The most disappointing aspect of the latest platform paper from Currency House (No. 42, February 2015) is the degree to which this well intentioned, but nontheless exasperating, thesis suffers from such remarkable naivety by its author. John Senczuck’s efforts to synthesisize a compelling argument for the support of creatives working in musical theatre in Australia (and by this he intends commercial musical theatre) is ultimately deeply marred by his thinly disguised manifesto to promote Perth as a vital hub in the development of new Australian work.
The argument for a national body to be formed and held responsible for identifying, developing and promoting new work places the cart so far in front of the horse that, very nearly, any sense of connection between the disparate ideas formulated and presented by Senczuk become meaningless.
Before I go any further let me point out one shocking (but commonplace) ignorant remark and one insightful (albeit not unique) remark by Mr. Senczuck in his discourse. The ignorant: “Classical composers or song writers (sic) don’t necessarily have this facility: that is, to conceive music with a theatrical, three dimensional staging dynamic.” Ignoring the non sequitur, whether composers for musicals are bad if they’re classically trained or only mere songwriters, the ability to impart and develop the skill of ‘theatricality’ can be taught and nurtured. This argument is as uninformed as it would be if I made the case for one of Mr. Senczuck’s heroes, Stephen Sondheim, being a great musical theatre composer because he was neither classically trained nor a songwriter. Attribution to Mr. Sondheim’s credentials is irrefutable through a corpus of cumulatively more refined work, not by his background. Whether one could describe Mr. Sondheim as a songwriter in the sense one is meant to infer from Mr. Senczuk is, admittedly, open to contention. Put another way, scenographers. designers, and directors should be careful about what stones they want to throw.
The insightful: “But if our artistic leaders choose to absent themselves from mentoring local music theatre work, then the sector itself must collaborate to evolve a strategic, professionally chartered Australian music theatre matrix that caters in the first instance to the writers and composers, builds collaborations and provides development time-frames and processes.” Bravo Mr. Senczuk, but where is this going to come from I ask you? Most serious dramatists, playwrights and directors in Australia loathe musical theatre – and for good reason. The latent problems inherent in the disposition of any real, structured, and meaningful support for Australian playwrights far exceed the problems of musical theatre writers/creatives. Why is this group not part of your solution or, for that matter, even included in your sixty-one page fulmination?
The answer is to not build edifices or, God-forbid, yet more dyfunctionally administered funding organisations to develop the capacities and capabilities of Australian composers, lyricists and bookwriters. The answer is to send them to where it is done brilliantly – go to Broadway! The systems and structures are already in place (and Mr. Senczuk you are remiss not to list them in their entirety as a matter of information). Surely our national identity as creatives is not so fragile or insecure that we cannot recognise when we need to learn from our betters. What we do need is an opportunity for our creatives to learn from the best in the business – go to Broadway! What they’ll find – assuming we can get them there – is that ‘story is story’ – not some vague sense of nationalistic fervour in topics to be chosen to become successful musicals (the idealogy of telling ‘Australian’ stories has set us back by decades coincidentally). Eventually, if their dreams are not shattered by the brutality of this business reality: that ‘Musicals’ is a dragon with very large teeth (or is that fangs?) which even the very best composers/songwriters/lyricists/bookwriters in the USA fail time and time again in avoiding its damning breath, then they just might be eventually successful.
Here’s a little known fact: most of all investment for Broadway musicals comes from about the same 100 entities/people/bodies over and over again (this will change shortly with new Federal fundraising rules in the USA and proposed tax offsets for Broadway). First rule: if you don’t get these people on-board, it won’t matter how good your new musical is – sometimes, it doesn’t even matter whether it’s good or not (I do not mean that to be taken as a salacious remark). You just have to be an Australian living and working in NYC to know that this is true. I have seen extraordinarily great musicals die in previews and pieces that can only be described in the most vulgar terms recoup their investment. It’s not an equitable business. It wasn’t designed to be. It’s not a safe sandbox. It’s commerce!
Ultimately Mr. Senczuk, you’re a good guy – a moral crusader perhaps? At the very least, you’re someone who wishes that an ugly and brutal business – the Broadway Musical – was otherwise. It’s not, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps, nonetheless, we could do better. In this respect, your calls to action for our funding bodies to get their act together should not go unheeded. And whilst you’re at it – and you left this out too – try getting APRA to recognise that there are a niche and specialist group of songwriters/composers in Australia who only write musical theatre works – and they should collect royaties for them. Good luck with that one!