Frank Barnes

Staging a musical has always been an expensive enterprise but nowadays to produce a big Broadway/West End hit costs many millions just to get to the point of putting the show on the stage.

Then there is the publicity, which has to be massive, and with the really big musicals the state government will give the producers grants as a successful show will bring millions of dollars to the city where it is showing. That’s why you will see competitions between Melbourne and Sydney to stage a musical first. The Book of Mormon has already been announced as opening in Melbourne in 2017 and Sydney saw Matilda as a coup.

The running costs for these big shows can also climb into millions each week so they have to make sure the theatres are full. The casts are big, the number of musicians is getting smaller as technology improves but they are still there, backstage there are usually more people than on the stage. And that is why the ticket prices are now close to $200 for the best seats.


Sydney Lyric Theatre

Matilda is a perfect example of a big musical. It started in London as a Royal Shakespeare Company production and has since been an enormous hit in the West End and Broadway. It has an adult cast of 21 and the nine roles of the children are played by a rotating cast of mainly four groups and 12 musicians.

Add to this a set that is made of letters of the alphabet and is constructed so that everything is enlarged so it looks as if from a child’s perspective.

The shows we see here have been finely honed in London and New York and we get to see well-proven shows. Matilda was probably a difficult show to sell to producers. It is a kids’ show and kids don’t have $200 on easy access.

Being written by Roald Dahl, it is also very dark. But it has been a big hit because it works for adults. The story is engrossing and pays a wonderful tribute to teachers, the music from Tim Minchin is wonderful and the whole show is a theatrical treat.

The story of “good overcoming evil” is done with great humour and you leave the theatre feeling you have had a great time. It is running in Sydney until February before moving to Melbourne.


The Hayes Theatre

When I was in New York on my Eric Pearson Study on gay and lesbian AIDS education in schools and unions I desperately wanted to see the latest hit Rent, which had not long opened and had gay and lesbian characters and dealt with HIV/AIDS.

It was booked out for months ahead and so I did what I professed I never would: I played the Australian card and begged and somehow convinced them to give me the best seat in the house.

It is set in the late '80s and the characters are the homeless in New York when it was very run-down and drugs were god to lots of people.

The title comes from the central characters being unable to pay their rent but also the actions that rent them apart. One of the major themes is the need of people to support each other and that is echoed through the rock opera songs.

The struggle for survival is told through the story, which is based on the opera La Boheme. Act 1 finishes with the song “La Vie Boheme” and the main character (but it really is an ensemble piece) Roger is trying to compose a song but continues to riff the main theme of “Musetta’s Waltz” from the opera. The other theme is family, and in this production it is obvious from go to whoa.

I saw a preview performance and two nights after I was still delighting in the glow of that performance. This is the third production I have seen. There was a very good production presented in Sydney at the Theatre Royal in 1998. It starred Christine Anu and introduced us to Rodger Corser. There has also been a film. which was very much a film of the Broadway production. But this production at the Hayes is the best.

Directed by Shaun Rennie and choreographed by Andrew Dexterity, it is a rollercoaster ride of sheer emotions. I am pleased to say it is my favourite show of the year but sorry to say it is already booked out. Hopefully it will be picked up by someone for a return appearance. Unlike the big musical shows this one only cost me $60 and would be worth four times that.

Anything Goes

Joan Sutherland Theatre
Sydney Opera House

Anything Goes is this year’s musical being presented by Opera Australia with John Frost producing. Last year it was The King and I and next year Julie Andrews will be directing
My Fair Lady.

Anything Goes first played in Sydney in 1934 and was met with reviews that called it tasteless, crude and advised husbands to keep their wives away. It is mainly set on a cruise ship and the characters are gangsters, their molls, performers, star-crossed lovers all getting the chance to sing the wondrous songs of Cole Porter.

What a pleasure to watch these top-line performers give us spirited renditions of the great songs such as “I Get a Kick out of You”, “You’re The Top”, “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely”. The highlight in this production is an eight-minute tap routine led by the incomparable Caroline O’Connor of the title song.

This production was directed by the team that brought us the superb revival of Sweet Charity at The Hayes Theatre and decided to present the show with tongue firmly in cheek. Todd McKenney. Wayne Scott Kermond and Debora Krisak all brought their considerable talents to a fun night.

The Hayes Theatre had a rare miss with a badly-executed production of another Cole Porter show, High Society. Where Anything Goes carefully took the mickey, the Hayes production took itself way too seriously.

I enjoyed High Society as I had never seen it on stage but there were too many excruciatingly bad moments. The saviours were Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox as the reporters who have the opportunity to sing the best songs including “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

Frank Barnes is retired. He also saw the amazing production of The Present at STC and Seventeen, enjoyed at Belvoir, but was sorely disappointed by Death and The Maiden. Looking forward to The Real Thing at New Theatre.