Music Theatre in Australia: How Lamentable the Level of Discourse

VCA_Broadcast_BannerIt will come as no surprise to those who follow this blog, that I was haughtily lambasted by a few people who reacted to my distillation of John Senczuk’s paper for Currency House Platform as the lamentable proposition that it is – now euphemistically etched into the Oz musical theatre community’s vernacular as the “Perth Solution.”  Those who looked more carefully would have discovered that I was only one of several people who decried the ignorance inherent in that missive.

But this level of discourse is only symptomatic of a much larger malaise afflicting the industry in this country.  I’m not sure what name this malady goes by, but it has a scent that reaches all the way across the pond. Let me give you some examples.

In the latest University of Melbourne, Faculty of the VCA and MCM BROADCAST, a slight pamphlet of self-promotion for the performing arts at the University, the triple-threat, Phoebe Panaretos (currently doing a fine job in the stage version of Strictly Ballroom) is quoted as saying, “We don’t have the freedom, like they do in America, to change the cast, cut songs and try it out for a year off-Broadway. … If we’re going to get to that level, producers need to be more flexible with time.”  OK, so I know what Ms. Panaretos is getting at, but the conclusions she draws from some distant observation of the American musical theatre industry are, to be kind, somewhat wide of the mark.  Really, there ain’t much ‘freedom’ and secondly, the issue is not got anything to do with the flexibilities of time management by said, grouped, ‘producers.’  What is definitely true is that the functional systems in place to develop and refine new musical theatre, commonplace as they are in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto etc., do not exist in Australia – and therefore, to be entirely fair to Ms. Panaretos, whilst her facts are erroneous, her instincts are good.

Much, much better indeed, and perhaps one of the few erudite contributions I’ve seen in-Press about this subject, is to be found in the aforementioned pamphlet from Margot Fenley (VCA Head of Musical Theatre).  She says, “…We need to create a better musical theatre culture in Australia.  One that links up existing programs, however small, and then address gaps in funding to support sustainable longeivity for new writers, composers and presenters to fully develop and exercise their artistic potential.”  This thesis is laudable if for no other reason than it avoids insinuating any notion of a “Melbourne Solution.” or any other hair-brained scheme.  Of course, what Ms. Fenley proposes has all been tried before.  Its weakness as a proposition is not its clear ambition, but the lack of defining a mechanism through which it might be achieved.  Whereas Senczuk advocates for a metaphorically doomed open misère bid (all or nothing), Fenley avoids the pitfall of pronouncing any simplistic solution because, as I suspect she is aware, there isn’t one.

Limelight_Magazine_Article_BannerBut wait!  Yes, there is a bonus steak-knives moment in all of this.  It comes in the form of a professional theatrically informed article in the July 2015 edition of Limelight magazine by editor, Clive Paget.  I say it is informed, because Mr. Paget allows several artistic directors – namely Lindy Hume and Richard Mills – to injure themselves mightly by virtue of being “hoist with their own petar” (sic.) whilst his own subject background contribution is entirely cogent.

For example, how is one meant to interpret this statement from Ms. Hume? “I’m interested in ideas and themes, and opera programming doesn’t always let you do that. To genuinely say that you are producing a work that you believe speaks to a contemporary audience is pretty compelling reason to do it” (p. 33)  Ignoring the non sequitur itself, Opera programming, at its most insightful, just oozes with cross-referential ideas and themes – across entire seasons no less.  Could I mention Festival d’Aix en Provence or Glimmerglass Opera, or Opéra de Lyon being just three that come immediately to mind?  But if this is some oblique justification for producing Bernstein’s profoundly flawed Candide (in which ever version you try to stick it together) then it’s a misnomer waiting to meet a less than convivial end – not dissimilar to Voltaire’s luckless protagonists.

But wait.  Not only steak knives but this further remarkable bonus. “Some ideas look good until you dust them off and read them,” says [Richard] Mills. “I think that about Oklahoma – it’s a great idea until you read it.  I’m quite interested in the Kurt Weill musicals like Happy End and Lady in the Dark.  Or you could take some of the Busby Berkeley films and make a musical out of them” (p. 33-4).  Really?  Richard you’re having a trouser pulling leg moment surely?  OK, I’ll bite: so what is it that everyone has missed about Oklahoma that makes it such a travesty? Please don’t tell me Richard you are reading the book without playing the score and seeing the darkness that imbues this work at such a fundamental level, commenting as it does so deeply on the social fabric of the US at the time? If nothing else, the current production of Oklahoma at the Bard Summerscape Festival in up-state New York might dispel Richard’s concerns.

So here’s the point.  When we have artistic leadership of our state opera companies demonstrating, on the one hand, such paucity of understanding of the American musical theatre, but quite happy to unwittingly produce it to prop up deficienicies in envisioning their artistic programming of the Opera repertoire – sorry, but this is the only conclusion one can draw from their own commentary – you know that the level of discourse on the contemporary American musical theatre in Australia has a very long way to go indeed.  Actually, I have a better idea.  If you’re funded to present OPERA, present OPERA.  Don’t present MUSICALS.  They’re not OPERA.

Oh, and just for the record, Sweeney Todd is a MUSICAL, not an OPERA (don’t ever get into conversation with Steve Sondheim about this); Candide is an OPERETTA not an OPERA; and Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde is not one of the musicals disparaged as belonging to the worst of all time – one of his latter ones does however almost make this category.  Such artistic arrogance by some, I do declare!

PS. It may be of some interest to know that, after showing several industry acquaintances in New York both publications referred in this blog, I couldn’t find a way of politely interpolating their responses.

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