Back to the ’50s? international actors take prized roles in Australian musical productions

In the 1950s, the phrases “direct from Broadway” and “direct from the West End” were amongst the most important in an Australian musical theatre producer’s vocabulary. The leading roles in our major musicals were almost exclusively filled by international actors (many of whom never actually played those leading roles on Broadway or the West End) because it was felt that local audiences were automatically more drawn to imported “stars”.

The late 1950s and ’60s were a period of massive transition, with the three grand dames of Australian musical theatre — Toni Lamond, Nancye Hayes and Jill Perryman — all becoming stars in their own right. They were pioneers who proved that Australians could do it just as well as any international star (in her prime, Toni Lamond could give Doris Day a serious run for her money) and local audiences would become invested in local talent.

Since then, Australian producers have only occasionally used foreign actors, and many local performers have become bona fide musical theatre stars. But there are mounting concerns that the opportunities for Australian actors to build their careers are diminishing, with an increasing number of American and British performers cast in high profile roles.

After two principals in the recent Australian tour of Ghost were played by international performers, there are now more imports on the way. Three-time Olivier Award-winner Alex Jennings will play Henry Higgins in Opera Australia and John Frost’s My Fair Lady, UK actor Callum Francis will play Lola in Kinky Boots, and Americans Michael James Scott and Arielle Jacobs will appear as the Genie and Jasmine in Disney’s Sydney production of Aladdin.

This is to say nothing of the fact that the creative teams of these productions are almost exclusively American, reproducing products created for another audience.

But over the last few weeks, local artists have expressed serious concern over the influx of international performers. Actor Queenie van de Zandt wrote on Facebook:

“Please – let’s not go back to the 50’s with its imported actors and daytime tv stars as special guests at The Logies. We have such incredible talent in this country. We all need to play our part in supporting and encouraging this talent and taking pride in our own.”

From the early 1990s until 2012, there was an agreement between the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the union representing actors) and Live Performance Australia (an association representing producers and performing arts companies), governing the use of foreign performers. In 2012 LPA opted to not renegotiate that agreement, and since then there’s been no solid framework ensuring Australian artists get a shot at the top jobs .

“[LPA] undertook to us that they would play a constructive role in the industry and that terminating the agreement wouldn’t open the floodgates to importing foreign artists,” MEAA Equity Director Zoe Angus told Daily Review. “We have a very real concern that we’ve seen an increase in the number of foreign artists coming in to take meaningful roles. We’re concerned that there may be an opening of the floodgates.”

Equity President Chloe Dallimore wrote of her exasperation in negotiating with producers in a widely shared Facebook post this morning:

“The Union can only get change on this front if we rally together. It’s been 4 years of unregulated imports. And as many have said, it feels as if we are regressing and returning to the JC Williamson days when all the Principals were imports and the Ensemble and understudies were Australians. How on Earth will our Australian live theatre stars be made at this rate? One show can make a career and our talented Aussies are being robbed of that opportunity.”

To import a foreign actor under a 420 entertainment visa, producers now only need to show that they’ve “consulted” with the MEAA and that: “the activity will bring a net employment benefit to the Australian entertainment industry by employing more Australian citizens and permanent residents than if the position were filled by an Australian citizen or permanent resident.”

It’s a pretty difficult assessment to make, and a criteria that may not have been met in all the recent examples.

When it comes to Disney Theatrical, which is producing Aladdin, the situation is slightly different: Disney is the only major musical producer that has an agreement with the MEAA. It requires Disney to conduct a full audition process for all roles and cast Australians unless there is no suitable local performer available.

The casting of Arielle Jacobs in Aladdin, announced earlier this week, has stirred the latest controversy. She’s playing the role of Jasmine: a plum role for a young female musical theatre actor which could launch a local talent to stardom. Many musical theatre fans and industry members have argued that there were local performers who could have taken on the role.

But the MEAA says Disney has complied with the terms of the agreement.

“Disney has provided us with extensive material that our national performers’ committee considered carefully and debated,” Angus said. “While we consider it unfortunate that they were unable to fill the role with an Australian, we do accept that they have complied with the agreement they have in place.”

When performers have been brought in from overseas in the last few decades, it’s usually been because there’s a role that has to be played by a non-white performer and producers have had apparent difficulty finding a person of the right ethnicity with the appropriate skills and experience.

But there’s a problematic cycle at play: because our musical theatre remains overwhelmingly white, when there is a role that requires an actor from a particular background, those actors usually don’t have a great deal of experience under their belt in major roles. And producers are unfortunately reluctant to cast anybody who is considered “untested” in a lead.

It’s not all bad news, with some locals getting their shots overseas: Patrice Tipoki has just finished a run as Fantine in the West End production of Les Miserables and joins a largely Australian cast in the Singapore production, led by Simon Gleeson. Hayden Tee is playing Javert in the Broadway production of Les Mis, Caroline O’Connor is currently appearing in the pre-Broadway season of Anastasia the musical, and Anthony Warlow has just played principal roles in the Broadway productions of Finding Neverland and Annie. 

With Disney, New Zealand actor Nick Afoa was recently cast as Simba in the West End production of The Lion King, a role he played on the Australian tour.

The UK and the US both have stricter requirements for international actors working on their stages and, without a local equivalent, the opportunities available to Australian actors are at risk. Australian actors still make up the majority of principals on our musical theatre stages, but there’s a trend that actors are watching closely. Artists can’t rely on the goodwill of commercial producers to protect their career opportunities and livelihoods.

Live Performance Australia was contacted for comment.

Featured image: British actor Wendy Mae Brown in the Australian production of Ghost. Photo by Jeff Busby

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