Twenty Australian Musicals to celebrate World Theatre Day

WTD 20 Australian MusicalsIn celebration of World Theatre Day – Australian Arts Review takes a look at twenty musicals developed in Australia.

The Adventures of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom:
Based on the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie books created by Australian author May Gibbs, The Adventures of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom featured a book and lyrics by John Clarke with Doug MacLeod and music and additional lyrics by Alan John. Directed by Neil Armfield, the cast included Simon Burke, Darren Gilshenan, Kris McQuade, Tim Richards and Ursula Yovich. The musical premiered at the 2007 Sydney Festival, before playing in Perth and Adelaide.

BST Barbra and the Camp Dogs - photo by Brett Boardman 450Barbara and the Camp Dogs:
Barbara and the Camp Dogs
is a musical (or play with songs) by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine with songs by Valentine, Yovich and Adm Ventoura. Directed by Leticia Cáceres, it featured Yovich as Barbara and Elaine Crombie as her sister, René. It premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in December 2017, before playing Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, Canberra Theatre Centre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, and a return season at Belvoir in 2019. It received four 2019 Helpmann Awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

The Boy From Oz:
A jukebox musical based on the life of singer and songwriter Peter Allen, The Boy from Oz featured a book by Nick Enright. Directed by Gale Edwards, the musical featured Todd McKenney as Allen, with Chrissy Amphlett as Judy Garland and Angela Toohey as Liza Minnelli. The Boy from Oz had its world premiere at Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1998 before touring to Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. It ran for a total 766 performances over two years, playing to over 1.2 million theatre patrons. A revised version by Martin Sherman opened on Broadway in 2003 with Hugh Jackman in the title role.

Bran Nue Dae:
Recognised as the world’s first Aboriginal stage musical when it premiered to great acclaim in 1990, Bran Nue Dae originally toured over a three-year period, and remains one of the most commercially successful pieces of original Australian musical theatre. Written by the late Jimmy Chi in collaboration with the band Kuckles, Bran Nue Dae has been described as “a beacon of light” in Aboriginal and Australian cultural history. Directed by Andrew Ross, it premiered as part of the 1990 Perth Festival, before touring nationally. A film version, directed by Rachel Perkins, premiered at the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival – winning the Audience Award for Best Film. A revival of the musical opened as part of the 2020 Sydney and Perth Festival. It is scheduled to tour to other venues in 2020, but is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Darlinghurst Nights:
Set during the 1920s and 30s, and inspired by Sydney poet Kenneth Slessor, writer Katherine Thomson (Diving For Pearls) and composer Max Lambert (Miracle City) capture a time when Kings Cross was the only place in Sydney where a person could live anonymously; where bohemian lifestyles were accepted and even encouraged. Directed by Terence O’Connell, Darlinghurst Nights premiered at The Wharf Theatre as part of the 1988 Festival of Sydney. The musical was was revived by the Hayes Theatre in Sydney in 2018 with Lee Lewis directing.

Dream Lover David Campbell - photo by Brian GeachDream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical:
A jukebox musical based on an original concept and stage play by Frank Howson and John-Michael Howson, adapted for the stage by Frank Howson with Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns. The musical reveals the extraordinary story of legendary singer, songwriter and actor Bobby Darin. Directed by Phillips and starring David Campbell as Bobby Darin, the musical premiered at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in September 2016. Dream Lover was nominated for six 2018 Helpmann Awards including Best Musical. Campbell received the Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical. A Melbourne season played the State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne from December 2017. The Australian cast recording was released in September 2016, and it was nominated for an ARIA Award for Best Original Soundtrack or Musical Theatre Cast Recording in 2017.

The Hatpin:
A musical with book and lyrics by James Millar and Composer Peter Rutherford, The Hatpin was inspired by the true story of Amber Murray who in 1892 gave up her son to the Makin family in Sydney. Directed by Kim Hardwick, the musical opened at the Seymour Centre in February 2008 and featured Octavia Barron-Martin, Nick Christo, Peter Cousens, Barry Crocker, Michelle Doake, Jodie Harris, Gemma-Ashley Kaplan, Caroline O’Connor,  Tyran Parke and Melle Stewart. A Melbourne production, directed by Shaun Kingma, was presented at Theatre Works by Magnormos in 2011.

Written by Casey Bennetto, Keating! was originally performed by musical group the Drowsy Drivers, the show achieved rapid success from its low-budget premiere at the 2005 Melbourne International Comedy Festival where it enjoyed a sold-out run and won an unprecedented three festival awards. In 2006, Neil Armfield directed an extended Company B production of Keating!, now with two acts and six new songs written by Bennetto. The Company B production toured Australia, receiving favourable reviews and winning Helpmann Awards for Best Musical and Best Regional Touring Production.

