The most notable change is a major player’s stage exit: The Production Company is taking a bow. For just over 20 years the company founded by Jeanne Pratt had provided Melburnians with first-rate productions of musicals that were often overlooked by other producers, featuring both industry heavyweights and some of the brightest new talent who would go on become big names themselves.
Next year the lights go down. There’ll be a final season of a yet-unnamed musical in late May and early June, but from there on the annual model will be retired. The company’s executive team have hinted that there might be the occasional stand-alone show down the track, but for the foreseeable future the loss of three productions a year will be keenly felt, especially given the company’s habit of premiering new works and giving life to shows whose appeal is more artistic than commercial.
Another factor mixing up the usual programming formula is the ongoing enchantment a certain boy wizard has cast upon it. The Princess Theatre continues to be the Southern Hemisphere’s home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and with tickets already extended to July it looks like the spell won’t lift any time soon. The theatre will likely require a substantial makeover before another show can play there – it’s like a Hogwarts theme park in there right now – which robs music theatre of one of the handful of Melbourne venues big enough to host grand-scale shows.
The Regent Theatre, on the other hand, is about to emerge from a down-period of its own major renovations, reopening in January after an eight-month refurbishment. That’s good news, but music theatre lovers will have to hold their breath a little longer: the first show to play there will be the return of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s play War Horse. It’s a spectacular show, for sure, but its acclaim doesn’t stem from any toe-tapping tunes.
It’s not just Potter and the Horse nudging musicals off our stages, either. Large scale commercial theatre without all the song and dance is coming more and more to dominate our venues. Perhaps the growing appetite for music theatre has made the prospect of equally lavish straight theatre more appetising to Melburnians. In any case, May will see Her Majesty’s Theatre taken over by an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Lachy Hulme in the role made famous by Jack Nicholson in the film version. The play comes with strong credentials, while Melbourne music theatre loses another stage at what is normally a busy time of year for the industry.
None of this is to suggest that music theatre fans are in for a dry year. Quite the opposite: while 2020 looks different from recent years, it’s also looking more lively than ever. There are Australian premieres, a much anticipated revival and a bunch of events that are way out of the comfort zone. How else do you describe an arena rock musical based on the Bat Out Of Hell albums made famous by Meat Loaf? Written by the original songwriter behind hits like You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and I Would Do Anything For You, Jim Steinman’s Bat Out Of Hell will light up Rod Laver Arena for one night in June.
Rock musicals don’t pop up in Melbourne very often, but Steinman’s won’t be the only one next year: The Who’s Tommy will receive a rare staging at the Palais Theatre in August – by Opera Victoria, no less. The cult rock opera that could only have originated in 1969 still has to be seen to be believed.
Another cult favourite is more recent in origin: British musical Six only made its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 but has already been scooped up for award-winning seasons in the West End and on Broadway. The show is a contemporary “remix” of the lives of the six wives of Henry the VIII, and is far from a sombre lesson in history. “It’s very pop-based, which is awesome,” says 24-year-old Kiara Daniele who plays Anna of Cleves. “It’s very now and very current. That’s the most exciting thing, that music theatre can take a bit of a turn and reach a generation like mine. But still my mum has listened to the entire soundtrack and she absolutely loves it.”
She’s excited to be the first to play Cleves in Australia, but says that unlike many musicals the show calls on its cast to make each role their own. “Our Australian cast is going to be so different to the UK’s and the US’s. That’s why the show’s being applauded, because it’s celebrating people’s individuality and uniqueness.” Six arrives in Melbourne in April at the Comedy Theatre.
Some of the faces appearing in musicals next year bring personal connections to their roles. When Billy Elliot the Musical first played Melbourne in 2008 the role of Billy’s older brother was played by Justin Smith. Now the actor returns for next year’s production as the aspiring young dancer’s dad.
He has very fond memories of the original production. “It’s one of my favourite experiences so it’s stayed with me more than a lot of other shows that I’ve done. It’s a great show and has just kind of stayed in my body a bit more, just through my love for it, so it’s been a bit of a challenge trying to recalibrate.”
Smith’s own two boys are young teens themselves now, and each night he sees countless similarly aged boys taking in the show. “You hear them, actually. The first time Dad discovers Billy dancing and storms into the dance hall and screams at him, last week this little boy in the audience went ‘heheheheh, get wrecked!’ I pissed myself inside.”
Billy Elliot‘s lessons are particularly timely, Smith says. “It’s more relevant than when we did it last time, to be honest. In this ever-growing world where we’re all walking around in our own little bubbles, the idea of community is more important than ever, and it’s a show about community really.”
Another show about community is Bran Nue Dae, and another performer with personal links to a role is Theresa Moore. She grew up with Bran Nue Dae: after all, her dad played the lead role of Willy in Australia’s first Aboriginal musical 30 years ago. Now as a new production gets into gear, the WAAPA graduate makes her main-stage debut in the lead role of Rosie.
“Hearing how great my dad was as an actor, I wanted to be a great actor too,” she says. “But there was a bit of a struggle with walking in his shadow. Also trying to do what my mother couldn’t do, because she had to drop out of acting at a young age due to having us kids. So when I went to WAAPA I had to find my own purpose.”
It was while learning her craft that she realised that purpose. “I discovered that as an actor it’s my purpose to tell the stories of other people. I’ve always believed that our tongue is the most powerful weapon we have. Telling stories and getting our voices to be heard is so powerful and you have to know that some people out there may not have the privilege to speak for themselves.”
Chicago, Six, Billy Elliot and Bran Nue Dae are all about forging communities, defying prejudice and celebrating individuality. It’s rare for music theatre to feel so … relevant. The form has long been a place for escapism, but right now feels like it can offer more than just a relief from troubling times.
It might be why Come From Away, the feel-good musical about community and compassion, has had a stellar run at the Comedy Theatre that will continue well into the new year. Or why the MTC is staging Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir of American cartoonist Alison Bechdel that addresses her dysfunctional family life and the life of her own she tries to build in its wake. Then there’s Shrek in February – with its themes of loving the skin you’re in – and November’s Fiddler on the Roof, one of the all-time great musicals about community building.
They might burst into song at a moment’s notice, but for the actors in next year’s musicals their roles have something real to say. “They really allowed us to bring our own flavour but also remind ourselves that these are real people, not characters,” says Bassingthwaite.
Billy Elliot the Musical has as much depth as a straight play, says Smith. “As good as the numbers are and the dancing and the stuff that the boys do is incredible, but if you had to it would stand up by itself as a play, which is another strong element to the show. People really respond to that because the touching moments really hit home, rather than the flying witches and whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I love those shows, but I think it really touches people because it shows real people up there.”