Poppins and Helpmanns

Theatre in Australia has been dominated by two major events in the last week; the opening of Mary Poppins in Melbourne and the Helpmann Award nominations, more on the latter, later on.

Theatre in Australia has been dominated by two major events in the last week; the opening of Mary Poppins in Melbourne and the Helpmann Award nominations, more on the latter, later on.

Poppins’ opening was what could only be described as a gorgeous event. There are very rare times when opening nights really work in Australian theatre. Usually they are so dominated by cynical jaded press and theatre goers, who will sit on their hands and eye the whole show with a fair degree of cynicism. The fact hat most of the naysayers were either absent or satiated by the brilliance of the production added much to the overwhelming response from the audience. But who could not love this joyous production?

I don’t want to really review the show here, its been well reviewed by everyone, but the level of expertise in the production and the quality and experience of some of the cast is quite unique. How many Australian productions in recent years can boast Philip Quast, Marina Prior, Judi Connelli, Debra Byrne and Sally Anne Upton in supporting roles? This is a mass of our true theatrical royalty and I do not think there are many producers who could bring this level of expertise into one production. The one who can, of course, is Cameron Mackintosh and it is Cameron’s extra gifts as a producer that add the finishing glowing touches to Poppins.

Over the years, I have crossed paths with Cameron on numerous occasions, either as an agent or a journalist. The experience has never been anything less than hugely positive.

Cameron is really quite unique. Why so? You may ask. Well, his credits and the level of success of his many shows speak for themselves (and I won’t list them again here). But there are three things in particular that stand him apart and have made him, arguably, the greatest living showman/producer in the world today.

Firstly, he puts such incredible care in to every level of the production, from the obvious things to do with casting and putting together the right creative team to how the parties are organised after the opening night ; the way he treats people both in the production and the creative team, to the press and just about everyone associated with the show. What other producer  would bring the entire original creative team to Australia to guide and check the show?  Who else would also bring the composers to come along just to enjoy the night. Who else would also, to inspire his cast, allow on the afternoon of the opening night, (when directors are usually feverishly making the cast nervous with last minute notes) the legendary Richard Sherman (who with his brother co wrote all the original music) and the delightful Stiles and Drewe  (who composed all the new music for the show and re adapted much of the film music) to sit down and have a singalong music session to relax the cast as they sang them through the many songs dropped from the show and the original movie, just to give a special time to the cast before their opening night? It’s touches like this and the level of the no-expense spared attitude that stands Cameron apart.

Secondly, as anyone who has worked on a CamMack musical will tell you, Cameron gets involved. Sometimes to the horror of directors, Cameron has a lot to say creatively. He comes up with original ideas, wants them implemented , and fixes and touches up things he sees wrong. This may  make some producers quake in   horror, Cameron doesn’t care. He gets in there and he does it. The story goes that during early rehearsals of the “Supercalaf  etc…”number, Cameron suddenly was struck with the brainwave of spelling out that famous elongated word. That touch turns an average hit song into a total show stopper, When you see the show and watch the spelling and sign language version of the song, you will know where the idea came from.

Thirdly and most importantly, he brings his best shows to Australia and oversees them as being every bit as important as   if they are opening on Broadway. He has always loved Australia and Australian talent and it shows. He puts considerable care into every level of Australian productions. He was known to have said to some cast members last Thursday night, that this was one of his all time favourite nights in the theatre (in his top three I believe). Every lover of musicals and music theatre  should be grateful to Sir Cameron and in the process he is training up some fine producer talents who watch the way he works and are starting to follow in his footsteps., We are already seeing some of them making their influence felt in this country.

Producers with this sort of care, instinct  and hands on approach come along very rarely and we should be pleased he considers Australia a very important part of the front line of the places where music theatre is done best in the world—and he is right.

Just a few words finally must be said about the Helpmanns. Firstly, congrats to all the nominees, some great people here.  Of course,  each year there are cries of horror as to how the nominations are decided. This year, however, with their ignoring the internationally acclaimed production by the STC of A Streetcar named Desire, the awards have really hit a new level of controversy. Forget that this production has been hailed as a triumph by the New York press, it failed to do something that it seems most productions have to do, if they want to get a  Helpmann — it didn’t play Melbourne. Enough said.

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