THE A-Z OF AUSTRALIAN MUSICALS – THE ADELAIDE CONNECTION
By Peter Pinne & Peter Wyllie Johnston
A paper delivered by Peter Pinne at Research and Collections in a Connected World, a joint conference of International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres, Australia Branch, and The Performing Arts Special Interest Group of Museums Australia, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, 28 September 2012
In the early 1970s I bought a pianola and with it came a cupboard full of old rolls. There was one that I instantly fell in love with and kept playing constantly called "Omeo." I didn't know it at the time but discovered some years later that it came from a musical, and not just any musical, but what is recognized as being the first professionally produced Australian musical, F.F.F. It was written by Reg Stoneham and Jack DeGaris and opened at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Adelaide, on the 28th August 1920.
F.F.F. is where our story starts. THE A-Z OF AUSTRALIAN MUSICALS which Peter Wyllie Johnston and I have been working on for two years, is a book that lists the details of over 250 Australian Musicals from 1920 until the present time. Each entry lists the creatives, cast, synopsis, songs, reviews and whether the work has been recorded or published.
This overview of what musicals were created and premiered in Adelaide gives a good cross section of the range of content and of the many creatives who are part of the Australian musical story.
F.F.F. was sub-titled "An Australian Mystery Musical Comedy," and was the brainchild of Jack DeGaris, a pioneer of the Mildura dried fruits industry. He employed Melbourne composer Reg Stoneham to write the music. Stoneham had previously had some success with his First World War hit "Heroes of the Dardinelles." DeGaris took the work to Hugh McIntosh at the Tivoli Circuit. McIntosh initially turned it down but later said yes when he was faced with financial difficulties. He persuaded DeGaris to invest ten thousand pounds of his own money in McIntosh's company with DeGaris guaranteeing against losses of up to 2000 pounds.
The convoluted plot involved a budding English playwright Fitzwilliam Ferguson, "Fitz," who is sent to Australia by a rich uncle to become a "dinki-di" Aussie, and who falls in love with his typist, Flo.
The cast was headed by Minnie Love, Maggie Moore, Hugh Steyne, Rex London and Charles Workman. The reviews were mixed. "There are undeniably clever features in F.F.F.", said the Adelaide Register, but then went on to say "The boast that F.F.F., was written in record time suggests more merit might have resulted by greater attention to the requirements of a difficult technique."
The musical played 14p before moving to His Majesty's Theatre, Perth, where it only played 3p. A Melbourne season at the King's Theatre followed with Winifred O'Connor replacing Maggie Moore. The critics liked Stoneham's music. "There is abundant evidence in the music of Mr. Stoneham that given a better peg on which to hang his art he may do big things," said The Age, with The Argus claiming the most successful song was "The Murray Moon."
As an advertising ploy, DeGaris offered cash prizes of 50 guineas each week if anyone could state what three words beginning with "F" the title referred to. The answer was provided in the closing song, "The Riddle of F.F.F."
Adelaide in the 1920s was a fertile ground for original musicals.
The following year Jack Fewster created with local writer Frederick J. Mills, Yantabingie (1921), a musical about a theatrical troupe who are stranded on a remote sheep station. Fewster was inspired to write Yantabingie after attending the premiere of F.F.F. It played 1p at Thebarton Town Hall in August and was not reviewed.
1924 saw the premiere of Kenneth Duffield's first and only musical written in Australia, Healo. Duffield had achieved great success in London where between 1920 and 1922 he wrote or contributed to five West End revues; Puss Puss! (1920), A-Z (1921), Pot Luck (1921), Snap (1922), and The Nine O'Clock Revue (1922).
Healo was about Barnabas Burnaby, whose company Healo Limited is in crisis. The share price is falling and the factory girls are on strike. He decides to disappear and hides aboard a yacht bound for the South Seas. The yacht is shipwrecked and he ends up on the Island of Bliss, where he is crowned King.
The ballet chorus included Robert Helpman in one of his first professional roles.
The musical opened at the Theatre Royal, 4th December, and played 6p. Duffield later retitled the musical Hullo Healo and mounted another production at the Theatre Royal two years later. This production, with popular comic Arthur Stigant in the role of Burnaby then toured to Sydney where it played the New Palace Theatre, in 1927.
