Who's Turn Is It To Shout
By: Peter Fitzpatrick
The Crisis in Australian Musical Theatre
What crisis, you may ask? In the last two years, Australian musical theatre has produced two spectacular hits, The Boy from Oz 1 and Shout!,2 which is more than can be said for any other two years in its history. In the program for Shout!, its producers hail the show, with perhaps just a touch of partiality, as “the greatest of Australian productions”; John Michael Howson, one of its co-writers, was said to be “excited that Australian written and produced musicals are now a possibility”, and observed, “Like The Boy from Oz, I hope SHOUT! makes it easier for other Australian musicals to be produced.”3 Some months earlier, the producers of The Boy from Oz had been similarly enthusiastic about their own achievement and gracious to those who might follow, declaring that “Our ambition is to create the first large scale Australian musical which will reverse the one-way traffic of musicals from other countries and become Australia’s first export in the field”.4
Certainly the subjects of these two shows suggest a growing confidence about the economics of staging Australian musicals for Australian audiences. For all the hopes of an export market, The Boy from Oz was primarily a show for domestic consumption; Peter Allen, its subject, was an internationally-known entertainer and songwriter, but the emphasis of the script is squarely on the distinctive cultural markers of the Australia he claimed to call home, which shaped the processes of repudiation and reconciliation in his career as expatriate celebrity. Displacement myths need not be culture-specific, but it is clear that here the primary target audience is the one that comes from Oz, which recognises and remembers those things and accordingly has special grounds for sympathy. The reliance of Shout! on a receptive local market is more striking still. Its subject, Johnny O’Keefe, was hardly known at all outside Australia; the narrative follows his several failures to change that, but focuses on the persistence and the value of his claim to be King of Rock in his own country. It is aimed at a middle-aged audience made up of people who saw Johnny on national television in ‘Six O’Clock Rock’ and ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, who know all the songs and are still teenyboppers at heart. It was with a proud defiance, not the usual regret, that its producers announced that there were no plans to take Shout! to London or Broadway.
Do these two recent triumphs reflect a millennial coming of age for the musical theatre genre in Australia? Will they “make it easier” at last for new Australian work in the form to reach the stage? To both questions the only sensible answer is “Perhaps”; but there are compelling reasons to be sceptical. Some of these reasons are implicit in the form of these two apparent trailblazers, and some are embedded in the tale of mostly unrealised hopes that is the history of the Australian musical.
The new form which these two shows share, which might best be called the bioconcert, is a very curious off-shoot of the musical theatre genre. Its recent currency in Australia is a phenomenon that deserves attention in itself. Whatever the significance of an appeal to nationalism in the success of The Boy from Oz and Shout!, there are other recent experiments in the exhumation of a show-biz life that cater for different kinds of interest: Piaf enjoyed another popular revival in Melbourne late in 20005, and a few minutes away from the State Theatre where Shout! was playing, Buddy was oh-boying again to packed houses at the Crown Casino.6
However, in Europe and the United States the bioconcert remains a rarity. Part of the explanation for this might lie in the very exacting requirements for a suitable subject. Candidates for commemoration in this form must, it seems, satisfy the criteria of early death, self-destructiveness in their personal life (preferably in the form of drugs and alcohol, but acute symptoms of profound insecurity will do), and a desperately dependent relationship with their audience (which is understood to absorb or preclude the possibility of intimate connections with other individuals). Obviously, since the score is to be a personal retrospective, the performer must have a number of songs that are identifiable (to the target audience at least) unmistakably as his or her own.7
This position description would still produce a long short-list. However, the additional prerequisite that the subject should embody or invoke a significant cultural myth is more exclusive: thus Peter Allen and Johnny O’Keefe touch on specifically Australian iconographies respectively of the glamorous expatriate and the battler who might live next door, while Edith Piaf and Buddy Holly similarly come with legends pre-inscribed - the mythology of defiled innocence in the case of the little sparrow, that of the junior prom that ended before the last dance in Buddy’s case.
