Peter Pinne's musical theatre career reached a peak in 1995 when his and his longtime collaborator, Don Battye's musical Prisoner – Cell Block H The Musical opened a season at the Queen's Theatre, London and became a cult hit subsequently touring the UK in '96 and '97.
Prior to that he and Battye had written many musicals produced in Australia that included Caroline, A Bunch of Ratbags, Red White & Boogie, and Sweet Fanny Adams. Their musicals for children, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Little Tin Soldier, The Shoemaker & The Elves, Jack & The Beanstalk, Beauty & The Beast, Rumpelstiltskin and Billabong Bill have become a staple of the children's theatre scene since they were originally produced at the Alexander Theatre, Melbourne.
Peter Pinne's other musical collaborations include; A Bit O' Petticoat with Ray Kolle, Pyjamas In Paradise with John-Michael Howson, and Mavis Bramston – Reloaded and Suddenly Single with Paul Dellit.
He has also had a high profile career in television where he worked for the Grundy Organization on such iconic shows as Neighbours, Prisoner, Sons and Daughters, The Restless Years, The Young Doctors, and Secret Valley amongst others. He has also worked in the U.S., Latin America and Indonesia producing television drama, game shows and sitcoms for Pearson Television and Fremantlemedia.
From 1999 until the end of 2007 Mr Pinne was the owner and president of Bayview Recording Company, Los Angeles, USA, a boutique label who newly recorded and reissued CDs aimed at the show music market. These included over twenty recordings from New York Town Hall's concert series Broadway By The Year.
Apart from scripting television drama, he also wrote, with Battye, the theme song for the series Sons and Daughters. Other music credits include the score for the award winning movie A City's Child. He is the author of the discography Australian Performers, Australian Performances, and currently writes for On Stage and Stage Whispers.
In late 2019 he released The Australian Musical: from the beginning, a definitive history of Australian musical theatre, co-authored with Peter Wyllie Johnston, and published by Allen & Unwin in association with the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.
Peter Pinne concludes his account of the landmark indigenous musical Bran Nue Dae and the career of its creator Jimmy Chi. Read Part 1 of this article»
In 2008, 24 years after Jimmy Chi had started work on the stage version of Bran Nue Dae, preparations began for a $6.5 million feature film version of the show. The cast included Geoffrey Rush (Father Benedictus), Ernie Dingo (Uncle Tadpole), Missy Higgins (Marijuana Annie), Jessica Mauboy (Rosie), Rocky McKenzie (Willie), Tom Budge (Slippery), Deborah Mailman (Roxanne), Josie Ningali Lawford (Theresa), Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Pastor Flakkon), Dan Sultan (Lester) and Magda Szubanski (Roadhouse Betty).
The movie’s executive producers werey Christopher Mapp, Matthew Street and David Whealy, and it was produced by Robyn Kershaw and Graeme Isaac from a screenplay written by Chi, Reg Cribb and Rachel Perkins that adhered closely to Chi’s original musical. Rachel Perkins also directed.
Felicity Abbott was the production designer, Margot Wilson the costume designer, Stephen Page the choreographer, with cinematography by Andrew Lesnie. Cezary Skubiszewski wrote the music underscore. Finance was provided by Screen Australia, Ominilab Media, Screenwest, Film Victoria, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund and Robyn Kershaw Productions.
The film was shot on location in Western Australia. Most of the major songs from the stage production were included, plus interpolations of the country standard ‘Stand By Your Man’, Rolf Harris’s ‘Six White Boomers’ and ‘Zorba’s Dance’.
The film, like the stage show, was a joyous and uplifting celebration of Aboriginal culture, and wonderful feel-good entertainment. ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)’ was given the full show-stopping tap-dancing treatment in the mission scene and reprised as the finale on the beach. The young performers McKenzie, Mauboy, Sultan and Higgins gave raw but endearing performances, and Dingo, repeating his stage turn, grounded the piece in reality. Rush, with an exaggerated German accent, was a stern but likeable Father Benedictus, with Szubanski and Mailman eating up the cameos of the sex-starved Roadhouse Betty and Roxanne. It was the acting debuts of Mauboy, a former Australian Idol runner-up, and Higgins, a pop performer with several hits to her credit.
The film debuted in Australia on the last night of the Melbourne International Film Festival, 8 August 2009, and internationally at the Toronto International Film Festival on 12 September 2009 in the Scotiabank Theatre. It picked up the Audience Award for Best Feature in Melbourne, and the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. It was also an ‘Official Selection’ in the Berlin and Dubai International Film Festivals, and was amongst the out-of-competition films to be screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Its official Australian theatrical premiere was – appropriately – at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema, Broome, on 8 December 2009, where the stars of the film walked a ‘red dirt’ carpet. A national release followed on 14 January 2010.
The film received generally mixed reviews, scoring a 6.5* out of 10: ‘An exuberant musical road movie’ (Sunday Mail), ‘Hilarious… A celebration! The next homegrown cinema classic’ (MTV Australia); but FilmInk said: ‘It falls short of its potential, with mediocre performances and dance sequences,’ which was mirrored in the review in Variety (US): ‘Blandly stereotypical characters in a trite road-trip narrative … There’s scant real dancing, mostly forgettable, showtune-type songs and no ethnic authenticity.’
But when the movie premiered in Los Angeles on 10 September 2010, critics were kinder. Kenneth Turan in the LA Times claimed: ‘Australia’s infectious Bran Nue Dae was the equivalent of a Bollywood musical set in the outback,’ whilst Win Kang (Orange County Examiner) gave it four stars and said ‘I loved this film’.
Domestically the film was released by Roadshow. It took $7 680 192 million at the box office. In the US, however, where it was released by Freestyle, the gross was a mere $133 568.
The movie soundtrack, released on 15 January 2010, reached a peak position of 29.14 on the Australian ARIA Albums Chart. The film was later released by Roadshow Entertainment on DVD (R1098139) and Blue Ray. A separate Special Music Edition Sing-Along was also released on DVD.
Jimmy Chi’s follow-up to Bran Nue Dae, also developed in Broome, was the eagerly awaited Corrugation Road. Like Bran Nue Dae, it was partly autobiographical. Following a breakdown while studying at university, Chi had spent time in a mental institution after he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He struggled not only with his own cultural identity but with the legacy of some grim incidents in his early life, including sexual abuse and serious accidents. The musical was based on his experiences in mental institutions over a 20-year period.
Corrugation Road starts when Barry is arrested on Christmas Eve for spray painting ‘Merry Christmas’ on Perth’s London Court and he is committed to Graylands psychiatric hospital. From the bizarre world of the hospital ward we journey with Barry through his past, visiting his ‘local’ which undergoes transformations into a gay bar, a sleaze nightclub and a pleasure dome. Siamese twin doctors, Basketcase and Fruitcake argue their opposing views on psychiatry. Fed up with their conflict, the patients decide to operate and separate them. Liberated by their separation, Dr Basketcase leads the patients out of institutional care into the ‘real world’ – but the ‘real world’ proves inhospitable and the patients are found inhabiting an urban camp experiencing poverty, squalor and violence. Barry’s past again revisits him: he realizes he is in love with Fiona, the wife of Garry, his gay brother. Accompanied by Bob Two-Bob he journeys back to his country in the Kimberley, finally arriving at Fiona’s home, Sunday Island, where he is reconciled with his brother’s sexuality, and with Fiona. By story’s end Dr Fruitcake has arrived by helicopter to set up a Kimberley mental health service.
In Corrugation Road Chi posed questions about madness and sanity, child abuse, parenthood, sexuality and religion. As in Bran Nue Dae, the issues were presented with humour, a sense of the bizarre, and an over-riding optimism.
