The Sound of Musicals in Australia in 2015

At the 2014 Helpmann Awards, a David and Goliath contest in the musical theatre categories generated the biggest buzz of the night, with observers genuinely intrigued to see how the votes had landed.

For there, alongside the large commercial shows like The King and I, The Rocky Horror Show and Strictly Ballroom, was Sweet Charity: the inaugural production from the newly formed Hayes Theatre Co, which had turned a 110-seat theatre in the Sydney suburb of Potts Point into a dedicated venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret.

Sweet Charity, which sold out within three days after rapturous reviews, received eight Helpmann nominations and won three for its director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth and leading lady Verity Hunt-Ballard.

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard and Martin Crewes as Oscar in Sweet Charity. Photo: supplied

The production returns this week, opening at the Sydney Opera House’s Playhouse Theatre on Friday for a three-week season then touring to Canberra, Wollongong and Melbourne.

“I am thrilled that this tiny little show is getting a bigger life,” says Bryant. “It was a magical time for all of us, and we never could have seen that it would have the impact and get the response that it did. I’m very keen for people to see what we did, and especially to see Verity’s brilliant performance.”

Bryant says that the 2015 revival will have “the same spirit as the original but be refitted and possibly redesigned into the larger venues that it will play. It’s not about replicating it, but remembering what the engine of the original production was and finding out how to do that in a new venue.”

Bryant is one of Australia’s busiest young musical theatre directors. He is the worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and has directed The Producers, Anything Goes and, late last year, La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company in Melbourne.

This year, he helms his biggest production to date: Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, which he believes has “a perfectly conceived script and a brilliant score”.

Opera Australia is co-producing the show with John Frost, following their successful collaborations on South Pacific and The King and I.

It was Todd McKenney who initiated the production, telling Frost he’d love to reprise the role of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, which he played for The Production Company.

“I thought, ‘good idea, it’s time for a revival’ and I thought Dean had done such a great job of it. I asked if he’d like to do it, though I said, ‘I don’t want it to be a copy of what The Production Company did,’” says Frost.

The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Reno Sweeney alongside McKenney, Alex Rathgeber, Debora Krizak, Wayne Scott Kermond, Claire Lyon, Carmen Duncan and (controversially) Alan Jones in the small role of the ship’s captain.

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O'Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The cast of Anything Goes, Carmen Duncan, Claire Lyon, Alex Rathgeber, Caroline O’Connor, Todd McKenney, Wayne Scott Kermond, Debora Krizak and Alan Jones. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The basic structure of the set has been imported from a New Zealand production but designer Dale Ferguson is refurbishing it, making significant change and changes to create a new look. Ferguson will also design the costumes.

Hallsworth will do the choreography as he did for The Production Company version but the production will be new.

“We have a mostly new principal cast, it will be a fresh ensemble, there are new designers on board and we’re in different venues,” says Bryant. “As far as I’m concerned we’ll build it as if we’ve never done the show before, but we happen to have the knowledge of the previous production stored in our memory banks.

“There was one delicious part of Andrew’s choreography in the title number that HAS to make its way back into the show, but otherwise we’ll build the ship from scratch.”

Matilda the Musical with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin is one of the year’s most keenly anticipated shows.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Described by the New York Times as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain”, Matilda was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company who premiered it at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010. In 2011, it transferred to the West End winning rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards. A Broadway production opened in 2013 to ecstatic reviews and won four Tony Awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, it tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a precocious, book-loving child with a ghastly family and a brutally evil headmistress, who stands up to injustice and prevails against the odds, with a little help from her telekinetic powers.

The RSC will present the show in Australia with several producers including Australian-based Louise Withers whose other credits include Billy Elliot the Musical.

The cast will be announced in April. “We are auditioning between November and February. When you are dealing with this many children you can’t audition too early as they grow up too fast,” says Withers.

There are a total of 29 children across three casts. “We had 52 children in Billy Elliot so 29 is OK,” she adds sanguinely.

Withers emphasises that the show is not just for children. “It ticks the box for every age group from six to 76. A lot of adults today were Roald Dahl devotees growing up. They are now parents reading the books to their children. It jumps generations in the same way as The Lion King.”

Some believe that Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, where the production opens in August, is too large for the show.

“Obviously it’s a different size to the London theatre. Theatres in London and New York tend to be smaller. But the design will be developed to help bring the eye in, and the show is full of life and energy so I’m sure it will fill the space,” says Withers.