But the world still awaits the definitive Elvis or Judy musical, for all their hopeful mimics. And that suggests another peculiarity of the bioconcert. It presents a distinctive challenge to the central performer: re-presenting a legendary life in this genre requires a vocal quality and performance style that recalls, but does not simply replicate, its original. Impersonation has a range of theatrical meanings, and accompanying ambiguities of status. There are plenty of performers on the club circuit who could provide a fair facsimile of Peter Allen or Johnny O’Keefe on request; the effect might be eerily reminiscent or close to parody, and, in either case, not in itself particularly worth having. But for a musical biography, as distinct from a novelty act, mere mimicry is not enough. Signature songs, like ‘Rio’ or ‘Shout!’ (or ‘Oh Boy’ or ‘Non je ne regrette rien’ for that matter) must of course be highlights of the commemorative show, as they were in the shows of its subject - but preferably with another twist. In The Boy from Oz and Shout! these become key choreographic sequences, involving not just the solo performer but the entire company, and in each case the singer adds his own stamp. Todd McEnney, faced with one of the hardest of acts to follow, offered in The Boy from Oz a quite distinctive interpretation of Peter Allen’s serial show-stoppers, while David Campbell’s vocal range and agility in presenting the obligatory repertoire in Shout! was vastly superior to Johnny O’Keefe’s.
It is in the area of dramatic structure that the bioconcert strikes its most significant limitations. And it is here, too, that one can locate the ways in which it most substantially departs from the generic characteristics of the more familiar kind of musical, and some possible explanations for its relative lack of currency (other than in Australia over the last few years, of course). It imposes a number of creative constraints on the writer, and each of the criteria for selection as a likely biographical subject works distinctively to that effect. The premature death that has a mythic status in both these posthumous return seasons of boys from Oz is quite determinative for a start, not only in the obvious closure to which it inexorably drives the plot, but in the celebratory tone and nostalgic mood that it imparts to the event. The component of self-destructiveness is more complicated in its presence, but just as pre-emptive in its influence on the script. Drugs and alcohol, and the symptoms of depression, are a shadow over the staged action rather than a fully realised element of it in both The Boy from Oz and Shout!; to go too deeply into that darkness would presumably temper the celebration, and disconcert its audience, too much. Similarly, there is little scope for the probing of personal conflict and complexity of motivation. Peter Allen’s relationships with women, and the nature of his feelings for Liza Minnelli, remain as unexamined as the process by which he came to accept that he was gay, and the ways in which he related before and after that acceptance to other men.
What is portrayed in both works, though, is the naked love affair with the anonymous audience that Robyn Archer investigated in her remarkable one-woman cabaret piece, A Star is Torn (1980). Archer presented a gallery of female singers, quite diverse in terms of their cultural background (Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith et al) but linked by personal tragedy that marked them out as cult figures almost before their mandatory early deaths. She suggested that each was in some sense a victim of the audience that consumed them: a public that feasted on their pain, that found a particular dramatic frisson in the naked vulnerability of the performer and the knowledge that the solo woman in the spotlight was playing out for them a life right on the edge. For each of Archer’s women, that possession by the audience had a specific connection with the ways in which they were used and abused, by the men in their lives and by the business.
The male subjects of The Boy from Oz and Shout! are, in different ways, more actively complicit in this sacrificial role, and the line between the live performance and the life is even harder to draw than it was in the case of Archer’s women. For Peter Allen, to whom Garland was not only a romantic icon but a mother-in-law, the characterisation of the artist whose soul can only be bared on stage was a self-inscribed model of performance. The off-stage life that was for so long constructed on the denial of sexual identity and the non-disclosure of insecurity was the premise for a high-camp high-energy taking of the stage in which nothing seemed hidden. The manic movements, the sweat, the unbuttoned shirt, all suggested a man performing for his life; the songs, with their lyrics so often disconcertingly close to the intimacies of his experience, confirmed that Allen was turning the theatre into the most glitzy of confessionals. There was a reassuring frame, of course; the hint that this just might be the show in which he spontaneously self-destructed was offset by a sense of self-parody and play which carried the permanent promise that Peter Allen would be back again, live on stage, tomorrow night.
