Boutique musicals blossomed, new companies multiplied and program prices rose, in the 2014 year of musical theatre.
Of 155 live theatre performances I viewed this year, around one third were musicals. Trips to the West End and Broadway helped the total reach 56 musicals for the year, and would have been even higher if I had been able to regularly visit Sydney, where the independent scene is thriving.
Starting off with that trend, it must be noted that the burgeoning boutique musical boom was in full strength during 2014, further adding to Melbourne’s entertainment choices, and practically revolutionising the Sydney theatre scene. New companies and new venues added to the variety and expertise on show.
After making a terrific splash with Sweet Charity, the newly formed Hayes Theatre Company were off and running. I finally had the chance to visit the Hayes in October, for their production of riveting 1996 Australian musical Miracle City, a drama about a televangelist family on the brink of implosion. Having missed Squabbalogic’s The Drowsy Chaperone and Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Falsettos, I was pleased to have the chance to enjoy Theatre Division’s hilarious presentation of camp classic Ruthless! The Musical. Sweet Charity’s February 2015 Melbourne season is highly anticipated.
Meanwhile Melbourne’s independents continued to provide diverse, high quality, low cost offerings, which went a very long way to offsetting the drearily safe revivals of commercial music theatre. Manilla Street Productions made another quality offering with Blood Brothers. Watch This and Manilla Street Productions presented rarely-seen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures. Audiences seeking new Australian work were treated to well-cast concert stagings of Matthew Robinson musicals Atlantis in Concert and Happy People in Concert. Edward Grey organised a moving presentation of William Finn’s Elegies.
Rubix Productions presented quirky musical Calvin Berger, based on Cyrano de Bergerac. New company Ghost Light made their presence felt with cult teen horror musical Carrie. The Collective hit gold with their premiere season, stirring Jason Robert Brown musical drama Parade. Fellow newcomers Life Like Company were impressively bold in heading straight into Playhouse, the Arts Centre Melbourne, with their opening season of Passion, another rarely seen Sondheim musical.
While I have long been one of the staunchest advocates of Melbourne treasure The Production Company, their model did seem to falter somewhat this year in comparison all these interesting, well-cast, low cost shows. Despite impressive design and talented cast, Guys and Dolls was edited in script and scale to a hollow facsimile of the original. A dreary adaptation made it difficult for Show Boat to really take flight. Charismatic leads, a classic score and a more intimate venue helped La Cage aux Folles end the year on a more positive note.
As the lovingly revived The Lion King continued in Sydney, it was joined by high profile, big budget, brand new Australian musical Strictly Ballroom. The concept and designs were world class, but Strictly Ballroom’s bloated book and lack of a unified score undermined it as a musical. Hopes are high for Strictly Ballroom to reach its full potential in the coming Melbourne season.
John Frost showed a disappointing lack of imagination in continuing to trot out past hits. Rocky Horror Show featured some big stars, but design and direction were pantomime level. And using an ensemble performer rather than a villainous guest star as the despised Narrator was a particularly cheap, unimaginative move. Wicked, in its Melbourne return was at least bearing the signs of careful polish and strong casting. Reg Livermore, in particular proved a strong addition to the cast, with newly promoted cast members Steve Danielson (Fiyero) and Edward Grey (Boq) also proving to be valuable finds. Out of mothballs after 23 years, The King and I was a classy if uninspired offering from Frost and Opera Australia. Glossy though the old production is, it was disappointing to miss out on the brand new Bartlett Sher production of The King and I by only a year. Whether we wanted it back or not, Grease at least arrived back in tiptop, highly energetic shape. Finally, Frost brought back another guaranteed money-spinner when Dirty Dancing opened in Sydney in December, ahead of a national tour
Victorian Opera gathered an interesting cast of music theatre and opera performers for Into the Woods, the second installment of their Sondheim trilogy. The production was all but sold out before it opened, and while there was a great deal to admire, the production polarized lovers of the show, with devotees of the Broadway original (widely seen as a filmed recording) finding the production somewhat difficult to accept.
After a massive wait from the initial announcement, back in 2013, Les Misérables finally roared back onto the Melbourne stage. Enhanced by a new design and new orchestrations, Les Mis featured a wonderful cast, brimming with experienced performers and talented newcomers alike.
Sole new Broadway musical of the year was 2012 Tony winner Once, a charmingly quirky, chamber-sized musical that was somewhat dwarfed by the three-tiered size of the Princess Theatre. Although inexplicably featuring an imported male lead, the remainder of the cast of Australians were (are) superbly talented quadruple threats, acting, singing, dancing and playing the score themselves on hand-held instruments in place of a traditional pit band.
2014 was the year in which musical programs rose to $25, a charge inflicted by shows such as Wicked and Les Mis. The rise comes some 18 years after $20 was charged for programs way back in 1996 for Sunset Boulevard.
The line-up was a little disappointing in the West End last January. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward the Musical and Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity the Musical were both basically dead on arrival. Tori Amos musical The Light Princess was beautifully produced at National Theatre but struggled to capture audience enthusiasm and affection. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may have eye-popping designs (and a blue chip title) but is let down by a fairly pedestrian book and score, despite the songs being by Hairspray’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
While movie adaptations The Bodyguard and The Commitments were not overly exciting, new musical American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller was certainly worth a trip out to the Almeida. The pending Broadway season of American Psycho, with music by Spring Awakening scribes Sheik and Sater, is eagerly anticipated. New venue St James Theatre housed generally satisfying seasons of Sondheim’s Putting it Together and Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday. Ever-reliable boutique venue Menier Chocolate Factory presented a rousing, gorgeously sung version of Bernstein classic Candide.
The new Broadway season introduced a couple of new hits along with a couple of duds. A riot of colour and gorgeous melodies, Aladdin is sure to succeed wherever its magic carpet takes it. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a hilarious, tuneful, original show, very well deserving of its Best Musical win. A few months before its Melbourne premiere, the new staging of Les Misérables was seen when it re-opened on Broadway.
Broadway never disappoints in the generous sprinkling of stardust. Beloved belter Idina Menzel carried high-concept new musical If/Then. Neil Patrick Harris shone in cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Audra McDonald was incredible as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (technically a play). Michelle Williams was cute but underwhelming as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, in which Sam Mendes’ 1993 staging is the real star. In a boutique staging, by Broadway standards, Sutton Foster soared as brave, devastatingly deluded heroine Violet.
Dance musical After Midnight featured incredible choreography, but its lack of a book did not help to attract audiences. Created in the old-fashioned Broadway musical style, Bullets over Broadway should have been a hit but seemed to be this year’s show that was the target of bad press. The Bridges of Madison County also floundered, despite a rapturously beautiful score sung superbly by its two stars, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale. Heathers the Musical failed to live up to the potential of its source material. As a Broadway musical, the presence of Rocky was surely due to a drunken dare.
Best Musicals 2014:
Commercial: Les Misérables
Broadway: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
West End: Candide
Most Disappointing Musicals 2014:
Commercial: Rocky Horror Show
New York: Heathers
West End: From Here to Eternity
Heavenly Performances 2014:
Boutique: Luigi Lucente (Parade); Blazey Best (Miracle City)
Commercial: Simon Gleeson (Les Misérables); Lisa McCune (The King and I)
Broadway: Jefferson Mays (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder); Kelli O’Hara (The Bridge of Madison County)
West End: Ashley Day (The Book of Mormon); Scarlett Strallen (Candide)
Photos: #1 Matt Murphy, #2 Kurt Sneddon, #3 Angus Scott, #4 & #5 Jeff Busby, #6 Oliver Toth, #7 Jeff Busby
Categories: Music Theatre