It has been more than five years since Sydney’s Theatre Royal, which lies in the heart of the city’s central business district, last welcomed an audience. But on 2 December, its doors will finally reopen, when the Theatre Royal hosts the Australian premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical Jagged Little Pill.

Now operated by leading global live entertainment company Trafalgar Entertainment, the Theatre Royal is an important cultural asset for both the city and the state of New South Wales. In partnership with the NSW Government and Dexus, owner and manager of 25 Martin Place (formerly the MLC Centre), Trafalgar is working to enhance Sydney’s cultural landscape.

Speaking about the reopening in January, Don Harwin, NSW Minister for the Arts, said, “Internationally renowned musicals deliver around $25 million in visitor spend over a six-month run and around 200 jobs. Reopening the Theatre Royal will ensure NSW gets the first run for a host of international productions … reaffirming our position as Australia’s premier destination for musical theatre.”

When Jagged Little Pill heads to Melbourne in January 2022, the Theatre Royal will welcome another Australian premiere, the critically acclaimed musical Girl from the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson and with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. Since its first outing at London’s Old Vic in 2017, the show has picked up several awards (its Broadway production will be eligible for Tony Awards next year).

Tim McFarlane, Executive Chairman of Trafalgar Entertainment – Asia Pacific, tells Theatre People about the process of getting the Theatre Royal to its reopening night. He and Trafalgar Entertainment Group’s Joint CEO, Sir Howard Panter, have been working to secure the venue for around seven years. At that time, the pair were involved in discussions about the theatre, but a change in the theatre’s ownership saw them having to restart that process. Finally, in May 2020, following a tender process, the NSW State Government announced that Trafalgar Entertainment had been awarded the 55-year lease to operate the theatre.

It was time then to plan a major refurbishment of the theatre and then to commence the construction phase. There’s also been a global pandemic to contend with in recent times.

“It’s been a marathon, but absolutely worth it,” says McFarlane.

Tim McFarlane (Photo credit: Pierre Toussaint)

Asked about the importance of having the Theatre Royal operating again in Sydney’s CBD, McFarlane talks about the shortage of theatres in the Harbour City.

“To have had a mid-sized house closed for so long not only has affected what shows have been possible in Sydney, but … the whole country as well, because the nature of Australian commercial theatre is that shows have to play in more than one city to be economically viable,” McFarlane explains. “When you remove a theatre from Australia’s biggest city, that has consequences all around the country.”

As to what it is that makes the Theatre Royal such a great venue for live theatre, McFarlane cites a couple of key attributes.

“The first is the theatre’s size and intimacy,” he says. “There are other great theatres in Sydney, but they’re a lot bigger than the Royal. The Royal is an extremely intimate theatre, which makes it ideally suited to shows like Jagged Little Pill [and] to drama.”

McFarlane also believes the Theatre Royal is such an attractive venue for live theatre because of its location within the 25 Martin Place shopping, dining and entertainment precinct, which has been undergoing a $170 million transformation.

“You’re coming to a wider entertainment destination. That will make it fantastic for people who come to the Royal.”

Sydney’s Theatre Royal prepares to reopen in December 2021 (Photo credit: David Boon)

When patrons arrive at the theatre’s entrance on King Street, McFarlane anticipates they will be struck by how different the theatre now looks.

“Before … it was basically a cylindrical drum made of concrete with one relatively small door into the foyer. It’s all been opened up, probably around 120-odd degrees of the drum is now glass. So, from the footpath, as you approach the theatre, all of a sudden you’re going to look in and see all the fabulous Harry Seidler design elements all brilliantly lit.”

The view includes an impressive ceiling, designed by Italian structural engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. From the drum hangs a sculpture, Charles Perry’s Mercator, which is also visible from the street.

“I think people are going to think, ‘Wow, this really is a beautiful theatre and it’s been hidden for so long,” says McFarlane.

So, what is it about the project to bring the theatre back to life of which McFarlane is most proud?

“I think the fact that I’m returning it is the thing that has driven me,” he says. “It’s returning a theatre that had fundamentally good bones but hadn’t been touched for over 40 years in any meaningful way. And being part of that whole process of reimagining what the Royal could be, restoring those elements that were faithful to Harry Seidler’s vision for it, has been a really exciting and worthwhile thing to do.”

In a statement last month, discussing the Theatre Royal’s relaunch with two exciting new Broadway musicals, Sir Howard Panter said: “We set out from the start to bring the very best of international theatre to the people of Sydney, and this is the beginning of our long-term commitment to first class programming of this exciting new venue.”

The original Broadway cast of Jagged Little Pill (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

McFarlane talks about how important the choice of shows was to the re-opening plan.

“Very, very important. We’ve spent many months discussing what would be the ideal mix of shows to re-open this theatre,” he says.

“First of all, our approach generally, wherever it is possible, is that Sydney gets it first. So, to open the theatre with shows that have not played elsewhere before coming into the Theatre Royal has been a driving factor for us.”

He adds that, in finding shows with which to reopen the venue, Trafalgar has also looked for shows “that had a bit of an edge to them”.

Asked about what else theatregoers can expect from the Theatre Royal going forward in terms of shows, Mc Farlane says, “We want musicals and plays, generally, commercial plays that are probably star-driven plays. Those two categories will be the bulk of the program.”

And is Trafalgar looking to continue bringing shows that are still in their early days on overseas stages (as is the case with Jagged Little Pill)?

“Wherever possible, yes, we’d love to do that,” McFarlane says.