Johnny O’Keefe, as portrayed in Shout!, was a much less self-aware participant in the very public melodrama of his career. He was, however, equally active in shaping it. The cocky self-assurance with which he presented himself as the kid from Down Under who would take on the rockers of the world and prove himself greater than them all seems initially to have had no room for any sense of potential personal cost. But as the disasters and defeats began to pile up, he clearly accepted the sacrificial dimensions of the messianic role that he had assumed. It became part of a myth of resilience, in which even the facial injuries of a horrific accident could be shown defiantly to the prime-time viewers of ‘Six O’Clock Rock’ as evidence that Johnny was a survivor. The performance style that defined him as ‘the wild one’, and distracted from that sideshow spruiker’s voice in the process of packaging it, took on an added desperation; this was a man who would hold nothing back. The songs themselves contained little of the self-reference of Peter Allen’s lyrics, and were mostly cover-versions of other people’s songs anyway. And there was no sign of self-parody in the O’Keefe style, which was about as subtle as a strip-o-gram. But there was the same curious combination of seemingly ultimate exposure and brilliant marketing, and the same defence against any penetration of the constructed surface in consequence. It is a curious outcome for a biographical project, even in celebrity concert form, but neither The Boy from Oz nor Shout! advances our knowledge of the emotional or creative lives of their subjects very much at all. The only hearts on show are the ones that their two subjects wore so conspicuously on their sleeves.
The use of song to disclose a more intimate self, which is fundamental to the power of musical theatre, can hardly occur in the bioconcert at all. In the treatment of Peter Allen, the fact that most of the tunes and lyrics are his own provides at least the basis for a guided tour of the life, even if the subject himself has organised the itinerary; there is even a basis for working reasonably chronologically with the songs in suggesting the rhythms of his experience. The fact that all the songs have already been heard in the most public of arenas makes it difficult for them to be the source of new revelations, however. The delicate glimpses of his home and family that the singer has left behind in ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, for example, remain glimpses only; the probity and wisdom he recalls in grandfather George, the glancing ominous reference to the gun in the verse devoted to the singer’s father, and finally his self-characterisation as someone who has “been all round the world/Changed his last name/And married a girl with an interesting face” remain carefully selective and really only readable to the man who wrote them. The strength of the song lies in its appearance of confidentiality, but what old George was really like, why his son suicided and what that means to Peter himself, and whether his sense of displacement and his marriage to Liza Minnelli are really the distinguishing marks of his life (as distinct, say, from his ‘coming out’ or his feelings for his audience), all remain uncertain. Other than the sophomoric early Allen Brothers hit ‘Pretty Keen Teen’, the entire score of the show is the work of its subject. But the character of Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz can tell us no more through these lyrics than the performer Peter Allen chose to make known two decades before.
In the case of Johnny O’Keefe, the songs can tell us still less. The presentation of self is all in the pressure of the performance; the normally banal lyrics come from someone else’s feelings, if they come from anybody’s at all. Even ‘Shout!’, the trademark song that gives the show its title, is a cover version; in the U.S. it was a hit for its authors, the black American Isley Brothers, while in Britain it was a big seller for Lulu and the Luvvers. So the show that must be structured around Johnny’s greatest hits needs to invent a narrative occasion to suit them. Often this will be a show-within-the-show, at a dance or in a stadium or on the floor of a recording or television studio. Sometimes a song will find a pretext in the action; thus when Johnny’s new Dutch girlfriend Marian tells his parents “Don’t come the raw prawn with me!” he erupts into the peculiar lyrics of “She’s So Tough”, while “She Wears My Ring” finds its cue predictably enough when she agrees to marry him. In a show in which song has so tenuous a relation to narrative, it is not so surprising that other pop-songs more or less of the period should weave in and out of the action: the sequence in which three dressmakers prepare Marian’s wedding-gown is an occasion for a burst of the Dixie Cups’ hit “Chapel of Love”, and Marian wanders in pushing a pram to sing “Crazy” (the Willie Nelson/Patsy Cline song that immediately confirms how limited, by contrast, were the songs that Johnny did himself). Gratuitous snatches of off-beat songs of the early 1960’s like ‘Witch Doctor’ and ‘Purple People Eater’ seem designed to do no more than prompt a moment of nostalgia, or persuade a younger audience that their parents could be pretty silly, too.
