Ladies in Black, new Australian Musicals

Bridging The Gap

9 comments

Transferring original musicals to commercial production

In response to my first article, Craig Donnell, an Executive Producer for the Gordon Frost Organisation, commented on Facebook (with permission to share):

“I support your push for more local content but perhaps you are looking to the wrong people to do the heavy lifting?  Commercial producers are just that, commercial producers – they produce what they believe the public wants to see.  […]  There are numerous organisations around the country who receive funding to develop local content – are they playing their part?  Greater collaboration between those organisations with the advice and experience of commercial producers may prove part of the solution. […] If you want to see Australian content on the main stage touring the big houses then it has to appeal to the wider audience otherwise it will always be constrained to the small stages of pro/am and subsidised theatre – that’s simply the reality. That certainly doesn’t limit content.”

To my knowledge, this is the first time that GFO, arguably the largest employer of theatre talent in Australia, has weighed in on this discussion. I found these comments very interesting and they have shaped my thinking over the last few weeks.

Last week, I wrote about the workshops, premieres and revivals of Australian musicals that are happening in 2017 by subsidised companies and independent producers. There is also a discussion about the need for a tertiary course for Musical Theatre Writing which I will address in a separate blog post. There is clear progress in developing original Australian Musical Theatre, but bringing these pieces to a wider public is still proving difficult.

If there are so many new musicals being written, why aren’t they transferring to the commercial main stages?

This is the question I have been pondering in detail recently. I believe Mr Donnell’s comments hold great weight and signify an existing gap between the organisations developing and supporting new writing and the commercial imperatives of a producer. Wider consultation between commercial producers and organisations developing new musicals is needed. This may take the form of collaboration, as is currently evident with Muriel’s Wedding and Joh for P.M. or commercial producers could become more actively involved with advisory panels for the development of new musicals such as Home Grown’s Grassroots Initiative.

Muriels Wedding, musical, Australian
Kaeng Chan, Maggie McKenna & Michael Whalley at the Muriel’s Wedding The Musical cast announcement. Photograph: Prudence Upton

In a recent article about the development of current Broadway smash hit, Dear Evan Hansen, Peter Marks comments that “in the theater, the conjoining of writers with a producer solidifies what was before just a beautiful wish”. It seems that the earlier this happens in the development process, the more likely the show will develop commercial potential. Producer involvement in the early stages of a musical’s development could help it to find a more commercial audience.

In these early stages, it is also crucial for writers to be prepared to listen to external feedback, including from producers and creative teams, and make any necessary changes in the quest for the best version of the piece. Nothing is sacred in this process and the writers must be prepared to jettison unnecessary or imperfect material. In the same article about Dear Evan Hansen, Marks mentions that “Pasek and Paul, friends and writing partners since college, composed an initial full act’s worth of songs, for example — all of which would eventually be cut.” At this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Eddie Perfect performed a number of songs that have already been cut from his current project, Beetlejuice. Sondheim’s famous quote applies here: “Musicals aren’t written, they are rewritten”.

What about the audiences?

Building an Australian audience’s desire for Australian product is essential to this equation. Chloe Dallimore, respected performer and president of Actor’s Equity, commented on social media:

“A lot of it comes down to Australian audiences being willing to part with their money to see homegrown product. Interest and respect for the arts starts at the top. If our local artists received the hero status that our sportsmen and women receive, we could have a very different arts COMMUNITY.”

To do this, perhaps we need to harness our rich cultural heritage in film, literature, plays and rock music for adaptation to the musical theatre stage to engage with a wider Australian public. Adaptations are sometimes seen as less desirable than completely original works for the stage. However, Broadway has a long history of adaptation. Oklahoma, widely considered as one of the turning points in the history of the American Musical, was an adaptation of a play (Green Grow The Lilacs). Show Boat was based on the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber.

Historically, Broadway has already asked the same questions we are currently asking in Australia. In 1989 only 3 musicals were nominated for the Best Musical Tony Award (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway won in a very low quality field).  Many critics proclaimed the death of Broadway. The 90s were then dominated by English imports and Disney’s reinvigoration and corporatisation of the Broadway musical. Contact and Fosse were contentious winners of the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1999 and 2000 respectively as they were primarily dance pieces. The 90s and early 2000s were dominated by movie, book and play adaptations, as well as jukebox musicals and similar properties. It is only now that we are entering a period that is being called a “new Golden Age” on Broadway in which we are seeing a spate of highly successful musicals with entirely original stories (eg. Hamilton, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen).

Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen, Pasek and Paul, New Musical
Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy (showbuzznyc.com)

It has taken time to rebuild the Broadway audience’s desire for entirely original musicals and I believe that might also be required in Australia. The step to original musical theatre could be through adaptations of existing, known commercial properties.

In summary, while there is certainly progress in developing original Australian Musical Theatre, bringing these pieces to a wider public beyond the subsidised companies or independent producers is still proving difficult. To move forward, I would suggest that as an industry, we need to:

  1. Build relationships between producers and writers early in the process of developing a musical to ensure its commercial viability
  2. Consider a focus on adaptations to build a wider, general-public audience for Australian musical theatre
  3. Ensure that workshopping is truly a collaborative process between creative teams, producers and writers to ensure the best version of the piece, acknowledging that this may result in significant cuts and rewrites of material.
  4. Investigate the need for a tertiary level training course for writers, composers and producers of musical theatre works, or expand existing programmes to be more widely inclusive, consultative and collaborative. I will discuss this in more detail in my next article.

