About That “Great Australian Musical”: A Response

A couple of weeks ago, Currency House published John Senczuk’s Platform Paper “The Time is Ripe For the Great Australian Musical”. If you’re a trifle obsessed with musical theatre in this country and you’re a Currency House subscriber (or happy to pay to read the essay, as I was), Senczuk’s thoughts are well worth your time. His proposal has been summarised in the Daily Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. My response is below.

 

Dear Currency House,

As one of many Australians who writes original musicals, I thank you for John Senczuk’s thoughtful consideration of our plight (Platform Paper 42, February 1). We talk often, but not seriously, about home-grown musicals in this country, largely because there are two standard responses to essays such as Senczuk’s, and I fear his plan for an Australian Music Theatre Foundation will be subjected to both of them.

The first is dismissive, and goes like this: Australia doesn’t have the population to support many shows, and its cities are too far-flung for profitable touring. Besides, we don’t have a long cultural heritage of theatre music, or our own distinctive musical voice.

The second is defeatist (sing along, you all know the words): there aren’t enough theatres, and producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Any composer/lyricist with talent and ambition should head overseas to the real sources of Great Musicals, London and New York.

This latter position amuses writers of musicals from London and New York, because they too complain that there aren’t enough available theatres, and that their producers are interested only in commercial dreck. Additionally, the ones who write songs with a post-1995 sound worry about a cultural heritage too conservative to afford their scores a place on the West End or Broadway.

So far, in the press, Senczuk’s ‘idea to opening night’ funding model and ‘Perth Solution’ have received the most attention. His scheme is ambitious and welcome, but even if we adopt it, we have some important questions to ask first, and one terrible idea we must jettison.

That idea is this: we have yet to produce The Great Australian Musical. It’s a horrible, counter-productive notion, and it’s nonsense. See, the Brits and the Americans aren’t worried about any ‘Great British/American Musical’. They know they’ve written great shows, and they enjoy arguing about which one is the greatest. We, on the other hand, apply vague, ever-shifting criteria to every musical we write, and judge that each effort fails to match some ideal we’ve never fully discussed or defined.

I strenuously urge us all, before we think about the model Senczuk has proposed, or any other model like it, to retire the term ‘The Great Australian Musical’, and promise never, ever to use it again. Instead, let’s banter about which shows were great: I’ll vote for 1933’s Collits’ Inn, by Varney Monk and Stuart Gurr. Senczuk quotes my old Canberra Philharmonic friend, theatre historian John Thomson, who wrote that Collits’ Inn “was not the Great Australian Musical many hoped it would be”. I wish John were still alive to debate with, because what’s wrong with Collits’ Inn? It did a five-performance tryout at the Savoy Theatre in Sydney, then more at Mosman Town Hall, was turned down by J C Williamson, picked up by Frank Thring Sr, given a star-studded, beefed-up production in Melbourne for sixteen sold-out weeks, toured to Sydney for eight more, and finished with a return season in Melbourne. Best of all, in a move familiar to every showbuff’s heart, Collits’ Inn had a sequel that failed, and a film version that was never made.

By the standards of Australia in the 1930s, this success is astonishing. If it happened to a show of mine today, I’d be dancing in Melbourne’s streets. You couldn’t shut me up about it. But no, someone will say: Collits’ Inn is not revived today, and its score has yielded no lasting songs. All right, what about Keating!, or Bran Nue Dae? They toured all over the place, they’re beloved, and Bran Nue Dae’s film version was charming. Oh, but they never played Broadway. The Boy From Oz, or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? No, they both played Broadway and won Tony awards, but they didn’t have scores written for the theatre. Crikey, but we’re tough on ourselves.

This self-defeating thinking hobbles us in other ways, and Senczuk applies some familiar leg-irons when he notes that, in contrast to the jukeboxers The Boy From Oz and Priscilla, “the only real impact an Australian composer/lyricist has had on the world music theatre stage is actor and comedian Tim Minchin”. Nothing against Minchin’s well-deserved success, but this will be news in the afterlife to Geelong’s Oscar Asche, who, granted, did not write the tunes, but provided the book, lyrics, direction, and lead role for Chu Chin Chow in 1916. That show was a massive success in London, and was revived for decades, but Ashe’s success prior to Minchin’s is not the point. We have to stop drawing hard distinctions around arbitrary categories, such as where people were born, where their shows played, and what specific contributions were made by Australians, or we will be guilty of saying silly, unhelpful things.

