Nature of the industry, or should we be producing better musicals?

Sean Bryan wrote this column in response to a piece by AussieTheatre’s Editor, Erin James, recently.

I hate to say I could predict the Addams Family closing early in Australia, but I did. From the moment it was announced (around the same time as Shrek The Musical, Legally Blonde, Officer and a Gentleman and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were also announced to be coming to our shores) I had my doubts.

The Addams Family, Original Australian Cast. Image by Jeff Busby
The Addams Family, Original Australian Cast. Image by Jeff Busby

NSW heralded the upcoming production, along with others it had secured through Event New South Wales funding, as being the “finest in Musical theatre” opening up the old Melbourne vs Sydney debate, but a quick look at the markets these shows previously played reveals a gloomier picture.

Addams Family, which was continually referred to as a hit in the media, was anything but. The out of town try out in Chicago showed signs of bad things to come, and whilst some issues were fixed when it opened on Broadway in 2010, it received unanimously bad and scathing reviews. The New York Times latched on to the wasted talented involved in the show (Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth etc) “Imagine, if you dare, the agonies of the talented people trapped inside the collapsing tomb called “The Addams Family.” And whilst good casting enabled the show to limp through it’s opening year, once Nathan Lane dropped out the show’s grosses went on a rapid decline until it closed at the end of 2011. It never made back it’s investment, it was a critical and financial flop. Sure, a rejigged version created for the US National Tour was slightly better, and our casting was brilliant, but this show was never bound to be the hit it was touted as being. Addams Family didn’t even get a nod for Best Musical at the Tony Awards.

On those lines neither did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and whilst that show had a long run at London’s Palladium Theatre it was never a completely spectacular production, and it paled in comparison to the fantastic film. The production was cleaned up a little when it transferred to Broadway, but there it only ran 285 performances before closing, losing most of it’s investment. Of course the benefit of taking the show to Australia was a hunger for more Sherman Brothers after Mary Poppins flew away not so long before, and the fact that the film did better in Australia than anywhere else in the world, those that saw the film on the big screen could now bring their children or grandchildren to experience the joy.

Lucy Durack as Elle with Bruiser in LEGALLY BLONDE. Image by Jeff Busby
Lucy Durack as Elle with Bruiser in LEGALLY BLONDE. Image by Jeff Busby

Legally Blonde was the opposite to Chitty, it received mediocre reviews on Broadway and played 595 shows, never recouping, but found it’s stride in London. It looked off to a rocky start after opening in Sydney. Rumours of an early close with no tour floated around. Blonde came to Australian shores 12 years after the original film hit the silver screen. It managed to survive past Sydney and went on to Brisbane and now Melbourne, but were we already over Legally Blonde when the film’s sequel came out? Did the sorority to scholar story line really relate to Australians? And was it worth spending $75+ on a show you could watch at home on DVD for $9? The recent announcement of the show closing early in Melbourne and cancelling 16 shows is perhaps an indication that the answer to that question is no.

A show that has always had me questioning this same thing was Shrek The Musical, which I saw on Broadway in it’s opening week. It received mediocre reviews, but did manage a Best Musical nod (it lost to a great film adaption, the powerhouse Billy Elliot) but the over the top production (evidently dripping in money, as well as green ooze) didn’t hold the joy of the original film. Plus the new score wasn’t half as good as the original film soundtrack, at first they didn’t even include ‘I’m A Believer’, until audiences demanded the song be included. It was retooled for the UK where again it fared slightly better and also received a Best Musical nod from the Oliviers. But will families spend vast amounts of money on a show that they can watch on DVD for much cheaper? It’s obviously a question floating around in John Frosts head, he has/had the rights to production and was set to open it in 2012. I think he’ll see how Grease goes before launching the behemoth of a show that Shrek is (one of the most expensive shows of all time.) That would be the smartest move for a fairytale ending.