Critical reaction was good, with the Advertiser claiming there was a "lilting quality in many of the tuneful numbers," and giving praise to Helpman and co-dancer Alan Ziegler whose work they said "thoroughly merited the enthusiasm accorded it." The Sydney Morning Herald said "The music mostly pleased," and that a "wonderfully smart and active chorus assisted in the enjoyment."
In 1926 Jack Fewster collaborating for the first time with Adelaide musician Tom King and book writer Edith Aird, wrote his second musical Yvonne. It was a story about an Adelaide heiress, who is in love with Ted, a handsome but wayward character who constantly disappears. With the help of a Genie, Yvonne is magically transported to wherever Ted is to be found. These included exotic locations in Venice, Baghdad, Rangoon and Japan.
The musical opened in March at the Norwood Town Hall and played a 3 night season in March 1926 and became the first Australian musical to be broadcast in its entirety on radio. The News called it a "musical play of distinct originality," with "much lilting music."
The final musical to premiere in the 1920s was Juanita, another musical by Jack Fewster, Tom King and Edith Aird. Its fanciful plot had Cedric, a young rouseabout working on a sheep station in outback South Australia, desperate to meet a girl. He is persuaded that the best place to find a woman is in Spain. He travels there and meets the exotic dancer Juanita, who tests his ardour in many ways but finally agrees to marry him.
It opened at the Theatre Royal and played one week with the Advertiser claiming, "The music is delightful, and the lyrics are bright and catchy." Two months later it played 4p at Norwood Town Hall. It was also broadcast live on radio in its entirety from the Theatre Royal. Later in 1930 several scenes from Juanita were included in Fewster and King's revue Footnotes which was produced at the Theatre Royal.
The 1930s started with another Australian first when On The Airr, a musical written for radio became the first original musical to be broadcast in that medium. Book, music and lyrics were by Evan Senior, who in 1926 at 20 had become the youngest managing director of a radio station in Australia at 5DN.
It was a musical fantasy, which the Advertiser called a "bright titbit," and was broadcast on 5CL on 5th August, and repeated on the same station on the 4th April 1932. Senior later became drama and music critic for the Adelaide News in 1936, and later in 1947 founded and was editor of the London monthly Music and Musicians.
1931 also brought the fifth and final collaboration between Jack Fewster and Tom King and their third book musical with Edith Aird. It was called Dutini – A Song of India and told the story of an Australian officer, Brad, who is stationed in India and engaged to Ruby, the Colonel's daughter, who falls in love with the beautiful 16-year-old priestess Dutini. The Advertiser said "Tom King and Jack Fewster probably have never produced anything more pleasing than the musical numbers of Dutini."
The musical opened at the Theatre Royal in July and played for 8p. On the last night of the season the performance was relayed from the Theatre Royal and broadcast on radio 5CL.
The Moon Dream, which opened at the Theatre Royal in November 1932, brought to an end an era of Australian musicals at the Theatre Royal that had begun with the musicals of Fewster and King and Kenneth Duffield.
The music of The Moon Dream was written by Dr. T.D. Campbell, with book and lyrics by Alex Symons, and was produced in aid of charity. The Advertiser called the score "tuneful" and the libretto "sparkling." The cast included Harold Tideman who later became a theatre critic for the Advertiser. Also in the cast was Tom King's partner Phil Peake who appeared in the Melbourne production of the first Australian musical hit Collits' Inn (1933), which starred Gladys Moncrieff.
The final musical for the 1930 introduces a new name to our story, Lloyd Prider, who with His Royal Highness (1938), Midnight Manouevres (1942), and Tropical Trouble (1944) kept the Australian musical flag flying throughout the Second World War. All were produced by Prider's Playbox Theatre Company, all had music by Maurice Sheard, and all played the Australia Hall, or as it became known in the forties, the Australia.No Australian musicals appeared in the 1950s, and it wasn't until the Flinders Street Revue Company, in a departure from their usual intimate revues, produced a musical version of Norman Lindsay's The Cousin From Fiji in 1962, that Adelaide saw a new original work. With Music by Peter Narroway, lyrics by Ruth Barratt, and a book by Lois Ramsay and Alan Babbage, the musical played 15p at Union Hall.
A period piece, the plot concerned the return of a planter's attractive widow from Fiji with her equally attractive daughter, and their period of adjustment to the family circle in provincial Ballarat.
