The State of the Arts: An Aussie Icon

For almost two centuries white settlers failed to appreciate the artistic potential of Australia’s indigenous people. It was not until the late nineteenth century (with its embryonic interest in anthropology) that ethnologists began to collect and perceive value in examples of artistic cultural diversity. Once acknowledged, this kind of distinctive worth is to be cherished and cultivated. Over the years, cultural uniqueness has gradually been winning the fight for recognition – even in the face of the current trend of increasing globalisation as the world becomes a seemingly smaller place.

You may wonder what this has to do with the state of musical theatre in the 2020s. Well, as Australia’s primary musical theatre organisation (Gordon/Frost) positions itself under the umbrella of an international company (US-based Crossroads Live) it may be worth pondering what this spells for Australian theatre: new opportunities, or a dilution of the uniquely Aussie elements of theatre production?

Aussie Icon

Having left school at the age of fifteen, sixteen-year-old Adelaide-born John Frost – affectionately known as ‘Frosty the Showman’ – commenced his career in theatre as a quick-change dresser on JC Williamson’s tour of Mame. It speaks volumes that someone who, by his own admission, couldn’t thread a needle soon earned himself the position of wardrobe master. Frost swiftly advanced to roles as assistant stage manager then stage manager, natural stepping stones en route to producer. Teaming up with the late Ashley Gordon in 1983, the partners financed their first production on Frost’s credit card, running up bills and presumably keeping everything crossed.  The pivotal moment of the Frost/Gordon partnership came in 1996 with the massively successful revival of The King and I. The pair capitalised on this success by following with two other vintage musicals, South Pacific and Hello Dolly, thus tapping into a latent trend for nostalgia. The rest, as they say, is history:  as CEO of Gordon Frost, Frost progressively ascended the theatrical ladder, becoming Australia’s most prolific and successful producer of musical theatre.  In a career spanning several decades, the impresario has staged numerous multi-million dollar productions; among his accolades, he has earned countless Helpmann awards, a JC Williamson lifetime achievement award, and two Tony’s –  for The King and I and Hairspray respectively.

A combination of sharp and empathetic sensibilities, gut feeling, and a family-oriented focus seem to be the secret of Frost’s success. Despite the occasional disaster (a musical about the Beach Boys?!), the ability to naturally tap into the collective Aussie audience’s psyche has proven to be a winning formula.

The real sticking point in musical theatre is, of course, money.  Investment in musical theatre – especially at this moment in time – is high-stakes gambling; this may account for the fact that investors oftentimes tend to be racehorse owners. With investors generally contributing in the region of a million dollars, the possibility of taking a loss is always a risk – now more than ever.

Enter Crossroads Live…

Global entertainment company Crossroads Live executive team

Crossroads Live (CXL) is a global live entertainment company, an investment portfolio company of US private equity firm Rowe Capital Management. It is run by investors and entrepreneurs, all of whom have a vested interest in musical theatre, including David Ian of the UK’s David Ian Productions. While there is no suggestion that CXL is set to take any cost-cutting steps, it has generally been found that when private-equity firms take over companies, employment decreases by an average of 4% in the first two years post-buyout.  CXL is pitched as the world’s first truly global theatre production company, although it is also responsible for themed entertainment such as the Magic Mike Live global arena tour. The dominance of such companies may well signal the growth of an ‘air miles arts world’ in which national culture no longer works as an operational concept, thus cementing the power of elites.  A base in Sydney will certainly benefit the company in its quest to expand into markets in South-East Asia, the Middle East and China. In that sense, acquiring the Gordon Frost Organisation is without doubt a ‘transformative step’ in achieving global success. In The Stage, John Frost is reported as seeing the move as a chance for ‘significant growth opportunities’, with GFO’s ‘deep relationships’ set to alloy well with CXL’s ‘financial strength’.  There is an air of confidence that GFO’s legacy will be honoured. This all sounds very encouraging.

All Change?

Change is a fact of life; it is always interesting to look at history to shed light on the impact of change. One of the biggest changes, perhaps, was the outcome of the Industrial Revolution: at the start of the nineteenth century, the workforce was largely made up of small-scale artisans in cottage industries, producing unique goods; by the end of the nineteenth century – thanks to inventions, the railways and increased mechanisation – traditional crafts had been transformed into mass production in urbanised settings. An old way of life and working was lost, usurped by higher levels of productivity and efficiency. This all sounds rather cold, yet it’s the nature of the beast – change is one of the few certainties in life. Cynics would argue that change almost always benefits the privileged and disregards moral and artistic integrity. Right now, Australian theatre is poised at a moment of transition, the outcome of which only time will tell.

To go back to the point made at the beginning, though, is Australian uniqueness and autonomy likely to be compromised? At present, there is no reason to suggest that cultural specifics are under threat; Australian artists will not readily relinquish the rich culture they have fostered for themselves. Instead, as a new decade beckons, let’s embrace it with a spirit of confidence and trust that CXL’s financial clout will offer Australian entertainment the injection of optimism that is sorely needed right now.

Nevertheless … as we conclude a year which even Nostradamus failed to accurately predict, it would perhaps be unwise to prophesy the future – keeping fingers, toes and everything else crossed may well be a more reliable strategy…

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