Will 'The Freak' follow Chu Chin Chow onto the musical stages of Australia

By: John Thomson

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Will 'The Freak' Follow Chu Chin Chow Onto the Musical Stages of Australia?John Thomson explores Australian musicals that have been produced overseas, and discovers some that have never been seen in Australia.


For the accompanying Images to this article please refer to the Image Gallery



A watercolour: [Oscar Asche as Chu Chin Chow]  [191-?] by Will Donald‘When the curtain came down for the last time London had lost what was probably an institution and certainly a phenomenon.’ In this way The Times of 23 July 1921 described ‘the death of Chu Chin Chow’, a spectacular musical based on the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.


What is especially notable about Chu Chin Chow is that it was conceived and written by an Australian, Geelong-born Oscar Asche. Asche not only wrote the book and lyrics but also starred in it, along with his English wife Lily Brayton. The music was written by Englishman Frederic Norton. Chu Chin Chow can probably claim to be the earliest Australian musical to play on the international stage.


Design for Act 2 of The Toymaker of Nuremberg: inside the walled garden. Probably designed by George Sheringham for the production at the Kingsway Theatre, London, 1930–1931. In the papers of Dudley GlassChu Chin Chow opened on 31 August 1916, when the battles of the First World War raged, and closed almost five years later on 22 July 1921. During this time it was seen by almost three million people. Its 2235 performances remained a record for nearly 40 years until it was beaten by Salad Days. Shortly after it closed in London, Chu Chin Chow opened at the Manhattan Opera House in New York. Despite enthusiastic reviews which made much of the show’s grandeur and spectacle (it cost $150 000 to produce), it played only 208 performances, although it subsequently had successful seasons elsewhere in the United States of America. There was an Australian production, with seasons in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide in 1921, and it was revived in 1923, with Asche himself playing the lead role.


Chu Chin Chow is well represented in the National Library’s PROMPT Collection of theatre programs. In recent years the Library has made a determined effort to collect and document the activities of Australians working internationally. A browse through the PROMPT Collection reveals several other musicals written by Australians and performed overseas.


The perennially popular Reedy River used folk ballads to tell the story of the Queensland Shearers’ Strike of 1891 (which protested pastoralists’ attempts to employ cheaper non-union labour), and was an instant success when it was premiered at the New Theatre, Melbourne in 1953. Within three years it had been produced in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Newcastle and London. The Unity Theatre, London, quickly obtained the rights and mounted its own production in 1954–55. Despite an entirely English cast struggling with Australian accents, it had a successful two-month season. It had a revival in 1969.


Cover of Kookaburra, Princes Theatre (London) program, November 1959Prodigal Son, by the young Melbourne team of Dean Bryant and Mathew Frank, is a small-scale musical about a young gay man’s coming out in a big city. It had a workshop production in Melbourne in early 2000, with Dean Bryant playing the leading role. This led to a full-scale production in July 2000, and a CD recording. Retitled Prodigal, and with a completely American production team and cast, it had a successful off-Broadway run in 2002.


In what could be regarded as reverse cultural cringe, a surprising number of Australian musicals have had overseas productions, but have not been seen in Australia.


Kookaburra, adapted from Joyce Dennys’ play by Australian Charles Macarthur Hardy, opened in Bournemouth in October 1959 and toured to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Wolverhampton before opening in London’s West End in November 1959. The musical concerns the difficulties faced by a young English bride in outback Queensland. The cast included Australian Maggie Fitzgibbon, Gordon Boyd and Harry H. Corbett. The reviews were lukewarm and it closed after only 42 performances. The title song, however, achieved some popularity when it was recorded by Tommy Steele.


In October 1995, Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical burst onto the English scene. The musical, based on the television series Prisoner, was written by Don Battye and Peter Pinne—one of the most prolific Australian writing teams—who have collaborated on 12 other musicals. It was to prove enormously popular, running for three months in London, and was revived for two extensive tours of the United Kingdom in 1996 and 1997. The cast was headed by Lily Savage, and Australian Maggie Kirkpatrick reprised her television role of Joan ‘The Freak’ Ferguson. Despite its English success, it has never had a local production, and ‘The Freak’ has yet to appear on Australian stages.


Young Melbourne composer–musical director Warren Wills has collaborated on at least nine small-scale musicals which have been produced in fringe theatres in London. These include Josephine, based on the life of Josephine Baker, a black 1920s cabaret performer and dancer, Pin Money Opera, which won the best musical award in the 1992 Carling Fringe Awards, and The Fall of the House of Usher, which had a major production in 1999. Despite press reports of a local production, none has eventuated.