If the subject’s repertoire proves less than revealing of his inner life, it is self-evidently of little value in revealing the others in his story. No-one in Shout! sings a Johnny O’Keefe song except Johnny; in The Boy from Oz the Allen canon is distributed a little more widely, with his mother taking ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’, his lover Greg singing ‘I Honestly Love You’, and the female backing group sharing ‘She Loves to Hear the Music’, but this distribution is more democratic than revealing. The solo performer, especially the one with the big demanding ego that these two have in common, shrinks all those around him to the status of décor.
The constraints on the writing that are evident in the disposition of songs are apparent also in the ‘books’ of both productions. In The Boy from Oz, even the ghostly Judy Garland and the very earthly Liza Minnelli are rendered one-dimensional; Shout! explicitly acknowledges that process, in shrinking significant others to generic roles – ‘the Father’, ‘the Mother’, ‘the Girl’. In this stereotypical showbiz world, fathers are always pragmatists who don’t like all this poncing about on stage, mothers are true believers who stick by their sons till the end, and wives and lovers are devotees who will stay much longer than they should; after her promisingly feisty start, Marian in Shout! is reduced to formulaic complaints that the kids never see their father, and ritualistic reassurances that this time they’re gonna make it. The writing in The Boy from Oz is generally much stronger. Nick Enright’s book accepts the emotional lopsidedness of the action, and exploits it to create a Brechtian chronicle, in which Peter Allen switches scenes and personae by slipping into another of the costumes hung in view of the audience. And there is, in line with the suggestiveness of the title, a focus on the child Peter who is always there in the man, and whose perspective frequently cuts across and complicates the chronology of the career. Shout!, by contrast, works much more conventionally as an episodic linear narrative, moving the life conscientiously along between songs in a more-or-less realist fashion.
But both shows in their different ways present a similar world of solitary star and small satellites, in which other voices are heard infrequently and establish, at best, generic kinds of feeling. In this sense, both could be said not merely to diverge from the main road of the musical, but to deny some of its most distinctive sources of strength. Musical theatre is characteristically a genre that empowers a number of voices. Its range of expressive codes is normally accompanied by a range of emotional perspectives in song, sometimes revealingly alone, sometimes sympathetically in harmony, sometimes at odds in counterpoint. It also has the potential, through the chorus, to give voice to a whole community. That is one of its most reliably potent effects, and it is always by definition a political statement, whether it expresses the conservative or repressive values against which the central individuals must define themselves and rebel, or the revolutionary potential that goes with having the numbers. It is the one element of the genre that has no equivalent on the non-musical stage, where representative individuals may speak but it is not possible to ‘hear the people sing’. The bioconcert has, obviously, little room for communal sentiment except that which is promoted in ‘real time’ within the walls of the theatre. Like the restriction on the expressiveness of other individuals, it results in a significant truncating of the form.
The Boy from Oz and Shout! have no place for any chorus other than a backing group that supports the lead singer in every sense. Both narratives offer scope for the presentation of a hostile community; Johnny O’Keefe’s rejection by a fickle or jaded public, and Peter Allen’s ‘coming out’ as a gay man would, in a more conventional or authentic musical theatre structure, provide opportunities for the juxtaposition of the many with the defiantly vulnerable individual. But in Shout! the potential conflict is left to a few carelessly cruel dismissals on talk-back radio, and in The Boy from Oz it remains internal to Peter Allen and largely undramatised. In both cases there are attempts to redress the imbalance created by the dominant voice, but they tend to be perfunctory (like the seamstresses in Shout! who sing of ‘Going to the Chapel/And we’re gonna get married’ but won’t be attending the wedding) or incongruous (like the moments in The Boy from Oz when the all-girl group asserts needlessly that ‘I am not/The boy next door’, or when the chorus sweeps in to turn ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’ from a song of vulnerable aloneness into a vacuous anthem).
