News & Commentary, Stage The glorious joke that is Australian musical theatre By Ben Neutze | June 2, 2015 | As the first act of the one-off sold out charity concert Australiana wrapped up at the Hayes Theatre last night, Anthony Harkin attempted a singalong with a piece from the successful but largely forgotten 1933 Australian musical Collits’ Inn. This song could have been a local version of New York, New York — it has a similar anthemic feel — but not one member of the audience was able to join in. These are the diehard fans of Australian musical theatre, after all, and they weren’t even familiar with this number from one of the most “important” Australian musicals ever written. It was a clever little gag from Harkin, in an irreverent night full of jokes about Australia’s little-known musical history. Australiana was billed as a celebration of Australian musical theatre, and raised funds for the New Musicals Australia development program. Genevieve Lemon, who has a long history of performing in local musicals, hosted and directed the show, with composer Max Lambert as musical director. Lambert is one of the most well-regarded Australian musical composers, but up until yesterday, if you wanted to hear much of his work you’d find it pretty difficult. Does anyone know how many cast recordings of Australian musicals actually exist? I can count about 12 off the top of my head, and can’t imagine there are too many I haven’t thought of which are still available online or in stores. Cast recordings are, largely, how musicals live on and become culturally “significant” in the absence of regular performances. The fundraising concert also doubled as the launch of the spectacular live cast album of Lambert and Nick Enright’s Miracle City. As recording costs decrease in the digital age, hopefully more work will be preserved, and create a legacy which can be built upon by the composers of the future. As it currently stands, local writers and producers have to work pretty hard to seek out scores, scripts, archival recordings and information on that legacy. During the concert, young actor Christy O’Sullivan performed a show-stopping rendition of a show-stopping number from Enright’s 1985 musical Orlando Rourke. She casually remarked before she began that nobody has heard it in 30 years, so we had nothing to compare her performance to. It’s astonishing (laughable, even) to think that this extraordinary song has somehow gone missing and hasn’t become a staple on the cabaret circuit. The show opened with a short sketch with Lemon and Lambert taking to the stage in nun’s habits. Lemon then performed an Austrian song and told the story of an obscure Austrian composer, before Harkin walked onstage with a post-it note and informed them that they’d both got it wrong — it was meant to be a celebration of Australian musicals, not Austrian musicals. Lemon remarked that she didn’t know any Australian musicals (although of course, she knows plenty). It was cheap, you could see the punchline coming a mile off, but it still made a strong point: we don’t really know our musical history. One of the highlights was Genevieve Lemon’s performance of the best worst song you’ve ever heard, from Collits’ Inn, called They’re in Love, performed in the show by Dandy Dick (it’s basically a low-rent version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love). Let’s be honest: we’re often pretty rubbish at this whole musical theatre thing. And it’s totally fine to have a laugh at our failures and acknowledge that the Great Australian Musical Songbook, around which a concert like this should be based, really doesn’t exist. None of this is to say there haven’t been great successes in Australian musicals, and many of them were celebrated in the concert. Casey Bennetto’s Keating! spoke loudly and clearly with an Australian voice. Every time you hear a lyric from Nick Enright (who wrote such gems as Variations, The Venetian Twins, Summer Rain and Miracle City) it’s clear that he could have stood amongst the greatest musical theatre lyricists in the world with his gorgeously light touch. There have been two highly successful Australian jukebox musicals in The Boy from Oz and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And the work of the new generation of Australian writers — particularly Matthew Lee Robinson, and James Millar and Peter Rutherford — is genuinely thrilling. That’s just the smallest tip of the iceberg. In Australia, musical theatre has long been treated as a purely commercial art form and therefore mostly not worthy of government support or support from our state theatre companies. On the other hand, two of the biggest success stories of British musical theatre originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company — Les Miserables and Matilda (and yes, Matilda does have a score written by Australian Tim Minchin). The local musical theatre industry is partially at fault for the prevalence of this attitude: much of the work that’s written and produced is derivative of international work and not particularly ambitious, artistically. But that shouldn’t be surprising; our local experiences of musicals are almost entirely of imported commercial blockbusters. And yet, when anybody has the guts to point this out, they’re often shouted down. Just last week, a new musical telling the story of Ned Kelly opened in Bendigo. In a thoughtful review for AussieTheatre, Anne-Marie Peard wrote: “It sounds like a ‘musical’; especially as the Les Miserables references abound. The songs are singable, but are missing thematic connection to character and connection of music structure to story structure … Ned is a by-the-discarded-book show that fails to question or place this story anywhere in today’s Australia and it left me feeling nothing.” Peard not only spoke about the production itself, but posed some broader questions about how local stories could be told in a musical form with distinctive local voices. She then faced a barrage of criticism (mainly on Facebook), in which she was accused of not supporting new Australian work for daring to point out that the work is maybe, in this instance, not particularly good or exciting. And she certainly wasn’t alone in that assessment. The way to support Australian musical theatre is to lovingly embrace it while still recognising its shortcomings and rallying for more support and innovation. A healthy industry shouldn’t shy away from criticism, but demand a higher standard. We should all — critics and audiences alike — be prepared to say, robustly, “well, that was a bit shit”, articulate exactly why a work fell short, and then hold onto those moments when an artist does succeed. That was the spirit of the gloriously irreverent Australiana. It was one of the most hilarious and enjoyable nights I’ve had at the theatre in a long time. And it was abundantly clear to the audience why their support is needed to help develop the artform. There are brilliant writers out there forging ahead, but they’re not exactly standing on a solid foundation of decades of development, and there aren’t a whole lot of avenues available to them to hone their craft. In fact, it’s extraordinary that writers and producers persist when the odds are stacked so strongly against them. Hopefully the New Musicals Australian development process will continue and see strong results. The concert was the best possible celebration of Australian musical theatre. It was an honest and forthright one which embraced the talent, the bravery and the quirks of a curious little group of local composers fighting to keep the dream alive. And a testament to just how funny that fight can be. Declaration: Ben Neutze is contracted by the Hayes Theatre Co for a regular column TALK [box]Featured image: Hayes Theatre Co’s 2014 production of Miracle City, photo by Kurt Sneddon. The live cast album from that production is available here[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.