Sydney will also host the Australian premiere of Here Lies Love, which will be presented as a centerpiece of the Vivid Sydney festival. An immersive disco musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, the show had its first outing at the 2006 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in a concert version. The fully-fledged show premiered in New York in 2013 and recently had a sell-out London season produced by the National Theatre.

The inventive staging has the actors performing on platforms and moving catwalks, creating a club-like environment in which the audience is forced to keep moving, while video projections mix historical footage with live simulcasts.

The Australian production will be staged in The Millennium, a purpose-built, pop-up venue in Barangaroo.

From London’s West End comes Thriller Live, which celebrates the music and career of Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. The national tour began in Perth in December. The show opens in Brisbane this week then tours to Melbourne and Sydney with short seasons in each. (There is an interview with the show’s creator Adrian Grant on this blog).

In September, The Lion King became the top-selling musical, indeed entertainment, of all time taking $6.2 billion worldwide since it opened on Broadway in 1997. After doing roaring business in Sydney this year, the production opens in Melbourne in February.

Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical also moves to Melbourne where it plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre from this Saturday after premiering to mixed reviews in Sydney.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

“As with any brand new production we’re taking the opportunity of trimming and tightening the show,” says Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of Global Creatures and producer of the musical. “Since opening we have shortened the running time, restaged Time After Time, added a new opening number and given greater clarity to the story telling and staging.”

Meanwhile, the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables, with brand new staging, starts the year in Perth and then moves to Sydney in March, after a successful Melbourne season in 2014.

Other musicals, which continue touring into 2015 include Grease (which runs at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre until January 30), Wicked and The Rocky Horror Show, all produced in Australia by Frost.

Wicked closes in Sydney on January 30. Suzie Mathers takes over the role of Glinda from Lucy Durack (who is expecting her first baby) for the Brisbane season from February 12 and then Perth in May. Simon Gallaher takes on the role of the Wizard.

Craig McLachlan reprises the role of Frank N Furter in the Sydney season of The Rocky Horror Show, which begins its run on April 11, with Bert Newton stepping into the role of the Narrator. Other cast changes will be announced soon. The show then returns to Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in June.

Sadly, Once, which Frost produced with Melbourne Theatre Company, will not tour despite wonderful reviews. It plays in Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until February 8.

Though not strictly a musical in the way it uses (or fails to use) songs, Frost is also producing a 10th anniversary tour of Dirty Dancing, which began life in Australia in 2004 before spending five years in the West End. Starring Kirby Burgess and Kurt Phelan, it received mixed reviews when it opened in Sydney recently. The Sydney season winds up on February 22 then moves to Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth.

There have been persistent rumours that Frost will also produce The Sound of Music in 2015 though nothing is yet confirmed. Stay tuned.

Though Frost candidly admits that he isn’t terribly keen on producing new musicals, he does have one in the pipeline: Dream Lover about Bobby Darin, which was to have opened late in the year but will now probably open in 2016.

“I don’t really enjoy doing new musicals, they’re too hard for me,” says Frost, whose productions of An Officer and A Gentleman and Doctor Zhivago struggled at the box office.

“Whilst I will do them and we are going to do (Dream Lover), I get more kicks out of doing these big, brassy entertainments like (Anything Goes). Musicals are so expensive and to raise the money for them (is hard). That is just the way this country is. If you haven’t got a Tony Award or an Olivier Award attached to a show (investors) look at you as if you’re a freak.”

Written by Michael-John Howson and Frank Howson, Dream Lover has had two workshops and a substantial amount of script development. Simon Phillips will direct the production once he and the right-sized theatre become available. “I didn’t really want to put it into a 2000-seat theatre,” says Frost.

Phillips will also direct a new musical for Queensland Theatre Company called Ladies in Black. Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Woman in Black, it has a book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn.

Set in Sydney, during the 1950s and 60s, Ladies in Black centres on Lisa, a bright-eyed, bookish school leaver whose life is transformed when she joins the sales staff in the city’s most prestigious department store. The production stars Christen O’Leary.

Other subsidised companies to feature musicals in their seasons include Melbourne Theatre Company, which is staging a “boutique musical” called What Rhymes With Cars And Girls, by Aidan Fennessy, a contemporary love story with songs from Tim Rogers’ first solo album, and Victorian Opera, which is presenting Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the title role, following productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods.

Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company will also stage its first musical for many years and its first American musical: the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal about a suburban mother with bipolar disorder. Opening in November, it will star Rachael Beck and Brendan Hanson.

