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It just has to be the right show

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Ian Stenlake and Michelle Doake. Image by Blueprint Studios

Another venue? Ian Stenlake and Michelle Doake may yet grace the stage in Next To Normal. Image by Blueprint Studios

So the bad news has struck that Next to Normal has been pulled (for reasons that are not clear in the press release from the producers).

Well, I am very sorry, but I think everyone who knows anything about commercial theatre in this country will know that the Capitol Theatre was never the right place for a somewhat intimate show like this. Yet the big questions arises – how can a show get this far down the track, get actors to commit and turn down other work, and then suddenly see the whole thing pulled from under their feet? (I believe the search is on for another theatre, let’s hope they find one quickly!)

Actors have been having a hard time of it lately, with a number of shortened seasons and show cancellations. Interestingly, about nine months ago when Rock of Ages was pulled from its Sydney season, I wrote a piece here on AussieTheatre about the economy in relation to commercial musical productions and warned things would get tough and tight. I predicted there would be more casualties and the concept that this is a ‘boom time’ for musicals was in fact false. I stand very much by those words and the last year has proved with dark empty theatres all over the place, that this is no boom time.

Yet the last few months has shown another side to this argument and that is that shows can fall and die if they are not in the right theatre, or in fact, if they are not the right shows for the Australian market. We can easily rattle off Officer and a Gentleman, Next to Normal, Rock of Ages and the only moderate success of Love Never Dies (and its shortened Sydney season) as proof that money is tight and audiences don’t want to pay big bucks, even for large commercial productions. But I also put forward the argument that the show has to be right for this market.

Let’s look at each of these aforementioned shows:

  • An untried pop musical based on a movie that a young generation had never heard of, about an American naval academy. Also a show that was using Australia as an out of town tryout, yet asking audiences to pay top dollar for the pleasure
  • A musical that arrived with nice new set and a new production all done (brilliantly) by locals, but with a poor history of being a critical and box office disaster in the west end, was unwanted on Broadway and a sequel to a show that didn’t really warrant a sequel
  • A small off broadway musical about a woman with psychological problems that was a minor success in a small theatre when it transferred on Broadway, but really needed to be  in the hands of an experienced team and produced in a small theatre. It also was a total unknown to most Australian audiences.
  • A jukebox musical featuring 80s music (generally considered the worst period in pop music in history) that is loud, rude and only really appeals to a non (regular) theatre going audience  who would not pay big theatre bucks for their entertainment.

None of these shows have enjoyed acclaim like Wicked, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins or successful revivals of classics such as A Chorus Line or Annie – all musicals that have (and are still having) remarkable success around Australia and environs.

"What I am saying here, is the show has to appeal, has to have a pedigree and people have to really want to see it"What I am saying here, is the show has to appeal, has to have a pedigree and people have to really want to see it if they are going to shell out close to four hundred dollars for a couple of tickets. A lot of actors and theatre industry people who are either in shows and/or get press seats or comp tickets to opening nights forget the cost of buying a theatre ticket in this country is not cheap and there are less and less opportunities for getting a cheaper seat (again my plea for the need for half price ticket booth to return!)

When I look down the list of musicals that are planned to come to Australia in the next year, I also scratch my head a little and say “some big risks there”.

I feel secure about the revival of South Pacific, the family appeal of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Forum has Geoffrey Rush and is a limited season in one state. I think Baz Luhrmann will make Strictly Ballroom into a great event, but I do wonder but remain hopeful about some of the others.

I also feel Legally Blonde will work, mainly because people DO remember the movie and it comes with a solid pedigree. I think it is a show that will boom once audiences see it.

I wish them all well, but what I really want to see is producers jumping on the hot new shows out of London and New York.

"Despite its crudeness, I believe Book of Mormon will be a huge hit in Australia"Despite its crudeness, I believe Book of Mormon will be a huge hit in Australia, likewise Newsies could easily become the next Wicked with a built in teenage market of groupies. But the show that I had hoped an Australian producer would grab before it went to New York is the one that will be the biggest hit of all in Australia and comes from our own homegrown talent. That is, of course, Tim Minchin’s Matilda.

(Also the Tony award winning Once could do nicely here if it is not put into a theatre the size of the Capitol!)

There is a lot to be said about grabbing a new show while it is hot and people are hearing about it. Some shows just take too long to come to Australia and the buzz has died (Hairspray suffered badly in this regard). In the grand old days of JC Williamson Theatres, a new musical could open here in less than 18 months from its Broadway success. Audiences do know when they hear of a new show that is creating a  buzz, its a shame more Australian producers take so long to get the shows locked in that by the time they arrive they have lost some of that glow.

So let’s be optimistic and wait for some of those exciting new shows that are thrilling audiences in London and New York and perhaps be a little less eager to throw big bucks at products that are too untried or have several question marks attached to them.

John Frost mentioned in an interview here recently that music theatre business is cyclical and that is so true. Let’s hold our breath and hope that the next cycle is better than the one we have been enduring lately.

Les has written 59 articles on AussieTheatre
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