The Curse of the Australian Music Theatre Actor

South Pacific. Image by Kurt Sneddon
Star of South Pacific, Lisa McCune, has managed to bridge the gap between the film/TV and musical theatre worlds. Image by Kurt Sneddon

This is a particularly difficult column for me to write. I have wanted to write it for a good while and have postponed it many times but today I feel its time to let it loose into the theatrical community. (I would love some people’s opinions after reading.)

The reason I find it difficult to write is that it covers the two worlds I work in and forces me to make comments about my role as a theatrical agent and manager, something I try to avoid when writing for this site. Yet it is something that needs to be said and written about, because changes need to be made, minds need to be opened and more opportunities need to be given.

I speak of what could only be called a curse, of actors who work mainly in music theatre in this country. No matter how you like to dress it up, if most of their professional credits are in the world of musicals they are locked out of so many chances to prove themselves in film and television. This is a problem that is very specific to Australia only, it is not the case in the other major english speaking theatrical capitals-ie New York and London, in fact in most cases it works in reverse.

Yet in Australia, if your first professional mark is in musicals, there is an unseen and unspoken lack of interest in you from film and TV I don’t know what it is. Most casting agents will deny there is a bias, some say those who work a lot in musicals are too “big and theatrical” for the camera, there is often talk about the naturalistic style needed in Australian film, but what I observe is that there is a bit of a “movie club” of actors who are constantly employed in film and TV and these are the ones who get the job.

It is a classic catch 22, you cant get film and TV without film and TV work, yet how do you get film and TV work if it is not offered to you? The great irony is if an actor makes a mark in film/TV first then does musicals… aha, thats a different story. Look at (to name just a small few) Lisa McCune, Hugh Sheridan, Hugh Jackman.

When they first left drama school each got a major TV role, with Lisa it was Blue Heelers, for Sheridan, Packed to the Rafters, Jackman was Corelli. Later on, each went on to star in musicals and manage to move between the two worlds (well, Hugh Sheridan will do soon, as he is about to star in Forum, his first musical after a long time in TV).

But how many big musical stars or even regular musical performers ever get the chance to work that success in reverse? So let’s look at the situation in New York and pull up just a few (of many many examples); Glenn Close got her break in musicals, she was the first Chairity Barnum in the musical Barnum,  her success in this, lead to her being cast in The World According to Garp and she has successfully managed to move between the two worlds ever since. Patrick Wilson’s leading role as Curley in Oklahoma on Broadway opened the door to a leading role in the TV version of Angels in America and he too now straddles both worlds. Sutton Foster was starring in Anything Goes on Broadway when she was offered the lead in the new comedy series Bunheads and Andrew Rannells, the young star of The Book of Mormon (and Jersey Boys before that) used his stage success to secure the lead in the hot new comedy series The New Normal. My favourite story is Sara Ramirez, who, after years of musical theatre work, won a Tony for her hilarious Lady of the Lake in Spamalot. She was visited by TV executives who gave her a choice of about a dozen new TV projects, she chose Grey’s Anatomy and hasnt looked back ever since.

How many recent Helpmann award winners have had a TV series fashioned for them? Each of the casting agents who saw these actors in these shows, had the imagination to see their film and TV potential. I could go on here about the cast of Glee and Smash as well, but some would say they are very theatrical roles, though Matthew Morrison, whose long music theatre credits, is an example of a very fine film actor who works the camera well when he is neither singing nor dancing.

Two years ago, I was in New York to escort a client who had recently been granted a greencard, around the New York agents, looking for the best representation. It was both refreshing and frustrating to hear one agent say “and of course if he makes a mark in a Broadway musical, Hollywood and TV will quickly come calling”.

My first reaction was, “not in Australia they won’t”, and I was asked why…

Why is it that actors with immense musical credits have to try and paste together a crude show reel of film clips and reconstruct and play down a brilliant CV so that their minimal film and TV credits are shown first? Why don’t casting agents give musical theatre people a good chance and why does one other actor I represent who came out of a non-music theatre acting school and did several TV jobs before getting a big name in musicals and cabaret, now gets deeply upset because the film and TV world seem to have classified her as a ‘musicals girl’?

What is the curse and what do they do wrong? It is so bad now that many young actors in musicals begin to believe they arent good enough for film and TV no matter how gifted an actor they are. I don’t buy that “they are not natural enough, not minimalistic enough for aussie films”. I just think in Australia there are two different worlds, the world of the musical and the world of everything else and it seems never the twain will meet.

There is perhaps a little less of a stigma to being a non musical theatre stage actor, though many will tell you it is almost as tough. Theatrical training institutions do spend a good bit of time training students for film and TV, some casting agents may argue they do not do enough.

I don’t have the answer and I don’t think there are any easy answers, but there is a lack of imagination in seeing a singing actor on stage and not envisaging them in a film and TV role. The leading casting agent for musicals in this country, Lynne Ruthven, used to work in film and TV casting and changed to musicals to try and bridge the two worlds, but has also found it impossible.

One answer in this unimaginative world of film and TV is for triple threats to refuse any work or audition in musicals until they are seen as film actors, it is a horrible answer, but that seems to have worked for a few actors in recent years. Pretty terrible indictment of some casting agents with no imaginations. Let’s kidnap all the film and TV casting agents and force them away from their TVs to watch every major theatre production and maybe then we might see a change! Or not…

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Les has written 59 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by