The score, composed by Chi, the Pigram Brothers and Duncan Campbell, followed the same country idiom as Bran Nue Dae, again with traces of blues, rock and Gospel. There were no character or plot-driven songs, although some did pay lip service to the subject matter: ‘Pop A Little Tablet’, ‘Modern Doctor Of Psychiatry’ and ‘Suicidal Blues’.
Corrugation Road played four preview performances at the Street Theatre, Canberra, 10-14 October 1996, before its premiere season at the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, 17-26 October 1996, for the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.
The cast included Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Bob Two-Bob), Josie Ningali Lawford (Fiona), Richard Mellick (Fruitcake), Michael Turkic (Basketcase), Becky Brown (Nurse/Siren), John M. Collard (Patient), Garry Cooper (Larry), Denise Cox (Patient), Trevor Jamison (Barry/Patient), Naomi Pigram (Child/Patient), Michael Smith (Patient) and Ali Torres (Patient).
The musical was produced by Black Swan Theatre Company. Ross directed the work, with set and costume design by Steve Nolan, choreography by Anna Mercer, and musical direction by Iain Grandage.
Critical reaction was mixed: ‘A truly Australian, often hilarious, frequently poignant, very professional, sensationally whacko show; a kind of cross between Hair and Cosi’ (Fiona Scott-Norman, Age); ‘A more ambitious project than Bran Nue Dae. But it’s only partially successful… there are too many songs in the show that just aren’t up to scratch or need further work’ (Steven Carroll, Sunday Age); ‘It is the joyful, energetic performances which carry the show, particularly Ningali Lawford, who brings a freshness to the role’ (Kate Herbert, Herald Sun).
Following the Melbourne season the show played the Subiaco Centre, Perth, from 4 November 1996. It was scheduled to close on 7 December, but due to popular demand the season was extended to 21 December. Erin McGrath in The Voice enthused: ‘Chi’s all-new musical, though containing a serious undercurrent, was as entertaining and lively as any musical of its kind that I have seen.’
According to Ron Banks (West Australian): ‘The biggest scene-stealer was John Collard as the drag queen, an appearance which snatches the initiative from Becky Brown’s very sexy nurse bump and grind routine.’
Two years later the largest single grant ever made by the Australian government to an Australian musical, enabled Corrugation Road to make a national tour. In Western Australia it played Perth (18 June-11 July), Mandurah (13-14 July), Bunbury (17-18 July), Karratha (21-22 July), Port Hedland (24-25 July) and Broome (28-31 July). In the Northern Territory it played Alice Springs (6-7 August).
The New South Wales component of the tour included Sydney (11-22 August), Newcastle (25-29 August), Lismore (1-2 September), Woolongong (4-5 September), and Gosford (8-12 September). In Victoria it was seen at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University (15-26 September), and in Warnambool (29-30 September), Geelong, Frankston and Warragul.
The original cast of the 1996 production recorded the score in Broome. It was released by Angoorrabin Records (AR-8). The CD booklet contains lyrics to the songs.
In 1991 Jimmy Chi received the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Drama Award for Bran Nue Dae. In 1998 he was awarded the Deadly Sounds National Indigenous Music Award for excellence in Film or Theatre Score.
In 1997 Chi was presented with the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award for Lifetime Achievement by an Indigenous Artist, and in 2004 he was acknowledged by the Western Australian Government as a State Living Treasure.
Chi’s songs have been recorded by Irish singer Mary Black and Aboriginal singer Archie Roach. The song ‘Child Of Glory’ has been featured at Broome’s Opera Under the Stars Festival and has been adopted as their theme song in tribute to the composer. Chi’s hymns are regularly sung at Aboriginal funerals in Broome.
Jimmy Chi’s achievement in bringing Bran Nue Dae to the stage was immense. He not only created the first Aboriginal musical, but one of the most successful Australian musicals ever. He gave a voice to indigenous culture which was joyous, uplifting and inspiring. Nothing can or will diminish his contribution to Australian musical theatre.
1. DVD Liner
3. Box Office Mojo website
Newspapers and magazines sourced
Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), The Australian (Sydney, NSW), The Bulletin, Canberra Times (ACT), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Financial Review, Green Left Weekly (Sydney, NSW), Herald Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Los Angeles Times (California), MTV Australia, Orange County Examiner, Sunday Age (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun-Herald (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Voice, West Australian (WA).
Heralded as Australia’s first indigenous musical, Bran Nue Dae was devised by Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles in the 1980s. Since its premier at the Festival of Perth in 1990, it has toured Australia and was made into a highly successful film in 2009. With a new production celebrating the show’s thirtieth anniversary having opened in Parramatta in January 2020 ahead of a national tour, we reprint Part 1 of Peter Pinne’s article, first published in On Stage in Spring 2011, that looks at Bran Nue Dae and the career of its creator Jimmy Chi. Read Part 2 of this article»
Bran Nue Dae holds the distinction of being not only Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, but also the first hit Australian musical to be made into a major feature film. Yes, there had been two previous stage works committed to celluloid, Kenneth Cook’s Stockade (1971), which simply took Sydney’s Independent Theatre’s stage production and filmed it at the Colonial Australiana Village, Wilberforce, North of Sydney,  and Frank Howson’s What the Moon Saw (1990), which was based in part on his stage musical Sinbad the Sailor—The Last Adventure (1982),  but Bran Nue Dae was very different. Whereas Stockade had been seen only in Sydney, and Sinbad the Sailor in Melbourne, Bran Nue Dae had toured nationally and was a very well-known musical long before the cameras started rolling. As of 2010 the movie had grossed $7.6 million, and was one of the Top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office. 
Bran Nue Dae had its origins in the 1980s when Jimmy Chi (1948-2019), a self-taught Aboriginal musician and composer based in the pearling port of Broome, Western Australia, wrote some songs which were performed by Kuckles, a local band. The first public viewing of the work as a piece of musical theatre took place in 1986 at a workshop produced by the Aboriginal Writers’ Oral Literature and Dramatists’ Association in Perth. 
The work received a positive reaction. Chi was encouraged to continue working on the piece by playwright and poet Jack Davis, Marita Darcy of Broome who persuaded him to get the songs down on paper, and Peter Bibby, editor of Magabala, the recently created Aboriginal publishing company in Broome. At this point the band Kuckles had also become involved in the project and had written some songs for it. Chi was a member of the group. 
Interest was shown by Robyn Kershaw, and later Duncan Ord of the Western Australian Theatre Company, Tasmania’s Salamanca Theatre, and the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust, which included the script in their National Playwrights’ Conference and Workshop in Sydney in 1989. 
Chi’s plot, set in the early 1970s and loosely based on his life story, opens in Broome, where Willie, an Aboriginal teenager, has his world turned on its head when his Auntie Theresa sends him to Perth for a Christian upbringing. At the Catholic mission Willie steals some food and is subject to harsh discipline metered out by Father Benedictus. Missing his girlfriend Rosie, he decides to run away back to Broome. Along the way he meets up with his Uncle Tadpole and two hippies, Marijuana Annie and Slippery. He also encounters police brutality, and has his first experience of sex. Father Benedictus pursues Willie and eventually they all meet up on the beach at Broome for a happy reunion and reconciliation when they discover they are all related to one another. 
The story opened with Willie and Rosie going to the movies at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema in Broome, an open-air movie house with seating on canvas-backed chairs. The 80-year-old cinema still operates and is the last remaining open-air cinema in Australia.
