This paper was written as a preamble to the author’s SWOT analysis for “The Australian musical’ and could be read in conjunction with that paper, which can be found in the set of SWOT analyses on this site.
The overriding trend of the ‘musical’ in the twentieth century, as developed on Broadway, has been towards the ‘book musical’: a musical play, as opposed to a play with music, in which incidental music, songs and dance, each with their own distinctive ‘vocabularies’, integrate into a harmoniously satisfying dramatic structure, enhance through ‘spectacle’ (scenery, costume and lighting).
The ‘book’ refers to the theatrical script: a well-made story with component character development and a generic arc of dramatic action. The music and lyrics form the ‘score’. One of the most significant aspects of a musical reception is its verisimilitude, the way in which the combination of book and score merge emotionally to allow speech to evolve into song consequentially. This delicate but crucial process determines the generic modulation of the book musical.
The primary collaborators in the creation of a musical are the personalities who create the book (and/or lyrics) and the composer. In some instances, both roles are taken by the one person.
The greatest commercial competitor to the ‘book’ musical is ‘the jukebox musical’, where the role of the composer is replaced by existing and established popular songs. The ‘books’ of these stories tend to be either autobiographical and feature a song list created or performed by the subject (eg Dusty, Shout, The Boy From Oz); thematic, featuring a style or period of music (eg Rock of Ages, Motown); or homage, original stories that incorporate popular songs by a particular artist (eg Mamma Mia, Saturday Night Fever, Viva Forever!). The obvious difficulty the form imposes is how to manipulate a successful transition between book and song, and how to make the song integral to the action, to carry narrative naturally, and not be merely illustrative.
A cultural and iconic tradition, the ‘modern’ American musical, in the ‘Broadway’ tradition, derives from a selective fusion of European operetta, vaudeville, minstrel show and the Yiddish theatre of New York. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat (1927) is considered a modernist landmark in the genre. Hammerstein further developed his dramaturgy with composer Richard Rodgers in Oklahoma! (1943) - their first production, in a long collaboration. The premiere was also noteworthy for the choreography of Agnes de Mille and its elevation of dance into the vocabulary of the evolving form.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s oeuvre set the standard on Broadway for the next two decades, by embracing ‘real issues’ and examining ‘real characters’ in ‘real situations’, all at core nationalistic and aspirational. They joined a distinguished cohort, in the 1950s and early 60s, establishing work now considered the ‘Golden Age’: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents, George Kaufman and Cole Porter. What distinguishes this group of composers - except for the latter, the writer of Anything Goes and Kiss Me Kate - is their ‘Jewishness’. What drew these men to the musical theatre was their tradition in the Shund - their own imported Yiddish theatre, and as new Americans they loved to play with their newly acquired language. There was an inherent ‘show business’ in the theatricality of their speech that suited the enhanced artificiality of the musical form.
Following the success of the break-out premiere of West Side Story in 1957, composer and lyrist Stephen Sondheim would dominate Broadway for half a century with a diverse but sophisticated evolution of the form with works such as Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Assassins.
The rock music ‘concept albums’ of the late sixties ushered in a new form: the ‘rock musical’, such as Hair, Tommy, Godspel and Pippin, proved a popular departure and lead on to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971. The pop/rock influence on the genre continued to develop over the next two decades before more European ‘operatic’ sung-through scores emerged with musicals such as Cats, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, all part of a new aggressive entrepreneurial marketing strategy spearheaded by British producer Cameron Mackintosh and referred to as block-buster ‘mega-musicals’ (typified by heavy reliance on spectacle and technology) that tend to have extended seasons (often decades) and multiple international touring companies and productions. The Disney Corporation contributed to the global phenomena with stage adaptations of popular films such as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mary Poppins.
Towards the new millennium, an eclectic cohort of young ‘Off-Broadway’ composers countered with seminal more intimate and intense productions typified by Jonathan Larson’s Rent, and included Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Urinetown, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-awarding winning Hamilton.
While the nineteenth and early twentieth century produced a number of melodramas with Australian themes and settings, many with convicts or bushrangers (such as The Sunny South, Marvellous Melbourne, For the Term of His Natural Life and The Squatter’s Daughter), it was, however, the 1920 premiere of Jack DeGaris and Reg Stoneham’s FFF: An Australian Mystery Musical Comedy that earns the distinction as our first significant, locally written ‘musical’. With recognisable provincial content, its form referenced the prevailing Edwardian musical comedy tropes apparent in such works as Chu Chin Chow and The Maid of the Mountains, and those developed in New York under composer and producer George M. Cohan.
