Do you ever sit down with friends and wistfully cast dream productions of musicals? Or is that just me? Whatever your answer, trust me, it’s a barrel of nerdgasmic fun and Matel should license it now as a board game… to those kids amongst you, it’s like Nintendo 3DS but you can touch it as well! Sadly though, whenever said music theatre nerd-outs occur, they often find themselves derailed into rambles about how the dream shows we are casting will most likely never even make it to an Australian stage, let alone to the casting couch. Unless Anthony Warlow is out of town of course, in which case they just hold auditions. At any rate, there are some seriously brilliant musicals out there that we are unlikely to ever see in Oz, let alone in our lifetime. Sad but true, some of the finest scores written for a stage anywhere ever are perceived as box-office poison down under – or logistically impossible to cast, market and stage. Sit back, grab some twisties and a coke (kale and mineral water if you’re a performer) and I’ll walk you through the ten greatest musicals never to play a mainstage production in Oz.
This masterwork of the music theatre was actually touted for an Australian bow in the late nineties. It was touted to be staged at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne with a cast split between local and international performers and a whole new design and staging created specially for Oz. Given that this was over a decade and a half ago, you may wonder what happened. The old Australian story for shows such as Ragtime, where there is a sizable African-American cast involved, it derails before it even makes it to casting amidst flippant throw-aways about “never being able to cast it!” Well sorry – in the 21st century that just ain’t a good enough reason anymore. In fact it borders on racist. Ragtime is a brilliant show, with one of the greatest scores ever written and a book that really defies logic, so skillful is its adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel – which came with its own inherent set of difficulties that Hollywood before Broadway could not overcome. The idea that the Australian market is too small to entice performers from the UK or the US to perform here is as laughably bad as the notion that we do not have a talented enough population of culturally diverse performers here in Oz. Ragtime is that rarest of rare musicals, a classic show with a popular sensibility. It could fill our theatres. So why won’t we ever see a major production of it tour?
The dark truth about African-American cast musicals in Australian is that producers don’t see them as a profitable commodity. The even darker truth is that they are probably right, and audiences won’t buy it. Are we or are we not right now the nation attempting to turn back the boats? While we live in one of the most liberal nations on earth in a period of very progressive social thinking, we still seem to be a nation with serious issues when it comes to celebrating culture with the wrong coloured skin. How long exactly did it take Bran Nue Day and The Sapphires to become movies? And exactly which was the last musical you saw where a lead was cast against type (skin colour – and I’m not talking about Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The King and I)? It’s just not done because producers know it would harm the box-office – and to make those million dollar shows run, you need people traveling in from regional areas, and you need the retiree age audience. Sorry to brand you all with the same brush – but none of you are exactly rushing to speak out now are you. Dreamgirls is one of the great musicals of the latter part of the 20th century and there is no conceivable technical reason why it wouldn’t be able to play in Oz except one: the colour of its casts skin.
Everything I just said about Dreamgirls – only it’s been the case for longer. This glorious 1975 soul-opera based on The Wizard of Oz is best known to people sadly for the tragic Diana Ross and Michael Jackson movie from the 70′s. Way to kill a musical Miss Ross! But guaranteed it will never be performed in Australia once again because black musicals don’t sell here. The Wiz has a great host of easily recogniseable showstoppers to its name and a global brand. Sure the movie was terrible, but that’s never stopped musicals from hitting it big in Australia before. This could storm the stages of our capital cities with its surrealist design and high octane dance numbers. But it won’t. At least not this generation, certainly not while John Frost and the Ambassador Theatre Group mass email out surveys asking you what popsical you want staged next. Trust me, The Wiz won’t be on it, and not because it lacks artistic merit.
