With 9 Broadway musicals currently hitting Australian stages, musical theater is booming again

With nine Broadway musicals currently playing on Australian stages – and three more set to open or reopen in the coming months – audiences could be forgiven for thinking ‘what pandemic?’

Most of the productions originated overseas in the last decade and have their first staging for Australian audiences.

Two productions are even part of Broadway’s 2022 season and have debuted in Australia ahead of the result of the annual Tony Awards.

SIX: The Musical is a 75-minute pop concert that remixes and tells the stories of Henry VIII’s six wives. Girl from the North Country layers the music of Bob Dylan over a fictional history of Depression-era America.

Along with four other new productions, SIX and Girl from the North Country will compete for the title of Best Musical at the Tony Awards ceremony to be held this Sunday evening at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Girl From The North Country began touring Australia in January and are currently playing in Melbourne.
Daniel Boud

The Night of Broadway Nights

Broadway musicals frequently cite Tony’s success in their marketing campaigns. A series of nominations for new productions can help raise awareness among Australian audiences.

But with COVID-19 disrupting the Broadway schedule and changing awards eligibility dates, some producers didn’t wait for Tonys validation.

SIX is already playing around the world and their 2018 pre-Broadway cast album has amassed over 100 million streams. Girl from the North Country has a firm closing date on Broadway after pressing for a one-week extension, and will launch a US tour in 2023.

So what does a possible victory in the top category mean for either of the Australian productions?

Australia’s SIX producer Louise Withers tells me that while a Tony win could provide new fodder for their marketing campaign, there’s no guarantee of increased profitability.

“We need local audiences to fall in love with the shows and encourage others to see them, in order to hope to be financially successful,” she says.

Hamilton won the Tony for Best Musical in 2016 and now plays in Melbourne.
Michael Cassel/Daniel Boud Group

Despite more than 100 Tony nominations between them, productions currently on Australian stages, only Hamilton (2015) and Moulin Rouge! (2020) won Best Musical the year they were nominated.

Once (2012) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) also won top prizes, but the current Australian productions are not replicas of the Broadway originals. Others, like Disney’s Frozen (2018) and Mary Poppins (2004) were decidedly ignored by peers voting in the Tonys – but have demonstrated continued commercial viability ever since.

Read more: Moulin Rouge! The musical is a spectacular feast for the senses

A precarious business

Accepting the 2020 award for Moulin Rouge!, Carmen Pavlovic, CEO of theater producer Global Creatures, observed that in light of the COVID-19-related disruptions, all of the past year’s shows – open, closed, on hiatus or reborn – deserved the title of “best”.

Pavlovic’s turn of phrase also underscored the fact that awards aside, each Broadway opening represents some kind of success, marking the culmination of years of creative work and significant financial investment and risk.

In the case of SIX, the financial capitalization for its Broadway opening was a paltry US$5 million (A$7 million). By comparison, Frozen would have cost US$30 million (AU$42 million) and Broadway “turkey” Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark $75 million US (AU$103 million).

The Broadway staging of Frozen, currently on stage in Adelaide, cost A$42 million.
Disney/Lisa Tomasetti

With a smaller cast and group size than most productions, SIX’s lower operating costs could mean a faster opportunity to recoup that investment. But Withers rejects the assumption that fewer on-stage human resources provide producers with enviable economies of scale.

When the previous government rolled out RISE funding to support the arts sector, the financial precariousness of show business became apparent.

To access the A$200 million fund, producers had to demonstrate that their projects would be “significantly less likely to come to fruition” without additional financial support.

Major commercial players Global Creatures, Michael Cassel Group, Newtheatricals and the Gordon Frost Organization have secured a total of A$4.6 million to support their productions.

Some analysts have criticized the decision to back commercial ventures, noting the opacity of the funding regime and the overwhelming level of financial need across the arts sector.

Read more: The latest art bargains show money isn’t enough. We need transparency

Australia’s New Musical

Data from Live Performance Australia ranks musical theater as the second largest live performance category in terms of revenue and attendance.

Despite a COVID-induced downturn in 2020, local composers and writers are vibrant, staging a slew of new work this year – such as Dubbo Championship Wrestling at the Hayes Theater and The Deb at the Australian Theater for Young People – matching the lineup and to the variety of big players.

A new Australian musical, The Deb, recently played in Sydney.
Australian Youth Theatre/Tracey Schramm

Michael Cassel Group secured RISE funding of AU$420,533 to set up a development program for new musicals: two large-scale workshop productions and support for the creative development of four other original works.

Global Creatures is moving forward with a six-week workshop on Muriel’s Wedding – which premiered at the Sydney Theater Company in 2017 – in New York.

When I ask if the next big musical will be Australian-based, Withers is optimistic, but evasive. She says that even with the incredible wealth of talent in Australia, the power to support the next hit remains in the hands and wallets of the public.

Read more: Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is a deeply satisfying tribute to Australia’s most beloved dad