A little over a decade later, the production of Collits’ Inn, by Varney Monk and Stuart Gurr, staged by Frank W Thring in 1933, and starring Gladys Moncrieff and George Wallace - with its stirring colonial story involving a dashing soldier and a bushranger both in love with the same girl, with an exotic Blue Mountains setting -marked a turning point. The production was successful enough with audiences for Thring to commission a new work from the same creatives, The Cedar Tree, mounted in 1934. In the same year JC Williamson’s (The Firm) attempted the ‘Australian-made gimmick’ with Blue Mountain Melody, with a book by JC Bancks and music by Charles Zwar. Also during this period, pharmacist Edmund (‘Eddie’) Samuel (his Famous Cough Linctus and theatrical Melody Cold Cream were used by many theatre professionals!) wrote The Highwayman (with a dramaturgy similar to Collitts’ Inn), that was given a much-reworked season of 51 performances at the Palace Theatre in London under the new title At the Silver Swan in 1936. Samuel’s, given only a composing credit, thought it was a debacle and eventually mounted his own self-funded production directed by Carl Randal at the King’s Theatre, Melbourne in 1950. With the first act curtain falling on an ‘Aboriginal corroboree’, the production was something of a sensation and played further seasons in Sydney and Perth.
Post War, the creative collaborators of mid-to-late twentieth-century Australian musicals continued, consciously or unconsciously, to appropriate prevailing international trends, and this becomes clear in the first meagre offerings based on the Broadway and West End mould that began with Lola Montez (1958), book by Alan Burke, lyrics by Peter Benjamin, and music by Peter Stannard, mounted by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (newly established in 1954) that inaugurated a revived professional Australian music theatre culture.
With the import of big Broadway and West End ‘blockbusters’ like The Pajama Game (1957), My Fair Lady (1959) and West Side Story (1960) local producers, however, were subsequently disinclined to invest in local product and so began an entrepreneurial trend that continues to this day. The rare exceptions included the JC Williamson’s production of The Sentimental Bloke, by Albert Arlen and Nancy Brown, in 1961. While Australians artistes were occasionally offered leading roles, the majority of ‘star’ players and creatives were imported.
Apart from a couple of exceptions, the seventies and eighties were dominated by smaller, bijou scale work developed in the new subsidised Regional or State Theatre sector. Robyn Archer's Songs From Sideshow Alley premiered in Adelaide in 1980, while prolific playwright Nick Enright developed a fruitful collaboration with Terence Clarke with Venetian Twins (1979), Variations (1981) and Summer Rain (1983). Another recognised playwright John Romeril, with composer Alan John, was commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company to provide a musical Jonah, based on the novel by Louis Stone, that premiered in 1985 after a six year development process. Commercially, to coincide with the bicentennial in 1988, productions of Manning Clark’s History of Australia and 7 Little Australians: The Musical (adapted from Edith Turn’s classic novel by David Reeves, Peter Yeldham and John Palmer) were staged in Melbourne.
The nod to the ‘rock opera’ trend internationally was represented locally with productions of Reg Livermore’s Lasseter (1971) and Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show (1978); Rasputin (1987) by David Todd and David Lucas; and Paris by Australian rock musician Jon English, with David Mackay, who released a concept album in Australia in 1990 (staged in Sydney in 2003). But, also in 1990, it was a very different musical, Bran Nue Dae, set in Broome, Western Australia, and written by Jimmy Chi, with his band Kuckles, that really caught the zeitgeist and the Australian theatre-goer’s imagination. The dynamic production, the first Aboriginal musical, toured nationally and was later made into a film (2010).
