It just has to be the right show

Ian Stenlake and Michelle Doake. Image by Blueprint Studios
Another venue? Ian Stenlake and Michelle Doake may yet grace the stage in Next To Normal. Image by Blueprint Studios

So the bad news has struck that Next to Normal has been pulled (for reasons that are not clear in the press release from the producers).

Well, I am very sorry, but I think everyone who knows anything about commercial theatre in this country will know that the Capitol Theatre was never the right place for a somewhat intimate show like this. Yet the big questions arises – how can a show get this far down the track, get actors to commit and turn down other work, and then suddenly see the whole thing pulled from under their feet? (I believe the search is on for another theatre, let’s hope they find one quickly!)

Actors have been having a hard time of it lately, with a number of shortened seasons and show cancellations. Interestingly, about nine months ago when Rock of Ages was pulled from its Sydney season, I wrote a piece here on AussieTheatre about the economy in relation to commercial musical productions and warned things would get tough and tight. I predicted there would be more casualties and the concept that this is a ‘boom time’ for musicals was in fact false. I stand very much by those words and the last year has proved with dark empty theatres all over the place, that this is no boom time.

Yet the last few months has shown another side to this argument and that is that shows can fall and die if they are not in the right theatre, or in fact, if they are not the right shows for the Australian market. We can easily rattle off Officer and a Gentleman, Next to Normal, Rock of Ages and the only moderate success of Love Never Dies (and its shortened Sydney season) as proof that money is tight and audiences don’t want to pay big bucks, even for large commercial productions. But I also put forward the argument that the show has to be right for this market.

Let’s look at each of these aforementioned shows:

  • An untried pop musical based on a movie that a young generation had never heard of, about an American naval academy. Also a show that was using Australia as an out of town tryout, yet asking audiences to pay top dollar for the pleasure
  • A musical that arrived with nice new set and a new production all done (brilliantly) by locals, but with a poor history of being a critical and box office disaster in the west end, was unwanted on Broadway and a sequel to a show that didn’t really warrant a sequel
  • A small off broadway musical about a woman with psychological problems that was a minor success in a small theatre when it transferred on Broadway, but really needed to be  in the hands of an experienced team and produced in a small theatre. It also was a total unknown to most Australian audiences.
  • A jukebox musical featuring 80s music (generally considered the worst period in pop music in history) that is loud, rude and only really appeals to a non (regular) theatre going audience  who would not pay big theatre bucks for their entertainment.

None of these shows have enjoyed acclaim like Wicked, Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins or successful revivals of classics such as A Chorus Line or Annie – all musicals that have (and are still having) remarkable success around Australia and environs.

[pull_left]What I am saying here, is the show has to appeal, has to have a pedigree and people have to really want to see it[/pull_left]What I am saying here, is the show has to appeal, has to have a pedigree and people have to really want to see it if they are going to shell out close to four hundred dollars for a couple of tickets. A lot of actors and theatre industry people who are either in shows and/or get press seats or comp tickets to opening nights forget the cost of buying a theatre ticket in this country is not cheap and there are less and less opportunities for getting a cheaper seat (again my plea for the need for half price ticket booth to return!)

When I look down the list of musicals that are planned to come to Australia in the next year, I also scratch my head a little and say “some big risks there”.

I feel secure about the revival of South Pacific, the family appeal of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Forum has Geoffrey Rush and is a limited season in one state. I think Baz Luhrmann will make Strictly Ballroom into a great event, but I do wonder but remain hopeful about some of the others.

I also feel Legally Blonde will work, mainly because people DO remember the movie and it comes with a solid pedigree. I think it is a show that will boom once audiences see it.

I wish them all well, but what I really want to see is producers jumping on the hot new shows out of London and New York.

[pull_right]Despite its crudeness, I believe Book of Mormon will be a huge hit in Australia[/pull_right]Despite its crudeness, I believe Book of Mormon will be a huge hit in Australia, likewise Newsies could easily become the next Wicked with a built in teenage market of groupies. But the show that I had hoped an Australian producer would grab before it went to New York is the one that will be the biggest hit of all in Australia and comes from our own homegrown talent. That is, of course, Tim Minchin’s Matilda.

(Also the Tony award winning Once could do nicely here if it is not put into a theatre the size of the Capitol!)

There is a lot to be said about grabbing a new show while it is hot and people are hearing about it. Some shows just take too long to come to Australia and the buzz has died (Hairspray suffered badly in this regard). In the grand old days of JC Williamson Theatres, a new musical could open here in less than 18 months from its Broadway success. Audiences do know when they hear of a new show that is creating a  buzz, its a shame more Australian producers take so long to get the shows locked in that by the time they arrive they have lost some of that glow.

So let’s be optimistic and wait for some of those exciting new shows that are thrilling audiences in London and New York and perhaps be a little less eager to throw big bucks at products that are too untried or have several question marks attached to them.

John Frost mentioned in an interview here recently that music theatre business is cyclical and that is so true. Let’s hold our breath and hope that the next cycle is better than the one we have been enduring lately.

14 thoughts on “It just has to be the right show

  • Intelligent summary of the current situation – well said, Les.
    You quote Producer Supremo John Frost: “music theatre business is cyclical”.
    Please Mr Frost, do not subject us to another production of “Annie” in seven years time…
    or “Sound of Music”…
    or … you get my drift.

    • For whatever reason (popularity & familiarity I guess), Annie, Sound of Music etc are the shows that sell well and potentially finance the “riskier” ones!!

  • Oh yes D@GP, I hate it when Frost kidnaps me and makes me sit through ANNIE or THE SOUND OF MUSIC every 5 years..