One musical that looks set to break the pattern is Moses! by Peter Wyllie Johnson. This large-scale work had a brief season in London in 1999 and was well reviewed. Excerpts were performed at the Kaufmann Concert Hall in New York in 1999, and at the Barossa International Festival of Music in 2002. It is set to have its Australian premiere in a full-scale production at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre this month.


Cover of Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical, Queens Theatre program. Courtesy of Mike Walsh, Hayden Attractions Pty LtdTwo expatriate composers, Dudley Glass and Ron Grainer, have had mixed success with Australian productions of their musicals. Adelaide-born Dudley Glass had three of his musicals produced in London between 1927 and 1931. The most successful of these, Beloved Vagabond, which he wrote with Englishman Adrian Ross, played for three months (107 performances) from September 1927. It starred two of the big names of the day, Lillian Davis and Frederick Ranalow, and was directed by Dion Boucicault.
F.W. Thring produced it in Sydney and Melbourne in 1934. The cast included Gladys Moncrieff, Robert Chisholm, Claude Flemming and George Wallace—the same cast as another Australian musical of that year, Collits’ Inn. But the other Dudley Glass musicals, Colour Blind and The Toymaker of Nuremberg, remain unproduced in Australia.


Robert and Elizabeth by Queensland-born Ron Grainer was a resounding success, running at the Lyric Theatre, London, from October 1964 to February 1967. Its 948 performances gave it a longer run than The King and I, Hello Dolly! and South Pacific. The musical told the story of the passionate romance between the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. There was a strong Australian flavour to the production, with Australians June Bronhill and Keith Michell playing the leading roles. Later in the run, Keith Michell was replaced by another Australian, Kevin Colson. Garnett H. Carroll staged it in Australia in 1966, and it ran for six months in Melbourne but only for a disappointing four weeks in Sydney. Although Robert and Elizabeth never reached Broadway, there have been at least three professional productions in the United States. A production opened at the Forum Theatre in Chicago in November 1974, and it won four major awards in the Chicago Joseph Jefferson Awards. There was a major revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre, England, in 1987.


Ron Grainer wrote the scores for three other musicals but none has been seen in Australia. On the Level had short seasons in Liverpool and Manchester before a three-and-a-half-month run in the West End in 1966. Sing a Rude Song, which featured film star Barbara Windsor as the popular music hall performer Marie Lloyd, with Australian Maurice Gibb, had a short season at the Greenwich Theatre before transferring to the West End in 1970. Nickleby and Me, based on Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby, played at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1975–76 and also had a revival at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 1981–82. Ron Grainer is probably better known in Australia as the composer of themes for BBC television programs, including Maigret, Steptoe and Son and Doctor Who.


Not all Australian musicals have been successful in their overseas productions. There have been two spectacular large-scale failures. In 1994, the musical Always by young Australians William May and Jason Sprague had a rehearsed reading sponsored by the Victorian Arts Centre Trust. Always was based on the love story of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. A planned professional production in Australia never eventuated, but in 1997 the musical opened at the prestigious Victoria Palace Theatre near Victoria Station, London. The reviews were disastrous: ‘Is this the worst musical ever?’ asked The Guardian, ‘banality reigns supreme’ said The Times. The show closed after six weeks.

Cover of The Boy from Oz, Broadway program (Imperial Theatre), 2003. Courtesy of Playbill Inc., New YorkCover of Legs Diamond, Broadway program (Mark Hellinger Theatre), 1988. Courtesy of Playbill Inc., New York


Peter Allen’s 1988 Broadway musical Legs Diamond, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, and in which he also starred, received bad reviews. ‘Nothing … threatens to upstage its star, even given the minimal pizazz such upstaging would require’, said The New York Times. It closed after 72 previews, during which the show was rewritten constantly, and a season of 64 performances.


Peter Allen is back on Broadway, where The Boy from Oz, a musical based on his life, opened in late 2003. After a hugely successful Australian tour in 1998–2000, this rewritten version received poor reviews, but Australian actor Hugh Jackman had glowing accolades for his performance, and has won a Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical. The production is now in its ninth month. Australian musicals continue to find a place on the international stage.


JOHN THOMSON is a former arts librarian. He is currently a consultant on ephemera and performing arts resources. Details of the abovementioned Australian musicals and others can be found on AusStage, the gateway to the Australian performing arts: www.AusStage.edu.au


For the accompanying Images to this article please refer to the Image Gallery