Ladies in Black - photo by Rob MaccollLadies in Black:
Adapted from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, The Women in Black, this acclaimed production was brought to life by playwright Carolyn Burns (North By Northwest, High Society) and director Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Love Never Dies) with original music from acclaimed singer songwriter, Tim Finn OBE (Split Enz, Crowded House). Directed by Phillips, Queensland Theatre Company’s Ladies in Black premiered at QPAC in November 2015, before opening Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2016 season. Winner of the 2016 Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work, Ladies in Black toured nationally in 2017, taking in Sydney and Canberra with encore seasons in Brisbane and Melbourne.

The Legend of King O’Malley:
This bold, energetic and over-the-top 1970 Australian musical play by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy tells the story of the Texan idealist, King O’Malley, who became a member of two Australian Parliaments and was defeated in 1917 for his stand on rights of women and immigration, and for opposing conscription. Directed by John Bell, the original production was presented at Sydney’s Jane Street Theatre and included the likes of David Cameron, Rex Cramphorn, Kate Fitzpatrick, Robyn Nevin and John Paramor as O’Malley. The production subsequently toured to Hobart, Perth, Adelaide Brisbane and Melbourne. According to Ellis: “the play was responsible for helping revive Australian theatre.”

Metro Street:
With book, music and lyrics by Matthew Lee Robinson, Metro Street received its world premiere in the Dunstan Playhouse – Adelaide Festival Centre on 7 April 2009. Produced by Arts Asia Pacific, Power Arts and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, the musical was directed by Geordie Brookman, with musical direction by Matthew Carey, and featured Debra Byrne, Nancye Hayes, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Cameron Goodall and Jude Henshall. Set against the backdrop of modern day Melbourne, soon to be university graduate Chris undergoes a life-altering year. With dreams of a future in London and the promise of a generation who can have it all, the four women in his life – his mother Sue, grandmother Jo, girlfriend Amy, and girl next door Kerry – enable him to find his way to what he needs the most – home.

MW - photo by Jeff BusbyMuriel’s Wedding The Musical:
Winner of 5 Helpmann Awards, 7 Sydney Theatre Awards, an Awgie Award, the 2018 David Williamson Prize and an ARIA Award Nomination, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical celebrated its’ world premiere in Sydney in November 2017 and was hailed a smash hit by critics and audiences alike! Directed by Simon Phillips, the musical was a theatrical version of PJ Hogan’s iconic hit film, updated to today by the writer himself, with music and lyrics by Australian award winning songwriters Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall with additional songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson written for ABBA.

Ned Kelly:
Ned Kelly
is an Australian musical with book and lyrics by Reg Livermore and music by Patrick Flynn. It tells the story of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly with an eclectic score combining rock opera, vaudeville and burlesque. The original Australian production played in Adelaide and Sydney in 1977 and 1978. Directed by Livermore, the cast featured Nick Turbin as Ned Kelly, Geraldine Turner as Ma Kelly, Doug Parkinson as Joe Byrne and Arthur Dignam as Superintendent Hare. Turner’s haunting rendition of Die Like a Kelly is a highlight of the Australian musical theatre canon.

Only Heaven Knows:
Alex Harding’s beloved musical set in the 1940s and 1950s, tells the story of one young man’s discovery of love and life in Sydney. Directed by Margaret Davis, the musical had its premiere at Griffin Theatre’s Stables Theatre, Kings Cross in May 1988. Other notable productions include Playbox Theatre Company, directed by Rob Meldrum, in 1989; Les Solomon’s acclaimed 1995 production at the Stables Theatre, which starred David Campbell, Anthony Cogin, Jason Langley, Jacqy Phillips and Garry Scale, and subsequently transferred to the Sydney Opera House, Pete Nettell’s 1998 production at Sydney’s New Theatre; and the Hayes Theatre’s 30th anniversary production in 2017, directed by Shaun Rennie and featuring Matthew Backer, Blazey Best, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall, Hayden Tee and Tom Sharah.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert:
The 1994 film created by Stephan Elliott starring Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce remains one of Australia’s most successful films and soundtracks of all-time. The Simon Phillips-directed and Ross Coleman-choreographed original production of Priscilla debuted in Australia at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in October 2006, starring Tony Sheldon as Bernadette. Having had a successful run in Sydney, the production transferred to Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in 2007, then Auckland, New Zealand in 2008, before returning to Sydney for a limited engagement. The production also garnered much international success across the globe. A 10th anniversary tour, which saw Tony Sheldon return as Bernadette, commenced at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre in early 2018, before heading to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane. A cast recording of the original Australian production was released in September 2007.

