Julia Sutherland ponders the past, present and future of musical theatre.
Hey beautiful people, hands up who loves musical theatre! Yeah? Freakin' weirdo.
Sorry for the spade-calling brutality, but as I consider myself a proud member of said same show tune-humming freakin' weirdo community, I humbly ask for a moment to address my brethren directly and honestly.
Fact: The vast majority of human beings in society are not involved in staging musical theatre. Secondary fact: Only a very small percentage of the population of this planet even go to watch musical theatre. Third and most alarmingly (those who are easily offended please look away now): Most 'normal' people don't even like musical theatre, in fact they actively wish it ill. I know, right?
I remember well the point in my life when I first became conscious of this. On an otherwise unremarkable night in the late 90s, Chris Hughes and I were hanging out in my living room seguing between conversation and companionable silence, as you do, when suddenly Hughesy fixed me with a look of dumbfounded intensity and said, "Jules."
I returned his comical, wide-eyed expression. "Chris."
"Everybody we know sings."
Silence. No longer of the casually companionable variety, now loaded with contemplation of a higher philosophical phenomenon. Dagnammit he was right. (He generally is.) And life would never be quite the same again.
Belonging to the musical theatre community in those days was rather like being in a cult. It was what we knew. It was what we were passionate about. It was what we did. We all had day jobs but they were simply functional. Musical theatre provided such a massive network of friends we had no real need nor time for other social circles. It was our way of life. It was our reason for being. We had been indoctrinated, and we had happily estranged ourselves from the rest of society for it.
It was this recognition of the niche we were living in that prompted the conception of Theatre People. I am forever grateful for the time that I spent in full musical theatre immersion. The all-consuming nature of the beast was creatively and socially euphoric, and I suspect this may still be the case for many people today.
I don't refer to the community in the past tense because I feel it has disbanded at all. On the contrary, as I've drifted in and out of it in more recent times, my observation is that the community has in fact strengthened and expanded. I see these changes reflected in the staggering difference between what Theatre People was in its infant years and the pre-teen sensation it has become today.
I have no doubt that fifteen years ago there were amazing plays, fringe theatre, cabaret, readings, dance, and all manner of mind-blowing creative output available for indulgence and vying for audiences. Only I didn't see any of it. I was too lost in musical theatre world to notice or care, and besides finding out about it all was too much of a mission to be bothered.
Nowadays I could not imagine living without this spicy variety in my diet. And the expansion of Theatre People, not just nationally but well beyond its original niche of musical theatre, reflects what I hope is an increased appreciation of the fabulously eclectic greater community that we – the musical theatre freakazoids – exist within.
Being a member of a niche minority group can carry with it its own subculture mystique. But until very recently, not in our case. 'Cheesy', 'daggy' and downright 'painful' were the adjectives commonly used by detractors to justify their repellant reaction to musical theatre a decade ago.
The original Theatre People logo from 2000. (How cool is the Wayback Machine??)
In my opinion we owe some big high fives to Tim Burton for giving our genre a much needed PR boost with the fabulously fromage-free Sweeney Todd movie. Perhaps more influential though is the recent resurgence in popularity of musical theatre's close cousins burlesque, vaudeville, opera, carnivale, and cabaret. Drop any of those terms in hipster conversation and watch street cred ensue.
But of course we don't do or watch musical theatre to be cool. We do it because we love it. And I still do love it, as long as it's creative.
From my purely subjective audience perspective, I have witnessed three shows this year that took theatre into new realms and raised the bar of creativity through the roof. Namely, Attic Erratic's Christina, Bryce Ives and Anna Boulic's Chants des Catacombes, and Four Larks Theatre's Undine. All three productions used music intrinsically to enhance the theatrical experience, but so utterly smashed the mould and preconceptions of 'musical theatre' that the label seems almost inapplicable, unless we broaden the definition considerably. Staged in a carpark, an eerie city basement and a hidden Brunswick warehouse respectively, each show drew on a myriad of theatrical influences but served up something powerfully original that upon reflection months later, still prompts a visceral reaction in me.
That is not to say that creativity in musical theatre can only be achieved with unconventional performance spaces or avant-garde direction. Magnormos, for example, do fabulous service to the community though their commitment to staging new and often local works which are accessible, original and well-received. Even more traditionally, there will always be a time, place and theatre company happily staging a production of a tried-and-true Broadway musical. I by no means wish to suggest that this should ever cease. It fulfils a need in the community for both the audience and performer, and these shows are well-loved for a reason.
I do believe though that even the most mainstream shows deserve originality of vision and direction. I'm not advocating necessarily for a prog rock Sound of Music (although if that's planted a seed for anyone, count me in!). But I do concur with Ashley Weidner's opinion piece from last year that local productions of popular Broadway shows should do more than present a low-budget carbon copy of the original professional production. I'm pleased to say that in my limited experience of late, the Victorian scene seems to be brimming with clever directors who are happily breathing their originality into these old faithful shows.
Yes, I see the irony in posting this image from a computer.
So what does all this add up to, and what does it have to do with the great Chris Hughes' epiphany from all those years ago? I'm about to attempt summation. Thanks for staying with me thus far.
What I believe I'm observing, and fully support, is the dissolution of the 'us and them' mentality when it comes to musical theatre and all the other styles of theatre and theatre people. Like everything else in the world, we're part of a greater community that is constantly evolving, and it's one hell of a ride if we let it be.
I would strongly encourage anyone who loves theatre to pick a random show that sits outside your natural preference or comfort zone, and go and see it. With Melbourne Festival and Melbourne Fringe about to spoil us even further for choice, what better time to explore the diversity on offer.
Even if it's not your cup of tea, you will be opening your eyes to new influences, imagination and vehicles of creative expression. You'll also be humouring me and my Utopian dream ballet of all the shiny happy theatre people holding hands. Hell, it might even change your life.