new work!), where it was praised as having great potential, even if there were kinks to be worked out. But instead of further development, it was allowed to fade into legend, only to be revived twenty years later at the Hayes, where it received development from a much smaller company, with a much smaller budget, than the place where the piece began.

    Australia, we have it arse backwards.

    1. But Peter, you’re ignoring that in the case of “Fun Home” and “Hamilton”, the smaller theatre that presented them originally (the Public Theatre), sold out the venue on a regular basis. In the case of “Miracle City”, this was not the case. Public attention was the reason they transferred, not critical acclaim. You need a sign that the public is willing to pay for it before you take it to a bigger stage.

      Again, I go back to “Keating” as a case where this worked like it’s supposed to. It played at Trades Hall as part of the Melbourne comedy festival, and sold out. Got picked up by producers to play return gigs around the place. Belvoir picked it up, extended it and increased the production values, and toured it everywhere there was a stage to public acclaim (it even managed to be a hit in the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre, which is generally where Australian Theatre goes to die)

      (oddly enough, this is also the model that worked for “Rocky Horror” back in the day – Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien did a show in the tiny upstairs theatre of the Royal court and sold out the joint repeatedly. Then the money men came. That’s how it works, kids. If you can’t sell out a small venue, you won’t get a bigger one).

      1. Oh no, I’m not ignoring that fact about ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Fun Home’! Not at all, because prior to their sold-out runs at the Public, they were presented as readings, and workshops, and at Playwrights Conferences, and as further staged readings, and at the Public Lab, and at the White House, and so on.

        ‘Miracle City’ got as far as the first of these. It was a pretty glossy workshop, but it was its first time on its feet. If ‘Hamilton’ and ‘Fun Home’ had stopped at that point, we likely wouldn’t know either of them.

  2. Peter, as an old English teacher you will understand deconstruction of sentences. Read the subject sentence by Ben Neutze again. He clearly states without caveat that musical theatre should be challenging – which impliedly excludes other contrary views, such as that of purely non-confrontational entertainment. On a later post he states RH was “absolutely dire”. Now, I very much like enjoy Ben Neutze’s writings and recognise his audience here is of a certain persuasion which he needs to address. However this site needs to recognise there is not necessarily a “problem” with musical theatre (which is a theme being played like an old record, and perhaps in need of a good musical director rather than a DJ) such that the longing for something more ‘risky’ is satisfied by:
    [1] doing it yourself, or putting money down to support
    [2]

    1. [2] get on a plane to find it
      [3] recognising there are parties , including major entities in Australia, doing it
      Meanwhile Peter, when I next see your name in a glossy programme for a commercial musical theatre production, I will think of how “absolutely dire” it must be for you and that we the audience are not being challenged – how very delightful.

      1. Ah, you might be thinking of my namesake, Peter Casey. His name appears in glossy programmes. I’m Peter J Casey, sometime cabaret performer and writer of some musicals (click on my name for my blog).

        When my name does appear in a programme, it’s not glossy, because I and whoever I’m working with:
        [1] did it ourselves, and put money down to support.

        But to return to the matter at hand:
        [3] Who? Who are the major entities in Australia doing risky musical theatre?

        1. Peter, sincere apologies for the confusion, you must get that quite often. I am however quite delighted you are ‘having a go’.

          As to your question, from my purely personal and subjective viewpoint, I would put the MTC, STC, Hayes, and Belvoir St into that category. Granted they only do the occasional piece that could be categorised as musical theatre, but the productions are there. Also major commercial producers have been known to present what I feel is ‘risky’ (both artistically and perhaps financially) with GFO, for instance, bringing Once to Australia to specific acclaim.

          The basic message my posts attempt to promulgate is that music theatre is a broad church and not to ‘knock’ someone (commercial producers or the larger sponsored entities) for their piece of the action. Reality is that the commercial producers and larger sponsored entities pay a lot of wages, give a range of performers and creatives a start and an on-going career, and when they venture out to something more ‘risky’ it should be seen as something they have deigned to do because the GP have bought a myriad of tickets and have been entertained.

          We should perhaps get very ‘commercial’ on this site and lobby for more significant grants, meaningful tax-breaks, and subsidised tickets so that ‘risky’ musical theatre can be developed and presented. Every level activity in the process needs to be protected, as someone always needs to pay for the risk or (as some would categorise it) the delusion.

