For Once, Some of the Comments Are Worth Reading

Ben Neutze, theatre critic and Deputy Editor at Daily Review, wrote this article, which highlights one of the heavier ball-and-chains attached to the ankle of Australian musical theatre.

People commented. Some of them commented intelligently. I mouthed off a bit.

Lately, the chat has been between just me and someone name Kim. Hi, Kim, if you’re reading this.

If you have thoughts on the many matters raised, please share them, here or there.

 

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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.

Even-Handed Agitprop

What better subject for a brand new song than Australia’s recent spectacular success with asylum seekers? It’s been a triumph, obviously, but I did a little research, and found there’s a rich, happy history to all this success.

PS You can tell it’s a brand new song, because the lyrics are propped in front of me. I almost never allow that.

PPS Recorded last Friday, September 26, at Eastern Riverina Arts, where they host occasional, tiny “office gigs”.

What I Found In My Father-In-Law’s Shed

It’s not strictly a shed.  It’s Campbells Building & Construction, Oura Road, Oura.  Apart from bathroom fittings, kitchen tiles, used furniture, a lot of timber off-cuts and the like, there is a room devoted to dusty paperbacks, and another that looks like this:

Turn around, and it looks like this:

Up close:

But Peter, I hear you cry, WHAT CAST RECORDINGS DID YOU FIND?

There was this, which I have read about, but never heard:

And there was this, an utter mystery to me:

This latter one, a little sleuthing reveals, is originally a Brit show from 1969, the second by Salvation Army writers Gowans and Larsson.  Their first, Take-Over Bid, played the Tivoli, and their second, Hosea, apparently yielded an Australian cast recording!

Yes, I am still reeling. It must be the dust.

Notes on an Australian Cast (Concept) Recording – Ned Kelly

Damn, but Google Books is an ugly place to visit. I swear, it was designed by someone who hates books.

But the occasional gem is hidden thereon, like this account of Ned Kelly‘s first season at the Adelaide Festival centre in 1977.

Reg Livermore has given his own clear-eyed account of the show (more properly, Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show), in his book Chapters and Chances, and here, on his website. Great pics there too.

The show began in pretty hip fashion for the 1970s, with an original 1974 concept recording, and then a stage adaptation, a la Jesus Christ Superstar and (later) Evita. After a contentious run in Adelaide, December 1977 (of the “is-public-money-wasted-on-this-sort-of-thing?” variety), it opened in February 1978 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney (the theatre is now no more), and quietly disappeared until 2000, when the songs and lyrics were revised, and the stage rights became available to amateur and community groups.

There is no official cast recording of any stage production, but the original concept album can still be found (in my case, in a library), and has additional historical interest because most of the cast (Trevor White, Jon English, Arthur Dignam, John Paul Young, Livermore himself) had lately distinguished themselves in the Australian cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Dignam and Livermore, between concept album and stage version of Ned Kelly, starred as The Narrator and Frank-n-Furter in the Australian premiere of  The Rocky Horror Show. Oh, and Livermore managed, in all that spare time, to squeeze in the first productions of Betty Blokk Buster Follies and Wonder Woman.

This is in the space of four years, which is now the average length of time between a musical’s first reading and its lukewarmly received second workshop. Perhaps this is not always a bad thing, because the consensus on Ned Kelly is that the score had promise, but that it was probably unstageable, in the 1970s, in its 1970s form.

How’s the album holding up these days?

1. What Else Is New? – John (Paul) Young, Trevor White & Peter Chambers with Arthur Dignam

The opening bars sound like a proficient high school band, so things are off to an inauspicious start. Then, happily, everyone starts to rock out, and all the guys are obliged to hit high C sharps. Characterisations aren’t subtle: “once upon a time, there were these greedy squatters”; meanwhile, Dan, Steve, Joe and Edward “Bang Bang” Kelly are “fighting for your liberty”.

2. Put ’em Down – Dignam, Reg Livermore

The villains appear – cops and judges who they don’t rock like the Kelly boys. They are exceptionally daggy, and their beef with the common folk is both too self-knowing and vague, for the “unhygienic rabble” … “do exactly as they please”.

Incidentally, Flynn’s melody is not dissimilar to the one Benny and Bjorn would later write for “1956 – Budapest is Rising” in Chess. And nice countermelodies!

3. Lullaby – Janice Slater

Janice has a touch of Olivia Newton-John, especially when she hits the top notes. Or is it the other way around? This is a very, very loud lullaby, and the music is blithely that of the American southwest, with no attempt to sound Aussie, and not a hint of worry about it: “there’s a chahld … crahn to bee a may-uhn.”

4. Rob A Bank – J(P)Y, White, Chambers

A bluegrass patter number, with good, specific imagery from lyricist Livermore: “velvet suit” and “mad Uncle Harry”. At this stage the gang are still lovable ruffians.

