While there is an ocean standing between Australia and the United States, there too is an apparent distance between the theatre scene on Broadway to the theatre scene in Australia. But unless you can afford to fork out the cash to fly or are a strong enough swimmer, many boys and gals of Oz are left to patronise Australian theatre productions.
Sydney and Melbourne are where these musical adaptations generally open beforetablishing itself as a-tour-de-force within the Australian theatre scene.
For double Tony award winning producer and chairman of The Gordon Frost Production Organization John Frost, there really is no other business like show business. “If you said you can’t be a commercial producer anymore then I would have to start mowing lawns because that is about all I can do,” he says. Having worked on shows from the King and I (which won him his first Tony) on Broadway to recent Helpmann award winning productions of Hairspray and Wicked, Frost regards the humble town of Brisbane as being a robust market within the Australian theatre biz.
“Brisbane can be a very lucrative city financially for the theatre if you give them what they want,” he says. “I would say Melbourne and Brisbane are the two leading lights in Australia and Sydney comes third. When you come to Brisbane, they are discerning but at the same time they are very supportive. One of the key factors is QPAC who are a really well-oiled machine marketing wise. The people who work there and the people who run it really know what they are doing. If you had to say which is the most productive arts centre in the country it would be QPAC as its better than the Opera House, Adelaide, Melbourne and all the others as they are really commercially minded and know how to sell a show. Brisbane makes life easier.”
Frost’s contribution to the Australian theatre scene has paved the way for big commercial musicals in Australia. The Australian revival of the ‘King on I’ in the 90’s received strong attention from Rogers and Hammerstein and is something Frost regards as introducing international theatre to Australia. “It certainly opened an enormous amount of doors for me both financially and in the ability to be able to get the rights to shows and produce them in Australia. It has definitely given Australian actors the opportunity to go to Broadway especially the likes of Tony Sheldon, Anthony Warlow and of course Hugh Jackman. It certainly made a lot of people look at Australia.”
Australian music and theatre productions revenue totalled $1.3 billion last year and achieved 5.3 per cent growth between 2008 and 2013. Queensland currently accounts for 15.4 per cent of performing arts establishments in Australia. While the likes of the cast members on stage appear cheesy and excited, for the producers and directors behind productions it is extremely tense and risky business. Between the period of production to opening night, Frost outlines the financial costs of musicals of totalling between five to six million dollars. “I’m a commercial producer and I am in it to make money. I have certain shows I absolutely love and adore and certain shows you have to do that is personally not your taste but are driven by the bottom line. You do it because the public want to see it.”
While commercial shows are taking huge chunks of the commercial stage time, it is a great delight for freelance producer Adam Brunes to admit that independent theatre productions within Brisbane are not missing out on their shot in the spotlight. “I think Queensland has one of the most alive independent theatre industries within the country,” he says. “There is such an energy and encouragement from peers surrounding the independent theatre industry.” As someone involved within the production of these shows, Brunes has contributed prominently towards the Brisbane theatre movement which has sprouted its wings to both aplomb and fiscal actuality.
Between working as a freelancer through Powerhouse and the Queensland Contemporary Arts theatre, Brunes’ passion for live performance is something which has helped promote the Brisbane arts movement. “Strictly speaking from my time at La Boite, when I started as manager we saw from 2009 til 2010 we saw a doubling of our audience and in 2011, we reached one million dollars at the annual box office for the first time ever. I think broadly where Queensland is at culturally they have had a pretty significant shift. Take a look at GOMA, it has now become the most visited museum in the country and one of the top 20 in the world.”
You only need to sit in the audience during one of David Morton’s play to truly see how the indie theatre companies are reinventing the theatrical wheel. One of the founders of the Dead Puppet Society, an independent group of avant-garde puppetry performers who focus on visual theatre, David has achieved both critical and commercial success within the humble Brisbane abode.
“I find Brisbane an incredibly exciting place to work,” he says. “There has been such a huge focus on the independent artists that are working in the city. There is still a pretty clear divide between the work that is being made by the independent companies and the work being made by the professional ones. I think there has been a giant effort to regenerate the independent industry to the point that it is palpable.”
Having performed in Brisbane productions of Les Miserables, Oliver, Chicago and many more, it is both the onstage and offstage experiences that self-confessed-theatre-addict Will Asdett truly cherishes. “Being in the theatre before the show, experiencing the jittery excitement of all the audience and eagerly awaiting the curtains to open is something to always look forward to in musical theatre” he says. “The reason this is so appealing is because it is very easy to watch and engage with. I think that we are coming to a time where musicals are becoming a ‘big thing’ again with TV shows such as Glee and Smash becoming so popular on TV.”
Now predicted to experience a decline in sales, the cinema industry of Australia faces strong rivalry from the theatre production industry. You only need to take a look at the list of best picture nominees to see the irony in this with all Best Musical nominees this year having been plays adapted from films. Even looking at Broadway now you can see that plays adapted from the Lion King, Wizard of Oz and Spiderman are amongst the highest grossing shows. The location of Brisbane’s premier performing arts centre, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, means strict business when competing against a cinema ticket stubs. While most tickets to theatrical performances are sold in advance, the likelihood of consumers collecting last minute seats to shows faces strong competition against the cinema pricing model with tickets charged as low as $7.
In a bid to fill seats, recent shows such as Legally Blonde and Oscar Theatre Co.’s production of Next to Normal were selling tickets for as low as $30. To create a show that is both entertaining and viable, Brunes says producers must have an efficient understanding on the length of seasons, importance of ticket pricing and frequency of performance. Candidly speaking, he puts it down to the show only being worth how much the audiences are prepared to pay.
With productions such as Wicked, Mary Poppins and Annie all bearing similar production values, you could all but excuse the audiences of Brisbane for forming blasé attitudes towards shows. Whether these attitudes are canards in action, the musical theatre machine is pumping out similar productions faster than you can say Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is in independent productions where producers like Brunes and companies like the Dead Puppet Society break away from the mould by challenging traditional archetypes. It is these dedicated producers and performers who are helping disprove the apparent stigma of Brisbane being regarded as culturally insignificant when compared to flourishing cities like Sydney and Melbourne.
Whether being either big in scale or independent from the shackles of commercialism, the theatre movement has consumed the city of Brisbane. For producers like John and Adam, both different in their approaches to shows, the news of Brisbane emerging as a landmark performing arts destination in Australia is something that both can be chuffed about.