“It won three Tony Awards from 11 nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama so it was an obvious one for us to dip our toe into the water with,” says artistic director Kate Cherry.

Cherry says that she is “really hoping in the future to do one musical a year. I love the form but I tend to be interested in more off-beat musicals. I’m fascinated at how musicals can allow us to talk about really difficult subjects yet enjoy ourselves at the same time.”

Meanwhile, the Hayes Theatre Co is currently staging an acclaimed production of Next to Normal from Geelong’s Doorstep Arts with Natalie O’Donnell in the central role of Diana.

Natalie O'Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts' Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Natalie O’Donnell as Diana in Doorstep Arts’ Next to Normal at the Hayes. Photo: supplied

Other productions coming up at the Hayes include Blood Brothers in February and, in May, Dogfight based on the 1991 film of the same name about three young soldiers on a final bender before they leave for Vietnam.

These and other independent productions around the country by smaller companies such as Squabbalogic in Sydney (which presents Man of La Mancha with Tony Sheldon from February 25 and Triassic Parq in June), Magnormos in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane will add immeasurably to the musical theatre ecology.

News that the Hayes has relaunched New Musicals Australia, an initiative dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre, is especially welcome for Australian musical theatre writers.

A version of this story appeared in The Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine

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Adrian Grant’s Thriller career

An Australian tour of Thriller Live begins in Perth tonight. Adrian Grant talks about meeting Michael Jackson and how the show came about.

Adrian Grant. Photo: supplied

Adrian Grant. Photo: supplied

In 1988, at age 19, Adrian Grant began publishing a Michael Jackson fanzine called Off the Wall from his bedroom in the UK town of Reading.

Little did he know that it would lead to him becoming a long-time associate of Jackson’s, writing three books about the King of Pop, and co-producing a stage show celebrating his music.

Thriller Live has been running in London’s West End for six years now. It has toured to 28 countries and been seen by over three million people. An Australian production opens in Perth tonight then tours to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

“It’s really down to the popularity of Michael’s music,” says Grant of the show’s success. “Those songs will live on forever. We’re just happy to be a small part of his legacy and keep that magic going.”

It all began for Grant when he first saw Jackson moonwalk. “I went out and got the Thriller album and I fell in love with it,” he says.

“Prince had a fan magazine in the UK called Controversy. I used to get it every quarter. I’d just left college, where I was doing business studies, and I wanted to get into the media and I thought, ‘well if Prince is selling 3000 magazines, why hasn’t Michael Jackson got a magazine?’”

After getting permission from Sony, Grant got a grant, bought himself a computer and began publishing a magazine he named Off the Wall after Jackson’s fifth studio album.

“The first one, I printed 200 copies and I sold them by mail order and they all sold out. It was just black and white and there were lots of mistakes,” says Grant.

But he learned quickly. Within a couple of years, he was selling 25,000 copies per issue around the world. He also started sending copies to Jackson’s company in Los Angeles and in 1990 received an invitation to meet Jackson while he was recording his Dangerous album in Los Angeles.

“I went to the studio. I remember that day very clearly. He was wearing a black fedora and a black shirt and I could hear him singing as he came around the corner into the studio,” says Grant.

“I had this painting commissioned by this artist called Vincent McKoy, which was a montage of Michael over the last 20 years, and he was very grateful.”

Not only did Jackson invite Grant to spend the whole day at the studio, he then asked him to have lunch at his house in Neverland at the weekend.

“Again I remember it like yesterday,” says Grant. “I remember driving through the big gates and the security guy escorting me down to the main house. As I was walking down I was just blown away by the scene. There was classical music coming out of the flowerbeds. I could see two little chimpanzees rolling around in the grass – their names were Max and Alex.

“Beyond that there was a giraffe and lamas and a funfair. I said to the guy, ‘this isn’t reality’ and he said, ‘this is reality for Michael Jackson. This is what he wakes up to everyday.’ It kind of made me realise what Michael’s world was. He had the opportunity to have pretty much whatever he wanted.

“At the time much of the media had (mocked) Michael Jackson for the zoo, for the lamas, for the chimpanzees, but I thought, ‘these are the things that he loves.’ They weren’t there just for his personal amusement. They were there for other people to enjoy as well, such as underprivileged and disabled kids who used to go on visits to the ranch. And that was Michael Jackson down to a tee. He was always giving to other people. And he gave me a lot of his time because he knew what I was doing was not just for myself but for his fan base and he appreciated the love and support they were giving him.”