5. Never Going Home – JPY, White, Chambers, Jon English & Tony Rose

And now they’re not. This is a big set-piece of a number, intelligently contrasted with  what went before. At Stringybark Creek the Kelly boys, in reverse historical order, graduate from bank robbers to killers. Flynn again proves adept at the big choral counterpoint stuff, alternating with solo passages. It builds and builds but it’s all a bit ponderous. Ned gets a chance to prove, once again, that heroes are heroes because their voices rock out.

6. Better Watch Yerself – White

Now that he’s crossed the threshold, Ned gets a short choral commentary, just as Judas did in Jesus Christ Superstar.

7. Dark Walk Home – White

A Kelly boy theatre-ballad at a moment of dilemma and, like many of them, too self-knowing: “I can walk two roads, one of them home. I can be two men, one man alone … gonna be a dark walk home tonight.” The chord progression wanders ambivalently through key centres, a nice touch.

8. Queen Victoria’s Fuzz – Livermore & Cast

The police are back, and they’re still jokes, led by a Queen Villain: “My blunderbuss bent, and a touch of waratah scent”. Livermore’s rhymes are true, and the images are specific, true to the period. There’s a kick-line finish, and the bad guys are given no more motivation than Iago was: ” … no grand parade, it’s just the way I’m made.”

9. If I Was A King – English

Ned in the Garden of Gethsemane (“Oh Lord, you’ve lost your touch”), with another balls-out vocal (high C sharps up to high Es!) over a minor key vamp in the middle.

10. Die Like A Kelly – Slater

This is the only song I knew prior to listening to this album, thanks to Geraldine Turner’s performance on ABC TV’s Once in a Blue Moon, back in 1994. That was a theatre ballad performance – this one is Renee Geyer at two in the morning. The caterwauling has the unintended effect of making Ellen Kelly’s grief all about herself, and not about her sons’ impending deaths.

11. Band Together – English, JPY, White, Chambers

“The people gonna come and band together … the people gonna have that family feeling”.  It’s not explained precisely who “the people” are, and if anyone (the fuzz?) is not included. The people are a bit like Hair‘s tribe: if you have to ask, you ain’t one of them. This singalong at the end, utterly without irony, feels icky.

12. Finale – Jon English

A whooshy, electronic ending for our hero. Also very Superstar – a choir, with a few sprinkles of Holst and Ligeti, sees him off.

It’s immediately apparent, all these years later, that the fate of Ned Kelly (the show, not the man) deprived us of two valuable musical theatre writers in Flynn and Livermore. Flynn (who also composed the score for Sunday Too Far Away) had real composing chops, and could write honest Ozrock – a combination rare in Aussie musicals, then and since. Flynn eventually moved abroad, conducting orchestras in both the UK and USA. He co-wrote three new songs for the revised Ned Kelly in 2000, and died in 2008.

Livermore remains better known for theatre roles and television presenting, despite all the writing entailed by his one-man shows, on both the large and Clarendon-scale. I wish, though, we all knew more of his lyrics: based on the evidence of this show, he had real craft, and he could do the modern Tim Riceish vernacular without resorting to cringey undergraduate jokes.

Adventures in NOVA-land, Part Six

On Friday morning, Horti Hall was being gussied up for everyone’s run-through:

Later, it was even spiffier, in time for an audience that included several dozen impeccably behaved senior schoolkids.

Here’s how Sandy France and Helen Nourse’s Playing With Fire looked on Saturday, for an audience member with few photographic skills.  Chris Dench (composer of WE) is on the left, chin on hand, and the silver-maned Music Director of the Victorian opera, Richard Gill, is on the right.

Eamonn Kelly has already written in The Australian on NOVA, and Australia’s history of spreading seeds of opera upon fertile ground, which is not an illustrious one.  He was also kind enough to say kind things about most of the five NOVA efforts.  In fact, thanks to him and the slippery nature of publicity blurbs, I can now legitimately say this:

The Devil Builds a Chapel
“dripping with neo-gothic, psycho-sexual delight”
                                                            The Australian

and

“humour, catchy Broadway elements and 1960s popular music flourishes”

The first of those isn’t strictly true; Kelly may have been referring to the delights of supernatural fantasies themselves, rather than to my and David Stanhope’s work in particular.  But I choose not to be fussy.

Here’s the fun thing that happened as we all heard the excerpts over and over again.  At first, mine, The Un-Dead and Playing with Fire were clearly the most immediately accessible pieces (by this, I mean largely tonal, with discrete arias/duets).  I even began to find parts of mine a little banal by the fifth or sixth time I heard them.  Meanwhile, Jane Montgomery Griffiths and Kevin March’s Razing Hypatia, which everyone agreed was a real challenge, and difficult to pull off in only a week, just grew and grew on me.  The finale, in which the heroine spends several pages repeating “it takes a long time to die”, while everything falls apart around her, is just terrific.

