When kiwi songwriter and composer Jamie Burgess visited Melbourne on holiday, he found himself overwhelmed at the amount of theatre happening in the CBD.

“It was like a Mary Tyler Moore moment,” he says. “I was just standing there on Swanston St, grinning like an idiot, but in my head I was twirling around and singing. I had a feeling that this was the city where I might be able to make it after all.”

He describes Melbourne as a city that knows how to embrace the arts and celebrate his favourite genre, The Musical; and standing there on Swanston St back in 2007, it was love at first sight.

After writing lyrics and an initial treatment for a New Zealand tour of a musical based on Once Were Warriors, when he was 25 years old, then having a successful theatre career in Wellington (NZ’s cultural capital) as a performer, musician and writer for the next five years, Burgess was determined not to stagnate. He also needed to get out of his comfort zone before it was too late.

“People had been saying to me for years that I should move to New York or London, but I knew that if I wanted to write a successful musical on my own terms, I needed time and with my kiwi passport I could only live in the U.S. or England for a couple of years.”

Burgess was realistic about how patient he would have to be if he wanted to create the kind of musical that would start life here and then make the transition to Broadway or The West End. According to him, shows on that level need at least five years just to get off the ground – ten years to graduate overseas.

“Besides,” he says, “I’m not interested in writing an American or British musical, I quite like our accent.”

Jamie Burgess head shot

Jamie Burgess

He moved to Melbourne on January 1st 2010, and almost exactly six years later – after performing with Magnormos Theatre Company, writing his own cabarets Gobsmacked and Handsome Devil, and playing improv piano for Improv Conspiracy and Impromptunes – his latest Musical Butch Masters: Man of Destiny has finished two weeks of music rehearsal and is gearing up to premiere on stage at Alex Theatre St. Kilda from January 28th.

‘The time for this was just so right,” he says. “I’ve been able to call in a lot of favours. Most of the cast are people I’ve worked with here… and they’re all incredible. And the production team behind the scenes are all friends whose work I respect and adore. This show simply wouldn’t be happening without them.”

When Burgess shares his opinion on the state of ‘the Australian Musical’ within the theatre community, he acknowledges the financial difficulty in supporting new work, but cautions against the culture of ‘downsizing’ or ‘stunt casting’.

“It’s been suggested that if the Aussie Musical is to survive, the show must have a tiny cast or a famous name above the title. I personally think it doesn’t matter if it’s just five performers with a TV actress in the lead role; if the show’s boring no one will like it, the end. There are an awful lot of people writing, and there’s an awful lot of indulgent stuff that somehow makes its way to the stage. I’m not trying to walk in the footsteps of another writer, or write a show for the intelligentsia… I just want to write a show the audience absolutely loves.”

Perhaps to prove his point about refusing to downsize, BUTCH MASTERS has a cast of 25, which makes it a very big show, ludicrous by Australian standards. Burgess emphatically states that, “It’s big! It’s ambitious. It’s an actual musical!”

Butch cast

Left to Right: Belinda Hanne-Reid, Eden Swan, Amanda Buckley, Giovanni Piccolo, Ryan Smedley, Erik Thomsen, Adrian LiDonni, Liam J. O’Byrne, Tash York, Justin Clausen, Cat Commander, Mitch Ralston, Laura Raiti, Richard Perdriau, Chanelle Sheehan, Henry Kafoa, Nathan Smith and Isabella Valette. Cast missing: Antony Steadman, Natasha Guzel, Cariad Wallace, David Peake, Candice Sweetman & Amy Dyke


But is it any good?

Before writing for the theatre, Burgess was signed (at age 17) to a publishing deal with Parachute Music, writing songs for their series of Worship albums – albums that gave the Hillsong juggernaut a run for their money in the late nineties and early two thousands. He penned three songs for their first two albums, winning NZ Music Awards for ‘Best Gospel Recording’ two years in a row, and giving the Parachute Band material that took them to the Gospel Music America Awards – The Dove Awards – where they won an International Band of the Year award. His songs have also been sung at Hillsong, translated into many other languages, made into remixes… and used to promote abstinence in teenagers across America.

“Here I was, this guy coming to terms with his sexuality, and people my age all across the world were singing my songs and wearing ‘purity rings’. I should’ve been loving life, but I was a gay guy hiding in Church, behind a keyboard and a mic every Sunday.”

Parachute Music inevitably found out about his sexuality, and effectively ended the publishing contract, and when Burgess finally admitted to his Pastor that he was gay, his life changed for good… just as he was accepted into Drama School.

“The phone stopped ringing. My friends stopped hanging out with me. Life as I knew it just stopped. Suddenly I had Sundays free, for the first time in my life… and I was twenty one.”

He threw himself into study at the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art, graduating in 2000 with a Diploma and a gig performing with The Opera. He also heard about plans to adapt Once Were Warriors for the stage, and approached the producer of the project about becoming involved.

‘I knew the guy who had been asked to write the music, so I went along with him to an ‘opening night’ thing where I met the Producer and told him I was going to write his musical. He told me to f**k off. I assured him I wouldn’t.’

After Once Were Warriors (which Burgess regrets ended up being nothing like the show he wanted it to be), that same producer helped fund a professional season of Burgess’s debut play Shoes – which Burgess hopes to stage in Australia soon – and a duologue musical called Becoming The Courtesan.

‘The Independent Theatre Scene in New Zealand was incredible. The local governments were active supporters of culture, and at the time I was putting on my shows, the Prime Minister was also Minister for the Arts. There was funding available for new work, and three professional theatres operating in Wellington, all programmed years in advance. It was bliss… then the government changed and so I packed up and left. There’s only one professional theatre left in Wellington now.”

With a population roughly the size of Melbourne across the entire country, and a nation of islands divided by water, New Zealand is a difficult country in which to mount any successful large-scale musical. Most of the major shows are tours from Australia or star vehicles for English or American performers… and the tour usually starts and stops in Auckland. Also, like Australia, mounting new local musical theatre is generally the sole domain of the independent theatre companies, and the likelihood of growing the show from its ‘very-off-broadway’ debut to a season at a major theatre company is 99% an ‘impossible dream’.

“I’ve realised that if I’m going to make my life writing shows here in Aussie, where this dream of mine has a far greater chance of happening, I have to make it happen myself. There is no ‘X-Factor’ show for writers of musicals, no one’s scouting for talent or putting ads in the papers looking for librettists and composers to throw money at… but people really do want musicals; and they want to love them!”

Butch and Pussy

Cast members Isabella Valette and Mitch Ralston who play Pussy and Butch

Burgess refuses to be defeated by the difficulty of his chosen creative life. He recalls a candid chat with Peter Fitzpatrick (the writer of Flowerchildren – The Mama’s & Papa’s Musical) where Fitzpatrick reminded him that mounting every new show was ‘starting from scratch’ every time… even for someone who has had successes.

“It sucks, and it’s hard… and I’m exhausted by the impossibility of this industry… but I’m obviously a sucker for punishment. I don’t think there is such a thing as THE great Australian musical, but I’m determined to stay here and write the best stuff I can right here, and one day prove to the sceptics that a successful original Aussie musical can be done, and take over the world!”

FOR MORE ABOUT JAMIE www.jamieburgess.net

For tickets to Butch Masters: Man of Destiny http://www.alextheatrestk.com/whats-on-alex/butch-masters-man-destiny