  3. I have read all of the posts above.
    Apart from the fact that Theatre is not in the Australian physique, everybody here seems to be overlooking a big problem here in that the media does not support Musical Theatre, in fact it totally ignores it unless they are being paid to publicise it. unfortunately the media does not want to know about real theatrical talent.
    The Cardashion’s are all the media want to talk about. Talent no longer required.
    Celebrity, what ever that now involves is what the media wants. A Very sad situation !!!

    As for WORLD CLASS Australian musical theatre actors, ( there are a few, JUST a few, that go overseas to assert their talent) some come home to star in productions and are like bright beaming lights, are the media interested ? are they F—k . its soul destroying. At least the Australian public that go to the theatre can see these brave souls strut their stuff.
    I would love see how well Helpmann winners from Australia would do in the Big Wide World, only a few are brave enough to pitch themselves against the world.

    Also being overlooked here, Broadway, theatre, musical theatre, are in physique of New yorkers, they go to the theatre as a matter of fact regardless of SPORT.
    People here will go to a kids sports day rather than go to the theatre. until that changes Theatre here is doomed.
    RANT OVER !!

  4. Australia, when it comes to investing in new/innovative businesses, doesn’t gel with that idea. It’s the risk-adverse attitude that is with the whiteys in this country.
    Also, musical theatre pulls in the cash, so why fk with the formula? (to quote Mike Love)

    I’d love to see cutting edge musical theatre, but like seeing a new band, they could be sht, and I would have wasted time and money where I could have done something more predictable and satisfying.
    This is probably another reason why Australians stick to the known.
    We are also, in my opinion, followers of overseas trends, due to the ‘white-people-were-not-invited-to-this-land’ that has been shoved down into the dungeon of responsibility-avoidance verrrrrryyyy comprehensively for the last 230 years. As if it will NEVER rear its head, and we can all go on about real estate (which is itself linked to, this was all stolen in the first place) and who’s got more of it cheaper than the others.

    Until we fix up our past, which is apparently a complete no-no for most whiteys here, then we will probably be a mediocre country, with our inventors and great minds finding somewhere else to do their thing. I’d say Australians are pretty comfortable with that.

    Trying to make white Australians accept non-conformist stuff is really really hard work. Good on people for trying. Maybe in about 25 years when the balance of the old 1950s attitude in Australia finally carks it, combined with the growing number of non-Anglo Australians, and a huge increase in the population, we will finally get the field to do what you are suggesting, Ben. So, our kids will enjoy that world, and so will we, in a wheelchair or walking stick.

    1. The latest Rocky Horror is what is right with everything! It was by all accounts a total success. Played in numerous cities around the country to the overwhelming joy of tens of thousands of patrons, with a modern naughty interpretation that Craig McLachlan spearheaded. Those amongst us looking for new thrills could well learn to do the Time Warp first!

        1. That is because your underlying thesis (highlighted in your main piece as a short separate paragraph) is: “But musical theatre — like all art — should be challenging and, at times, shocking and discomforting.”

          Really? Is there no other basis or view? Some people think musical theatre should be entertaining and that is their prime directive. They appear to be in the majority as they have, and continue, to vote with their feet. It would interesting to know the number of tickets sold to shows like Rocky Horror and Dirty Dancing. Perhaps you could enquire of GFO, who I believe also help sponsor the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, to see how many performances at the Hayes (capacity 110) are represented by these two shows alone. I am guessing about 20 years worth.

          Perhaps redefine the gamut of what musical theatre should normatively be. Those souls in Parramatta, Penrith, Campbelltown, Dandenong, Werribee and Unley etc all have the right to enjoy and partake in musical theatre.

          If you want something different Ben, put your money on the fridge – and don’t think there are not people doing that.

          1. Kim,
            The umpteenth revival of Rocky Horror is not supporting musical theatre, it’s killing it.
            The audience for the work is finite and ageing, and like every other revival it’s staged for the sole purpose of guaranteed income for producers and performers alike.
            The “theatre culture” in this country, such as it is, is like some mangy animal mewling at the door subsisting on scraps. Australia is not a society that values the performing arts, period. To argue that audiences in suburban Australia have the “right” to see dishwater like RH is not only absurd, it’s insulting to anyone who values the arts. Our culture has such low expectations of what live performance can deliver we cannot even imagine real, challenging excellence.

