It was around thirty years ago; Good Morning Australia was new to our screens, the TV Week Logie Awards were being held on channel 10 for the first time, the last legal underarm bowl was made at the MCG and the Australian stage was preparing itself for a phenomenon. Bear in mind that there was no Youtube; social media sites were a far off reality and only a finite number of people seemed to be earning frequent flyer points. Cats, Les Misèrables and The Phantom of the Opera were being hailed by newspapers as the “must-see shows” in theatres across the seas, and we poor folk from a penal colony were not being given the chance to see them. Enter Cameron Mackintosh, the man with the plan (and the money to make it happen).
It was his visionary idea to bring productions from the West End to the ‘End of the World’ exactly as they had been presented to British audiences. No longer did Australian audiences have to “um” and “uh” about choosing which production they would attend for the year, the Brits have already told us which ones are the best just as they have told us the best way to brew our tea.
The Jonas brothers? In Les Mis? Really?
I can see both sides of the Cameron Mackintosh argument. When he first started taking his productions around the world he was a pioneer. He created a mould for staging theatre. Through this mould – ‘theatre-by-numbers’, if you will [Michael John LaChiusa calls them faux-musicals – Ed.] – Cameron Mackintosh made the shows in his producing repertoire accessible to audiences across the globe. Indeed, Les Mis has sort of become like an old friend to me now, and 25 years on, Mackintosh must surely have done something right. It is certainly a musical that I can rely on to make me feel and think and to keep me safe in the knowledge that nothing much will have changed. It would be hard to imagine a production without that red flag atop the barricade. Perhaps I would be disappointed if this element wasn’t included? Perhaps all these years of being presented with the same production as Broadway or The West End has fostered a generation of theatregoers who are resistant to get their wallets out for something they know nothing about? The difference is that today we have a wonderful thing called the internet, and there is scarcely a person out there who doesn’t know at least a little something about everything. We are a generation who has been lucky enough to watch clips of Broadway musicals – we are the generation of compare and contrast. Cameron Mackintosh should be applauded for what he did for audiences thirty years ago but now it is time that he left well enough alone.
In late 2010, when Mackintosh was asked which new musicals had inspired him lately, he replied, “I never go to the theatre.” Perhaps this is a sure-fire sign that for him it is all about the almighty pound and not about the art? I say that this is the era to move forward and to create new productions. Say goodbye to the age of comfort, certainty and producer-driven musicals and make way for more writer-driven musicals. It’s time to let others (perhaps Australians?) make their mark on our stages. The performers, seamstresses, techies and all-round visionaries of our nation are ready for their chance! And we have proved that we deserve it. I saw Hairspray on Broadway long before it made its way to our shores and I loved it. It was fun and quirky and the cast (Mr Schuester included!) were outstanding. The current Australian production is so different that it is almost impossible to compare the two… but I did; our vibrant, energetic and innovative production is the perfect example of why the ‘theatre-by-numbers’ mould from the past should be dispersed with immediately. Clearly, we are capable of creating wonderful theatre that is accessible to all – Andrew Lloyd Webber confirmed this when he alluded to the fact that we had managed to do with Love Never Dies what a team of West Ender’s apparently couldn’t!
Another point that might be worth considering is this: If one production is an exact replica of another – everything is the same except the performers – is it their fault if the execution is lacking? Granted, it must be an arduous task to stifle all of your creativity in favour of recreating perfectly what another has done before you; right down to the raising of your arm on a particular line of text. But if that is the mandated mould of the production then isn’t it the performer’s duty to do so with some conviction? Broadway star and choreographer Debbie Allen once said, “but out of limitations comes creativity.” I agree that this can be true in regards to limitations such as time, budget, materials and ability; I am not, however, convinced that such all-encompassing limitations that this theatre impresario places on us can possibly foster creativity. In 2010 Mackintosh spoke to The Telegraph about political party policies stating that, “there’s no point having new ideas if you don’t know how to implement them”. Well, Sir Mackintosh, it’s not that we don’t know how, it’s that you won’t let us.