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Helpmann Awards: local vs foreign artists, and the other big talking points

Last night’s Helpmann Awards were thoroughly endured by all in attendance. The ceremony, which recognises live performance in almost every form (from ballet, to contemporary music, to stand-up comedy, to opera, to musical theatre), is typically a marathon event.

Thankfully, the ceremony ran pretty much to time (three hours, straight through), and there were some decent (and brief) acceptance speeches and performances. There were a few stuff-ups — most notably, Deborah Hutton was handed the wrong envelope for one award — but nothing too devastating.

In fact, part of the reason the show kept to time was that many winners weren’t in attendance, so had either sent videos or somebody to collect on their behalf. It meant thirsty industry members could quickly get to the after party — and the free alcohol — and Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director Kip Williams could rush off to the Hordern Pavilion to catch at least part of LCD Soundsystem’s gig.

You can see the full list of winners here, but the following talking points were the subject of plenty of mid-ceremony after party conversation.

WHERE ARE AUSTRALIA’S LEADING MEN?

The two awards available to male musical theatre performers both went to international artists: Callum Francis for his leading performance as Lola in Kinky Boots and Michael James Scott for his supporting performance as the Genie in Aladdin. Francis’s category only included one Australian performer, the star of Aladdin, Ainsley Melham.

Both Francis and Scott deliver superb performances, but the wins come after significant controversy over a surge in imported talent in leading roles in Australian musicals. Last year, the president of Live Performance Australia, the body behind the Helpmann Awards, said the trend was a “non-issue“.

AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL THEATRE FIGHTS BACK

Similarly, the lack of recognition of local musical theatre creatives was particularly jarring. The categories for Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography of a Musical were both populated entirely by foreign creative talents who recreated work for Australian stages.

Of course, the Helpmanns are aspiring to be Australia’s version of the Tony Awards and the Olivier Awards, and neither of those ceremonies are so parochial as to only award local artists. But unlike the industries they recognise — Broadway and the West End — Australia is not exactly a world leader in producing original major musical theatre. The vast majority of our musical theatre culture is imported, so the Helpmanns inevitably end up recognising creatives from overseas, some of whom don’t even travel to Australia to supervise the re-creation of their work, and one who has been dead for several decades (costume designer Cecil Beaton, whose 60-year-old designs for My Fair Lady scored a nomination).

But there was some talk on stage about the state of Australian musical theatre: firstly Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini and singer/composer Kate Miller-Heidke had some playful, if slightly awkward, banter about whether Australian musical theatre is “endangered”.

Later on in the night Live Performance Australia President Andrew Kay and Equity President Chloe Dallimore presented together. Given that LPA is sort of an employers association for producers and Equity is the performing arts industry’s union, it was a nice, collegiate pairing.

But Dallimore announced she was going to “naughtily go off script” and assured Terracini that “Australian musicals, Australian-created musicals, are alive and well”, before pointing to new original Australian musicals Joh for PM and Melba.

EVERYONE’S A WINNER, BABY

The four major commercial musicals nominated — Aladdin, Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon and My Fair Lady — all picked up two awards each. A rather neat outcome (perhaps too neat?), really, and a recognition of the strength of major commercial musical theatre over the last year.

There was some grumbling that the musical theatre categories continue to favour large-scale commercial work when there’s been a recent boom of smaller-scale, independent musical theatre in recent years. For example, the Hayes Theatre’s critically-acclaimed, sold out production of Calamity Jane didn’t get a look-in, and its star, Virginia Gay, didn’t even receive a nomination, for what many have called the musical theatre performance of the year.

AND THE WINNER IS…

The winner announcements via the Helpmann Awards Twitter account were, um, rather strange.

SAUL SWEEPS THE FIELD

Despite the fact that Opera Australia received 26 nominations, it won just four awards, two of which went to its musical co-production of My Fair Lady. Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul, which played just four performances at the Adelaide Festival, swept the operatic field, winning six awards from its seven nominations, including Best Opera.

LEAH PURCELL’S CABINET RUNNETH OVER

Leah Purcell’s adaptation of The Drover’s Wife has already won a whole stack of awards, including the $100,000 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize, $40,000 worth of prizes at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and several Sydney Theatre Awards.

Now the play, which premiered at Belvoir in Sydney, has won four Helpmann Awards: Best Play, Best New Australian Work, Best Director (Leticia Caceres), and Best Male Actor in a Play (Mark Coles Smith).

There was surprisingly little love for some of our biggest theatre companies: Melbourne Theatre Company picked up two awards, but no other state theatre company won an award.

JAN STEALS THE SHOW

Please, let Jan van de Stool host every Helpmanns ceremony for the rest of time. She managed to make the three hour ceremony feel no longer than two hours and fifty minutes.

One response to “Helpmann Awards: local vs foreign artists, and the other big talking points

  1. The musical theatre creatives thing is a bit overblown, given it really depends on the pool of eligible productions each year. Were there many (high quality) locally-created productions of musicals this year? There were last year, and 3 of the 4 Direction of a Musical nominees were locals. Lots of local productions will probably be eligible for next year’s Helpmanns (e.g. Dream Lover, Muriel’s Wedding, Vigil, Joh for PM, The Black Rider, Ruddigore, JC Superstar, Brigadoon, Hello Dolly!) and the only big new international productions announced so far are Beautiful and The Wizard of Oz (I think). Re: independent productions, presumably only shows that are fully professional (i.e. everyone employed with at least Equity minimum pay and conditions for rehearsals and performances) are eligible for the Helpmanns. I don’t know Calamity Jane’s status, but co-op productions can (and are) recognised at each city’s own awards.

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