Imagine sitting in the auditorium of Sydney’s huge Capitol Theatre. The lights dim and a musical is set to begin on the stage. A broad, authentic, Australian accent is the first voice you hear. A story is told in that Australian voice. Try and tell me this wouldn’t strike you as unusual.
Last year, Sydney’s Lyric Theatre hosted “Ladies in Black”, a new Australian musical composed by music icon Tim Finn. The book for the stage show was written by Carolyn Burns. The story is inspired by Madeliene St John’s novel, ‘The Women in Black’, and it’s set in Sydney, in 1959. “Ladies in Black” follows the story of young Lisa from Chatswood, an aspiring poet who scores a Christmas casual gig at Goode’s Department Store (think David Jones) in the city. Working there, she’s exposed to other Australian women; their lives, their problems and their dreams.
By and large, “Ladies in Black” enjoyed good reviews, which were tinged with pride at the achievement of a palatable, mainstream Australian musical, and all of which seemed to stem from a place of cultural nostalgia:
“A full-blown, home-grown musical that works a treat”
- Cameron Woodhead, The Age, Jan 2017
“There is no mistaking the country in which this show is set – from the home-grown accents to the local suburbs referenced in the text, this is a musical that lovingly cherishes everything that makes us true blue”
- Emily Saint Smith, The AU Review, Jan 2017
It’s difficult to look past its local charm (something I personally think that the show was riding on a little too much). For me, “Ladies In Black” felt a little undercooked. The experience is light and by no means life altering, but it tells a heartwarming tale and makes for a great night out.
“This sweet story is too small for Sydney’s cavernous Lyric theatre”
- Cassie Tongue, The Guardian, Jan 2017
Notwithstanding the risks involved, it’s still disappointing that Sydney could only endure a three-week run before the show continued on it’s national tour. How wonderful it would be if an Australian, nationally touring, glitzy musical was a normal thing? Still, the show’s run so far can only be thought of as a success for Australian theatre. The production should be nurtured, workshopped perhaps, and then admired for all the Australiana that it celebrates.
Here’s another story: “Strictly Ballroom The Musical” is probably the most ambitious musical Australia has known since “Pricilla: Queen of the Desert”. With director Baz Luhrmann at its head, “Strictly Ballroom” managed to float above the criticism and make it to London’s west-end. Here, Luhrmann knew his audience – they were mostly Australians, and mostly people with fondness for his 1992 film of the same title. The creatives were proud of the show’s Aussie roots – and had no interest in backing off from Australian lingo, quirks and charm.
But when the curtain came up on “Strictly Ballroom” and Liz Holt turned to her audience and screeched her opening line: “Scott Hastings is a dead-set wanker!”, it was polarising. Some people enjoyed the unabashed ocker style, others lamented the low-brow play for laughs. To hear the expression “dead-set” is a rarity in a musical, but maybe the tone of the show was simply too left-of-field for some, particularly when they compared it to the musicals they’re used to.
In Sydney, the show received generally mixed reviews, but enjoyed enthusiastic audience reception, and solid ticket sales. All the negative reviews stemmed from a belief that it couldn’t do well in the long run, or that it couldn’t serve itself as an original musical. Or, perhaps most damningly, that “Strictly Ballroom” wasn’t enough like the film that Australians loved so much.
“Strictly Ballroom the Musical sparkles but falls just short…The audience is here to see what they know and love. Any surprises sprung had better be good ones. Anything less is just a speed bump.”
- Jason Blake, Sydney Morning Herald.
“While the show has all the signs of a hit, Strictly Ballroom is still at its most potent in movie form.”
- Alex Needham, The Guardian (Australian)
And yet, “Strictly Ballroom The Musical” on the West-End, having just finished up it’s year-long run, has enjoyed promising reviews.
“It is utterly ridiculous, and knows it. But it also knows how to give the audience a really good time and there are moments when Drew McOnie’s choreography burns up the floor with such a fever that it is totally joyous.”
- Lyn Gardner, The Guardian (UK).