          2. Kim, it would be fun to let your straw man argument go unchallenged, but the old English teacher in me won’t let it fly.

            Ben said, of Rocky Horror, “not all accounts”, and as you quoted, that musical theatre “should be challenging and, AT TIMES, shocking and discomforting.” So, by his own words, he admits that there are other bases and views than his own.

            You chose to ignore that. Here, I’ll do it to you: your underlying thesis is “some people think musical theatre should be entertaining and that is their prime directive.”

            Really? Is there no other basis or view? Can we not have theatre that provokes, that disturbs, that grapples with the thorny questions of our time?

            (See what I did? I ignored the part where you said SOME people.)

            It’s fun, but it gets us nowhere. It leaves all of us theatre lovers divided and nit-picking, bickering uselessly.

          3. Hi Kim, I learned a long time ago that it’s pointless and frustrating trying to change somebody’s opinion of a play/musical/performance. You sound like an intelligent and down to earth person and not someone who needs validation or approval. The critics would have strangled Les Miz at birth 30 years ago if the audience hadn’t decided otherwise and now look at it – it’s a juggernaut. Art is not science – it’s subjective and your opinion is as valid as anybody else’s.

  5. This article hits the nail somewhat on the head for me. I am disappointed that Dan Assetta is used as a spring board. All the dude did was sing well in a competition. As for the wealthy white men – they can go get stuffed! I believe the culture is changing, albeit it, very slowly. It’s audience driven. Australian audiences, for the most part, are left to see rehashed versions of tired shows in mainstream theatres because the producers know it will make money. And performers can’t be picky as pickin’s are slim. It’s a product of a small population I think. Look at London and NYC, they have gigantic precincts for the Arts with full, interested audiences seeing mainstream and new works almost all the time. I sang at Home Grown last week and the talent of the writers/writing blew me away. It’s about reeducating and exposing our audience to this amazing writing. The change is coming, it’s just going to take awhile. We just have to keep fighting the good fight and support innovative work until the rest of Oz catches on! You have to be carefully taught.

  6. Also, Australia, it’s time to let go of your horrific track record of not casting non white people! It’s archaic, gross and a big part of the problem.

    1. Interesting Simbo but who exactly is the parasite here. The recent revivals of South Pacific, The King and I and Anything Goes significantly boosted Opera Australia’s revenue and I’m sure that future musicals will do the same. It seems like a healthy , mutually beneficial relationship to me. I suppose you’ll come back with a statement to the effect that Frost is destroying the reputation of Opera Australia. However, a booming box office, overall critical approval and a slew of Helpmann Awards and nominations tell their one story.

  7. It’s too simple to argue that the commercial producers are too obsessed with playing it safe. Of course some are (in particular Gordon/Frost, and in particular the hideous parisitic relationship it’s formed with the Australian Opera), but some aren’t, necessarily.

    There’s also issues in how we follow up, or don’t follow up, on successes. “Keating The Musical!” was one of the biggest self-generated musical hits in this country ever. Belvoir followed it up by commissioning a new show, “Real Estate” in 2007. But it never eventuated, and Casey Benetto has, as far as I can tell, never produced another stage musical in the last 8 years, nor has he shown any intention of trying again.

    Similarly, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” was an absoulute kickbutt smash hit that played internationally. But the team behind it never seems to have tried to produce another musical in Australia again.

    If every time we have a hit we never successfully follow up, we’re going to be constantly starting out anew and wondering in 5-10 years why we’re still bringing in things from overseas. There is an audience for Australian product if it’s done well (hell, even if it’s done halfway okay – the critical response to “Strictly Ballroom” was not great, but it still managed to run a respectable amount of time in Melbourne and Sydney). But it does need people to come back and do it again and again, not to run away from success in fear.

    1. Simbo makes an important point, and highlights our industry’s failure to understand where great shows really come from. They come from book writers and score writers.

