With nine Broadway musicals currently playing on Australian stages – and a further three set to open or reopen in coming months – audiences could be forgiven for thinking “what pandemic?”
Most of the productions originated overseas in the past decade and are having their first staging for Australian audiences.
Two productions are even part of the 2022 Broadway season and made their Australian debuts before the outcome of the annual Tony Awards.
SIX: The Musical is a 75-minute, pop-fuelled concert that remixes and retells the stories of the six wives of Henry VIII. Girl from the North Country superimposes the music of Bob Dylan onto a fictional story of Depression-era America.
Alongside four other new productions, SIX and Girl from the North Country will vie for the title of Best Musical at the Tony Award ceremony to be held this Sunday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Broadway’s night of nights
Broadway musicals frequently cite Tonys success in their marketing campaigns. A haul of nominations for new productions can help create awareness with Australian audiences.
But with COVID-19 disrupting the Broadway calendar and shifting award eligibility dates, some producers haven’t waited for validation at the Tonys.
SIX is already playing across the world and its 2018 pre-Broadway cast album has amassed over 100 million streams. Girl from the North Country has a firm closing date on Broadway after squeezing in a week-long extension, and will launch a US tour in 2023.
So what does a possible win in the top category mean for either Australian production?
Louise Withers, producer of SIX in Australia, tells me while a Tony win might provide new fodder for their marketing campaign, there’s no guarantee of increased profitability.
“We need local audiences to fall in love with shows, and to encourage others to see them, in order to hopefully be financially successful,” she says.
Despite over 100 Tony nominations between them, of the productions currently on Australian stages, only Hamilton (2015) and Moulin Rouge! (2020) took home the Best Musical award in their year of nomination.
Once (2012) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) also won the top award, but the current Australian productions are not replicas of the Broadway originals. Others, like Disney’s Frozen (2018) and Mary Poppins (2004) were resolutely overlooked by peers voting in the Tonys – but have demonstrated ongoing commercial viability since.
A precarious business
Accepting the 2020 award for Moulin Rouge!, Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of theatrical producer Global Creatures, observed that in light of COVID-19 disruption, all the shows of the past year – opened, closed, paused or reborn – were worthy of the title of “best”.
Pavlovic’s turn of phrase also hit on the fact that, awards aside, every Broadway opening represents a kind of success, marking the culmination of years of creative work and significant financial investment and risk.
In the case of SIX, the financial capitalisation for its Broadway opening was a meagre US$5 million (A$7 million). In comparison, Frozen reportedly cost US$30 million (A$42 million) and Broadway “turkey” Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark US$75 million (A$103 million).
With a cast and band size smaller than most productions, SIX’s lower operating costs could mean a faster opportunity to recoup that investment. But Withers rejects the assumption that a smaller number of onstage human resources delivers producers enviable economies of scale.
When the previous government rolled out RISE funding to support the arts sector, the financial precarity of show business became evident.
To access the A$200 million fund, producers had to demonstrate their projects would be “substantially less likely to proceed” without additional financial support.
Big commercial players Global Creatures, Michael Cassel Group, Newtheatricals and the Gordon Frost Organisation secured a combined A$4.6 million to assist their productions.
Some analysts criticised the decision to support commercial ventures, noting the opacity of the funding regime and the overwhelming level of financial need across the entire arts sector.
The new Australian musical
Live Performance Australia data ranks musical theatre as the second largest category of live performance by revenue and attendance.
Despite a COVID-induced downturn in 2020, local composers and writers are buoyant, staging a quantity of new work this year – such as Dubbo Championship Wrestling at Hayes Theatre and The Deb at the Australian Theatre for Young People – matching the range and variety of the big players.
Michael Cassel Group secured A$420,533 in RISE funding to deliver a development program for new musicals: two large-scale workshop productions and support for the creative development of a further four original works.
When I ask if the next big musical will be Australian-born, Withers is sanguine, but noncommittal. She says that even with the incredible depth of talent in Australia, the power to back the next hit remains in the hands and wallets of audiences.