The cast included Lois Ramsay, Desi Moore, Diane Chamberlain, Hedley Cullen, Bob Moore and Kathleen Steele Scott. Critical reaction was not unkind, nor was it enthusiastic. The Advertiser thought the plusses were the sets and the "lighthearted lyrics and music of Ruth Barratt and Peter Narroway." Max Harris in The Bulletin said that Ramsay and Babbage had "produced a script of interminable length and in Ivor Novello idiom, which sounded more like an exercise in clichés than in Australian folksy."
The seventies were a bumper period with no less than eight musicals opening in the decade.
First up was two one-act folk operas commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Love Travelling Salesman and The computer, written by myself and Don Battye. Played as a double bill at lunchtime and in the evening, they opened at the AMP Theatre, in March 1972, where they played 12p.
Both dealt with love in a commercial world. In Love Travelling Salesman a young man is hired as a prostitute to sell love to lonely wives and spinsters in the country, but breaks a young girl's heart when she falls in love with him. In The computer, an innocent boy from the country is programmed into the world of automation by his love for a young girl.
Both sung-through musicals used the same cast; Marie Fidock, Axel Bartz, Penny Welsh, Peter Strawhan and Wendy Parsons. Kenneth Hince in The Australian called Love Travelling Salesman "a pretty innocent morsel, not at all pretentious, full of roaring trite dialogue set to a kind of damp post-Gershwin music." In The computer, Harold Tidemann in the Advertiser said "Marie Fidock plays the tea lady with flourish," and that "Axel Bartz and Penny Welsh make a handsome pair as the young lovers."
Two months later Barry Eggington produced I Love You Humphrey B. Bear at the Royalty Theatre during the school holidays. It introduced an important composer in the story of the Australian musical, David King. It was based on the popular children's TV series.
It played 24p at the Royalty, then the following January played Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, and in August 1973 appeared at Her Majesty's Theatre, Perth, where it ran for 24p, before returning to Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide, for a further 10p season. In the original season the cast included Robyn Archer as the wicked witch Hepzibah.The Advertiser called it "a well-staged fantasy full of sparkle and color," whilst the West Australian thought it "Exceedingly professional."
From the 7th May 1973, the Royalty Theatre again housed a children's musical, Golly Gosh! Fat Cat, for 16p. It was also based on the TV series, Fat Cat and Friends, and had a musical score by Alistair McHaig. The Advertiser called the music "tuneful" and said "it has some very effective sets designed by Malcolm Harslett and some clever effects." Later in August 1973 the production played Her Majesty's Theatre, Perth, for 26p.
David King also composed the score for Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which played a 22p season at the Royalty Theatre, Adelaide, in August, 1973. Harold Tidemann in the Advertiser claimed the song "Someone" was "outstanding."
The Circle Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, from the 15th January, 1976, for 18p, was home to Steve Spears Young Mo, or to give it its full title, The Resiscitation of the Little Prince Who Couldn't Laugh as Performed by Young Mo at the Height of the Great Depression.
It was basically a jukebox musical with some original music by Roy Ritchie. It told the story of revue comic Roy Rene "Mo," his partner "Stiffy," Nat Phillips, his wife Sadie Gale, and fellow variety star Queenie Paul, in a series of flashbacks and vaudeville slapstick routines.
The original cast included Michael Scheid as Mo, with Robyn Archer as Queenie Paul. The Arts Council took the production on tour throughout South Australia in 1976, with Rob George as Mo. In 1977 a star-driven production by Nimrod Theatre, Sydney featured Garry McDonald as Mo, and veteran variety performer Gloria Dawn as Queenie Paul. It was Dawn's final appearance on stage. There were later productions at La Boite in Brisbane in 1978, and Crossroads Theatre, Sydney, in 1993.
Critical reaction was mostly good. Harold Tidemann said "With some pruning and smoother running, Young Mo should be a first class show giving a vivid idea of a bygone era." The SMH thought that when it doesn't take itself too seriously, it made a "very entertaining evening," whilst the National Times called Garry McDonald a "genius."
1977 also produced Lofty, sub-titled "An epic from the annals of country rock," with music and lyrics by Peter Beagley, who later changed his name to Peter Head. Beagley was a former member of the blues rock band Headband. The book was by Rob George.