The first commercial production of the musical took place at the Octagon Theatre, Perth, during the 1990 Festival of Perth, in a co-production between Bran Nue Dae Productions and the Western Australian Theatre Company. The work was credited to Chi and Kuckles, with the band providing the musical accompaniment and Stephen Pigram, one of its members, as musical director. Andrew Ross, a big supporter of the project, handled the direction, and Michael Leslie choreographed. Prior to opening, the company had rehearsed for eight weeks, six in Broome and two in Perth. 
The cast included Ernie Dingo (Uncle Tadpole), Michelle Torres-Hill (Rosie), John Moore (Willie), Bob Faggetter (Father Benedictus), Lynda Nutter (Marijuana Annie), Alan Charlton (Slippery), Stephen ‘Baamba’ Albert (Pastor Flakkon) and Maroochy Barambah (Auntie Theresa).
Critical reaction was unanimous. Ron Banks (The West Australian) headlined his review ‘Aborigines put on satirical side’, whilst Peter Ward (The Australian) called it a ‘boisterous sunrise of engaging charm’. The Financial Review claimed ‘the humour is direct and frequently outrageous. One of the most obscene—and wildly funny—songs ends with condoms being thrown into the audience.’
The Bulletin said, ‘Bran Nue Dae’s joyous effect on an audience was apparent as its message of universal humanity—helped by an immortal borrowing of “Ich Bin Ein Aborigine!”—struck home,’ whilst Jill Sykes in The Sydney Morning Herald enthused, ‘Once in a while, something very special emerges in Australian theatre—something like Bran Nue Dae.’
The actors were also praised: ‘There is an especially fine performance from Dingo, while Moore and Torres-Hill are appropriate matinee idols’ (Australian), though it was also noted that ‘Some of the lesser experienced cast members had trouble with vocal projection.’ (West Australian)
The Financial Review, whilst endorsing the show, did carp: ‘Aspects of the scripting, performance, direction and choreography, for example, are simply awful. But after a while you realize that this is not the point. There is an authenticity to Bran Nue Dae which heralds the arrival of, not only a new musical form, but—more importantly—a new form of black theatre.’
And he was right. Bran Nue Dae did have a ring of authenticity about it. Granted it was rough and raw, but it was also fresh, invigorating, irreverent, funny and uplifting. Although it touched on Aboriginal issues such as alcohol, drugs, and police harassment, its treatment of Aboriginal culture was light-hearted and positive.
Chi’s exuberant score set the tone of the piece. Drawing on Broome’s mix of Koepanger (pearl fishermen), Malay, Chinese, Japanese, European and Aboriginal cultures and his own background with a Scots/Bardi/Aboriginal mother and a Chinese/Japanese/Anglo-Australian father, the songs were a mix of country, rock, Gospel, reggae and musical comedy.
Audiences could not resist the infectious title tune with its insistent reggae beat, or the country sensibility of ‘Long Way Away From My Country’ and ‘(Feel Like) Going Back Home’. ‘All The Way Jesus’ and ‘Child of Glory’ were pure Gospel, but the showstopper was the satirical ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be (Than To Be An Aborigine)’ which never failed to bring thunderous applause.
The musical was the hit of the Festival and played 15 performances at the Octagon Theatre. Later, with minor cast changes (Rohanna Angus as Rosie, Sylvia Clarke as Auntie Theresa and Stephen Albert as Uncle Tadpole) it toured from 6 to 29 September 1990 to the Western Australian regional towns of Kununurra, Derby, Broome, Port Hedland and Karratha, with Darwin the last stop. 
In Broome the musical came full circle when it played five sold-out performances at the Sun Picture Gardens Cinema.
The production then played 6 performances at the Canberra Theatre, Canberra, 2-6 October 1990 (The Canberra Times called it ‘A joyous parody’) and 13 performances, 10-20 October 1990 at the Playhouse, Adelaide. The Advertiser’s Tim Lloyd was equally laudatory: ‘As simple as a road movie, often very funny, and complex and even disturbing at the same time.’
Ernie Dingo returned to the role of Uncle Tadpole when the production played 12 performances at the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, from 12 December 1990. Peta Koch (Courier Mail) called it ‘a pearl of a play … theatre at its most captivating and heartwarming.’
Sydney critics went overboard when the same production became part of the Festival of Sydney, opening on 4 January 1991 at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta: ‘Infectiously joyous, irreverent and life-affirming,’ (Sun-Herald); ‘Bran Nue Dae is in a world of its own … A great celebration and a wonderful experience to share’ (Bob Evans, Sydney Morning Herald); ‘Joyous, vibrant, wildly funny … sings with a voice unequivocal and unique’ (Frank Gauntlett, Daily Telegraph/Mirror).
The musical played 19 performances before transferring to the Seymour Centre’s York Theatre on 22 January 1991 for a further 22 performances, closing on 9 February 1991.
Melbourne was the only capital city not to see the show, but Leonard Radic did review a performance he attended at the York Theatre, Sydney, for The Age: ‘Bran Nue Dae stands out for its warmth and simplicity. It is a good-natured, unpretentious show which bounces along with engaging cheerfulness.’ He echoed these sentiments two years later when he again reviewed the musical when it finally reached Melbourne in a co-production between the Melbourne Theatre Company and Black Swan Theatre Company. It opened on 2 July 1993 at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, during the 1992/93 national tour.
The tour was produced by Black Swan Theatre Company, an organisation that evolved from discussions between Janet Holmes à Court, Andrew Ross, Duncan Ord and Will Queckett, following the premiere of the first production of the musical in 1991, with help from Minister for the Arts, David Parker. Their charter was to produce distinctive regional theatre.  Almost thirty years later, Black Swan is the major State-funded theatre company of Western Australia.
The cast for the tour included Leah Purcell (Marijuana Annie), Trevor Jamieson (Willie), Alice Haines (Rosie), Steve Kidd (Slippery), James Hancock (Father Benedictus), Stephen Albert (Uncle Tadpole), Sylvanna Doolan), Sylvia Clarke (Chorus), and Josie Ningali Lawford (Chorus). Andrew Ross was again the director, Michael Leslie the choreographer, design by Steve Nolan, with musical direction chores being shared by Stephen Pigram and Chong Lim. The production had also acquired Lindsay Field as vocal arranger. 
A cabaret version was devised to travel to Fiji and other places. 
In 1991 a documentary by Tom Zubrycki about the making of the musical and the life of Jimmy Chi, Bran Nue Dae, premiered at the State Film Theatre, Melbourne. Reviewing the film in Green Left Weekly, Peter Boyle said he wished he hadn’t missed the stage version, and called it ‘Jimmy Chi’s Magical Musical’.
In 1994 Josie Ningali Lawford created a one-woman show that traced her life from the Kimberleys to her stage career in Bran Nue Dae. Produced by Deckchair Theatre, it played the Courtyard Studio in Canberra, from 10 to 15 October 1994.
Later the Aboriginal Theatre Program of the Community Arts Centre of Newcastle mounted a production of the musical at the Newcastle Community Arts Centre, where it played from 8 to 16 December 1995.
The musical won the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 1990. The following year the playscript with lead-lines of the songs was published by Currency Press and Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation. It won the Special Award in the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.
The 1990 cast recorded the score in Broome. It was released on cassette (BND001) and was only available from the Broome Musicians’ Aboriginal Corporation, Broome. Later the 1992 Black Swan Theatre production was recorded and released on CD by Polydor (BNDCD001).
To be continued ...
1. Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper: Australian Film 1900-1977. Oxford, 1981, p.335
2. Scott Murray (editor), Australian Film 1978-1992. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 307
4. Chi & Kuckles, Bran Nue Dae playscript, Currency Press, Sydney / Magabala Books, Broome WA., 1991
12. Philip Parsons (general editor), Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 97
Newspapers and magazines sourced
Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), The Australian (Sydney, NSW), The Bulletin, Canberra Times (ACT), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Financial Review, Green Left Weekly (Sydney, NSW), Herald Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Los Angeles Times (California), MTV Australia, Orange County Examiner, Sunday Age (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun-Herald (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), Voice, West Australian (WA).
Australian ARIA Albums Chart
From the Archives
First published in On Stage in Spring 2009, Peter Pinne concludes his exploration of the musicalisation of Seven Little Australians by looking at the career of composer and arranger David Reeves.
Early in 1991, while the Queensland Theatre Company was mounting its production of David Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Reeves himself was busy in Melbourne preparing for the opening of his new show, Favourite Son, originally called Once Upon a Time. This time Reeves was credited with music and concept, and Terry Stapleton with book and lyrics.
Stapleton had started writing and reviewing for The Bulletin in Adelaide in the 60s, and later became successful working in television for Crawfords, creating The Last of the Australians, Bobby Dazzler and This Man, This Woman. No stranger to theatre, his plays included Some Night in Julia Creek, Last Dance, A Few Close Friends and Say Goodbye.
Favourite Son’s plot involved a young man (Young Johnny) from the country who gets an offer from an American movie director (Sam) to go to the city to star in a film. The only problem is the director is a shark and the film turns out to be a jeans commercial.
Reeves was again the producer, Pamela French was director and choreographer, with design by Terry Ryan. The cast of 14 was headed by Terry Serio (Young Johnny), Reg Gorman (Big Johnny), Nadine Wells (Milah), Rod Anderson (Sam), Joseph Clements (Max) and Danielle Goullet (Julietta). Musical director Conrad Helfrich led a 7-piece pit band.
The show opened at the Comedy Theatre on Friday 28 December 1990. The notices were devastating. Peter Craven in The Australian (31 December 1990) called it an ‘inoffensive but undercooked piece of nonsense which has no serious claims on a city audience.’ He said ‘the score has some pleasing moments, even some memorable ones,’ and that Stapleton’s lyrics balance ‘corn and slickness,’ but the whole production seemed to have been put together by a ‘country town music master and performed by the local light opera company.’ The performers came out of it best of all. ‘Serio is about as convincing in the part of the young dolt in the city as the material allows. Goullet, as the girlfriend, sings and acts well in a Patti McGrath manner and Wells and Anderson make an engaging pair of scumbag Americans.’
If Craven’s notice wasn’t enough to sink the ship, then Leonard Radic’s in The Age (1 January 1991) certainly was. He wondered ‘how such a patently sub-standard piece of work ever found its way on to a major city stage.’ He went on to say, ‘The book and lyrics are knee-deep in clichés like “making it” and grabbing “the big chance” when it comes.’ He also thought the production had a provincial air about it, but acknowledged the chorus was ‘willing’ and the dance routines ‘snappy.’ He thought Serio was convincing in a role that was totally implausible, and that Gorman battled hard to make something of his part. He ended his notice by asking, ‘How did such an undernourished theatrical turkey ever make it to the post-Christmas table? How?’
The backers pulled their money and the show closed on Friday 4 January 1991. Its 5-night run lost $500,000. Reeves decided it was time to try his luck in London and moved his family there the following year.
Costume design by Terry Ryan for Favourite Son, 1990.
Normie Rowe as Cyrano, Cyrano in Concert, 1994.
With sponsorship from Allgas Energy Ltd, Queensland, Reeves’ version of Cyrano first saw the light of day as a ‘highlights’ album in 1992, released by EMI on cassette (HAD135) and CD (HA0135). The cast featured Normie Rowe, Penny Hay, Simon Gallaher, Kirri Adams, Neil Mason, Michael Leighton-Jones, Gregory Massingham, the Jones & Co. Chorus, and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tommy Tycho. Reeves was responsible for music, lyrics and orchestrations, with assistance on the latter from Tycho and Arthur Greenslade.
Recorded at Channel 9’s Starsound Studios in Brisbane, the album contained almost 70 minutes of the show’s score. It was an ambitious work with touches of Reeves’ favorite composers, Bach, Bernstein and Gilbert and Sullivan.10
Cyrano premiered in a concert version, with the CD cast, at the Suncorp Plaza, South Bank, Brisbane, 7 November 1992. Barbara Hebden in The Sunday Mail (8 November 1992) claimed: ‘Reeves could have a winner on his hands.’ She found the music ‘melodious’ with a ‘strong rhythmic pulse’, and particularly praised the recycled ‘About You’.
Two years later, a fully-costumed concert version of Cyrano, with basically the same cast, was presented at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, from 11-15 October 1994, with Oscar-winning British actor Sir John Mills introducing and closing the performances. The show had undergone a major rewrite with Hal Shaper now being credited with book and lyrics.
Shaper, a South African, had major London credits writing lyrics for Jane Eyre (1961), Treasure Island (1973) and Great Expectations (1975), in which Mills had featured. Shaper also had success writing pop tunes, notably the Matt Monro hit ‘Softly as I Leave You’.
‘In embryonic form, Cyrano revealed easy-listening melodies sung engagingly,’ said Patricia Kelly (The Australian, 14 October 1994), adding that though Rowe was no Pavarotti, he had ‘plenty of heart and soul’. Peta Koch (Courier-Mail, 17 October 1994) was also laudatory of Rowe and singled out his songs ‘Journey to a Woman’s Heart’ and ‘Spirit Candles.’ She also liked Miranda Gehrke’s portrayal of Roxane, especially in ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore,’ and Kirri Adams as the Duenna with her show-stopper, ‘A Woman’s Work’. The use of Mills to introduce the show was criticized by reviewers as unnecessary, but there was no denying it provided a major publicity and promotional hook.
Several songs from the earlier version remained, albeit with different or revised and improved lyrics: ‘The Journey to a Woman’s Heart’. ‘What are You Talking About?’, ‘Roxane’, ‘Gascons Forever’, ‘In the King’s Service’ and ‘Drink a Little Wine with Me’, but the revision did not use ‘After You’. This new version was recorded and released on Castle (CDSGP 9800) in 1994. A third recording, reverting to the original 1992 version of the score, was issued in 2007 by English Gramophone (CD HA0136).
Reeves premiered his next show, Dorian, a musical version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the Arts Theatre, London. It opened on 25 September 1997 to universal pans: ‘An utter disaster that will undoubtedly die a deserved death’ (Warren Seamans, The London Theatre Guide Online, September 1997), ‘A flat, fatuous piece of writing with no subtlety, depth or wit whatsoever’ (Sarah Hemming, Financial Times) and ‘It takes a certain ingenuity to turn a 19th century literary masterpiece into a musical Penny Dreadful. Mehmet Ergen’s production makes it look like a piece of cake’ (James Christopher, The Times).
But if The Times hated Dorian, it loved Reeves’ next effort, Becket—The Kiss of Peace, hailing it ‘A masterpiece’ (Robert Thicknesse). An oratorio about the murder in 1170 of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry II’s direct or indirect involvement in it, the work was first performed on 21 October 2000 in Canterbury Cathedral, along with works by Aaron Copland (‘In The Beginning’) and Leonard Bernstein (‘Chichester Psalms’).
OzMade Musicals’ 2006 presentation of scenes from Reeves’ James and Maggie. Megan Holt as Maggie Moore and Jeremiah Tickell as J.C. Williamson.
Flyer for Grand Central, 2006.
There are two recordings of the score, a live version of the original cast on English Gramophone (EG 000421/2007), and a studio version, recorded prior to the world premiere, with the same cast except for Harvey Brink, who was replaced by James Kanagasooriam, on English Gramophone (EG 000157/1999).