  • Why only focussing on musicals, what is wrong with spectacular world renown ICE REVUES (Holiday on Ice, Ice Escapades) , I mean ice revues for ADULTS and teenagers, like they showed in USA & EUROPE.These ice shows have never perform in australia, I saw one recently in Amsterdam, it was packed every night and it stays for 6 months in Amsterdam, people even came from neighbouring countries (weekend packages). Australia seems to focus on musicals all the time, there are other spectacular world entertainment that can bring huge crowd to cities like Sydney or Melbourne for a long period.

      • Not that sort of ice shows, that is performed on small stages, BUT performed on OLYMPIC SIZES STAGES, big spectacular Las Vegas type shows (BIG ICE REVUES), the one I saw in Amsterdam was on an olympic size ice skating ring with beautiful sets and costumes and a cast of at least 100 performers, some of them past world, olympic and european ice skating champions.

  • I disagree completely with your comments about Rock Of Ages. Rock of Ages is a classic musical. Look at the structure and story and it mirrors any good, old, classic musical. Drew and Sherrie are a romance for the ages. The show may have humour (oh no, not humour!) and it may have a soundtrack set to some truly rockin’ 80s classics (oh no, a non-traditional MT/jukebox soundtrack!), and it may be heading toward an M rather than a G rating, but over all that it has HEART. And hope. And positivity, and a message, like any classic musical. And the fact that is appears different and, dare I say, *accessible* to non-theatre snobs, should be a credit, not a criticism. Rock of Ages was a darn good night of darn good fun and it should have gotten a better go here. It has had a nice, successful run on Broadway (following a successful off-broadway gig) which has rocked millions and is currently enjoying a run on the West End. Do not blame Rock of Ages for Australia’s failings. It is SO much more than “loud” and “rude”. And as someone who has seen it on Broadway, the West End AND here, I can say with complete honesty that the Australian cast and production was by far the best in the world. They added in tiny extras on top on their mind-blowing talent to take the show up several notches. And YES I am a traditional theatre fan. I also like 80s rock (again another point I completely disagree with you on), the two aren’t mutually exclusive. If they were worried about Sydney not working (they should have at least tried), they should have tried Perth or Adelaide. The audiences I saw in Melbourne were small, but had an AMAZING time and this musical should be remembered fondly.

    • “Thanks for your comments re “Rock of Ages”, but you miss the point of the article unfortunately. The comments are not criticisms of the shows mentioned (I happen to love “Next to Normal” and have great respect for the Oz version of “Love Never Dies”). , the point is trying to suggest reasons why these shows did not work in Australia from a box office perspective. I agree “Rock” had a great cast and while the show did not appeal personally to me, I appreciated the artistry behind the Oz production and did in fact have a client in a principal role and was very very proud of his achievement and contribution. Yet the show flopped commercially to a very large degree.So all I am doing here is trying to analyse what may have been the reasons for this. I would not agree that it should have been given a better chance, the producers did everything to try and make it work, but ultimately people didnt want to see it. Likewise the film has seriously under performed in Australia. What is the ultimate reason? Who knows, but my ideas there are merely suggestions of why it didnt work here, again from a commercial perspective.

      • Because the film is awful and shouldn’t even share the same name. The film has nothing to do with this. Everyone, theatre fan or not, believes that film is rubbish. And I resent that I have apparently “missed the point”. You said something, that is was “loud and rude”, I responded directly to that point, not the whole article. I think you missed the point of my comment! I agreed with about 30% of the article. The rest I took issue with.

        • It is loud and rude. Also that isnt a criticism and also that has nothing to do with the crux of the article.

  • Spot on – I completely agree. I paid top dollar to see Dr Zhivago last year – supporting Australian theatre etc and was disappointed to see a show that frankly was not ready for a fully priced professional production.

    So , “once bitten, twice shy”, I did not book for “An Officer and a Gentleman – but did go when offered a free ticket – again a show that needed work.

    I held off booking for “Next To Normal” because I thought that it would be lost in such a big theatre like the Capitol as “Sweet Charity and “Man of La Mancha ” were years ago.

    I love the theatre , but like everyone else these days , I am seeking value for my hard earned dollar.

  • Ooh this makes me furious! Not your article Les, but the state of Australian Musical Theatre. Yes the Musical Theatre life is cyclical, but the quality of shows doesn’t seem to be, and it all comes down to greed. The Producers of Officer and a Gentlemen were obviously looking for another “Dirty dancing” success story and frankly hatched the egg too soon. People keep saying, “Well, you can’t shine a turd”, (an extremely glib statement which comes as small comfort to the actors that have put heir lives on hold) but I say, don’t do the turd in the first place! Show some disgression, taste and quite frankly, balls to do it properly. We also need an affordable 600 seater for up and coming Producers to house an intelligent alternative to the re-hashed drivel that is sucking the Entertainment dollar from today’s audiences.

  • I agree in most part Les. In fact I only remarked recently to a friend that OAAG should have sold all tickets for $70 to begin with. I think a lot of people get turned off when ticket sales are reduced so dramatically. I was receiving up to two or three emails a day from various online deals for this show and it makes people think that the harsh reviews must be true resulting in desperation to get an audience and many therefore avoid shelling out the dosh. For the record I actually quite enjoyed it despite it needing obvious work.

  • I agree completely, Les. Thank you, once again, for talking out loud. Are the smaller Sydney theatres (like the Independent Theatre and the Ensemble Theatre) out of the question for the smaller, more intimate musicals like Next to Normal? What ever happened to the very successful Marian Street Theatre at Killara? There were so many wonderful musicals performed there!
    Maybe it’s going to be a “Hey, Mickey, let’s put on a show!” situation at my house….anything to encourage more worth-while, inexpensive musical theatre.


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