‘Whatever Happened to the Music?’ – A Culture of Concious Neglect

Recently, an article on Crikey.com’s Daily Review created a lot of discussion within the music theatre industry by posing the question of whether home-grown musicals received the creative support they needed within the Australian theatre industry. With critics citing Aussie made musicals like Miracle City, Summer Rain and Keating as examples of the “Great Australian Musicals” already in our midst, we ask the question: where are they now?

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The Australian music theatre industry, while not the most prolific in the world, has to be one of the most creatively successful. The past two decades alone are enough to display the boldness and the vision of Australian artists both on and backstage. However, of the million dollar musicals that tour the Australian continent and into South-East Asia, you’d be hard pressed to find even half a dozen original Australian musicals. Go further, try and name ten Australian musicals with original book and score you have seen on a stage and see if you can name the lead cast. Do you have a cast album? A copy of the script? The DVD? If you can say yes to all those questions, chances are you composed the show, because when it comes to theatre, let alone musical theatre in this country, preservation (for reasons of creative admiration, respect, education or future revivals) is not exactly our forte.

It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the finest productions of the world’s most famous musicals ever staged were staged in Australia over the last half century. As the Australian music theatre industry came into its own in the 1950s and 60s with stars such as Toni Lamond, Nancye Hayes, Geri Turner, Jill Perryman (that’s the shortened short list only) taking top billing away from performers imported from the US and UK, we began to form the ideology of our own musical culture. Simultaneously, a revolution was going on in the Australian music scene also, and hit makers began to emerge that proved to the international market that Oz was more than just the last bastion of the global farewell tour. But with the growth of local talent in the theatre and in music, something seems to have been forgotten: (pardon the bad pun, but) we forgot to keep records.

One thing Australia does not do well is preserve and venerate talent or art. Unless you have had an internationally successful career, we just do not accord our artists legend status and offer them according remembrance. Even then, it’s not a guarantee. Melbourne born Helen Reddy is touring Australia for the first time in over a decade this year. The singer who defined a generation of music, broke into the American market, won countless awards, sold millions of albums and became the face of the international feminist movement is coming home. Not one of her concerts has sold out. Welcome to the Australian music industry – who’s next please?

Music Theatre isn’t much better, and the attitudes of the 21st century, by default, appear to be unwavering.

Though some (precious few, but some) of the truly legendary moments of the Australian music theatre were captured on record, the majority remain out of print and look set to remain so. We were lucky enough recently to see reprints and reissues of Reg Livermore’s iconic Betty’s Block Buster Follies and the original Aussie cast album of The Rocky Horror Show. To call this the tip of the iceberg would almost be a bad joke. Cast albums were issued for the original Australian casts of Evita, Nine, Anything Goes, 42nd Street, Oklahoma, La Cage Aux Folles, Jesus Christ Superstar, Barnum, Chicago, Cats, Hair, Godspell… the list is quite long. Furthermore, bootleg EP’s were also issued of later performances of Geri Turner in Gypsy, Jill Perryman in Funny Girl… this list is even longer, and many of these will be left to perish as old vinyls get thrown out and VHS cassette’s degrade away in cupboards along with old programs, books and newspaper clippings. Is this the sad fate of the Australian music theatre? To be steadily thrown out as those chosen few who saved their merchandise clear out some jumble?

Type Toni Lamond or Nancye Hayes into an iTunes search and you have the answer. We’re not interested in saving or re-issuing these legendary moments – there’s no money to be made because we haven’t cultivated an audience. We haven’t placed them in the public consciousness as a “legendary cultural moment”. We’ve had PLENTY of “legendary” cultural moments. Just keep it to yourself.

But what of original Australian musicals?

This is an area of the industry that has been continuously prolific. Though memories will stick with the big-budget juke box hits we have seen storm the stages since the 1990s (The Boy From Oz, Shout!, Dusty, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), musicals with original Australian scores have been legion throughout the 20th century – some ground breaking, hailed as master pieces even. The problem is that when the final curtain fell, most of them died in all but memory.

In 1996, Sydney Theatre company staged a musical called Miracle City. With a book by Nick Enright and a score composed by Max Lambert, it’s one of those shows that anyone who happened to see it will tell you was one of the most powerful pieces of music theatre they ever saw. There’s also no cast recording. You can’t buy the script. You can’t find the score. Good luck getting your hands on so much as a program! If you’re lucky enough to have a copy of Margi de Ferranti’s album Live in New York (also sadly out of print) you’ll have the lone capture made of any of this show – a truly astounding showstopper called “I’ll Hold On”.

I wish I could post a YouTube link of Genevieve Lemon (who sang it in the original production) or Margi de Ferranti… or any Australian actress singing it. But there isn’t one. We don’t do that well either!

This is the fate of most new Australian musicals. Hit or flop, if they get a cast album it usually quickly falls out of print and becomes a collectors item that people pause when you mention and say either “I remember that!” or “never heard of it!”

Does anyone for instance remember a musical called The Republic of Myopia?

It’s quite possible that the “Great Australian Musical” does indeed exist. We just haven’t bothered to give it its due. Furthermore, this attitude of conscious neglect is unquestionably making it harder when it comes to growth within the industry. It’s a statement often said: but when was the last time a major theatre company in Oz commissioned a new local musical? Keating? Can it be that long?!? And also why? Haven’t our creative artists earned this with their efforts yet?

The pointed problem in the local music theatre market is that we just aren’t giving it the hard sell. Producers are willing to give world premieres to the shows of Broadway composers while our own are heading to what remains the favoured venue of local artists: Overseas. Who could blame them? They’re far more likely to succeed there. At home, even the legendary shows can’t book a revival – most likely because few people ever even heard of them.

Reg Livermore’s rock opera Ned Kelly – No? John English’s electrifying, epic musical of the Trojan war, Paris – it even got a small CD re-issue. Nothing?

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, the music theatre in this country is going from strength to strength. A hundred-million dollar market with a reach constantly extending on an international scale, we have some of the most talented performers and creative artists in the world. The devastating (and slightly scary) truth is that most of them will be almost completely forgotten in a decade or so in spite of the fact that many of them changed the game. And no, fame should not be the name of the game, but it’s about time we started acknowledging a sizable and damaging gap in our artistic logic. Preserving the work of our artists (past and present) is not only the best way to respect and admire the past, but also absolutely essential in our development into the future.

Anyone got a copy of the script of Miracle City I can thumb through?

How about a copy of Toni Lamond live at the School of Arts cafe on CD? Geraldine Turner sings Sondheim?

Never mind. Neither does anyone else.

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David has written 179 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by