The fact that the poms love the show is kind of extraordinary, because it is so Australian, right down to a dance-sequence around a hills-hoist! Is it really possible that this show – trading so heavily on Australiana – might be understood, even celebrated, off our shores? Are we so likeable? And in order to make this all possible, was it ultimately a different show? Luhrmann ensured that “Strictly Ballroom” kept its Australian-isms, accents and all. The book underwent a significant re-write, songs were scrapped, and they dialed down the ‘Baz-factor’, just to pull back on the extravaganza in order to be received as a legitimate piece of musical theatre. But crucially, the show maintained its cultural roots. Younger London audiences would have been unaware that the show was based on a film, and so overall, it was well-received and had people dancing in the aisles. On balance, the show was a standalone piece of theatre that didn’t rely on it’s namesake to sell.
It’s great to see a show born in our industry go overseas and stand on its own two feet. I wish it happened all the time, because it’s important that we are self-sustainable. We have equally important and entertaining stories to be told, we have some great writers, and there are a number of institutions that offer training to playwrights and composers. And these people need support at home, before they look elsewhere for it.
Both “Ladies in Black” and “Strictly Ballroom The Musical” were based off previously existing texts. The Australian critics gave luke warm responses. My question is: is this a case of cultural cringe?
Looking at these two case-studies, the show that had the financial heft to tour internationally has done well. If the decision had been based on whether or not Australian critics had liked the show, it’s completely possible that “Strictly Ballroom” would never have had a life on The West End.
Is it possible that as a nation we possess the requisite talent to make good shows, but lack the confidence to acknowledge and tour them? Perhaps it has less to do with their talent, and more to do with whether or not the creatives decide to write within and about the country they live in. I’m thinking along the lines of Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian and musician, responsible for the music in “Matilda: The Musical”. Both that show and his more recent “Groundhog Day The Musical” started out on The West End. Eddie Perfect has had a similar journey, and now he’s the composer for the upcoming “Beetlejuice” musical, which is Broadway-bound. Is this just how things worked out for them? Or is it that both composers loved making musicals but due to critical media at home, and an ongoing cultural cringe towards anything we produce, they have had to move overseas in order to do pursue these projects?
This is not a call to arms. Gordon Frost can keep doing what they’re doing with long-running international imports, as can Opera Australia and so on. There’s no point booking out our huge theatres with shows that will struggle to sell without prior stamp of approval from Broadway or West End. But, if this is to be the case, we need a better outlet for these smaller, younger, local voices. Does this mean we need more small theatres for our Aussie shows? Or more big ones to give them longer runs, and the life and attention they deserve?
The Hayes Theatre Co, in conjunction with Luckiest Productions, are staging a revival of “Only Heaven knows” (Alex Harding) later this year, and it’s a great example of giving an Australian musical a life beyond the page it’s written on. Following the award-winning success of “Miracle City”, this stands as Hayes’ second Australian musical production. And anyone with a passion for musical theatre will tell you that The Hayes is a thriving hub, but that it’s no place to make a living as a performer. The quality of its program is generally of high-calibre, and the seasons are often pretty long-running (in the grand scheme of things), and we all get a high out of seeing shows that seem to have a little more depth than the productions that we see at The Capitol and Lyric.
The small-scale production grants the shows a nurturing environment in which to develop, and replicates the off-Broadway model we observe in the US. Often, the successful shows start off-Broadway and if they do well, and have enough hype and support, they can ‘make it’ in the big theatres. The Australian production of “Heathers” had a similar journey: starting at they Hayes, they then went on a national tour, and then returning to Sydney at The Opera House. With the same faith and attention, an Australian-grown musical could take the same path. What's equally fabulous and frustrating about original musicals is the effort it takes to get them on their feet. They are always collaborative, multi-skilled and multi-faceted (you need the talent, the composer, the writer, the orchestra/accompaniment...). It makes it so hard to put them on, especially in an environment that's too afraid of musicals to support them. We aren't laughing for venues in Sydney, but we're not without them. It would be wonderful to see small venues take the plunge, even if it were to host a workshop, and not a full-scale production. Exposure. With the number of people involved, it will pull the desired crowd. That's without mentioning the many, who, like myself, are hungry to see Australian stories brought to the world of musicals. We're curious enough to see it, I'm sure of that, so make it good and it'll go places! Depot. Darlinghurst. Belvior. ATYP. Start a trend.
We spend so much time observing the trends and quirks of cultures aside from our own, there’s no reason that our stories can’t be enjoyed by audiences overseas. It’s just a matter of faith.