I hope everyone will join me in striking ‘The Great Australian Musical’ from our parlance, and instead focus on a Great Many Australian Musicals, of a Great Many Kinds. To that end, here are those questions I mentioned.

First, and most importantly, what do we think constitutes a successful musical? In Senczuk’s model, with 850-seat theatres (minimum), and Perth hosting the ‘first significant production’ of new Australian shows, the goal of Broadway and West End-sized success, on Australia’s East coast or overseas, is explicit. It’s also presented as an end in itself, with no allowance for any show’s further life. Fair enough, since everyone who’s ever written an Australian musical knows that getting the first production on stage, as difficult as that may be, is really the easy part: eliciting enough enthusiasm and funds the get the show on again, and internationally? That’s a real trick.

But under an 850-seat minimum model, where might an Aussie equivalent of, say, The Fantasticks, or The Rocky Horror Show, or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog find support? And who would label these shows unsuccessful, when each has had enough views to fill a decent-sized theatre for years? Shouldn’t an Australian Musical Theatre Foundation hedge its bets, or, if you prefer, diversify its investments, and develop small, mid-sized, large and online musicals?

Also, if we are to focus on a model whereby shows start in a smaller city and finish somewhere bigger, we will doing what Broadway’s most savvy, hard-nosed corporate producers no longer find tenable. Witness Shrek the Musical, which had a trial run in Seattle before managing a mere 441 performances on Broadway, not nearly enough to recoup its investment. But Dreamworks Theatricals promptly sent Shrek out on tour, just as if it had been a hit, and launched a licensed school version which is now, according to Dramatics magazine’s annual survey, the most produced high school musical in America. Shrek, and The Addams Family, and Seussical (and you can be sure the producers of Matilda, even though it has recouped, will head down a similar path) demonstrate the long game Broadway’s producers are now playing: not only are these producers frequently unfazed by a flop, they’re not even satisfied with a hit. Instead, their eye is on the Grand Prize: decades of independently-mounted community and school productions, around the world. If we want to survive the mad economics of international musicals, we should plan and produce along similar lines.

Second, what do we think is the role of a new musical’s audience? In Stephen Sondheim’s pretty phrase, the audience is ‘the final collaborator’, but if we Aussies really believe this, we’ve been treating our final collaborators pretty shabbily lately. Senczuk characterises Strictly Ballroom, a case in point, as “a work that was placed before an audience too early”, but the truth is less innocent: Ballroom’s producers Global Creatures have demonstrated, as they did with King Kong, an approach to a new musical’s score and script in which the audience’s feedback is neither sought nor welcome; and director Baz Luhrmann, in replacing Ballroom’s opening number for its Melbourne season, has taken more than six months to order surgery that George Abbott would have performed in the first week. Overwhelmed by technical demands and the hideous cost of everything, we Aussie musical-makers tend to respond non-collaboratively to audiences who don’t like our songs, by fiddling with the sound mix and wondering, sadly, how the general public can be so thick.

When it comes to audiences, Senczuk is fond, as many theatre makers are, of the word ‘educate’, and while I think we can talk about ‘educating’ audiences behind the scenes, as we enthuse about turning the punters on to established, tested works, we certainly shouldn’t be talking, or even thinking this way, about audiences for new musicals. Audiences for a new musical don’t want to be ‘educated’; they want to be seduced. Nothing will turn them off more thoroughly than the idea that they ‘should’ like an Aussie show, and this is all the more reason to produce shows at different sizes, based on their likely commercial appeal. To quote the late comedian Bill Hicks, “There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices”, and when it comes to wrong choices and new Aussie musicals, we won’t educate our audiences; they will educate us.

We also have to make allowances for what Senczuk experienced with his own work as co-writer, in 2004, of the musical Eureka!. He describes a painstaking writing process, and all the devoted attention given to the work by director Gale Edwards, but sometimes, even though everyone involved has crafted a show with professionalism and love, an audience just doesn’t like it. In Australia, we are demoralised every time this happens, and we brood over another failed Great Australian Musical, but it’s because we don’t produce enough shows to see how normal this phenomenon is. We have to get many more shows on stage, of all kinds, and only some of them hits, so that we remain comparatively sanguine in the wake of worthy flops.