Do you know what else is perceived to not work in Oz? Sondheim. That’s right – for better or worse the most celebrated composer music theatre has ever had, and he doesn’t sell out the big theatres. Just ask Peter Cousens! Passion is a dark and thoughtful work examining love and relationships at an intimate – damn near primal! – level. It’s fucked up but it’s brilliant and it has something useful to say about the human condition that extends beyond “you’re all arseholes!” – look at the majority of Sondheim musicals and that’s in there! – Passion is a truly great musical. And we will never see it on a major Australian stage. Imagine the leading ladies we have who could play Fosca and try not to die silently while you imagine them playing that killer role. But Sondheim doesn’t make money so he’s seldom staged. While living in Sydney I have seen Sweeney Todd, Company (yes, that Company!) and West Side Story. Melbourne has Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Otherwise the only way to see a Sondheim show is at The Production Company or in off-Broadway type theatres… or stock. One of the greatest shows ever written by 0ne of the greatest composers who ever lived. No one will go see it. Sondheim is right – you’re all arseholes!
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Lets just play a quick round of “Who would you cast?” Mitchell Butel, Blake Bowden and Sharon Millerchip. If you’re not salivating at the idea of it then you must be dead inside! Kiss of the Spider Woman is the third of the great Kander and Ebb trifecta of contributions to the greatest musicals of all time. A stunning clash of fantasy and reality with a brilliant book, juicy characters and a marvel of a score, it will never ever be staged here for one reason. It’s about corrupt governments and gays. Screw the fact that it’s one of the most passionate, exciting, entertaining shows of our age and brimming with pathos! We don’t do ‘mo musicals here unless it’s super kitsch. That’s why The Boy From Oz and Priscilla can sell out houses but we haven’t had a revival of La Cage Aux Folles in three decades. Gay people have one place in Australian music theatre – the punch line. Ladies – how are we not angry about this?!? The gays run the musical theatre and yet nothing gets said. Once again you need those regional folk and the retirees to want to drive to town and take in a show. They’re not going to do that if it’s about two boys kissing! Next thing you know they’ll want to get married or something! Fags!
On the Twentieth Century
This is one of the shows patronisingly referred to as a “gem” – a.k.a. It’s pre-Rent and no one is expected to know what it is. What On the Twentieth Century is beyond all question of a doubt is one of the most hilarious light operas/musicals ever written and its been touted for a Broadway revival for years now with Kristin Chenoweth and Hugh Jackman recently touted to co-star. So far as Oz is concerned, this show has one professional production ever at the Darlinghurst Theatre for three shows only by Neglected Musicals. Seriously da fuque?!? You know all those regional retiree folk who’d hate everything else on this list? They’d LOVE this – and it also happens to be an artistic marvel! Epic in scale, masterfully scored, did I say one of the most hilarious shows ever written yet? The problem is that despite the fact it won several million Tony Awards and starred in its time Madeline Kahn, Kevin Kline and Rock Hudson… no one ever heard of it but nerds. And who wants to go sit through a nerd show! Want to play “Who would you cast” again? Swell! Lucy Maunder, Anthony Warlow and Nancye Hayes. Anyone who says that wouldn’t sell tickets is frankly an idiot. And we will never see that show staged in Australia.
What? “Another musical written a long time before Rent?” And “isn’t that the concert they wrote for Kristin Chenoweth?” Get with the program children – this magical festival of hilarity and parables was written by Leonard Bernstein (he wrote West Side Story – you watched it that one time in High School so you didn’t have to read Romeo and Juliet – remember?) and it’s one of the finest and most famous musicals of the 20th century. And it will never ever get staged in Australia on a professional mainstage. True – Opera Australia did stage Candide for one night only as part of its Opera in Domain series a few years back. It starred Judi Connelli… moving swiftly on! With the branding of the Chenoweth concert and the name Leonard Bernstein as marketing value, you’d think once in a while producers would look at this and think – “that could work!” Except it won’t, because once again, no one ever heard of it! And unless the soprano role fits the vocal range of Lisa McCune, producers (and audiences) aren’t interested. Candide is a musical about life, set against the back drop of several fake wars with loads of sexploitation, dancing, natural disasters and multiple gruesome murders. It literally has everything – including some of the greatest songs ever written from the aria-tastic “Glitter and be Gay” to the erstwhile Streisand standard “Make Our Garden Grow”. If Opera Australia can pack a house to see La Thingamajig Verdi Wrote You Never Heard Of Darlings – why in the hell can’t they pack a house with this?!?! Did I meantion? We will never see it staged here!
