I’m sitting in Father’s Office in Melbourne drinking a vodka, lime and soda waiting for a friend to arrive. She is seeing My Fair Lady at the Regent and is running late. While I wait my mind wanders, I sip my vodka, look at the view of the State Library of Victoria and ponder the fate of the great Australian musical…
Once upon at time in London there was an English flower girl who wanted to become a lady. And, once upon a time at Flinders Street station, waiting for a train, stood an Australian girl with a pocketful of family issues, who dreams of looking like Audrey Hepburn, who coincidentally played the flower girl in the film version of Lerner and Loewe’s ‘My Fair Lady’.
My Fair Lady is the classic musical that came under fire recently at the annual Australian theatre awards, the Helpmann Awards. Was My Fair Lady really an Australian musical? It is after all 60 years old and set in England. Where are all the Australian stories?
The issue of lack of support for Australian musicals is nothing new, our awards often going to overseas artists and shows created elsewhere. Yes, we’ve heard this tune before so I won’t rehash this old melody line but the controversy about the lack of homegrown Aussie musical content at our award ceremonies got me thinking…what if?
What if Opera Australia and John Frost got together and instead of bringing the great Dame Julie Andrews out to Sydney to direct ‘My Fair Lady,’ they brought her to Melbourne instead to direct ‘Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets,’ which features the song ‘Travellers in time’, a real homegrown show … and what if, they invested the same amount of money and talent in AHAICOA would it be a sellout? (Let’s for now forget the brilliant idea someone had of getting Julie Andrews to direct the show that made her a star)
I reckon if Dame Julie directed AHAICOA instead of My Fair Lady it would indeed be a hit! Why? Because we have confidence in Dame Julie, we love her, we’ve supported her through her career and movies, if only Australian producers had confidence in our stories, what a wonderful world it could be. In fact it would be ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.’
Of course getting Dame Julie in to direct ‘AHAICOA’ opens up the same old can of worms doesn’t it? It puts an Aussie out of a job, that’s me, I would know first hand how Aussie theatre performers feel losing lead roles to imported overseas stars… but the question remains, could a relatively unknown musical, one that’s ready to burst onto a bigger stage be just as successful as My Fair Lady if given the same VIP treatment?
So what makes an Aussie musical? I mean should we consider ‘King Kong’, ‘Dusty’ or ‘Dream Lover’ as original Australian works? I’d argue ‘NO’ simply on the musical score, these are jukebox musicals created in Australia using pop tunes from the past (written mostly by overseas artists) with the odd newly created song to tie up loose story ends.
So what makes an original Australian musical? This is totally subjective, so you can agree or disagree. Here is my list.
1. It needs to be set in Australia. Maybe we could bend this rule a little and have the lead characters all Aussies but holidaying somewhere else, say in Paris. A musical set in Paris with Australian characters falling in love does sound romantic to me. I’d buy a ticket to hear that musical score. Of course we could just set it in any Australian city and be done with it!
2. The main character should be an outsider. Well, it’s the Aussie way isn’t it? We root for the underdog. I mean we’d root for the plain Jane girl from suburban Melbourne who dreams of being a movie star like Audrey Hepburn, just like we’d root for a bushranger decked in armour, taking on the law in a musical like NED. So, I reckon Australians want an outsider leading their musicals.
3. The Aussie accent. Let’s call a spade a spade here mate, if there are no Aussie accents than she ain’t bloody true blue. So on’ya bike and bugger off, back to where ya came from, we’re a weird mob alright!
4. Original music score. Now this is really a no brainer, surely an Australian musical needs an original score created by Australians living somewhere in Fitzroy, Moonee Ponds or Carlton. If the songs are all written by some dude wearing a baseball cap and living dangerously on the edge in New York or L.A. I don’t think it can be called a ridgy didge Aussie music score.
Putting an Australian musical on in this country is tough, support minimal. It’s like going to bootcamp. Most theatre companies don’t accept unsolicited scripts, most funding bodies and development programs don’t support Aussie musicals (hard work right? Can’t blame them right?) and are run by arts officers who (there might be a few exceptions) have never produced or directed a musical or a play. And, would never invest their own money into a show. The Australian musical journey is a lonely loveless aria, with moments of despair, bankruptcy and long nights of serious hair pulling and hard drinking to dull the pain. But, there is no giving up because it’s in our musical DNA as Australians to soldier on and occasionally shout out from the corner store ‘What About Me’.
Since its humble beginning at Chapel Off Chapel, during my 10 year musical journey working on ‘Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets’ I have grown to love Liz O’Sullivan the lead character, her Aussie quirks and her family, they feel like my family to me. Indeed my battle with depression and some of my own personal therapy sessions have ended up in the script, although AHAICOA book remains a work of four creative minds, with a firm guiding hand by me, the only director/writer in the writing team.
There are new Oz musicals on the horizon. These include Muriel’s Wedding, Melba and Eddie Perfect’s Vivid White but the future of the great Australian musical doesn’t look bright or ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ to me. The battle to be heard is still going on. It rages not in the state funded companies with musicals like Tim Finn’s ‘Ladies in Black’ but rather in the full-to-brim rehearsal spaces around the country, all paid by creative souls working casual jobs to support their art. The real Australian musical is out there in the burbs and backyard sheds, being polished, reworked, but who is listening? Are you? Can these musicals be heard over the noise of Disney’s Aladdin?
Without our dedicated homegrown artists and self funded projects there would be very little Aussie musical content and very little work. Venues like Chapel in Melbourne and the Powerhouse in Brisbane would close. These music makers are our unsung heroes. What happens next musically is up to you Australia 🇦🇺 Australians artists are doing the hard yakka musically but are the Australian Institutions, funding bodies and producers just whistling the same old tunes?
Have a listen to ‘Travellers in Time’ one of the lead songs from the Aussie musical ‘Audrey Hepburn and I Consider Our Assets’. The music video has had over 10,000 Views. 🎶 I hope you enjoy it 😎