Of course, there is no reason why musical theatre should be formally prescriptive, especially given that it is often regarded as an umbrella term that covers everything from cabaret to comic opera. It is a form that is every bit as difficult and unrewarding to pin down as the noun ‘theatre’ by itself, and its hybrid variety is something to be celebrated rather than discouraged. But there are certain characteristics that the most complex and interesting works in the genre tend to have, and that have become in some measure the signposts by which the field can be mapped in its increasing sophistication: things like the expressive interaction of a range of performance languages, such as dialogue, song and dance; things like the marriage (whether harmonious or tense) between score and lyric, and the character-driven diversity of vocal idioms; things like the structural cohesion of its multiple moving parts, reflected particularly in the rhythms of relationship between the solo, the duet, the part song, and the full company chorus.
None of these elements is notable, if present at all, in the sub-genre of the bioconcert. The fact that nineteen of the twenty songs in The Boy from Oz are the original work of Peter Allen offers at least the promise of coherence; the fact that none of the thirty-seven songs heard in Shout! was written by Johnny O’Keefe, and that only a couple were even first recorded by him, offers no such expectation. The form can still contain them: Shout! will always be classified as “an Australian musical”, whatever the formal eccentricities of the bioconcert, however many creative hands have unknowingly contributed to it (every one of its thirty-five songs comes from a different source, and there are more than fifty credits for composition), and no matter how few of those songs are in any sense Australian. But the classification rests on just a few of the defining characteristics of the genre. The success of The Boy from Oz and Shout! is a testament to the ample presence of some qualities that are often expected of the musical: they are both bright, accessible and rumbustious, and, of course, popular. If they light the way into a brighter future for the Australian musical, though, it can only be for works of just their kind.
At the other end of Melbourne in November 2000, at the Comedy Theatre, another new piece of musical theatre opened, rather more quietly. Jon English’s Buskers and Angels, a show about the corporatisation of street music with eighteen original songs and an innovative design incorporating video material, was received reasonably warmly by the reviewers.8 A couple of weeks later, and more quietly still, it closed; the small crowd that turned up for the scheduled performance on the first Sunday in September found a darkened theatre, with not even a poster or photograph to indicate that the show had been there at all. For English, whose impressive rock musical Paris has been on the verge of production for years, there was nothing new about this disappointment; at least this one briefly made it to the stage. The success of The Boy from Oz had done nothing to “make it easier” for English’s work to find an audience, and it is unlikely that Shout! would have been any more help had the season of Buskers and Angels been delayed for another six months.
There is no necessary moral to be drawn from this conjunction of good and bad fortune in the theatre. Perhaps Buskers and Angels deserved to fail, as a certain number of new works inevitably do. But the difficulty of mounting productions of original musical plays in Australia adds a particular significance to both the appearance and the disappearance of any local initiatives in the genre. The relative shortage and timidity in Australia of the kind of private investors on whose money both Broadway and off-Broadway have been built is a major part of the problem, obviously. At a time when the subsidised ‘straight’ theatre is preoccupied with finding plays with little casts, it may be too much to expect entrepreneurs to take a risk on a show with not only a sizeable chorus but a pit-full of musicians as well - certainly not a new work whose songs nobody knows. The Boy from Oz was a big enough risk, and Shout!, with its less interesting songs, less distinguished writing and rushed preparation, was a gamble at long odds. In both cases fortune favoured the brave, and no one with an interest in musical theatre in Australia could begrudge it. The real enemies of the development of local writing in the genre are the regular return seasons of the giant franchise musicals like Phantom and Cats, and the routine re-mounting of touring productions of Annie, or The Sound of Music replete with personalities from television soaps and chat-shows; it is at times like those that the very limited market could be said to be cornered, not when someone comes up with the idea of building a show around the songs and mannerisms of a dead man with whom we once sang along. But at the same time it is important to see the success of the bioconcert for what it is, and that may not have very much to do with the prognosis for Australian musical theatre at all.
