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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Wicked

Capitol Theatre, September 25

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack.  Photo by Jeff Busby

Jemma Rix and Lucy Durack. Photo by Jeff Busby

Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman’s phenomenally popular musical Wicked is back in Sydney on its 10th anniversary tour – and though the show took time to hit its mark on opening night, the audience still found it “thrillifying”, as audiences have been doing the world over since the show premiered on Broadway in 2003, grossing around $3 billion to date.

For the uninitiated, Wicked is a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, telling the story of how two unlikely friends – the green-skinned misfit Elphaba and the perky, popular Galinda – become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch Glinda.

Act I doesn’t feel as sharp as in the past, skimming along like the song “Dancing Through Life”, almost as if on autopilot at times, without fully landing all the moments. In Act II, however, it settles and finds its heart.

Jemma Rix’s lovely, warm Elphaba is the heart and soul of the show. She gives a dramatically layered performance and sings with a gorgeous tone, bringing a spine-tingling, crystal clear belt to the show-stopping, anthemic “Defying Gravity”.

Lucy Durack returns to the role of Glinda, having starred in the original 2008 Australian production. She appeared to be struggling with some vocal issues on opening night and her voice sounded somewhat scratchy. She also pushed the comedy a bit too hard with inverse results. However, her scenes with Rix in the second act were as touching as ever.

Reg Livermore is wonderful as the not-so-wonderful Wizard of Oz, bringing nuance, humanity and a winning showmanship to the role, Steve Danielsen is an understated presence as Fiyero, without a great deal of chemistry with Rix, but he sings beautifully, Maggie Kirkpatrick reprises the conniving Madame Morrible with aplomb, and Emily Cascarino and Edward Grey do a good job as Nessarose and Boq.

Wicked tackles serious themes about oppression, tolerance, propaganda and fear mongering, which strike a real chord right now. But it’s the “swankified” spectacle of the lavish set and costumes, the catchy, soaring melodies, and the uplifting “girl power” sisterhood between Elphaba and Glinda that have won it such a huge following. The production may have lost a little of its sparkle but the Sydney opening night audience was clearly delighted in the main, leaping to their feet at the end and roaring their approval.

Wicked is at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre until January 30. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.