      Casey Benetto was candid about giving up on “Real Estate” (for which he was providing book, music and lyrics) when he spoke with Stephen Sondheim on ABC radio. Sondheim’s advice was to have collaborators to fall back on, because they have ideas when you’re bereft of inspiration, and vice versa. A smart producer would hook Benetto up with a keen playwright, give them both a living wage for a few months, and the a brief of “whatever you come up with”. Even if the result never went on, this would represent an INVESTMENT in WRITING.

      As for “Priscilla” and its success, no songwriting team came out of that, either – which is the inherent flaw in repeatedly mounting jukebox musicals.

      Global Creatures are up against this problem too, with their assembly-line approach to creating a score. How do you modify the numbers during previews if Sia and Sarah McLachlan aren’t in town? Why not approach Eddie Perfect to write all the new songs for “Strictly Ballroom”? At least that would be an … INVESTMENT in WRITING.

      Last September’s inaugural National Music Theatre Symposium, hosted by VCA, is a very hopeful sign – in particular Jason Marriner’s proposal to distribute $1 million dollars among 10 new shows, because that represents (sing along, everyone!) an INVESTMENT in WRITING.

  8. While several commenters, here and elsewhere, are concerned about Ben’s assessment of Daniel Assetta’s performing style, as compared with Audra McDonald’s, we should all bear in mind that the situation is even worse than Ben’s article paints it.

    The problem is not solely that Australia isn’t creating its own brave, challenging musical theatre on our major stages. The problem is that we’re not even creating our own commercially successful and inoffensive musical theatre on our major stages. We should be creating it all, the whole gamut, from avant garde to the safest of the safe.

    And while we praise the provocative, edgy work of our scrappy independent theatre companies (and bless ’em, bless ’em all), we should ask: why don’t our commercially-minded producers want their own ‘Grease’, or their own ‘Catch Me If You Can’? Why do they so enjoy sending 20% of the gross back overseas?

    Australia’s re-producers might do well to reflect on big stars, and how they tend to be made and sustained. They’re not made and sustained by revivals and reproductions – except in Australia, where they have little choice. The big stars – the really big stars – are truly made in roles they originate, and some of them become so bankable that they can get a revival off the ground later in their careers. So why do our re-producers settle for the present short-term, low-yield business model, when the greatest theatre producers in history have aimed for the long-term, high-yield approach of actually PRODUCING a show, from scratch, investing in writers’ careers, building stars, and owning a property until their great grand-children grow old?

    As for Assetta and McDonald, well nothing – not even writing a musical – is as unpredictable as a performer’s career. Seemingly safe performers often go on to shock and provoke. Edgy and quirky performers become tame. They have to pay the rent, so who can blame them? What’s important is that, no matter what kind of performer you are, there’s somewhere your talents can shine, and a great role you could be (no, surely, can such a dream ever be?) the first to perform.

  9. I’m in New York this week seeing a multitude of new Musical Theatre. There is amazing stuff going on in this city. Amazing theatre! Most of the really daring and amazing piece are coming out of places like The Public Thatre eg. Hamilton which is just superb. Also saw First Daughters Suite at the Public. We need to get better funding and support for company’s such as Squabbalogic and Hayes Theatre. These companies are leading the change! They are taking on those musicals we are very lucky to see in Australia. It would be brilliant to be able get these to at least get to Melbourne and Brisbane, maybe in association with local companies in those cities. Also they are brilliant development grounds for new Australian theatre. We need to get the main stream media to cover what going on eg. Hayes Theatre sold out their production of Rent before it opened and now they have a return season in March. This may have been covered in a news paper however deserves prime time news coverage to support our theatre! Being in the theatre circle you know what’s going on, outside of this, how would you know?

  10. While I agree, Ben, that “they don’t write shows like they used to”, I’m wondering if you have missed the point of the Rob Guest Endowment.

    It is not an eisteddfod whereby the most talent performer is the rightful winner of the prize.

    As stated on the website for the Endowment, “This award is intended to help an artist in the musical theatre genre fund the tuition and experience needed to help them become a leading artist in their field.”

    I think I would be left scratching my head if this fund had been given to a young performer who has already been, as you stated, a regular star for over two years and who who clearly proved herself worthy of your personal praise by delivering the two most accomplished and dramatic performances of the night.

    I did not attend the evening and can only draw upon your description of the evening. However, it would seem to me from your account that the judges made the right decision.