Dustine Barnes and Chris Dench’s WE was ten minutes of free atonality, scored in proportional notation (which gave the musicians a nice workout).  Dench explained that he had an animated work in mind, an opera written for the screen.  His music makes me think of a late-night SBS stark visual style, heavy on the black outlines, and I think it would work a treat.  Writing directly for the screen is a wonderful idea, and we should all do more of it; it is getting, as Dench pointed out, cheaper and easier than the stage.

David Stanhope’s The Un-Dead is finished, David said, in a score for full orchestra and an adaptation for chamber ensemble.  So why hasn’t it been seen yet?  It has Dracula, good parts of Stoker’s original dialogue, and a line I can already sing along with (“The children of the night”).  Oh, and three hot vampire chicks who visit you in bed and sing progressively higher ninth chords!  What’s not to like?

Sandy France expressed concern in rehearsal about a rhythmically complicated part of Playing with Fire (two men are arguing about abandoning their houses in the face of a bushfire), and I watched two singers work very hard to master it.  By Saturday, I could have sung along with them, and as I write this (a week later), I can’t get the tune out of my head.  “If we stay-ay, hold our ground …”

All of which underlines the importance of repetition when we’re hearing a new piece.  Obviously, I’m a trained muso, and the circumstances made me listen really, really hard, but there’s a good argument in last week’s experience for the 19th century model of new opera: write it, prepare the orchestral suite from its music, get singers to plant bits in their recitals, and have hotel orchestras play medleys prior to opening night.

The 21st century equivalents of these would be free video and audio on the website, rehearsals on YouTube, music excerpts available before the opening (especially for critics), and interstitials on TV and radio.

In fact, just imagine if you could get your forbidding new music planted in a video game.  There’s some repetition.

Ockerisms and Cringes to One Side …

Over on the twittersphere, I listed, thanks to Mike Lynch’s prompting, the most immediate irritants in Tourism Australia’s new ad.

  1. “There’s nothing LIKE Australi-AH”: it’s par for the course now in songwriting to emphasise the last syllable in Australia, as no Aussie does, but why emphasise “like”? There’s nothing LIKE Australia, but there are several identical copies, should you require one?
  2. The camel/mammal rhyme. I thought I hated this purely because every other corresponding line ends with a single syllable rhyme, but it’s been bothering me for over a week now, so there must be something more.
  3. Kangaroos travel in mobs, not herds. Are we suggesting that young tourists from Asia (Vietnam?) with such an excellent grasp of English would not know this?

I should let it go, I know, but I’m even more annoyed now:

“Darwin to Bass Strait”.  Bass Strait is a spondee, two syllables emphasised equally.  No-one emphasises the word “Strait” more than “Bass”.  And by stopping at the body of water, you’ve left out Tasmania.  Again.

That “duck-billed mammal”. If you’re looking to emphasise the unique qualities of a platypus, well, it’s a semi-aquatic monotreme, and it’s the only one.  It’s a swimming, egg-laying mammal.  The duck bill is not really what makes it special, because there are any number of other duck-billed animals.  A duck, for example.

Hegemony. From the Greek, for “leader”.

I’ve been writing a song, for about three years now, (this is completely normal for me) that will attempt to undermine our shameful Northern Hemisphere bias in matters of the heart. Consider:

the lusty month of May
that September in the rain
Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May.
A May – December romance
April is the cruellest month
The days grow short when you reach September

And so on. None of these are true where I, and billions of others, live. The days grow longer in September, and we’re at our lustiest in late November, just in time for office Christmas parties.  Most flowers are best composted in May.

Sometimes songs are more subtly Hemispherist:

Waxing down our surfboards, we can’t wait for June.
As cold as Christmas

Actually, that last Christmas one is pretty well appreciated.  There are dozens of Hemispherist Christmas songs, even Berlin’s White Christmas, which is about missing New York snow while in California.  Me, I don’t miss what I never had, and I have no idea what it’s like to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.

The standard Australian reponse to problems of this nature is to become unbearably ocker – hence, Six White Boomers, and what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden ute.  I’ve never done this either (I think I’d hate it), but there may be no need.  This year, there are hopeful signs. 

Radio stations have discovered Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an effortlessly Australian Christmas song which did not win my heart because Joe is in jail and misses his kids.  No, I love it because Joe uses the expression “a hundred degrees”.  You have to be an Aussie to know that some older expressions refuse to go metric.

And Tim Minchin has written a song, as carefully ramshackle as his hair, which starts out in very Minchinesque territory before doing a nice turn in reminding all assembled about secular families and sunshine.  Onya, Tim.

Killing In the Name Of kept an X Factor winner from the UK’s Number One spot this week, and RATM plan to donate their proceeds to a homelessnes charity.  Tim is donating all December proceeds from this song to Autism research, so if you’re looking for a less conformist non-conformism, and you feel like undermining a hegemony this Christmas, you might like to buy Tim’s song. 

Or write your own, with no snow.