When Cats opened in Sydney in 1985, produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the era of the ‘mega-musical’ had arrived. Australia provided another large marketplace in a global theatrical circuit, just as it had for JC Williamson a century earlier. The thirst for big-budget, spectacular scenic effect and star performances appeared unquenchable and productions such as Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon monopolised our major theatres for years on end. Mackintosh did however support local creatives during this time and his company teamed with the Sydney Theatre Company New Stages program to workshop and present a number of new works including the Julia Anthony bio-musical Lush, and an original musical by Nick Enright and composer Max Lambert, Miracle City (1996). It was the director of Miracle City, Gale Edwards, who was approached by screen producer Ben Gannon a short time later with a proposition: he held the rights to the Peter Allen song book and was looking to develop a project. Following the premiere in 1998, starring Todd McKenny, Chrissie Amphlett, Angela Toohey and veteran Jill Perryman, The Boy From Oz toured nationally and a Broadway production, starring Hugh Jackman, opening at the Imperial Theatre in 2003. Subsequently, a string of ‘juke-box’ bio-musicals followed, the most successful of which was Shout! The Legend of the Wild One (2000), based on the life of Johnny O’Keefe, with a book by John Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow. Meanwhile, Morrow’s long-time writing partner Justin Fleming was responsible for the book and lyrics for Tess of the d'Urbervilles, with Stephen Edwards/Thor Productions, which toured Britain before it was staged at The Savoy Theatre in London’s West End in 1999.
Director and auteur Simon Phillips has since dominated the local music theatre sector in the first decades of the new millennium. While still Artistic Director of Melbourne Theatre Company and while also directing a range of Broadway revivals, he was instrumental in the development of the musical stage adaptation of Stephan Elliott’s film Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that opened to great fanfare and then unprecedented international recognition after its Sydney opening in 2006. Produced by a consortium driven by Gary McQuinn, the musical has enjoyed award-winning seasons in the West End, Broadway and in multiple capitals worldwide. Andrew Lloyd-Webber then gave Phillips the opportunity to rework and direct Love Never Dies that opened in Melbourne in 2011, the same year that he relinquished his position at MTC. Now freelance, he directed premiere productions of An Officer and a Gentleman (Sydney, 2012), First Wives Club (Chicago, 2015), Ladies in Black (Brisbane, 2015), Dream Lover: The Bobby Darren Musical (2016) and Muriel’s Wedding (Sydney, 2017).
Meanwhile, a small number of musicals have received national attention, with either full commercial development periods (Eureka (2004); Dusty – The Original Pop Diva (2006); King Kong (2013); and Georgy Girl (2015)), or development through commercial producers in partnerships with subsidised companies or festivals (Keating! The Musical (2005); Shane Warne The Musical (2008); The Hatpin (2008); Metro Street (2009); and Lovebites (2009)).
Internationally, Australian composer and lyrist Tim Minchin has received much acclaim for his work on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Matilda the Musical (2010) and The Old Vic’s Groundhog Day (2016), both also given Broadway transfers. The satirical Clinton: The Musical, by brothers Paul and Michael Hodge, played Off-Broadway in 2015, and had its Australian premiere in Perth in 2016. While singer-songwriter, pianist and comedian Eddie Perfect’s Vivid White is scheduled for performance in MTC 2017 season, it has only recently been announced that he will write the score for the much-anticipated Broadway adaption of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice. Baz Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s Strictly Ballroom, having premiered in Australia (Sydney, 2014), will make its West End debut at the Piccadilly Theatre in March 2018.
Active producers staging musical theatre in Australian in the last three years:
Major Commercial Producers
Producing Units associated with the following venues: Arts Centre Melbourne, Adelaide Festival Centre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, QPAC, Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Sydney Opera House,
Australia Council for the Arts funded organisations
Black Swan Theatre Company, Queensland Theatre, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Melbourne Theatre Company, Opera Australia, Sydney Theatre Company
Studio, Bijou and Boulevard Independent Theatre Producers
New Musicals Australia is an initiative, funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and administered by the Hayes Theatre Company, dedicated to the development and production of original music theatre. Home Grown is a Not-for-profit Company dedicated to supporting, developing and promoting Australian musical theatre.
The Victorian College of the Arts Music Theatre program has made a commitment to developing a number of new Australian musical theatre pieces.
Tertiary Institutions currently providing accredited training in disciplines related to musical theatre performance:
Actors College of Theatre and Television
Australian Dance Performance Institute
Australian Institute of Music (AIM)
Federation University Australia
National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA)
Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)
Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)
Comparative grid of Ticket Revenue and Attendance based on the latest Live Performance Australia Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey 2016:
Please refer to LPA Survey Report for rationale: http://reports.liveperformance.com.au/ticket-survey-2016
Date November 2, 2017