Vito Mattarelli reviews Mel Atkey’s new musical theatre reference book: A Million Miles from Broadway
When we think of the world’s most successful musicals, we naturally think of successes in relation to Broadway or the West End.
Mel Atkey‘s new book, A Million Miles From Broadway, takes us across the globe in an attempt to understand the beginnings of the musical and the creative forces that lay well beyond the boundaries of the Great White Way or London.
Subtitled Musical Theatre Beyond New York and London, this ambitious project serves the musical scholar extremely well in highlighting snapshot moments from the historical archives of countries from South Africa to Argentina, from France to Japan.
The average musical theatre fanatic (of which there are many) may find a lot of the information simply too much or not relevant, but there are many interesting facts and anecdotes that should untimately keep most readers happy.
As Atkey points out very early on, while we all associate musical theatre with Broadway, its origins are quite European, with the form probably starting in Paris in 1858 with Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (there is currently a production running in Sydney presented by Opera Australia). This new artform moved across to Vienna, then London and across the world.
Atkey who clearly is quite knowledgable on the subject of musicals, has sourced a vast supply of information, and like scenes in a show, has used chapter headings that sometimes lights up his sly sense of humour, such as
‘Paris: Where Musicals Were Born, and Where they Go to Die’.
It’s also one of the more interesting chapters, describing how French musical theatre has really only had limited success outside of France. Discounting the triumphs of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, etc), one of the few successes was a 50s musical called Irma La Douce. It transferred to London where it ran for over 1500 performances (and starred Australian Keith Michell), and eventually moved to Broadway and beyond. An interesting note is that Hollywood bought the film rights and attached Billy Wilder to direct, who ironically ended up cutting out all the songs, deciding to concentrate on the story and characters.
Of much interest to us though is the chapter on Australia and its similarities with Canada. Atkey, a Canadian, has previously written Broadway North: The Dream of A Canadian Musical Theatre.
The Australian synopsis includes the struggle to have Australian performers in lead roles on stage rather than international imports, and the rise of talents such as Jill Perryman, Toni Lamond, Nancye Hayes and others in the 1950s and 1960s.
He includes recent successes such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and The Boy From Oz (but notes that in the transfer to Broadway a pivotal plot point and key song was cut to make it more accessible to those audiences).
He also manages to remind us of the disastrous Manning Clark’s History of Australia and the debacle surrounding Kookaburra’s decision to cut scenes and songs from a performance of Company when no understudy was available to replace a sick performer.
Mel Atkey loves musical theatre and loves sharing that knowledge. The book’s dedication is to those “struggling to create new musical theatre” and looks hopefully towards a future where there is an international community much like cinema or world music.
A Million Miles From Broadway is a well-researched, well-written reference to the wider world of musical theatre.
A Million Miles From Broadway by Mel Atkey
Published by Friendlysong Books, Canada 2012