Calling All Angels

For those of you who heard [email protected] last weekend, this article will come as no surprise. For those of you who didn’t, I write a compressed version of the discussion here.

There was an article in THE AUSTRALIAN last week.

In a nutshell, SBS followed 2 rookie Music Theatre writers – Marcus Cheong and Ken Lai – Australian – as they took their musical Angels to NY in the SBS Secrets and Lies series of documentaries which chronicle people pursuing their hopes and dreams.

So far so good. Great! Australian writers of Musical Theatre having a chance to get a leg up but with a bit of TV leverage. SBS filling the cultural void, perhaps not served these days by our ABC.

But, at commencement, there was close to no seed finance for the actual project.

As the SBS commentary itself said, “They’ve never attempted to stage a professional musical like this before. They’ve written the script and music themselves, and they haven’t got a single cent of the 15 million dollars they’re going to need to raise.”

So, now in New York, 1500 innocent American artists auditioned – popped their hearts on the line for another job that would never happen (based on the money secured up front). It’s a story of cuckolding at best. And apt for the title: Secrets and Lies. But, in a fast chain of events, the final finance was actually secured until the crunch of the Global Financial Crisis hit. The way the doco presents it, this was the demise of Angels in New York. Key investors withdrew and the show had to be scrapped. A cast, 2 weeks away from an out-of-town opening, were told that they no longer had jobs.

The President of LPA, LIVE PERFORMANCE AUSTRALIA, Andrew Kay, a gentleman who creates many jobs for Australian Theatre Practitioners and who I admire greatly, was understandably troubled by the possible impediment of relations with the United States in the area of Musical Theatre as a result of a very green team taking a work to the home of the form without proper development. AND, perhaps, being given some legitimacy by a National broadcaster.

“Anything that promotes the negative side of our industry concerns us greatly, and that’s what I saw on television, on SBS, in this program”, Kay said on [email protected]

But in The Australian article is a quote from Mr Kay that left many Music Theatre creators (and myself) troubled.

“America is the home of the musical and we’re reliant on the flow of productions and funds to create musicals here.”

While I have no problem with the business part of that statement – America is the home of the musical – there are Australian Musical Theatre writers and THEY need to know that THEIR productions will get a leg up from our own producers as well. In short, that statement leaves little hope for a writing team trying to create an original Australian work.

Yes, there have been some lucky breaks. Priscilla is now an international franchise – original book, Australian story, juke box songs and, as Craig Christie puts it, a ‘Movie-cal’. There is also Dirty Dancing – new-ish book, all new songs (bar one); the largest franchise developed in Australia thus far. And there was the Enright-penned, The Boy From Oz, exploiting the catalogue of the late and great, Peter Allen. None of these are really original musicals, original books maybe, but not original stories.

But it seems Andrew Kay thinks those musicals are important. “We can see the path and we just have to follow the path of those shows like Dirty Dancing even though it’s not an Australian topic but, God bless us, Priscilla is … there is a path to follow… the recipe exists.” This writer thinks they are important musicals too.

Others that must be mentioned are Dusty-The Original Pop Diva, Keating!, Shane Warne The Musical.

But what ‘recipe’ exists for a completely original Australian musical theatre work? No catalogue of songs, no piggy-backing on an established novel, movie, personality etc? New work. Like a Bangarra might produce in dance, like a Chamber Made for Opera? There seems to be no auspices.

Prof. Kevin Purcell (Head UTAS Conservatorium of Music & Exec Director of Broadway to Australia and The Australian Shakespeare Festival) puts it brilliantly: “the pragmatic and ugly truth [is] that no government agency, subsidised theatre or commercial theatre company actually support Australian musical theatre development in any formalised, structured and coherent manner. It is a piranha with the major subsidised performing arts organisations – although any of them adopting the programming of such work to bail out a likely or post-season deficit – will happily go swimming in the murky and unclean waters of the ‘Musical!’ without ever acknowledging the inherent value of the art form to themselves.” Amen to that.

So the fact does remain that we need our Government bodies to legitimise the form of Musical Theatre, and while Andrew Kay was protecting our relationships with overseas stake holders in his statement and was focussing on a particular issue, and I applaud him for that, I do understand how, once again, our Australian writers of original Music Theatre feel jibbed.

An award-winning writer let me know his feelings: “So many people out there are writing good work but where one goes from there to get it onto a stage in the right way remains a mystery. Fund it yourself and/or do a fringe try out, or be lucky enough to have the producers who do care (and for those you need about 2 fingers to count on) on board. Maybe SBS would like to follow the development of a new work to fruition on the Australian stage…. oh that’s right, they wouldn’t actually have a programme, and they missed the boat when they could have.”

We have a Pratt Prize for Music Theatre development. When will a State/Funded Theatre Company or a commercial enterprise pick up one of these legitimate original Australian music theatre works and give them the leg-up they deserve?

Maybe this is exactly why Cheong and Lai decided to go offshore. To a place where Musical Theatre is nurtured and endemic in the culture. Maybe it seemed like a better chance. And for a while there… it was.

The final title frame of the series suggests that Angels will be produced on Broadway this year.

Please send in your comments and suggestions for stories to: [email protected]

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