Now I know what you’re thinking? Hasn’t this been staged here? Yup! Look to the left and you’ll see Australian music theatre legend Debra Byrne and a decidedly twinky Hugh Jackman. This, however, was the musical that caused Andrew Lloyd Webber to pack his bags and turn his back on Oz. After Sunset flopped – still one of the most expensive flops the Australian theatre has ever seen! – in Melbourne in 1996, the Really Useful Group departed and all tours that followed of Andrew Lloyd Webber material were done with a stark lack of Lord Webber’s attention. I was recently told by someone who would know that Sunset Blvd will never be staged in Australia again and that it carries with it the burdensome title of box office poison. I also got told by someone closely connected with the Really Group Australia back in its heyday that Andrew Lloyd Webber is a lovely guy with haters and that he thinks Australia is awesome and “who was asking you anyway?! Are you a creative genius?!? Fuck off!!!” Sunset Boulevard is the last great Andrew Lloyd Webber show. Since it’s appearance on stages around the world in the 90′s, Lord Webber has failed to have a single new hit, and by the look of the Stephen Ward musical about to debut in London… that’s a trend that won’t be ending soon! Even so, it’s a scary thing to believe that the only Lloyd Webber shows Australia will ever see again are Cats and The Phantom of the Opera – maybe the odd Jesus Christ Superstar with Hillsong backing starring Guy Sebastian? *SHUDDERS* Though they all come with an overdose of populism and corn, there are Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals worth seeing – and this is one of them. But while the embargo lingers, not on a professional stage, not here. Not this lifetime.
Call Me Madam
Now this show is one that is an ideal example of a greater problem in the world of the Australian music theatre. We don’t “do” rep. Revivals here appear when they transfer from the West End or Broadway. Outside of the Production Company, we just don’t do independent revivals. We need to be told it’s “in” right now before we’ll believe it enough to produce it. Call Me Madam is a classic Irving Berlin show with a gorgeous score that you already know whether you realise it or not and enough slapstick, cynacism and cheek to fill a theatre. That and we got leading ladies who could rock this out! Just imagine who could play the Hostess with the Mostess! Caroline O’Connor! Queenie Van De Zandt! Anne Wood! List goes on! We have talent just begging to be cast in some classic musical theatre and taken on tour. The problem is that the theory of a good fresh design, good direction, sharp casting and lavish, ostentatious, no holds barred presentation can market the shit out of a show is not enough! Nope – its not enough for a show to have a movie adaptation, a zillion cast albums, hummable tunes and classic branding. It needs to be “in” – and that’s something that they do on Broadway and the West End. We don’t lead Down Under, we follow, and if you look at the number of occasions this has been refutable, you’ll find you can count them on one hand in two decades. Are you freaking kidding me?!? Not good enough! Oh and Rent generation – you know who you are, I’ve spoken to your kind before and you all need to work something out. A lot of you resent classic shows like this one because people who know nothing about musicals think they’re all like this one – or how musicals used to be back in the 1930′s. Cheesy, black and white and so corny the corn pone is cringing and wants to run and hide. Some advice: get over it! Without shows like this there would have been no Golden Age. Without the Golden Age there would have been no Sondheim, no Hair, no Oh! Calcutta, no British Invasion, no Rent and no Next to Normal. Learn your classics kids otherwise how can you understand your contemporaries? Go buy tickets… oh wait, that’s right – you can’t!
Porgy & Bess
Porgy and Bess toured here a few years back from the UK I think. It was typically operatic and heavily overacted. And it stayed for five minutes. I won’t rant here about how racist the industry is, or cowardly. Just that we set our standard too low. As we move into the 21st century and begin to expand into our new position as one of the creative powerhouses of the globe, it’s about time we extend our vision about what is creatively possible here. Strictures of the past are still being adhered too even though the boundaries that kept them in place have long since fallen. The point of this article is that we need a revival – several in fact! And we need to grow some balls. If we are going to take our place on the international stage in the world of music theatre, we need to start taking what previously has been viewed as creative risks and proving that they can and will be overcome and for the good of the state of the art. Never has the time been more critical for the industry to expand and never has there been greater talent at hand to do the job. A new generation is taking the helm and its time to raise the bar. This musical will never be seen on an Australian mainstage. Or will it? I dare you! Prove me wrong!