Adrian Grant with Michael Jackson. Photo: supplied

Adrian Grant with Michael Jackson. Photo: supplied

As for the controversial headlines, that wasn’t the man that Grant knew or saw. “He was very open, he was very chatty, he laughed a lot. He was a big kid at heart,” says Grant.

“A couple of his musicians who were working on the album were there (at Neverland) and they were discussing the songs they were working on. He wanted me to feel very comfortable there. We went and played in the arcade room and we watched a movie in his movie theatre. He was just really down to earth. I found him to be like that the whole time I knew him.”

Jackson continued to give Grant access over the years. “I think I must have gone to Neverland at least twice a year every year and I toured with him on his HIStory tour. I saw him recording in the studio a couple more times in New York when he was recording the HIStory album,” says Grant.

“At the time I didn’t think much of it. I was just doing my job and Michael was very open and very giving. But it was good to watch him work. He was a complete genius in the studio. I don’t think people realise what a great musician he was because he often employed the best people and had a very talented team with him. He was such a perfectionist and that’s something I’ve tried to carry through to the show.”

Thriller Live has its roots in a Michael Jackson tribute concert that Grant began staging annually in London in 1991 for readers of the fanzine.

“I think about 1000 people came to the first one. The first show was on a par with the first magazine!” admits Grant with a laugh. “But the audience had a great time. They used dress up like Michael and we invited people to sing his songs and dance in a competition. Again, it got bigger and better every year and the acts got more professional and by the end of it they were giving proper concert performances. Michael used to send over prizes – signed fedoras and the prize for one competition was to go to his home – and he sent over a video crew to film it.

“For the 10th concert in 2001 we went to a bigger venue: the Hammersmith Apollo, which held 3000 fans, and Michael actually attended in person for that one. We built a little tent on the side of the stage so he could watch the whole show without being disturbed. He came on stage afterwards and he said he loved it and that it was incredible and beautiful. That kind of gave me the inspiration to do something bigger not just for Michael Jackson’s fans but for the public at large.

“In 2005, I really started to put it into development. We did a one-off show in August 2006 to see how the public would respond and they loved it. After that I teamed up with Flying Music who were producers with 25 years experience and we put together the first UK tour in 2007 and then in January 2009 we moved into the West End where it’s still running.”

MiG Ayesa in the London production of Thriller Live. Photo: supplied

MiG Ayesa in the London production of Thriller Live. Photo: supplied

The show features two hours of non-stop hits by Jackson and the Jackson 5 performed by five lead singers (including MiG Ayesa and Prinnie Stevens in Australia), 16 dancers and a nine-piece band.

“It’s definitely all about the music,” says Grant. “When I first conceived the show I wanted to bring people back to Michael Jackson’s music, which had been a bit forgotten at the time. There was a lot of media controversy surrounding Michael Jackson and people were just talking about the headlines and not about the artist so I wanted to create a show, which just focused on Michael’s music and artistry on stage. There’s a brief narrative that runs through the show which outlines his achievements and his accolades but it’s there just as timeline to his career.”

Right from the outset, Grant decided to have a number of singers performing Jackson’s songs rather than just one. “First, I didn’t want it to be perceived as a look-alike tribute shot. Secondly, I didn’t think there was anybody who could play Michael Jackson so I wanted to have different performers representing different (aspects) of his personality on stage. It also makes it more interesting for the audience rather than just listening to one voice.”

Grant was at home in London when he heard about Jackson’s death, and could hardly believe it.

“Obviously my first thoughts were with his family, with his young children and his mother (Katherine). I flew out to Los Angeles. I went to the memorial and paid my respects and then I went to Katherine’s home and I met with Paris, Michael’s daughter. I gave her one of my books and she gave me the biggest hug.”

“The night after he passed I didn’t personally want the show to go on,” says Grant. “I wanted to cancel it out of respect to Michael but along with the other producers we made a decision that there was a demand for the show. The cast were in tears and very emotional and they all gave an electric performance. There was thunderous applause from the audience.

“In the end it was the right decision to go on because the venue itself became like a shrine for Michael’s fans.”

Five years since Jackson’s death, Thriller Live continues to moonwalk around the world.

“Really it’s not like a job doing this,” says Grant. “It’s a love for me and a passion.”

Thriller Live plays at the Crown Theatre, Perth until December 21; Festival Theatre, Adelaide, December 30 –January 11; QPAC, Brisbane, January 14 – 25; Arts Centre Melbourne, January 28 – February 8; Lyric Theatre, Sydney, February 26 – March 15

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30