The major initiatives in Australian musical theatre have never come from the well-established commercial managements, and have rarely been taken by the state theatre companies. They have come, like Collits’ Inn in the age of the operetta, from visionary venture capital, or like Lola Montez in the late 1950’s and Manning Clark’s History of Australia – the Musical in the bicentennial year from lavish injections of government funds.9 Since both ‘straight’ theatre and the still more costly film industry have not been expected to stay afloat without subsidy from the taxpayer over the last three decades it seems anomalous that music theatre is left these days to sink or swim alone. In this respect, however, the broad popular appeal that presents a significant argument for the cultural importance of the genre is probably its primary liability; as long as The Sound of Music still packs them in, musical theatre in Australia might seem to be running along quite nicely.
The crisis for local writing in the genre is real, however. As its modest and chequered history suggests, the crisis is nothing new. But there are good grounds for seeing it now as particularly acute. The problem is not that in this inhospitable theatrical landscape nothing is being written. In fact, there is plenty. There always was a reasonable amount around, achieving small-scale or amateur or concert performance, or filed away in bottom drawers. In the last decade, there has been much more, even if mostly confined still to those limited outcomes, or more frequently to those drawers. That should not be surprising. Music theatre is the quintessential hybrid performance art in an age that increasingly and values work that blurs or stretches the conventional boundaries of genre, and spectacularly the most popular form of theatre in an aesthetic climate which no longer feels the need to distrust or decry the things that large numbers of people actually want to see. In that sense it is clearly the form of and for the times.
Through the last two decades of the twentieth century, a number of the most prominent playwrights of the Australian mainstage theatre have shown a decided preference for working in this most critically neglected of genres - not only writers like Nick Enright9 and Dorothy Hewett,11 whose tastes and approaches had always been eclectic, but writers associated with Melbourne’s radical Pram Factory push in the 1970’s like Jack Hibberd and John Romeril.12 The New Wave in its Sydney manifestations had always been inclined that way, reflecting its characteristic taste for a presentational style of theatre that was undeterred by the conventional boundaries, and not much concerned with profundities.13 But apart from the national tour of The Boy from Oz, Nick Enright’s musical plays have been largely limited to Sydney audiences, as Romeril’s have been to Melbourne ones. The most notable new work to emerge parallel to the mainstream in the last decade was Anthony Crowley’s The Journey Girl, which allayed the usual budgetary fears by requiring only one performer and by being perfectly amenable to accompaniment from a single piano.14 Like the bioconcert, this was an interesting creative diversion from the main road of musical theatre as sketched earlier in this article, but no substitute for the real thing. Economy, whether of cost or physical scale or vision, is not really in the nature of the form.
So far I have presented the crisis as primarily an economic one, with a clear aesthetic implication. But it is also in part a crisis for academic criticism, which makes this journal an appropriate forum in which to draw attention to it. In many ways constructing a history for the musical theatre in Australia is subject to the sorts of procedures and obstacles that have been involved in the reclamation of other areas of Australian theatre. Creating a narrative based on the playwright-driven canon of the ‘straight’ theatre, or even that of the distinctively local tradition of vaudeville, has always entailed the scholarly reassertion of work that has been mostly forgotten, or largely unrecorded, or generally undervalued, or even unperformed. Australian drama itself has been through a number of phases of self-conscious reinvention, a particular form of what Edna Everage once called “those wonderful cultural renaissances we’re always having”. There were, of course, attractions in the myth of the blank sheet for those playwrights and other theatre practitioners who saw themselves as pioneers; the sense that a distinctively Australian theatre might for the first time be possible was as heady in its way for the New Wave of the late 1960’s and beyond as it had been for the Pioneer Players in the 1920’s, or for that matter the cultural emissaries of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in the early 1950’s. It was a myth fed at once by political models of colonial subordination and national maturing, and by imaginative metaphors of the wide brown land with an emptiness at its heart; the myth constructed the explorer-playwright (and by extension the critical rediscoverer, too) as engaged in a quest that was the more heroic or poignant for the inhospitability of the landscape that he or she ventured into.
Australian drama has plenty of scope still for renaissances and new waves, but the myth of emptiness has surely been dispelled for all time. Musical theatre remains the one performative area in which it survives. But the narrative of lost plots and unheard melodies is only part of the story, which reflects as well a refusal to acknowledge or value what is, and has been, there.