I appreciate that, by suggesting more shows, of varying sizes, with fleet responses to audience feedback and flops taken in stride, I’m probably suggesting an Australian Music Theatre Foundation with a broader base and more funds than the one proposed by Senczuk. I will go further: rather than trying to match the success of writers from overseas, we should be trying to better them. For starters, we could do much, much more online. The chief trend in music, television, movies, and video games this century has been to get the product closer to the customer. Theatre has barely moved on this front, wedded to the idea that stage shows work better when they’re live (they do), and that audiences new to theatre, somehow knowing this, will attend (they don’t, and they won’t).

Whatever our shows are, we should be doing more to take them to the punters. Our Aussie songs and scenes should be on our radio stations, stages and screens, but also in our school halls, our shopping malls, our parks, and our nursing homes. This may seem an unattainably grand hope, but one of the smartest things any Australian Music Theatre Foundation could do is to start very small, by collecting all the Australian book, lyric and music writers, all of them presently hustling and producing and applying and struggling, separately, and put them to work, together, on musically fruitful properties for which the Foundation has acquired the stage rights. The Foundation could act as the seed, as Jerome Kern once did with a novel called Show Boat, or as Dorothy Fields once did with the life of Annie Oakley.

Then, how liberating for us, the writers, freed from the idea of competing with one another for some mythical brass ring called The Great Australian Musical, to labour instead, together, on creating magical nights in the theatre for people all over the world, present and future, as we decide what brass rings we really want, and forge them ourselves.

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7 thoughts on “About That “Great Australian Musical”: A Response

  1. At his website, Janus Entertainment, John Senczuk has graciously compiled a page of responses to, and media coverage of, his Platform Paper:

    http://www.janusentertainment.com.au/project.php?project_id=151

    This essay, by Margot Fenley and Zachary Dunbar (both of VCA’s Music Theatre course) contains much good sense about the need for theatre companies and institutions to work together, in a kind of chain of useful developmental steps:

    http://www.janusentertainment.com.au/FCKuploads/Response-%20the%20Time%20is%20Ripe%20for%20the%20Great%20Austrlalian%20Musical.pdf

    Margot Fenley also spoke with Melanie Tait yesterday, on Radio National’s Books and Arts programme. If you listen to that, you’ll get to hear a smidge of James Millar and Peter Rutherford’s “A Touch of Chaos”:

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/nurturing-great-australian-musicals/6092704

  2. Fantastic response, Peter. I love your vision, your realism, your generosity.
    May there be Many Great, Commercial, Quirky, Brilliant, Wry and Lyrical Australian Musicals to come.

    • Thanks, Elissa! As is often the case (with me and others), my thoughts were partly a response to John Senczuk, and partly a spur to my own efforts. After all, anyone can carp; writing is what’s hard.

      Any chance of you writing a musical some day? Please?

      • 🙂 I may not have shared that I indeed have written a musical… And that writing musicals is the thing I like to do more than any other single thing… I must send you a score of a song one day. 🙂

      • I should also add that the scene in Australia has been very discouraging for writers of musicals that don’t have any ambition of being The Great Australian Musical – apparently we were all supposed to be fixated on this goal, and looked down upon more than a little if we eschewed it!

        • I know that feeling of discouragement, but I think the music theatre industry worldwide has outpaced Australia’s old attitudes, and that (with a few reservations), it could be a boon for us, the writers:

          1. Technology has changed everything. You can film your show, and audition it for someone in Canada, or Korea. You can do it by this afternoon.

          2. If it’s good, no-one cares where your show comes from. So why aim only for Sydney when you could go on anywhere?

          3. We don’t have any creative producers on the largest scale in this country – we have reproducers – but we do have a great bunch of smaller-scale indie producers, and they’re not about to repeat the folly of something like “Manning Clark’s History of Australia The Musical”. They’re also aware of theatres outside London and New York.

          The flipside to all this is that we writers can’t afford to be slack, and – how do I put this delicately? – we have been in the past, especially with regard to book and lyrics. The international market doesn’t care how long and hard we’ve worked; the writing has to be distinguished.

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