R.I.P. Hairspray

Hairspray, the Broadway musical that has been playing in Australia first in Melbourne and now in Sydney, closes earlier than expected, on Sept 25th.

HairsprayHairspray, the Broadway musical that has been playing in Australia first in Melbourne and now in Sydney, closes earlier than expected, on Sept 25th.  Any plans for a further season around Australia have been indefinitely shelved, the show, which garnered some of the best reviews of a local production in both cities will leave an artistic but far from a financial success. 
The saddest part of the exercise is that Hairspray is unique in that it is a newly interpreted production re directed and re-imagined by David Atkins and his remarkable team of technical experts. This new production did away with the scenery and design which had been part of the show on Broadway, London and all other ports the show has since played, replacing them with screens where the latest in video imagery were projected to glorious, theatrical effect.  The show went from a standard Broadway show to a sort of wonder-world of colour and movement, where the entire audience was transported into the super-coloured Tom and Jerry-esque cartoon world that surrounded the actors. The technicalities needed for this was extraordinary and totally original, I’ve never seen projection of this nature on stage in a full scale musical anywhere in the word. (I remember lifeless attempts at the idea in How to Succeed in its late 90s revival and Andrew Webber’s witless and listless The Woman in  White) It was a unique achievement and the interest generated from this amazing technological feat should have been enough to guarantee a two year run around Australia at least.
It is to the producer’s great credit that after a season in Melbourne (which started badly ,picked up numbers and then faded badly toward the end) they fulfilled their promise to bring the show to Sydney. They even kept to their entire projected Melbourne season length. The Sydney reviews were uniformly excellent – they could not have been better if the producers had written them all themselves – yet from the outset of the Sydney season, the numbers just never really stacked up. The general public for some reason were not excited by the show. The season pegged to end in December closes nearly three months early and unless someone picks up the production for the East, it will probably be locked away in boxes forever more.
There are few things more devastating to producers than good shows that just don’t bring in the box office dollar. Many people involved in the production must be scratching their heads and asking -“why?”  So this week I have spoken to a lot of people in the industry about whether there is, in fact, an answer to that question. 
One thing for sure, Hairspray’s failure reflects much about the state of the commercial musical in Australia. First and foremost it shows that any capital city can’t support three big musicals all playing against each other despite the varying demographics of each show. The musical theatre dollar is limited in Australia and in Sydney particularly there just isn’t the interested population these days to support big musicals of the more traditional style. 
What other theories do people have?  The most common criticism of Hairspray and one I agree with, is that the show never seemed to be able to get out the idea to the public of what a unique technological world they would be experiencing. Blame the promotion, publicity, advertising, but the show needed to hammer home to the public in every possible way that this staging was a world first and the experience of this musical wonder world would be one they would not easily forget. Instead the ads, while blasting the public with quotes (perhaps a few too many), never really showed that world come to life in clever and colourfully created art work. It relied too much on the Broadway original artwork which really told very little. Nor did the early shots of each actor in character really tell anyone that what they were about to see was totally unique and exciting.
The show has been seen by many as taking too long to come to Australia and that is very true. It had been promised on numerous occasions but by the time it arrived the movie had come and gone and was readily available on cable, DVD or regularly on free to air TV. The show had no real buzz about it, that had died years ago, To many it seemed a little tired and past its use by date. 
Then, there was that lady with the umbrella!!!  Mary Poppins played in both Melbourne and Sydney at similar times to Hairspray, and what a juggernaut that show has been in Australia. Newly re-directed and improved from the London original, and arguably the best production of the show anywhere in the world, it was and is such tough competition in the marketplace, even with a somewhat different demographic. Hairspray just didn’t have a hope. Add Jersey Boys to the mix, past its peak for sure, but still able to command a regular and devoted crowd and three was most certainly ‘a crowd’ .
There is no question that Hairspray also did not feature many names with which the greater GP were all that familiar (albeit an excellent cast of top theatre professionals), this show has never been one where the show is the star and has relied at various times on pop and top TV names and strong familiar theatre faces from a GP perspective. Again, praise to the producers for featuring the right people rather than trying to cast inappropriate people just because they had been on the box or some bad TV talent show. 
Finally there are those who have said that the production, despite the strong reviews, did not match the technical brilliance that surrounded it. Part of me would not totally disagree: at times the show moved too slowly and lacked the dazzling pace of the Broadway original which, largely hid the fact that the book of the musical could be described as a little thin and wordy at times. (The movie greatly improved the script and dumped some of the more wordy passages, including the boring prison sequence, and used some new terrific songs that were not made available to the Oz production)
Although we could theorise till hell freezes over, the fact remains that a strong commercial production has not done as well as it should at the box office. It has soared above the ‘failures’ to which it has been compared (The Witches of Eastwick, the Full Monty, Spamalot) but when a show flounders commercially, it will scare off investors for the future and that is bad news for the whole industry. 
Hairspray will still be remembered with joy by many who were in it and saw it, for it has in many ways been a proud and glorious page in the often inconsistent book of Australian music theatre. FOOTNOTE:

As  I have said in this column, so much of the inability of Hairspray to pull a crowd seems to have been put down to the fact that it was in an over heated market with two other big commercial musicals up against it (interesting comments on this in Troy Dodds’ current column: Build It And They Will Come). So, what irony (with all the constant complaints about there being not enough theatres for shows), in January, as three more musicals battle it out for the entertainment dollar in Sydney (Annie, Love never Dies and Rock of Ages, all opening within a few days of each other), all four major commercial theatres in Melbourne will be dark, or not in use for a major musical, in the busiest tourist season of the year. Is this bad luck or bad management?? What do you think?   

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