The extraordinary neglect of the musical in Australian theatre studies of the last two decades is not simply a cultural peculiarity, but reflects a wider failure of attention. Though there have been plenty of books about the Broadway musical in that period, very few of the hundreds of books about it even attempt to provide the kinds of theoretical structures that have informed the criticism of other fields during the period. The lack of appropriate conceptual and methodological frameworks, as at once a cause and symptom of critical neglect, is itself a product of other problems and uncertainties, to do with the absence of a received critical tradition to assume or to react against, the hybrid nature of the genre, and the correspondingly eclectic critical discourses and kinds of expertise that it calls into play.
Historically, that neglect was understandable. Musical theatre didn’t fit the argumentative containers that applied to other modes of theatre. Drama for much of the twentieth-century was an essentially text-based field of study. The vagaries related to its ephemerality and its potential diversity of interpretations and effects in performance were seen as an unfortunate complication of the academic critic’s analysis, but rarely as a source of real anxiety or a subject worthy of sustained attention in itself. The privileging of the text, and consequently of the spoken word, rendered other performance ‘languages’ marginal. The dependence of music theatre on non-verbal elements, such as dance, spectacle, and (most problematically) the score that most fundamentally distinguished the form from ‘straight’ drama, made it in this critical context an obviously unsuitable subject for serious attention.
The ‘rediscovery’ of Australian drama in the mid-1970’s found hardly any room for musical plays, and none at all for sustained analysis of the genre.15 In this respect, of course, those critics were not out of step with most accounts of the serious theatre in other cultures, but there were particular elements of that critical project in Australia that exacerbated the tendency to neglect. These attempts to reclaim an Australian canon depended almost entirely on scripts and hence focused on playwrights; the written word, whether published or surviving in typescript, privileged a theatre based on language and the social realities that it sought to represent. Further, that focus on the capacity of the text to stand up to serious critical analysis implicitly established the priority of an appeal to a minority ‘high’ culture, convenient in the light of the absence for that genre of a broadly popular one.
Musical theatre did not score well on any of these criteria. It was to be understood as the creature of its own popularity, offering predictable escapist entertainment rather than challenge, its form as inimical to serious argument as it was to emotional authenticity. It could not belong in the academy, because any art so dependent on gross box office, a range of industries and (generally) hefty capital investment was by definition a tainted form, born of compromise and market manipulation, in contrast to the supposedly purer mechanisms of literary production. And even when popular culture came academically into its own in the 1980’s, musical theatre, in Australia as elsewhere, largely failed to accompany it. It was too exportable to be studied in terms of cultural specificity, too subject to local variables to provide the focus for a study in cultural imperialism; it was too diverse, in its scope, languages, levels of sophistication and breadth of audience, to enable a stable case-study in reception. Though it could be subject to the same economic imperatives and to similar cliches of plot and style as the American popular cinema, musical theatre offered none of the durability and self-containment of film, and could draw on none of the analytical and theoretical sophistication to which cinema studies could refer. Its commercialism made it apparently less amenable to the serious attention of cultural theorists than a rock concert or a shopping mall. And there remained the continually troublesome ephemerality of the performance ‘text’, and the perennial problems posed by a hybrid form engaging at least two disciplinary discourses that had by that point reached an advanced stage of exclusiveness.
The most recent successes at the margins of the genre point to the urgency of the need for this situation to change. The Boy from Oz and Shout! have been received in a critical vacuum, lacking in both historical knowledge of the Australian musical and an understanding of procedures for its formal analysis. They leave us, certainly, with a financial question for our private producers and our arts funding bureaucracy, as to whose turn it is to ‘shout’. At the same time, they may encourage those who respect musical theatre to do a little shouting of a different kind, proclaiming the value and significance of the form, the achievements that have been made sporadically and against the odds in Australia, the quality of some of the writing which is being done for it here and now, and the crisis in which it remains for the want of decent funding and serious attention.