The plot, set in colonial times, involved a bushranger Lofty, deported from England for singing suggestive songs at Queen Adelaide's nuptial feast, and his forming of a gang of bushrangers called the Lofty Rangers, who reward the people they plunder by singing them songs.
The show opened at her Majesty's Theatre, the 28th January 1977, and played 11p. The cast included Wayne Anthoney, Maureen Sherlock and Tony Strachan. One song was written by Bon Scott who later found fame as the vocalist with rock group AC/DC. Accompaniment was by the Mount Lofty Rangers whose line-up at various times included Glenn Shorrock, Robyn Archer and Jimmy Barnes.
Ian Meikle in the Advertiser said "Lofty is big on fun, but a bit short of being the country rock epic it boasts."
The final musical for the seventies was Reg Livermore's much maligned rock opera version of Ned Kelly, called Ned Kelly – The Electric Music Show. Book and lyrics were by Livermore, with music by Patrick Flynn. It was produced by the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, Eric Dare, and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. A visually impressive production, it opened at the Festival Theatre on the 30th December 1977, to good notices with the Advertiser calling it "marvelous" and The Bulletin "Brilliant," but a withering review from Advertiser Arts Editor, Shirley Despoja, (known in theatrical circles as Shirley Destroyer) who called it "monumental bad taste, vulgar and pretentious." Her notice helped kill the box-office with the show only playing 31p.
A later Sydney season did not fare much better playing 47p. The cast included Nick Turbin as Kelly, with Geraldine Turner as Ma Kelly. In 1982 Ned Kelly became the opening production of the New Moon Theatre Company opening in Cairns, before touring to Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton.
Robyn Archer's Songs From Sideshow Alley was the first musical of the 80s. A two-handed work it opened at the Southeast Community College, Mount Gambier, in March 1980. Set in a seedy sideshow alley, Trixie and Pearl mourn the passing of the Royal Show as it used to be. As they nostalgically plan one last show they perform all their old tricks.
Robin Nevin played Trixie, while Archer was Pearl. The show played 3p at Mount Gambier before moving to Adelaide where it played 13p at Union Hall. There was a 1980 regional South Australian tour which starred June Bronhill and Isobel Kirk, and a 1980 Sydney production with Maggie Kirkpatrick and Nancye Hayes. The critics liked it, with the Advertiser calling it "fun" whilst the SMH said it was "an important and endearing show."
1980 also saw the first production of Nick Enright's musical documentary about the fortunes of an Irish family during the depression, On The Wallaby. It was written in a 'living newspaper' style with overtones of Brecht, and used pre-existing Australian songs for its score.
Produced by the State Theatre Company it was very successful playing 15p at the Playhouse with a cast that included; Nancye Hayes, and Phillip Quast. There were further productions at the New Theatre, Sydney, in 1981, Q Theatre, Sydney, in 1983, and the Playhouse, Perth, in 1986.
The Australian said "it is a remarkably effective piece of didactic theatre," and claimed Nick Enright "as a coming man in Australian theatre." The Advertiser agreed and called Nancye Hayes "excruciatingly moving" in a song written by Enright called "What do I have to sing About?"
Nick Enright was also responsible for the next musical to get up which was Buckley's in April 1981. Produced again by the State Theatre Company, it was a piece about unemployed youth which had music by Glenn Henrich, Lyrics by Enright and a book by David Allen. Phillip Quast was again in the cast, as was Enright, and in keeping with the theme, free seats were available for the unemployed.
The Australian thought it "marvellously honest and inventive," the Advertiser said the production couldn't disguise its "underlining despair," and Theatre Australia praised Quast saying his "performance was the highlight of the show," and as a performer showed "impressive potential."
Peter Combe's highly successful adaptation of May Gibbs' classic Gumnut Babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie ushered in the 90s when it played to an audience of 20,000 at its first performance in Elder Park in March 1992. Produced by the Adelaide Festival of Arts, it was a concert version with the Adelaide Festival Chorus, the Adelaide Girls Choir and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. A later production in the Festival Theatre in 1993 featured Ruth Cracknell as May Gibbs, who also played the role when it was repeated at Suncorp Piazza, Brisbane, in 1994.
When The Emerald Room opened at the playhouse in November 1994, composer Chris Harriott and lyricist Dennis Watkins already had several successful Australian musical credits to their name – Beach Blanket Tempest and Pearls Before Swine to name two.