The following year Reeves was commissioned by the Festival of Peace, Italy, to write another oratorio. The result, Planet Requiem, was performed as part of the 2002 Assisi Festival.
Four years later Reeves created Grand Central, a Latin love story set in New York in the 70s, about illegal immigrants and the stand-off between Cuba and the United States. The work was given a concert performance at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle, NSW, on 21 April 2006. Peter Wyllie Johnston said it was: ‘an original work with universal themes which Australians, accustomed to the challenges of immigration, can readily appreciate’.11
A ‘snapshot’ of two excerpts from James and Maggie, a musical about the tempestuous love affair between theatrical entrepreneur J.C. Williamson and his actress wife Maggie Moore, was included in Magnormos’ OzMade Musicals on 19 November 2006 at Theatreworks, St Kilda. The featured segments highlighted the first meeting of Williamson (Jeremiah Tickell) and Moore (Megan Holt) with the duet ‘Tell Me About Yourself’ and ‘I’ve Said Yes,’ where Moore tells her mother that she is going to marry Williamson. For James and Maggie, Reeves collaborated once more with Peter Yeldham, who created the book and lyrics. The musical was first drafted three years after the professional debut of Seven Little Australians. To date there has been no production of the full show.
Reeves continued to write musicals and in 2009 created Vox a musical from an original story about Americans returned from combat in Iraq, and in 2013 Hey! Hey!—(The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) a young people’s musical set to Mark Twain’s theatrical text. Both were published by DRM (David Reeves Publishing).
In 2019 Reeves compiled and arranged Stage Door Songbook—Songs from Australian Musicals which was published by Origin Theatrical. The songbook contained songs from nine musicals, including Reeves’ Seven Little Australians, Grand Central, and Cyrano de Bergerac, plus Lola Montez, Matilda, The Venetian Twins, Paris, Ned Kelly and The Boy From Oz. It was a unique publication being the first time a music publisher had ever published a collection of songs from Australian musicals. Reeves also wrote a brief snapshot of the genre as an introduction.
Program for Aunty, Armidale School, 1982.
Lyricist Jim Graham.
Prior to Reeves’ position at TAS, he was an acclaimed organist with seven organ albums to his credit. He performed regularly for the ABC and at the Sydney Town Hall, including Messiah from 1962 until 1978.
Like Edmond Samuels with The Highwayman and Albert Arlen with The Sentimental Bloke, David Reeves believed in his product, was passionate about getting it produced, and made it happen. Throughout his career he has continued to secure corporate finance for his projects. One has to admire his determination. His canon of work is certainly eclectic: four adaptations of famous literary works, one comic strip, five originals, and two oratorios. He has had his failures, yet he has also had his successes.
He hit the jackpot first time out with Seven Little Australians, but nothing he’s written since has equaled its popularity. It’s a skilled adaptation of Ethel Turner’s classic book with a very pleasant score. When it premiered in 1988 it did sound old-fashioned, but it was good old-fashioned – melodic and jaunty, schmaltzy in places, and it wore its heart on its sleeve. Audiences felt for the characters. It had heart. It was engaging, funny, and a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. One can’t ask for more than that.
Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.
Images courtesy of Peter Pinne.
- Matt Mollett, ‘Against the odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
- Margot Date, ‘Beyond the cringe with a Mosman composer’, The Sydney Morning Herald: Northern Life, 24 May 1990, p. 79
- Peter Wyllie Johnston, The Development of the Australian Musical, 1900-2000, PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne, 2007
The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Sydney, NSW), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs
From the Archives
Once again we dip into the archives of On Stage. First published in the Winter and Spring 2009 editions of the magazine, Peter Pinne explores the musicalisation of a much-loved children’s classic.
By 1988 Ethel Turner’s classic children’s book Seven Little Australians had sold more than 3 million copies since its first publication in 1894. It had been translated into more than ten languages, made into a stage play (1915), a feature film (1939),1. a radio series, a BBC television series (1953), and a highly successful 10-episode ABC television series (1973)2.—therefore it was no surprise that someone would come up with a musical version of the well-loved property.
Opening on 22 June 1988 at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, the show immediately captivated critics and audiences, and settled down for a four-month run. This was followed by seasons in Hobart, Launceston, Adelaide, and later Sydney and Brisbane, making it one of the most successful Australian musicals of recent times.
Turner’s book, set in the period in which it was written, was a funny, touching and romantic story of a hard-hearted military man, Captain Woolcot (Woolcott in the musical), with seven children, who marries a much younger woman, Esther, after his wife dies. The story hinges on the acceptance of Esther by the children, especially the eldest, Meg, who is almost the same age. The consequences of teenage rebelliousness and a softening of the father’s attitude are what give the story its heart. The tale does have an affinity with The Sound of Music, being about a stern Captain and his children, but there the similarity ends.
According to composer David Reeves, ‘the development of Seven Little Australians as a professional stage musical from my point of view started around 1984 when I approached Noel Ferrier of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). All previous attempts by others to attract a producer had come to nothing and director Rodney Fisher (brought in to help by Noel) stated to all involved at that time that “all that existed was an idea.” Noel encouraged me as a composer to take on the project in association with the AETT with a view to a major production.’
But the journey of the musical version of Seven Little Australians started long before the involvement of the AETT.
The program for the Melbourne premiere, Comedy Theatre, 22 June 1988.
Composer and arranger of the score, musical director and producer David Reeves.
In 1976 Jim Graham, history master at The Armidale School (TAS), an exclusive boys’ school in Armidale, NSW, secured the rights to turn Ethel Turner’s novel into a musical from her son, Sir Adrian Curlewis. The following year, David Reeves took up the position of Director of Music at TAS, and Graham asked him to collaborate on the show, with Graham writing book and lyrics, and Reeves composing the score. Graham had previously written and directed melodramas and plays for the school, as well as producing their annual dose of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Born in Sydney in 1943, Reeves was schooled at Sydney Church of England Grammar and started his professional career as an organist at the Garrison Church in The Rocks. He studied at the NSW Conservatorium of Music under Alexander Sverjensky, and won several scholarships. Later, in tandem with his career as a concert organist, he worked as a jazz pianist and wrote jingles and documentary film scores. He also wrote the all organ score for the Hanna-Barbera animated film Silent Night (1971) and a stage/ballet score for the ABC in 1972. Seven Little Australians was his first score for the musical theatre.
This first version of the show was co-produced by The Armidale School and the Drama Department of the University of New England at the University’s Arts Theatre on 21 April 1978. Graham was the director, with Reeves as Musical Director. The local Armidale Express called it ‘charming’, and said it was ‘bubbling with melody’. It played for five nights and then one month later, with the same cast, played for one night (27 May 1978) at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney—a performance billed as the world premiere.
Following the Seymour Centre performance, producers Malcolm Cooke and Mike Walsh showed interest in the project, but wanted a rewrite of the book and lyrics. David Mitchell, Richard Wherrett and Rodney Fisher were brought in to work on the book at one time or another, but Cooke and Walsh thought there were still problems. Eleanor Witcombe, writer of the Seven Little Australians TV series, was then hired as a script doctor. They signed John Truscott to create the sets and costumes (according to David Mitchell, Truscott’s model for the house was ‘fabulous’), and booked Her Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne for the show.
Unsatisfied with the rewrites, Cooke and Walsh later bowed out, but not before they had a new score (unused) written by ex In Melbourne Tonight arranger Geoff Hales. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas later filled the space in the theatres in Sydney and Melbourne.
