In 1998, the Peter Allen bio-musical The Boy from Oz premiered in Sydney, then toured the country and was seen by more than 1.2 million people. In 2003, it became the first Australian musical to go to Broadway, and saw Hugh Jackman win a Tony Award. But in 1996, another musical involving three key members of the original Boy from Oz creative team premiered in Sydney to a rapturous response.
Miracle City was inspired by the lives of US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker, and follows a similar family as they try to achieve their dream of opening a Christian theme park.
It features a book by legendary Australian playwright Nick Enright, a score by Max Lambert and was directed by Gale Edwards. Enright wrote the book for The Boy from Oz, Lambert was the musical director and arranger, and Edwards was the original director. But what’s remarkable about Miracle City is that despite glowing reviews and a sell-out four week development season at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 2 theatre, the musical didn’t go on to further seasons and no cast recording or published script exists.
“It was overwhelming,” composer Max Lambert told Daily Review of the reception. “I was in Tasmania on a holiday earlier this year at a bed and breakfast which had Ruth Cracknell’s autobiography. In it, she talks about performing in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and the response from the audience on opening night, which she says was absolutely thrilling. And she said she’d only been in a theatre one other time when she’d witnessed that, with an audience riding on this wave of enthusiasm, and that was at the opening night of Miracle City. So I stole the book from the B&B and replaced it with another book.”
Angela Bennie called Miracle City a “revelation” in her Sydney Morning Herald review of the development season, and said: “it is a spectacular beginning; and if the completed journey fulfils this promise, then we have on our hands a major new work.”
But the “completed journey”, which was promised at the time, never happened.
The show has gained a kind of mythical status in the Australian musical theatre community. Those who were lucky enough to be at one of the performances rave and have been wondering when a revival will pop up. Those who missed out wonder what could’ve been possibly been so special.
In the years following its premiere, The Boy from Oz took off, Lambert was kept busy with international projects and musically directing the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, Edwards gained work overseas and, in 2003, Enright died. The show was due to be given a second, full season at the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre, but the stars never aligned. Lambert continued his work in musical theatre, having most recently worked on Strictly Ballroom and King Kong. But the reputation Miracle City gained over almost 20 years was the main reason that Lambert resisted bringing it back to the stage, until now.
“I thought we should just leave it as being mythical,” Lambert says. “I didn’t mind if it’s just this thing people talk about that they once saw; like the phoenix. I thought that’s fine. It’s taken a long time for me to be comfortable with the idea of doing it again and the right circumstances to come up. I think the Hayes Theatre is definitely the right home for it.”
Miracle City will rise again in October at the small Darlinghurst-based Hayes Theatre, which has become Sydney’s home for intimate musical theatre and cabaret since it opened in February. But it’s rising in a very different musical theatre environment to that in which it was create.
Its first season was made possible, in part, by a $500,000 grant to the Sydney Theatre Company from West End theatre empresario Cameron Mackintosh for the development of new Australian musicals. The grant was intended to fund the development of five new musicals over five years. $100,000 went towards the production costs of Miracle City and $100,000 to both 1998’s Lush and The Wunnerful Liberace. The remaining $200,000 was never accessed as STC didn’t produce any new musicals which would qualify for the grant until 2004’s The Republic of Myopia. By that point, there’d been a change in artistic director from Wayne Harrison to Robyn Nevin, with new general manager Rob Brookman. When they tried to access the fund from Cameron Mackintosh, they were told it was no longer available.
The show wasn’t an STC commission, but when Wayne Harrison heard one of the show’s songs I’ll Hold On performed at an STC fundraiser, he insisted that the company produce it no matter what.
“We had a sound check the afternoon of the fundraiser,” Lambert says “When the song started, everybody stopped doing what they were doing, put everything down and watched in total silence. And Wayne was there and said: ‘I don’t really care what happens tonight or what you do, I have to do the show so I can hear that song again.’”
There was a significant buzz around new Australian musicals in the late 1980s and ‘90s. Lambert recalls rehearsing his musical Darlinghurst Nights based on the poetry of Kenneth Slessor at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf, while two other new Australian musicals (Manning Clark’s A History of Australia the Musical and Frank Hardy’s Faces in the Street) were rehearsing in different rooms in the venue. It was a vibrant time, but Lambert says since then the climate for rising musical theatre writers has become substantially more difficult, with theatre companies not willing to take the financial risks associated with new musicals.
“I did feel that I was supported. By the time that I did Miracle City, I’d done a few other musicals that I’d written. But for a young composer now, the idea of getting work on is hugely difficult. I just don’t know where you’d start.”
Lambert is currently working on a new show with Anthony Harkin: a musical about the Western Australia mining boom and some of the colourful characters involved over the last two decades. But in the coming months his focus will be on returning to Miracle City and recreating the music that thrilled audiences in a way that few new Australian musicals manage to. It will be the first time its heard in almost 20 years.
The cast for Miracle City features Mike McLeish, Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Jason Kos, Esther Hannaford, Marika Aubrey and Josie Lane.