Riding a wave of public interest in Peter Allen’s life after the recent televised portrayal of his story on Channel 7, Babirra Theatre Company are preparing to hit the stage with their production of The Boy From Oz. Opening on October 9, the amateur company has achieved a rare feat – the show completely sold out a week before opening.
We spoke to director Chris Bradtke and Jonathan Guthrie-Jones (playing the lead role) about the show, and why they think it resonates with Melbourne theatre audiences.
“This is the second production of The Boy From Oz that I have directed, the first being the premiere amateur season for CLOC in 2008. […] Although I am not a big fan of jukebox musicals, a few of them stand out as being more theatrically satisfying – The Boy From Oz has more to offer than most,” says Bradtke. “Peter Allen’s songs are closely related to the events in his own life and therefore arise more organically when embedded into the narrative. Nick Enright’s original concept of presenting his life story in concert form allows for some very interesting directorial input. It neatly avoids obvious contrivance, something which is frequently associated with jukebox musicals. All in all it’s a thoroughly good show.”
As the musical has already sold out, it is clear to see that it has a particular pull for Melbourne theatre audiences. We asked if the popularity of the musical’s content served as a source of nerves for those involved in the production.
“I can’t say that I have felt significant pressure on that front. […] To me, the important thing is that the audience recognises sufficient key characteristics so that they recall the original performers. More important is that the audience empathises with those characters as they relate one to the other and to the unfolding of the plot.”
Peter Allen is a popular man to characterise, with many noting that the role in The Boy From Oz becomes a career highlight for men like Hugh Jackman and Todd McKenney, who have played the character professionally. When speaking to Guthrie-Jones, it is clear that he plans to honour these portrayals and the man himself, but he wants to find something in the role to call his own.
“Naturally, the basis of my portrayal is the available material of Peter Allen – videos of him performing and interviews, plus third hand accounts, documentaries, etc. The wonderful thing about the music Peter wrote is that you can learn so much of who he was and where he was just from the lyrics. But I’ve seen both Hugh and Todd play the role, and it’s interesting – both very different from each other, but both wonderful. They take different aspects of Peter, emphasise them, to give us a Peter that they see. I guess I’ve tried to put this all together to give the Peter I see,” says Guthrie-Jones. “Furthermore, it would be easy to just jump out on stage being camp and flamboyant and thinking that’s all that needs doing. Nothing could be more disrespectful to the legacy of the man. Yes, flamboyance was an important part of his onstage routine… His sexuality is an important aspect, it by no means defines him. At the end of the day, he was a human with professional and personal highs and lows like the rest of us. This is, I suppose, the angle I’ve tried to take in preparing for the role.”
Historical accounts represented through musical theatre narratives seem to be incredibly popular in the wider theatre repertoire, and are a fantastic way for Australian audiences to remember and commemorate their history. After working in the shoes of Peter Allen for so long, we wondered what Bradtke and Guthrie-Jones thought about the popularity of this particular genre of musical.
“That’s an interesting question given that historical recounts are such an integral part of our musical theatre, past and future,” notes Bradtke. “Many of the musicals that we now consider ‘classics’ are based upon historical figures or events; just think of Eva Peron in Evita, Miquel de Cervantes in Man of La Mancha, King Mongkut in The King and I, The Von Trapp Family in The Sound of Music, ‘Big’ and ‘Little’ Edie in Grey Gardens, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys. And of course more recently we’ve seen the success on Broadway with Beautiful; The Carole King Musical, Hamilton and Fun Home, all of which are ‘historical recounts’. So, it’s obviously a formula for success because the list is almost endless. Peter Allen, with his glamorous and tragic life, deserves equal billing in this list. The quality, the concept, the writing and the production values of the The Boy From Oz make it not only a compelling historical recount but also great entertainment.”
Guthrie-Jones agrees, although he thinks not all artists’ lives are worthy of a theatrical retelling. “The Boy From Oz is such a great show and a great biographical account of Peter’s life, similar treatments of other artists’ lives would be great… However, the reason [the show] works so well is because the music he wrote was about his life, almost as if he knew one day we’d be telling his story… And what a story it is. Few artists’ biographical musicals would be so interesting.”
“I hope the audience comes on the ride that was Peter’s life with us. Story aside, the music of this show is so wonderful – takes you through the highs and lows, makes you cry, fills you with national pride, makes you want to shake maracas… It’s really got everything.”
The Boy From Oz will run at the The Whitehorse Centre from Friday 9th October to Saturday 17th October.