Where are the writers?

“Where are the writers?” It’s only about 15 years ago that this was a question on every one’s lips when talking about new Music Theatre product. Happily, since then, the spawning grounds have been busy, and, in this country, we can boast several robust writers or writing teams:

“Where are the writers?” It’s only about 15 years ago that this was a question on every one’s lips when talking about new Music Theatre product. Happily, since then, the spawning grounds have been busy, and, in this country, we can boast several robust writers or writing teams:

Young & Keelan
Bryant & Frank
Pinne & Dellit
Howson, Mitchell & Morrow
Millar & Rutherford
Kazan & Purcell
Matthew Robinson
Fitzpatrick & Costanzo
Craig Christie
Anthony Crowley

… to name but a few and DO start to remember these names.

They have spent countless unpaid hours of solitude to create works that we may get to see – that we may not. It takes a brave producer to present a completely unknown work with no previous track-record elsewhere.

You see, we have inherited a culture, an unenviable habit, where we present works that have had seasons overseas and Australian producers have been able to ‘piggy back’ on their success. In addition, these works often go on to become ‘hire properties’ and we get to see them yet again in the domain of community theatre.

But, I write today to applaud a performance initiative that is based in skill-sharing FOR our Australian writers. In an unprecedented move, Prof. Kevin Purcell (a superb composer himself), has wined and dined the key rights holder of Music Theatre property in America, ASCAP, and in just a few weeks, Purcell, for the University of Tasmania (Yep! Tasmania), brings out the first of a host of writers from the States to mix with and to skill share with our writers in a public forum. This will happen with a concert style Q&A performance. (Think ‘The Actors Studio’ or ‘Parkinson meets Music Theatre’).

The host will be the Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP, perhaps the most powerful man on the planet when it comes to Music Theatre property, Michael A. Kerker.

“I originally approached Michael A. Kerker, Director of Musical Theatre at ASCAP in New York about two years ago, indicating to him that there was a serious need to find a mechanism to develop the talents of musical theatre writers in Australia,” says Purcell rather proudly.

“As a consequence of this meeting, I was visited to the U.S. on two different occasions last year to watch the ASCAP Foundation/Disney Musical Theatre Workshops in New York and Los Angeles.”

But, I wanted to know how Purcell got the events to come here.

He explained, “Further meetings were then held with Stephen Schwartz and Michael to instigate a plan to bring these workshops to Australia on a three-year pilot project under the aegis of the University of Tasmania, Conservatorium of Music.”

The first writing team to bring Broadway to Australia will be the Tony Award-winning team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty: the animated feature, Anastasia, A Dancer’s Life with Chita Rivera, Dessa Rose, The Glorious Ones, Lucky Stiff, A Man Of No Importance, My Favourite Year, Once on This Island, Ragtime and Seussical – the Musical.

Then it became clear to this writer that, not only was this a concert experience, but it was of some benefit to the University. Purcell continued, “Almost everything that universities do have a research imperative.  And yes, this does too.”

But, what is the University actually researching here, you may ask?  “The research essentially looks at how to develop systems to allow the stories of our writers, librettists and composers to be supported by a development and production process that will engender support for commercial musical theatre projects in Australia.”

[Crowd stands, audience cheers and a few ask “Why didn’t WE think of that?”]

[Crowd calms down and takes their seats]

A research project? C’mon Prof! Of what possible benefit could a University research project on Music Theatre writing be for the hallowed Classical Music Halls of the UTAS Conservatorium of Music, or our industry for that matter?

Purcell is deadly serious now – “To provide evidence to government and industry stakeholders that serious investment in musical theatre creation and development is, in the long-term, not only a viable growth industry (just look at the latest 2009 LPA statistics for attendance at live theatre events!) but, that it has huge implications as an export commodity.”

[Conyers places strip of gaffa tape across mouth in shame realising that the US has benefited from us for way too long anyway, exporting to us]

So… gaffa tape removed, and ever protective of Australian MT writers, I had to ask Purcell if it is envisaged that our own will be celebrated in the same way. I mean, why feed into even more of a cringe about the worthiness of our own voice?

“Australian writers will, for the first time, be able to submit their work for mentorship, development and small-scale production through the Conservatorium’s new research Institute, The Cradle Project.  Under this umbrella, we will work with writers to provide them with development time, physical space, access to directors and performers, and recording studios and musicians to bring their first ideas into something that can be shown.”

A chunk of thought has gone into this whole ‘process/production/development/ research thingamy’ because augmenting the entire research project will be a Song Writer’s Master Class in Melbourne where 6 lucky writers or writing teams will get an opportunity to show their wares to Ahrens and Flaherty.

The Q&A concert will be a once-only event in 3 cities (Melbourne, Sydney and, of course, Hobart) and with the likes of Christopher Parker, Kellie Rode, Julie O’Reilly and Adrian Li Donni, the glorious and acclaimed Southern Gospel Choir and the Broadway To Australia Show Orchestra (with Purcell conducting – finally – Thank God!) AND Ahrens and Flaherty themselves, I seriously wish a long partnership that gives Australian Music Theatre writing even more of a legs-up so that we get THEM not only talking about, but, IMPORTING US!

You can find out all about BROADWAY TO AUSTRALIA 2009 and the Songwriter’s Master Class 2009 at:

Nextweek, I will tackle the current VCA crisis to collide with the student’s rally next Friday. If you want to express an opinion about ‘The Melbourne Model’, have a look at www.savevca.org.au , then send your words through to me at:

[email protected]

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