Well dear readers, I come to you live from the Scottish countryside, on a train back to London from a whirlwind two days in Edinburgh. Yes, I am on the grand tour of Europe that seems to be becoming a rite of passage for us Gen. Ys. This leg of the tour is the one that will be of most interest to you – the part where I see so many shows my head wants to explode with singing, dancing happiness! My trip to Edinburgh was to see Melbourne's very own Rachel Juhasz perform her cabaret My Judy Journals as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (and she did us more than proud folks!) Yes we have festivals in Australia…. but the Edinburgh Fringe is HUGE. I looked at the guide and I felt overwhelmed by the amount of shows, I had no idea where to start and I only had two days! And the Fringe isn't the only festival on in Edinburgh during that time – there's four others going on, too. Something like one million visitors flood Edinburgh every August from all over the world.
Mel didn't like the welcome party at Doune Castle, Scotland
And the West End….. It's like Christmas EVERYDAY! So many musicals, plays, ballets, operas, comedies… I don't think anyone could possibly see everything in a month. I'm going to see Les Mis on the West End tonight. I'm not going to lie…. If I was to die at 11 p.m. tonight at least my last thoughts will be that my life is complete now anyway. Les Mis. On the West End. Just thought I'd say that again.
Now all this has got me thinking about the theatre scene back home. At the moment we are experiencing a musical boom, in Melbourne and Sydney particularly, and that's wonderful. But in Melbourne we have only a handful of professional theatre venues that can hold over 500 people. If we have three major musicals playing at once this is a big deal for us. We have comedy and fringe festivals, but I'm pretty sure there aren't a million tourists that come to see them.
Yes, we absolutely have quality theatre in Australia. Our production of Hairspray is a ground-breaking and awe-inspiring achievement (I should know, I saw it 3 times!) Our Debra Byrne features of the global Les Mis recording. Andrew Lloyd Weber likes the Australian production of Love Never Dies better than the London one. I've heard and read comments over the last year that Melbourne could be (or is) the next Broadway or West End. But… now that I am here in the razzle dazzle world of unlimited theatre, I've come to the realization that we've got a long way to go. For instance, I have a list of fifteen musicals I want to see on my trip alone. There are more than that playing in London and that doesn't include any other type of theatre. Fifteen! I'm not sure I've even seen that many professional musicals in Melbourne…
The West End: Christmas everyday
So what is it that's missing?! The first factor that is obvious to me is one I've already mentioned, venues. Yes each capital city has a couple of big venues, some a handful even; but really there's no comparison in that regard. This is not something that could be easily fixed as more people flock to the big smoke and space gets more and more limited. And who has a spare $20 million lying around to build a world class theatre?! Not I! (In Melbourne we have that to build a new sports stadium though…. Don't get me started on that monstrosity!)
So without venues, we simply don't have the same infrastructure or back bone to produce the same amount of theatre that somewhere like London has. Imagine the vast number of people employed to keep all of the West End theatres ticking along… Producers, marketing advisors, designers of all facets, back stage hands…. Countless different roles. If our industry expanded to the same magnitude of London tomorrow, how would it cope? Could we hope to have enough hands on deck?
And the last one I'm going to mention is… Audience. In a culture so entrenched in the matters of men in shorts or baggy greens chasing balls around; how can we involve the masses? And the commercial audience we do have for musicals seem to be only interested in big names or big blockbusters/movie musicals. Another production of Phantom or Mamma Mia. Not to mention the dreaded jukebox musical… Tickets so marked down just to get numbers up that it almost puts us poor bums in community theatre to shame! $55 to see a professional musical when some of our amateur companies are pushing the $40 mark. This is a major obstacle and really what solution can there be? How do you interest a one-eyed Collingwood supporter in Stephen Sondheim?! Does the term JRB mean anything to the people working in the CBD of Brisbane? How do we stop alienating staunch AFL/Rugby/Cricket/Golf/F1/whatever fans with the stigma of sequins?! I don't know. Sure people can like both, but how many of our 21 million do?!
Exhibit A: The jukebox musical
But there is something in London that I also see in Australia; and it gives me hope that we too can be a theatre capital of the world. That, my friends, is TALENT. We've definitely got it. In fact we've got too much of it! I loved Chicago on the West End but the woman playing Velma paled in comparison to our Caroline O'Connor. I defy anyone around the world to show me a better portrayal of Tracy Turnblad than Jaz Flowers! The West End production of Wicked had not one but two Aussies at the helm when it opened. Not to mention the great talent that NIDA, WAAPA, and the VCA are churning out every year – the stars of tomorrow. Our amateur scenes are thriving and I consider myself lucky to have been treated to many poignant, moving, and electrifying performances over the years.
There's no denying that we have a long way to go. But we have the talent and we've got one more thing that the Brits and the Yanks haven't got… Aussie determination and spirit! Let's slap some snags on the barbie, crack open a beer and… sing some show tunes?!?