    I trust they did so with some forethought so that in years to come we will have two great musical theatre talents aspiring to the heights of Audra McDonald instead of just one.

  11. What an absolutely terrible article. I am appalled! Criticise producers, maybe make an observation about how musical theatre has less cultural appeal in Australia than in New York or London. But don’t slam a guy simply because he has more commercial appeal than another contestant. Poor form.

    1. He isn’t “slamming” anyone Matthew. Read the article again before you make such uninformed comments. It’s a great article. I’ve worked professionally in Musical Theatre for over 20 years and I couldn’t agree more with what Ben says.

      1. As someone who says they’ve worked in musical theatre for over 20 years your reply alarms me even more. If you can’t comprehend the negative impact an article like this would have on a young performer such as Daniel, I despair yet more for this industry. Ben is entitled to his opinion (as are you). And I think the discussion about current trends in music theatre is for the most part sound – albeit misdirected. Ben raises this discussion by calling into question the artistic integrity of Daniel’s (winning) performance and uses it as the lynch pin for his argument. In my opinion (to which I am also entitled) this is poor form – cynical and destructive. My comment is not uninformed. It is an emotive response to what I see as a reckless and callous piece of “journalism”.

  12. Ben I agree with your discussion regarding the lack of inspiring show choices for our theatres and some poor casting that comes with them, however I take exception to you throwing a young performer under the bus in trying and make your point. Daniel is just 22 and has clearly for a large portion of his life, worked hard to be where he is now. While you may not agree with the judge’s decision, it’s a bit distasteful to go as far as suggesting he wasn’t deserving of it.

    The Rob Guest Endowment’s website and PR may state that their mission is to find the next music theatre ‘star’, but anyone in the industry knows that really, they’re wanting to identify and support talent with the potential of sustaining a career in the music theatre, which is more in line with Rob’s mentoring history. To contrast your praise of Audra McDonald, a once in a generation talent, with you dissatisfaction of the RGE winner is completely inappropriate.

    1. Hi Jordan,

      I really don’t believe I was throwing Daniel under the bus to make my point and it certainly wasn’t my intention. He’s obviously immensely talented, hard-working and, as I said, will have a huge career in musical theatre. He has got nothing but respect from me. This was intended more as a discussion of the attitudes which see certain performing styles preferred over others and this was the example that was immediately before me.

  13. I was in the original cast of Hair, and have been in some 20 or so ‘musicals’ in the ensuing years. Nothing rocked my socks like Hair until Billy Elliot came along. But alongside some of the wonderful shows I have actually done, has been the several occasions when an absolutely boring director destroyed any artistic creative offers and negated any input from any cast member and deprived the audience of what might have been an outrageous exciting night out. Yes, the shows were still very good, but the back stage antics were what the audience so often deserved. The constant exact re-interpretation of import shows, when we really do have do many wonderful creative artists in this country, saddens me. How brilliant it is when we occasionally see a new, short run production where one of those artists gets free reign, and sends us to the moon and back. But, I do understand that many Australian producers feel it is important to keep the boat steady. Personally, I relish the occasions when we ‘rock the boat’… Yes, bring it on.

    1. Agreed, Maureen. Further to this I get so disappointed when I see exact replicas of Broadway or West End productions. Blocking, set, lighting plot and costume trundled out again and again. Of course they are terrific the first time but we have incredibly savvy directors, designers and technicians here, capable of blowing our minds with their interpretations. Plays seem to have that freedom but musical theatre..? That’s what I want to see. Less mimicry. Our creatives are world-class and they will keep exporting to overseas Events, TV, Film industries unless they are able to actually ‘create’ rather than carbon copy.

      1. Maureen and Bridget, and the rest of this site, need to fully understand and appreciate the strict licensing conditions attached to bringing shows to Australia. They are not going to let you muck around with their product no matter how exciting or savvy your local performers or creatives are. Try telling Disney that Nemo should be green and gold striped!

