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.
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).
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:
- Build relationships between producers and writers early in the process of developing a musical to ensure its commercial viability
- Consider a focus on adaptations to build a wider, general-public audience for Australian musical theatre
- 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.
- 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.
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