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The glorious joke that is Australian musical theatre

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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]

13 responses to “The glorious joke that is Australian musical theatre

  1. An impressive Australian musical, in my opinion was Lola Montez, by Stannard and Benjamin….in the style of Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon.

  2. Great article Ben, and a salient reminder of the neglected riches of Australian musical theatre. One correction though – the music for the tragically never produced Orlando Rourke was written by Australian composer Alan John. Nick Enright wrote the lyrics.

  3. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the ‘purely commercial art form’ mindset is a comparatively recent one, and Ben, you yourself wrote about this when speaking with Max Lambert prior to the ‘Miracle City’ revival.

    In the late ’80s and early ’90s, it seemed that every couple of years one of the state theatre companies – usually the STC – would take a stab at an Aussie musical, and Jonah Jones, The Emerald Room, and Max’s own Darlinghurst Nights all hail from this period.

    These shows weren’t mighty hits, but they also weren’t viewed as especially commercial: they had their critics, they had their champions, they had artistic ambition, and they all didn’t make enough money.

    By the late 2000s, with the STC and MTC mounting shows like ‘Spring Awakening’ and ‘Next to Normal’, it seemed odd that our state theatre companies would choose to lose money on overseas products rather than local ones, but of course that wasn’t their intention. Now the state theatre companies don’t do Aussie musicals at all, except those aimed at kids (which is perfectly laudable, but insufficient).

    This leaves us, the writers, in the following situation: independent theatre companies like the Hayes (disclosure: I am on the Artistic Advisory Panel for New Musicals Australia) have all the drive, talent and enthusiasm for Aussie shows, but they don’t have the resources. Big commercial producers like John Frost say they’d love to support a local show, but they can’t get the backing (I believe John when he says this, by the way, but the net effect is precisely the same as if he had no interest).

    And the medium-sized state theatre companies, where they do have the venues and resources appropriate for developing new works, don’t want to put on Aussie musicals.

    Everyone – even Oz Opera – says they have no money.

    Little wonder that the writers are turning their attention overseas. Matthew Robinson is in New York, giving concerts of his songs. ‘Atomic’ had a try-out in Newtown, then went straight to New York. ‘Clinton’ didn’t even bother trying out here first.

    I hope someone in the UK production team for ‘Matilda’ notices that they have a writer in their cast, and asks to hear some of James Millar’s songs. I hope he and Peter Rutherford have a thumping great hit overseas, something with both artistic and commercial merit, and that they bring it to our shores in triumph, as Tim Minchin is about to do.

    And I hope it embarrasses the hell out of everyone here.

    1. for what it’s worth — bugger all, I accept — I completely understand the decision to bypass Australian with the musical CLINTON.

      possibly the hardest pill to swallow is that the genre of musical theatre and the population of Australia just aren’t sympatico.

      hell, I’m not sure creativity and the population of Australia are that sympatico.

      we be simple folk content with our beaches, bush, and bloody-minded bigotries.

      1. PS : The Peard review of NED is an interesting one.

        “Making goodies and badies isn’t story … Story is taking what we know and telling it in a way that makes us re-think our knowledge and opinions.”

        Unfortunately, I would add that aside from disliking creativity, the population of Australian ain’t too thrilled with having to re-think their knowledge and opinions.

        See, the Adam Goodes war dance controversy.

        http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/the-real-reason-people-are-outraged-over-adam-goodes-war-dance-20150601-ghdt84.html

        Boofheads people … boofheads !

  4. One solution to the problem of funding for both Australian Musical Theatre, Independent Theatre companies and new Australian works, is a new initiative that the entire Arts community should get behind that does not rely on Government or State Theatre Companies for support. The Arts Lottery.
    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/arts/a-lotto-to-fund-the-arts-is-next-on-the-cards-for-alex-theatre-founder-aleksandar-vass/story-fni0fcgk-1227246225093

    1. Ben, thank you very much for your most excellent article and its many insights. It was heartening to read such thoughtful commentary and also to read the responses. I’m only sorry that I was in Melbourne and missed the show!

      Peter Wyllie Johnston
      The Australian Music Theatre Research Institute

  5. Peter – Poor Boy (2009) was an Australian musical perhaps worth a mention as state theatre companies investing in an Australian Musical.

    1. Thanks, David – I’d forgotten ‘Poor Boy’, which was supported by both MTC and STC. I didn’t see it, but I read all the reviews, pro and con.

      I remember various grumblings about whether that piece was ‘a musical’ or ‘a play with music’, and whether Tim Finn’s back-catalogue songs worked dramatically, or relied on their familiarity and their writer’s bankable name.

      Regardless of all that, Finn’s songs for QTC’s “Ladies in Black” later this year will be original, and that’s exciting.

      But what I’d really like to see is all the taxpayer-funded theatre companies doing a new Australian musical, in some manner, in the same year. Maybe 2018, the 60th anniversary of ‘Lola Montez’?

  6. Great article Ben!

    Let us not forget “Shout!” – The show that brought David Campell & Tamsin Carroll into the Australian spotlight in 2001 (as well as writers Mel Morrow, David Mitchell & John-Michael Howsen). With their follow-up “Dusty” this creative team contributed much to the landscape of home-written mainstage musical theatre in the past decade.

    Not to mention I’d probably be still be working in a cafe (and not be mates with any of you!) if it hadn’t been for that show 🙂

  7. Ben Neutze, Peter Casey and others may like to point out that commercial producers such as The Gordon Frost Organisation (John Frost) actually write cheques each year to directly underpin the Hayes and the work it does providing nascent works and performances.

  8. Thanks for this article and the comments are all wonderful to read. The fabulous humour with which Australiana show was presented (and reflected a fair amount of the material, too) is a key, I think, to a mainstream musical theatre “hit”. Certainly the most financially successful Australian (non-jukebox) musicals have this key ingredient. Sometimes I think this gets lost when there is a goal to write anything “important” ie, an important Australian musical.

    I wanted to add a few more musical creators into the mix – especially Chris Harriott and Dennis Watkins (Pearls Before Swine, Dingo Girl…) and of course Reg Livermore. My first Australian show I directed was H and W’s BURGER BRAIN, THE FAST FOOD MUSICAL which starred “babies” Toni Collette and Mitchell Butel still in high school.
    I’ll also throw in the juke-box musical WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW written with Scott Rankin with all those Bacharach and David hits at the Theatre Royal.

    A new one that people may not quite yet be aware of is THE NEW BLACK. Had it’s out of town tryout starring Robyn Archer, Ernie Dingo, Bill Zappa, Elaine Crombie, Leeroy Bilney in the Gold Coast last year. Now in final rewrites. Original score by the fantastic Aboriginal singer songwriter Marcus Corowa. It’s one to watch out for. It’s first airing was years ago with New Musicals Australia at Sidetrack. In the audience then was… Peter Stannard. He introduced himself and we have become good friends. Peter and I, with a couple of partners, are indeed working hard to bring back Lola Montez in 2018. If anyone wants to join us, just let me know!

    1. A revival of an original Australian show is exactly what we need. Lola Montez, The Sentimental Bloke, maybe even Collits’ Inn if it gets a touch revised. Glad to hear you guys are working on getting Lola Montez re-staged. I know I’d do whatever I can to assist in getting that on again.

      What’s happening next with “The New Black”? I just came across a Youtube vid with some rehearsal footage and it looks like it could be superb. Any chance of a Melbourne or Sydney season upcoming?

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