  14. To add to this…or possibly raise an un-related point (sorry), I find it equally frustrating that such a event as the Rob Guest Endowment would refuse applications from any NZ performers. As a proud NZ performer myself it disappoints me that after contributing a lot to the Australian (and New Zealand) musical theatre industry we are excluded from an event made to honour the name of a performer who became famous in NZ and inspired many of us kiwi male performers to pursue musical theatre. All this does is furthers this ‘exclusive club’ feel to the endowments and not representative of where this industry currently stands. There is many NZ actors currently working very successfully along with NZ audiences supporting Australian productions. What an honest article though, good to see someone with guts challenge this industry that needs a bomb up its bum!

  15. The big problem is that young people don’t think it’s cool to go to the theatre.
    In London recently, every show seemed to be packed with all ages every time we went ( even on a Monday night ) Sure it’s a bigger population, but ads for theatre permeate the culture, even on the tube, the back of buses and just about everywhere you look.
    Herein Sydney I’m sick of seeing a sea of grey hair ( and this is not an ageist comment) and half empty houses and short run.
    We have a big problem in this country where many young people would rather go to a bar or a rock band than see live theatre.

    1. I’d counter that young people would LOVE to go to more theatre, but the ticket prices here are prohibitively expensive. It’s a far cry from the cultures of Broadway and the West End where there is a strong and well-know tradition of rush, lottery and youth tickets. How can a young 20something with barely enough spare after paying rent each week afford $100-$150 each time they see a show?

      1. Good point Julia. As a working and greying theatre lover with a professional actor/music theatre performer for a daughter, I have to think twice and twice again before rushing off to the Tickatek site. I was raised on going to the theatre and ballet and it has influenced me immensely, and it makes me sad that families today are precluded from giving their kids the chance to experience and learn from going to musicals, concerts and theatre. Again, money and a lack of it, is the root cause of problems.

        1. I’ve been to Matilda a few times since it was opened in Sydney and I can’t help but notice the few empty seats on the Grand Circle (they sell $80-100 each) – is there any reason why those empty seats can’t be sold for a discount for any last minute walk up customer, surely that’s better than leaving the seats empty?

          I’m a Gen Y and I would love to go to theatre more often – but tickets aren’t cheap – $100-150 is prohibitively for a lot of young people. When I told my peers that I was going to see Matilda, a lot of them gave me an envious look and wish they could afford to see it. The interest is there, but alas it is an expensive outing!

      2. Yes I also agree. In Germany I was at shows like the threepenny opera with direction by Robert Wilson, the tickets were cheap enough for groups of young students to see it at the performance I attended.

  16. You know what’s real interesting? The recent spate of new musicals or plays with music being commissioned by flagship theatre companies. See: Last Man Standing, The Ladies in Black, Masquerade.

    Very few, however, involve talented and experienced makers of musical theatre. What’s that about?

      1. I think, in each of those cases, there’s a name attached that might give warm feelings to a subscriber, regardless of how many shows they may have written in the past. Not necessarily a bad thing: what if, for example, Tim Finn turns out to be a great theatre songwriter?

  17. Safe, commercial music theatre attracts all the private investor and government major events funding, and little government arts funding goes to riskier Australian musicals as music theatre is not seen by the elite artistic community in Australia as being a real art form. There is definitely room and audience taste for riskier Off Broadway style shows (including hone-griwn ones) aimed at Gen X and Y audiences, just reallocate government funding and give film-like tax incentives to private investors.

    1. Great idea Panda for tax incentives to private investors, as the musical theatre industry is by far dollar larger and employs more people directly and indirectly than the Australian film industry in Australia. Check out the box office data on the Screen Australia website for Australian box office comparisons year by year for Australian films: http://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/research/statistics/boxofficeaustraliatop5.aspx. It shows a good musical takes 5 to 10 times what a top Australian film does (and most of the money stays in Australia), and the case for heavily incentivising local creative production is therefore made out.

  18. Is the problem at least partly that we don’t have a big enough market to sustain both the commercially successful stuff as well as the riskier, less ‘tested’ stuff?

      1. Sharmini is correct – we cannot sustain the multi-year runs in Australia, with most musicals lucky if they get 16 weeks in any city. Ben agrees with Sharmini’s comment, but then comes the normative dreaming of “there are still spaces and avenues through which riskier work can happen”. This does not answer why should anybody fund such escapes so that Ben and others can be newly excited. It also does not recognise that there are numerous spaces and avenues that do precisely that – mentioned by other commentators – and which Ben no doubt is fully aware of.

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