Peter Fitzpatrick, February 2001
1. The Boy from Oz, written by Nick Enright, directed by Gale Edwards, produced by Ben Gannon and Robert Fox, featuring Todd McKenney as Peter, Jill Perryman as his Mum, Chrissie Amphlett as Judy Garland.
2. Shout!, written by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, directed by Richard Wherrett, produced by Kevin Jacobsen, Col Joye and Amber Jacobsen, featuring David Campbell as Johnny O’Keefe, Trisha Noble as The Mother, Tamsin Carroll as The Girl, Aaron Blabey as Lee Gordon.
3. Writers’ notes, program for Shout!
4. Producers’ note, The Boy from Oz Original Cast CD.
5. Piaf, written by the English playwright Pam Gems, was first staged by the RSC in 1978. It has had several revivals in Australia, most recently by the Melbourne Theatre Company in mid-2000
6. Buddy, also the work of an English writer, Alan Janes, premiered at the Plymouth Theatre in 1989, and has had two Australian seasons, most recently in late 2000.
7. The Jacobsen Entertainment Company secured the inside-running on a Johnny O’Keefe retrospective in quite bizarre circumstances; a rival entrepreneur established briefly what seemed a winning break by buying the exclusive rights to all O’Keefe’s original songs - until it was realised that every O’Keefe hit was a cover version.
8. Buskers and Angels, words and music by Jon English, premiered at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, in November 2000.
9. Collits’ Inn, by Varney Monk (music and lyrics) and T. Stuart Gurr, was first staged in an amateur production by Nathalie Rosenwax at the Savoy Theatre, Sydney, in 1932. Its professional premiere, with the support of the extraordinary F.W.Thring, the entrepreneurial founder of Eftee Film Studios, took place a year later at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Lola Montez, written by Alan Burke, with music by Peter Stannard and lyrics by Peter Benjamin, first appeared at the Union Theatre, Melbourne, in 1958, under the auspices of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Manning Clark’s ‘History of Australia’ – The Musical, by Tim Robertson, Don Watson and John Romeril, music by Martin Armiger, David King, George Dreyfus et all, was first staged at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, in 1988.
10. Nick Enright’s previous musical theatre credits for book and/or lyrics include The Venetian Twins (1979, 1990), On the Wallaby (1980), Orlando Rourke (1985), The Betrothed (1992), Summer Rain (1983,1995) and Miracle City (1995).
11. Dorothy Hewett’s work has always had a strong musical component. The Man from Mukinupin (1979) set the pattern, with its twenty original and traditional songs in a score written by Jim Cotter. Her most recent work, Nowhere (2001), and the as-yet unperformed Jarrabin Trilogy, maintain that line of interest.
12. See Hibberd’s libretto for the opera Sin (first staged 1978, music by Martin Friedl), and Romeril’s Jonah (1985, rewritten as Jonah Jones, 1991), Love Suicides (1997), and Miss Tanaka (2001). Romeril’s early work for the APG at the Pram Factory often incorporated popular or satirical song, and he was co-writer for Manning Clark’s ‘History of Australia’ – The Musical (1988).
13. Notably the plays of 1970: The Legend of King O’Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis at Jane Street, and Biggles by Boddy, Ron Blair and the cast and Blair’s Flash Jim Vaux at the Nimrod.
14. The Journey Girl, words and music by Anthony Crowley, first appeared with Amanda Levy in the title role in 1997. Significantly, larger-scale Crowley works The Villain of Flowers and Nathanial Storm have not reappeared since their first productions by NIDA students in 1994 and 1996; the rarity of ‘follow-up’ productions for new works, of the kind which Collits’ Inn benefited from seventy years ago, is a continuing problem in a genre that often has a particular need for a public developmental process.
15. See, for example, Leslie Rees’s A History of Australian Drama (1978), Peter Holloway’s anthology Contemporary Australian Drama: Perspectives Since 1955 (1981, revised 1987), and my own After ‘The Doll’: Australian Drama Since 1955 (1979). A writer like Peter Pinne, who over two decades produced (occasionally on stage) a number of strong and innovative musical plays, is not mentioned in any of them.