The Rabbits - photo by Jon GreenThe Rabbits:
Based on the book by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan and featuring music by Kate Miller-Heidke and a libretto by Lally Katz, as per the original book, the work is an allegory for the colonisation of Australia, depicting an invasion of rabbits (in lieu of the English settlers) described as alien, harsh and greedy, as they destroy the land and lives of the native marsupials (in lieu of the original Indigenous population). Directed by John Sheedy, The Rabbits was produced by Opera Australia and Barking Gecko Theatre Company. The work premiered at the 2015 Perth Festival before playing at the Melbourne Festival that same year. It also played the Sydney Festival and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2016. It was the winner of four Helpmann Awards in 2015 – Best New Australian Work, Best Original Score, Best Presentation for Children and Best Costume Design.

The Sentimental Bloke:
Based on Songs of a Sentimental Bloke by C.J. Dennis, this 1961 Australian musical by Albert Arlen, Nancy Brown and Lloyd Thomson, is one of the most successful Australian musicals of the 20th century. Produced by J. C. Williamson Theatres Limited, the professional premiere under the direction of John Young with choreography by Betty Pounder, took place at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre on 4 November 1961. The production then toured to Adelaide , Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand. The musical has also been adapted for television and ballet.

Sideshow Alley:
Set amongst the misfits, outcasts and curiosities of a 1950s Outback travelling show, Sideshow Alley is a musical by Paul Keelan and Gary Young. The musical was the winner of the inaugural Pratt Prize for Music Theatre awarded in November 2002. The prize included a workshop production, staged at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel in August 2003 directed by Gale Edwards with a cast including Tamsin Carroll, Greg Stone and Robyn Arthur. The original Australian production made its premiere at Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in February 2007. Directed by Young, with choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, the cast included Robyn Arthur, Silvie Paladino, Christopher Parker and Alex Rathgeber. At the 2007 Helpmann Awards, Sideshow Alley won for Best Original Score (Paul Keelan and Gary Young), and received nominations for Best Female Actor in a Musical (Silvie Paladino) and Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical (Robyn Arthur).

Summer Rain:
Nick Enright and Terence Clarke’s charming musical celebrates the vaudeville troupes which travelled outback Australia in the 1930s and 40s and the tight-knit rural communities they entertained. Originally written for National Institute of Dramatic Arts’ (NIDA) graduating class of 1983, Summer Rain received its professional premiere in 1989 at Sydney Theatre Company under the direction of Rodney Fisher. With choreography by Ross Coleman and musical direction by David King, the cast featured Valerie Bader, Jonathan Biggins, Peter Carroll, Nancye Hayes, Donna Lee, Genevieve Lemon, Greg Stone and David Whitney. Other notable productions have included Queensland Theatre Company (1997 – Director: Robyn Nevin); Sydney Theatre Company (2005 – Director: Robyn Nevin); Riverina Theatre Company (2007 – Director: Michael Smalley); and New Theatre (2016 – Director: Trent Kidd).

The Venetian Twins 1979 - photo by Branco GaicaThe Venetian Twins:
Adapted from a commedia dell’arte play – I due gemelli veneziani by Carlo Goldoni, The Venetian Twins is a two-act musical comedy with lyrics by Nick Enright and music composed and arranged by Terence Clarke. The musical premiered on 26 October 1979 in the Drama Theatre – Sydney Opera House by  Nimrod Theatre Company. The production was directed by John Bell for the inaugural season of the Sydney Theatre Company and featured Drew Forsythe as the twins, coloratura soprano Jennifer McGregor, Tony Sheldon and Tony Taylor – for all four of whom their roles were specifically written). Jon Ewing starred as Pancrazio, the villain. Valerie Bader, Anne Bryon, John Frawley, Barry Lovett and John McTernan rounded out the cast. Nancye Hayes co-choreographed the production with Keith Bain. The production went on to tour throughout 1981 to Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Geelong. Larrikin Records produced a cast recording in the same year. John Bell’s production was subsequently remounted in 1990 and presented in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Other notable productions include La Boite Theatre Company (1982 – Director: Malcolm Blaylock);  State Theatre Company of South Australia (1996 – Director: Warren Coleman and featuring Paul Blackwell); Queensland Theatre Company (2004 – Director: Michael Gow); and a cabaret-style performance presented at the Sydney Opera House as part of the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival – hosted by Tony Sheldon.

Images: Barbra and the Camp Dogs – photo by Brett Boardman; David Campbell in Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Musical – photo by Brian Geach; Ladies in Black (2017) – photo by Rob Maccoll; Muriel’s Wedding The Musical – photo by Jeff Busby; The Rabbits – photo by Jon Green; and The Venetian Twins (1979) – photo by Branco Gaica

Header Image: Ursula Yovich in The Adventures of Snugglepot & Cuddlepie and Little Ragged Blossom (2007) – photo by Heidrun Lohr; Todd McKenney in The Boy From Oz (1998); and Drew Forsythe in The Venetian Twins (1979) – photo by Branco Gaica