Enter Sydney Festival director, Stephen Hall. He displayed an interest in the show and wanted to get it up as a commercial production. Operation Young Composer was an initiative that had begun in 1983 to assist up-and-coming young composers. In the early days, performances were given as part of the Sydney Festival, whose sponsors at that time were Air Canada and James Hardie Industries. It was Hall who brought James Hardie to the table. Eventually the firm agreed to invest $1 million in the musical,3. but the project stalled for some time, the relationship between Reeves and Graham soured, and Graham reluctantly bowed out.
Nevertheless, Reeves, an intensely driven man, was determined to see his dream of a musical version of Seven Little Australians reach the commercial stage. He seconded John Palmer, a lyricist and scriptwriter for animated children’s movies (Dot and the Kangaroo) to rewrite the book and lyrics, and then took it to Noel Ferrier at the AETT. Ferrier loved it and work-shopped it at the Trust’s warehouse, Dowling Street, Potts Point, Sydney, in 1985. Melissa Bickerton played the role of Judy.
The plan was for James Hardie Industries to fund a production by the AETT and Reeves. Over a period of eighteen months, because of management and internal difficulties within the Trust, the project languished, and eventually Hardie agreed to Reeves himself producing the work during the Bicentennial year. It was an unusual move for James Hardie which had previously sponsored the James Hardie 100 car race at Bathurst. According to Hardie executive Jim Kelso, ‘The Company always wanted to do something as a gesture to the Bicentennial that would be distinctly Australian.’4.
Three months before the Melbourne opening, Reeves enlisted the aid of noted author and scriptwriter Peter Yeldham (1915, The Alien Years, Captain James Cook) to further revise the book and lyrics. Yeldham had been Reeves’ original choice (before Palmer), to do this work, but Yeldham had been committed to the ABC-TV series Captain James Cook.
With James Hardie’s money in his pocket, Reeves set about finding a production team. Disagreements saw the early departure of feminist director, Chris Johnson, and set designers Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson.5.
Enter John O’May, an American actor, who at that time had been working professionally in Australia for 16 years. His performance credits had included Godspell, Company, The 20s and All That Jazz and Che in Evita, but he did have directing experience. Reeves hired him as the director, and also cast him in the leading role of the father, Captain Woolcott.
Kenneth Rowell, whose work in design had been acclaimed in opera and ballet, then came on board to do sets and costumes, and former TV dancer Pamela French was employed to handle choreography. Rowell’s set drawings were reminiscent of paintings by Tom Roberts and the Heidelberg School.6.
Alyce Platt as Esther, Comedy Theatre, 1988.
Alyce Platt, former hostess of TV’s Sale of the Century was cast as Esther. Platt was no Julie Andrews vocally, but her soprano was sweet and sure. Judith McGrath doubled as Martha and Miss Jolly, Judith Roberts was Miss Burton, and Noel Mitchell played Monsieur Marceau. Others in the adult cast included John Murphy (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Lisa O’Dea (Mrs Bryant/Aldith McCarthy), Dale Burridge (Alan Courtney) and Grant Dale (Andrew Courtney).
In the children’s roles, Melissa Bickerton was Judy (as she had been in the workshop), with Beven Addinsall (Pip), Michelle Pettigrew (Meg), Sean Delahunty and Murray Golding alternating the role of Bunty, Tamsin West and Caroline Graig doing likewise with Nell, Charmaine Gorman and Sheridan Compagnino sharing the part of Baby, and Janelle Fisher and Rebecca Mitchell taking turns as the Little General. The family aspect of the show carried over to the casting with Judith Roberts and her two daughters Charmaine and Kate Gorman all scoring parts in the show.
The orchestra, which was conducted by William (Bill) Motzing, numbered 22. Orchestrations were by Reeves.
Helen Thompson in The Australian (24 June 1988) called it ‘fresh, funny, pleasantly unassuming in style and perfect family entertainment’. She thought Platt was ‘sympathetic and winning’, McGrath’s comic skills were ‘superb’, but found O’May’s Captain ‘too engaging to be a convincing disciplinarian’. However Leonard Radic in The Age (24 June 1988) thought O’May caught the ‘right mix of sternness and humanity’, but found Platt’s role ‘colourless’. On two points they both agreed: Bickerton was ‘excellent’ as Judy, and five-year-old Rebecca Mitchell as the Little General ‘stole the show’.
Clark Forbes in The Sun (23 June 1988) called it a ‘good, old-fashioned show’, which was echoed by almost every other reviewer. The adaptation was faithful to the source material and Reeves and Palmer’s score was toe-tapping and bright. Some made references to possible echoes of songs from other musicals—Annie, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!—but most agreed the big love ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ was a fine number that hit all the right emotional buttons. Other songs singled out included ‘Walking The Block,’ ‘The Academy of Monsieur Marceau’, ‘Can You Love Me’ and ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini.’ Only two songs survived from the 1978 Armidale production: ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, retitled ‘Rattle the Track’.
Jim Graham’s involvement in the show was reduced to a ‘based on a concept by’ credit in the program.
Reeves’ belief in his material had been vindicated. He had a hit on his hands, which was endorsed by the public when the show played for 15 weeks, ending in October 1988. At that point it had become the most successful Australian musical to play the Comedy Theatre since The Sentimental Bloke’s five-month record in 1961-62.
Next up was a tour. The first stop was a short season at Australia’s oldest surviving theatre, Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal, from 8 October 1988. For the Hobart performances the roles of Baby and the Little General were recast with local children. According to John Unicomb, then the general manager of the Theatre Royal, it was ‘the biggest musical to come to the state in the past decade’.7.
Rosina Beaumont in The Mercury said it was ‘three hours of dinkum Aussie entertainment sure to please everyone from the littlies to grandma’. She liked the ‘energetic dancing of the chorus’, and thought O’May’s direction was ‘masterful’. The show played 8 performances. It closed on 15 October and moved to Launceston’s Princess Theatre, where it opened on 21 October and closed 26 October after 11 performances.
John Lorey in the Launceston Examiner labelled it, ‘Our own Sound of Music!’ and praised Platt for her ‘warmth and charm’, O’May for his ‘commanding stage presence and fine baritone voice’, Roberts and Mitchell in their various roles, and McGrath for her ‘droll’ playing of Martha.
A little over three weeks later, on 20 November 1988, the show berthed at the Adelaide Festival Centre just in time for the Christmas holidays. The cast remained the same except for the younger children’s roles which were again played by locals.
Tim Lloyd in The Advertiser (21 November 1988) said, ‘Thanks to Ethel Turner, it will warm many hearts in this country.’ He thought there were ‘two-and-a-half passably good songs and several enjoyable dance routines.’ He liked Platt, O’May and Bickerton, and called French’s choreography ‘the best thing about the production’. The News printed a review by a nine-year-old child. This was strongly condemned by Reeves in a Letter to the Editor (1 December); he claimed his was ‘not a children’s musical’, but a show ‘designed to appeal to a mass audience and to provide a good night’s entertainment’. Despite a lack of promotion, the show played a solid three-week season, closing on 10 December 1988.
It was to be almost nine months before the reached Sydney. It opened at the Footbridge Theatre on 16 September 1989. The producers and the production were identical, but the show had undergone some major cast changes. John O’May was back to direct and play Captain Woolcott, as was Melissa Bickerton (Judy). They were joined by newcomers Edwina Cox (Esther), Robert Berry (Monsieur Marceau), Judy Glen (Miss Burton), Shirley Cameron (Martha), Wayne Scott Kermond (Andrew Courtney), Marcia Gaye Snowden (Meg), Chris Dickson (Alan Courtney) and Dean McRae (Pip).