I felt the disappointment when An Officer and Gentleman closed early. There was a lot at stake on this production. A lot of people had put a great deal of time into developing it, and yes it needed more work. But at the same time, what called for this show to be turned into a musical in the first place?

Far too often I hear producers saying that they aren’t in control, that it’s Audiences that are demanding juke box and movie adaptation musicals, but I think it’s a lie. It is producers who are generating the material to show to the audience, they are dictating what they’ll see. Audiences are better than what producers give them credit for, producers see an opportunity for an easy buck in familiar material, and this ends in sub par work. In my opinion audiences, especially in Australia, are getting fatigued with these adaptational shows. They want something new and exciting they haven’t seen before, and they don’t want to have to fly to New York to see it.

I would love to see a Broadway season where producers decided to only fund and finance new musical works with original scores by up and coming writers. Without the shadow of looming commercial giants perhaps these shows would stand a chance at really shining.

And perhaps if Australian producers would also invest in good quality musicals we might see longer seasons, engaged and returning audiences, and bountiful employment for everyone. Ensure you have the best quality product before going to market and the money will come in. Were the shows mentioned here with their pasts really the ‘finest’ choices on offer? Maybe better producing would buck the trend of what we now call the ‘nature of the industry.’ Perhaps as producers we can do better for everyone we involve in our productions.

 

Sean Bryan is a theatrical producer and world traveler. His producing credits include FACING EAST: THE MUSICAL (USA), MARGARET FULTON: QUEEN OF THE DESSERT (Aus), I AM PLAYING ME (Aus), [TITLE OF SHOW] (Aus) and  KANGAROOSICAL (USA and Aus). Sean currently resides in London where he is developing a number of projects across the globe.

4 thoughts on “Nature of the industry, or should we be producing better musicals?

  • I don’t think you should be saying “Are these shows worth $… when you can see the movie”. Of all the people in the industry, you are a producer, you want shows to be on, but deterring people by listing all our recent shows as bad is deterring people. Let people make up their own minds. A movie should NEVER be compared to theatre. You should know that. If someone wants to believe that then that’s their prerogative. But you are a theatre producer and shouldn’t be saying that. Australia has a population of 23 million whilst USA has approx. 300 million. Using that ratio of 1:13, if a Broadway show runs for 1 year on Broadway, then if its as successful it should run in Sydney for around a Month. We exceed that so we are doing very well. We aren’t America. We are Australia. Our industry is amazing from every aspect and we need to stop saying “Is it worth this?” and “It shouldn’tve come to Australia”. Its so negative and does not help one tiny bit. I love this website but we need to brighten up and stop being so negative and support our struggling industry. Because negativity does not help one thing at all.

    Reply
    • Erin James

      Thanks for your comment –

      I just want to point out that this column was written by an independent writer in response to an article I penned earlier in the year. We publish content on AussieTheatre that is diverse – and while not everything that goes online represents my personal views, or the views of my co-director, I try to (as other publications do) give all voices a platform to be heard. If you are looking for some positivity about the industry… head on over to my column!

      Regards, Erin James
      Editor

      Reply
  • I agree! I’d love to see something new and fresh, something not based on a movie with some musical numbers stuck into it.

    Reply
  • What a terribly written, ill-informed, hot mess of a column.

    “I would love to see a Broadway season where producers decided to only fund and finance new musical works with original scores by up and coming writers. Without the shadow of looming commercial giants perhaps these shows would stand a chance at really shining.”

    Even if there were a Broadway season in which only new shows were produced, they would still be competing against the current commercial giants: The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon, etc.

    If a show is good, it will succeed. Trying to hinder competition isn’t going to affect the development process, or make shows any better.

    And while a number of shows are being adapted from films these days (a list that would include the recent Tony Award winners Kinky Boots and Once), most musicals are adapted from other source material, such as Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Mis, stretching all the way back to South Pacific (from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book) and Oklahoma! (based on a play).

    And as for your comments that “producers see an opportunity for an easy buck in familiar material”, there is no such thing in theatre.

    Reply

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