I would also recommend an industry-wide re-reading of John Senczuk’s Platform Paper as many of his recommendations are still very relevant to the current discussion.

There has been so much excellent discussion about these articles over the last few weeks. We need to celebrate the positive work already being done, continue to rethink and challenge the existing processes and actively engage in collaboration and healthy discussion to continue build our industry.

Please add your opinions to this discussion in the COMMENTS section below. There is good, healthy debate to be had! SHARE the article widely and follow me on TWITTER for more articles!

9 comments on “Bridging The Gap”

  1. Thanks again, Trevor, for tackling a big, baggy subject with concision and even-handedness.

    There’s a major assumption I hear us making all the time when we talk about the commercial prospects of new local musicals, and I hardly ever hear us questioning it. It’s the key, I think, to why (generally) the Americans are doing far better than we are in creating new, hit shows – and lately, far better than the Brits too.

    The assumption is evident in Craig Donnell’s words – “they produce what they believe the public wants to see” – which is a perfectly legitimate stance for a commercial producer to take, especially if they’re in that golden phase of their career when their tastes and those of the general public seem more or less to align: Harold Fielding and David Merrick in the 1960s, Cameron Mackintosh in the 1980s etc.

    But that stance is, by definition, backward-looking. It’s about what we think the public already likes. It’s not about what producer Jeffrey Sellars saw in the earliest versions of Hamilton, or what Scott Rudin saw in The Book of Mormon, or what Stacey Mindich saw in Dear Evan Hansen – namely, this show may not be what the public already likes, but it could be, with time and development.

    Historically, we’re a bit rubbish at development. We talk about the American development process as if it’s all about money – and sure, it’s about a lot of money – but it’s really about a mindset. To pick ‘Wicked’ as an example, if its first San Francisco season had been its first Sydney/Melbourne season, that probably would have been the end of it. But instead, the writers, guided by critical and audience response, cut some dud songs, focused the storyline, balanced the lead roles, recast actors, and wound up with a lukewarmly reviewed massive hit.

    All the above processes were largely absent from, say, King Kong, and Strictly Ballroom The Musical. By contrast, Catherine Woodfield and Neil Armfield’s devotion to, and extensive reworking of, Keating! – extraordinary by Oz standard but par for the course in the US – made that great conceptual leap, from what “the public wants to see” to what the public has never seen before, but could love if they did.

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  2. There also needs to be an even balance of creatives and producers – utterly creative and you get something nobody wants to put money in, utterly produced and you get … well, the global creatures shows have been an example of what happens, with scores by multiple people, none of whom are on-site when the show is actually getting on stage so they can’t produce a song that covers a need that’s only apparent during rehearsals or previews. It’s nice to have a composer on the level of Sia working on a musical. But if it’s only one song and she’s not around during production week, she’s not going to help with any of hte practical problems that may come with that song to help adjust it. THe only Broadway show that I can think that came in without the composers around while previews were taking place is “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” (Where U2 were touring Australia while the show was commencing previews – admittedly, Bono and the Edge had plenty of time to come into previews, since they went on for around eight months, but still… it woulda been nice to have them early).

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    1. Great point. I think there’s also space for advisors or consultants – people who understand the form deeply and who understand theatre deeply – a dramaturg that’s not already invested in the piece, a musical supervisor that can impartially critique the music and it’s function in the whole piece and a director that can see it from an audience perspective. Jerome Robbins used to “doctor” shows all the time. I’ll put my hand up for the job!

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      1. And you wouldn’t be alone, I suspect. But big shows can’t be doctored like they used to. Ted Chapin relates how ‘Follies’ experimented with a different interval placement every night for a week – all the production had to do was give the rigging crew a different manual plot for the Act One curtain. To move a song today you’d have to shut down for a week to reprogram the lighting board, the quintuple turntable and all the keyboard patches, at vast expense.

        The solution might resemble what that young buck Lloyd Webber did with ‘School of Rock’: a bare-bones concert version in front of paying strangers, to see if the storytelling’s on the right track.

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      2. Lloyd Webber has been premiering concert versions of his shows at Syndmonton since “Evita”. Although, of course, this didn’t get him much greater success on most of his shows from the mid 90s up to “School of Rock” – he really hasn’t had a break-out hit since the first “Phantom”. Subsequent shows have been a combination of too expensive (in particular “Sunset Boulevard”) and having too short a run to break even.

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      3. Yes, but those Sydmonton versions are for a private, invited audience, which is what most Australian shows do. I’ve been the writer in that position, and everyone is very nice, and it’s lovely if you’re still writing, and need a boost to get the bastard finished. It’s less useful if you think you’re finished, and need to be told that you’re not.

        Paying strangers. They’re ruthless.

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  3. ONe other thing to note, of course, is that just because audiences liked something is no guarantee they’ll like something similar again immediately following. Two illustrative examples from the early-mid 2000s – Mel Brooks had one of the biggest hits of recent times with “The Producers”, but bringing the same production team back and trying to musicalise “Young Frankenstein” had immensely diminishing returns.

    Similarly after “Hairspray”, when a different production team musicalised another John Waters movie, “Cry-Baby”, audiences stayed away. And of the song-stack musicals there’s probably five flopped shows to every hit – for every Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys and Beautiful, there’s plenty of musicals like Lennon, Our House, Tonight’s the Night, Good Vibrations, Ring of Fire, Daddy Cool, Viva Forever, Baby it’s You! and Holler if You Hear Me that have dropped bundles of cash on supposedly-can’t-miss stacks of songs.

    You can’t just deliver what the audience wanted before. You have to deliver what they will want next time. Which is a much harder game.

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