Script and score rewrites included moving ‘Parramatta River’ to the head of the show, cutting ‘Spring’, and ‘Children’, adding the new song ‘Back, Back to Sydney’, plus reinstating ‘Soldiers of the Lord’ and ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which had originally been dropped in Melbourne. The orchestra had been reduced to nine. The program included the lyrics of all of the show’s songs, with O’May now credited for lyrics along with Reeves, Palmer and Yeldham. Graham’s ‘based on a concept by’ credit had disappeared.
Bob Evans in The Sydney Morning Herald (18 September 1989) said it was ‘a show that is brimming with sentiment and spiced with smiles. It is guaranteed to have you blinking back the tears’. Frank Gauntlett in the Daily Mirror headlined ‘Family show hits home’, and Bronwen Gora in the Sunday Telegraph called it an ‘Aussie musical made for the family’.
Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.
Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.
A scene from the Sydney season, Footbridge Theatre, 1989.
Bruce Dellit (with fiddle) in the Brisbane season, Suncorp Theatre, 1991.
All the critics loved Bickerton with the SMH saying she ‘gives one of the most dynamic and appealing performances seen on any Sydney stage this year’. They thought O’May played Woolcott to ‘perfection’, and that Cox’s performance was ‘exemplary’, along with Kermond, Berry, Glen and Cameron.
Eighteen months later a new production of the show was mounted by the Royal Queensland Theatre Company under the direction of Alan Edwards, using the revised Sydney script and score. It opened at the Suncorp Theatre on 21 February 1991.
The 22-strong cast included Simon Burvill-Holmes (Captain Woolcott), Susie French (Esther), Veronica Neave (Judy), Kevin Hides (Monsieur Marceau), Margery Forde (Miss Burton/Mrs Hassal), Sally McKenzie-Mee (Martha/Miss Jolly), Bill French (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Alinta Coady (Meg) and Matt Leighton (Pip). Musical direction was by Dale Ringland, with choreography by Graeme Watson.
Peta Koch was scathing in her review in The Courier Mail (23 February 1991), saying the show ‘had not been reworked enough to make its remounting worthwhile’. She said, ‘Reeves’ music and the script were not memorable and the plot is tenuous and laboured’. Her praise was reserved for Burvill-Holmes as Woolcott, French as Esther, Neave as Judy, and McKenzie-Mee as Martha and Miss Jolly.
Just as dismissive was Brett Debritz in the Brisbane Sun (22 February 1991): ‘[It’s] too long, too slow, and it lacks truly memorable tunes.’ Sue Gough in The Bulletin questioned why QTC couldn’t have found ‘something better than this pinchbeck G&S, this antipodean version of The Sound of Music’ to start its season.
Before the production opened at the Suncorp Theatre, the scheduled three-week season had been sold out, so it was decided to extend it by one week, to March 16. The bad notices killed the box office and for some nights of the extra week the show played to an audience of only 75.
To date, this was the last professional production of the work, although there have been several productions on the amateur circuit. In 1996 Reeves and British producer Dan Crawford went searching for finance for a projected London season. The show was to have had a name change to Judy, but to date British audiences have not been exposed to the tears and joys of the Woolcott family.8.
The show made money in Melbourne and Tasmania, lost in Adelaide and Sydney and despite the poor last week, did very well in Brisbane.
Reeves recorded the original cast and released it on cassette under his own label Bodemo (BOD 003). Later the album was picked up by EMI who reissued it on LP (EMC-791157) and CD (CDP 791157). It received an ARIA nomination for Best Original Soundtrack or Cast Album in 1989.9. Recorded two months after the show premiered in Melbourne, the album is missing ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which was dropped after the opening. Two songs also have different titles: ‘Dear Miss Woolcott’ is listed as ‘Fall in Like with You’ and ‘Rattle the Track’ is titled ‘Catching the Central Express’. The album also includes ‘Soldiers of the Lord’.
EMI also released a 45rpm single of the ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ sung by Julie Anthony, with ‘Monsieur Marceau’ sung by The Seven Chorus on the flip side (EMI 2065). The Tommy Tycho Orchestra accompanied both tracks. During the 1988 Melbourne season, the entire cast made a TV appearance on The Mike Walsh Show, singing ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini’. An archival tape survives of this performance. Castle Music published the sheet music of ‘Look for a Rainbow’ with Julie Anthony on the cover, but there was no credit for the show.
A private original cast LP recording of the 1978 Armidale School production contains an Overture and Entr’acte, a title tune, plus 12 other songs, including the two songs, ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, that ended up in the commercial production.
To be continued...
Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.
Images courtesy of Peter Pinne & Frank Van Straten.
- Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981
- Albert Moran, Moran’s Guide to Australian TV Series, Allen & Unwin, 1993
- ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
- ‘Seven up after ten years’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1988
- ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
- ‘Turning point for State’s theatre’, The Examiner, 17 October 1988
- Matt Mollett, ‘Against The Odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs
From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer and Winter 2010 issues of On Stage. Revised to include an important recent production, this is the second of a two-part article looking at Australia’s first ‘gay’ musical, Only Heaven Knows. Click here to read Part 1»
In his series of articles spotlighting important home-grown musicals, Peter Pinne concludes the story of Australia’s first gay musical and its creator, Alex Harding.
Alex Harding was born in England on 15 October 1949. His first credits appeared in 1975, after he became a founding member and musical director of Gay Sweatshop Theatre. The movement had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club ‘Ambience’, held at the Almost Free Theatre.
According to Harding: ‘Drew Griffiths, who was the backbone and founder of Gay Sweatshop, wanted to form a gay theatre company where we could present alternatives to audiences and help break down their fears and prejudices. What we had from TV and stupid West End farces was the stereotyped queen – which I don’t have an objection to because there are screaming queens out there – but at that time it was never balanced. You never actually saw any other images of gay men or lesbians on the stage to counterbalance the screaming queen and butch dyke – images like John Inman in Are You Being Served?’1
When Harding composed the title song for Only Heaven Knows in 1986, it was Drew Griffiths he was thinking of: ‘His pride and his passion was an inspiration to the original members of the company.’ Later, four people stabbed Griffiths to death in his house. They were never caught.2
As Time Goes By was first produced for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality Conference in Nottingham in 1977. It was written by Noel Grieg and Drew Griffiths, Harding composed original music, and it was in three parts – the first in 1896 after the Oscar Wilde trial, the second in Berlin in the 30s, and the third in 1969 when Gay Liberation was born.3
Harding’s next project was Double Exposure, a collaboration with Alan Pope, another founding member of Gay Sweatshop. Told in story and song, Exposure 1 is an everyday tale of growing up gay, whilst Exposure 2 is a satirical look at Britain’s foremost authority on TV and smutty stuff. Songs included the witty ‘There’s Nothing like a Fairy to make sure the Party’s Gay’, a direct descendent of Coward’s infamous ‘I’ve been to a Marvellous Party’. The show’s first performance was at the Oval House, London, 1978.
The following year Harding and Pope collaborated again on Point Blank, a cabaret that was directed by Martin Sherman (Bent). Songs included ‘Monogamy’ and ‘Boys’ Talk’. The show was recorded live, released on cassette, and sold at second-hand gay bookshops. The same year also produced The Dear Love of Comrades, a play by Noel Grieg, with music by Harding. It premiered at the Oval House Theatre, London, in March.4
Harding and Pope’s final collaboration was Layers, a musical that had a sell-out season at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) Theatre, London, in 1979. It starred a young Michael Cashman, who later played Colin, a gay character in EastEnders. One of the songs was ‘Is the Outlook Somewhat Brighter?’ It was Harding’s first attempt at a full-blown musical, and it worked. The play told a clever and very amusing story of conflicting relationships in modern gay life. The Guardian reviewer called it: ‘the only play I have ever seen that opens with three naked men in one bed …’
During Harding’s time with Gay Sweatshop, the company toured the UK, Berlin and Amsterdam, and performed at the Edinburgh Festival. In its early years Gay Sweatshop nurtured acting talents like Anthony Sher and Simon Callow.5
In 1980 Harding became a musical director of the Bloolips Theatre Company, a drag troupe that toured Europe, Vancouver and New York. It was during his time with Bloolips that Harding created his alter ego drag character ‘Dotty’, and sang the song ‘Drag Queen’. He performed with the Bloolips for two seasons.