Unfortunately The Emerald Room did not add to their successes. The plot, set in a night-club, concerned the relationships between a singer, Lena, the club manager, Aurora, and a songwriter Alex, with a female impersonator weaving through the action doing impersonations of Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin and Bette Midler.Paul Capsis was the drag queen, Judi Connelli the club manager, Nick Carrafa the songwriter, with Helen Buday the singer. The show was crucified by the critics who claimed it was a "lesson in how not to put book and lyrics together." Produced by the State Theatre Company, it was the last of the ill-fated Australian Musical Foundation musicals to see the light of day, a foundation that had been set-up by Jim Sharman and Michael Turkic, with seed money from Cameron Macintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber for the development of new musicals.
Dutch Courage in 1997 was the first of four musicals composer and lyricist Sean Peter premiered in Adelaide. It was based on a true story and told how a group of gay men joined the Dutch underground to fight the Nazi invasion during World War 2. The book was by Barry Lowe.
"What gives Dutch Courage its emotional density is Sean Peter's music and lyrics," said The Bulletin, with Tim Lloyd in the Advertiser proclaiming the song "Fags Can't Fight" was "a hilarious and rollicking anthem." The musical played 18p at Theatre 62, had a Melbourne production in 2004, and a successful New York outing in 2008.
Scam! in 1998, was a contemporary Rock-Opera version of The Threepenny Opera. With music and lyrics by Sean Peter and a book by Barry Lowe, it played the Queen's Theatre for 15p commencing 5th August. The reviews were glowing: "entertaining script, good music, solid direction, a strong cast and clever use of technology," said the Advertiser, "exhilarating and accomplished" echoed the Bulletin, whilst the Sunday Mail called it "satirical, sharp and passionate."
Sean Peter was again writing music and lyrics for The Pink Files which premiered in 2001. It was developed from an oral history project which recorded the experiences of gay men and women living in the gay community from the 1940s to the 1970s. It played Theatre 62 for 14p in October. Samela Harris in the Advertiser thought it had "some wonderful moments and some lovely performances."
In June 2007 at the Dunstan Playhouse, Eddie Perfect presented the "unofficial premiere" of his Shane Warne – The Musical, a show about the private and public life of the legendary cricketer. The following year in March, Shane Warne The Musical: A Work in Progress played the Melbourne Comedy Festival with Neil Armfield as director, and later in December opened at the Athenaeum Theatre for a run of 41p. This production then played Perth and Sydney. Eddie Perfect wrote book, music and lyrics and played the title role in all productions. The Age called it "genuinely clever, genuinely funny, and genuinely affectionate."
Sean Peter made another appearance in 2007 when his sung-through musical about September 11, 2001, and the effects the disaster has on four ordinary people living in Australia, Everything's F**ked – The Musical played a 17p season at the Space. The critics called it an Australian Rent, and according to JJJ Radio it dragged "music theatre kicking and screaming into the 21st Century."
Norwood Town Hall which saw the premiere of Fewster and King's Yvonne back in 1926, now comes back into the picture a century later with the premiere in March 2008 of Rob George and Maureen Sherlock's Lovers and Haters. The musical was about the secret life of South Australia's flamboyant premier of the 1970s Don Dunstan. Quentin Eyers wrote the music which relied heavily on satire and revue. Critical reaction was mixed.
Finally, the last show in this overview is Mathew Robinson's Metro Street which opened in a production by the State Theatre Company at the Dunstan Playhouse in 2009. The musical, about a family coming to terms with a mother's recent diagnosis of breast cancer, featured an "A" list cast; Debra Byrne, Nancye Hayes, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Cameron Goodall and Jude Henshall. "Impeccable cast, staging and music hit all the right notes," said The Australian, with Australian Stage Online calling it "a gutsy, raw, original work with modern and relevant lyrics and fresh and haunting music." The musical had originally won the Pratt Prize for Musical Theatre in 2004. Following the Playhouse season the musical toured to South Korea where it played 6p at the Daegu International Musical Festival with the original cast. Debra Byrne won Best Female Actor in a leading role at the Daugu Musical Awards, with the show nominated for four Helpmann Awards.
It's a fitting finale to this Adelaide overview putting the Helpmann name centre stage again, a name we first encountered in the 20s.