Alex Harding migrated to Australia in 1984 and one year later became a citizen. His first Australian credit was Not Quite Sixty Minutes, a cabaret written and performed by him at the Midnight Shift, Sydney, during the 1985 Gay Mardi Gras. The following year saw him appear in, and contribute to, Love, Sex and Romance, an umbrella event during the Gay Mardi Gras at the same venue. Songs featured included ‘What’s a Queen to do Nowadays?’, ‘Love’ and ‘Safe Sex Song’, in which Harding appeared as ‘Nuda the Condom’. According to Harding, ‘an incredibly long monologue preceded the song [written by Denis Gallagher] and at the end I’d sing about the joys of safe sex. It was at the time of the ‘Rubba-Me’ campaign.6 It was a very rude song.’7 It was also outrageously funny.
The same year Harding also contributed to Acid ’n’ Tonic, another gay cabaret whose chief writer was Larry Galbraith. The show reunited Harding with Dennis Scott, one of the founders of Sydney Gay Theatre Company, who had just returned to Sydney. It also featured Rob Dallas and Robin Fellows, with Grant Ovenden on piano. Richard Turner was the director. It opened at the Paddington Green Hotel, Sydney, in September 1985.8
Harding followed Only Heaven Knows with the play Blood and Honor. Written in a style that was at times stream-of-consciousness and at others with dialogue that cut back and forth between past and present, the play was a powerful statement about racism, homophobia and living with AIDS. Margaret Davis was back in the director’s chair, as were two of the cast from Only Heaven Knows, Jacqy Phillips as the feminist Mother, and John Turnbull as her son Colin, who is HIV positive. The third member of the play’s triangle was Anthony Wong, as Michael, Colin’s Australian-born Asian lover.
The first play to be produced by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Blood and Honor opened at Belvoir Street Theatre on 7 February 1990. Bob Evans (SMH, 12 February 1990) said it ‘is one of those rare works in Australian theatre which seeks to explore the links between sexual and racial intolerance in our society.’ He went on to say: ‘At its core, the play is an intensely personal response to the AIDS pandemic and to the questions which it poses for our society, pitting compassion and understanding against repression, guilt and punitive indifference.’ He said it wasn’t an easy night in the theatre and dramatically it was flawed, but ‘its manifest anger is a reminder these are not easy times.’
Rosemary Neill (Australian, 13 February 1990) concurred that the play was dramatically weak. Her criticism hinged on the fact that she thought Harding ‘attempts too vast a narrative and thematic territory: he raises a multiplicity of issues and gives insufficient attention to all of them’.
Of his work in Blood and Honor Harding says: ‘I had a lot of anger to get out in that play, because I hated the Liberal party. The person I was actually going for in that play was John Howard, but midway through they changed to Andrew Peacock. And also, the play was paralleling what I was going through in my own life. My lover at the time was dying. People called it an AIDS play, but it isn’t just about AIDS. It’s about racism. It’s about a political party that would not give a shit.’9 It is well-known that Harding’s lover of 15 years, David E. Thompson, died of AIDS five months after the premiere of Blood and Honor. The play was written for him and is dedicated to him.
In early drafts, the play was titled Two-Legged Pricks Down Under. Later, when Harding heard of a British neo-Nazi rock group called Blood and Honor, he decided to go with that because it fitted in with one of the themes of the play.10
Despite the play’s critics and a soft box office, it went on to win the 1990 UN Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Award for Drama. It was published by Currency Press in 1996.
Harding was back at Belvoir Street Theatre the following year in a one-man musical, Beauty and the Beat, which was part of the 1991 Gay and Lesbian Arts Festival. Written and directed by Rex Lay, a former Harding collaborator from his Bloolips days, and with songs by Harding and Lay, the show is set in a public lavatory. Bruce, a bank teller, comes in to change into his beautiful drag costume for Mardi Gras, and is locked in. The show explores the two characters in one – Bruce and Beauty – which are the opposite sides of his personality.11 Songs included ‘If I were God’, ‘Perfect Stranger’, ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Fly Away’. The latter has lyrics by Harding and was written by him as a tribute to his lover, David E. Thompson, whilst ‘Perfect Stranger’ is a touching ballad every bit as good as the title song from Only Heaven Knows.
‘In this beat there is self-discovery, vignettes of delicious and camp delight, and music that ranges from the bitingly funny ‘If I Were God’ through to soft and tender ballads like ‘Perfect Stranger’… There are gags and glitter in glorious abundance in this public toilet’ (Sydney Star Observer, 22 February 1991). There was an opening night hiccup when ten seconds into the script Harding forgot his lines, so he went home, much to the dismay of the director and the audience. Later it was revealed there had not been enough time for a technical run or dress rehearsal in the theatre. It was subsequently re-scheduled and opened a few days later. It ran from 5 to 24 February 1991.
In 1992 Harding was commissioned by Playbox Theatre Company, Melbourne, to write The Life and Times of Hanky Bannister, a futuristic piece about an eccentric theatre troupe living and performing in an eerie desert. It featured dwarfs, ballerinas and lion-taming strong men, all led by a mad genius called Hanky who would send Porky (a dwarf dressed as a general with a huge pompadour wig) out into the real world and have him come back with reports of what corruption and thug trickery was going in government and elsewhere. Harding got the idea for Hanky’s name when he went to Liquorland and saw cheap Scotch whisky labelled Hanky Bannister. ‘I liked the name,’ he said, ‘and the play was written on a lot of that cheap Scotch’. In early drafts it was titled Earthly Possessions: A Comedy of Ill Manners. It remains unproduced.12
Sydney Theatre Company commissioned Harding to write the play Three. It was given a full-day workshop and an evening open reading under the auspices of STC’s research and development wing, New Stages, in the Wharf Studio, on 13 May 1993. The director was Michael Gow, assistant director Lex Biolos, and Hugo Weaving, Judi Farr and Les Wilson were the three-hander cast. The story had Walter, an elderly transvestite who lives in Darlinghurst, commentating on what was going on around him in his neighbourhood. He spoke of shopping at the deli, Betty’s soup kitchen and so on – real places, real times. In the same year, the show also had a reading at the Lookout Theatre, Woollahra, directed by Diana Denley. In early drafts it was called Surry Hills 2010. It has never had a full production.13
In 1993 Harding also worked as the pianist with a group called Body Tales in a piece called The Will. According to Leonard Radic (Age, 21 May 1993): ‘It is an amalgam of mime, music, dance and shadow play in which the performers exploit and satirize the techniques and conventions of the silent movie … The pianist Alex Harding goes at a steady beat throughout, working up to a fine frenzy in the final chase and rescue sequence.’ He was the only performer mentioned.
In 1994 Harding wrote a radio adaptation for ABC Radio National of Romeo and Juliet.
In the mid 90s Harding was commissioned by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to write and workshop a two-hander on the bushranger Captain Moonlite. Called Beloved, it was based on the death cell letters of Captain Scott (Moonlite) and his love for another man in the gang. Brett Partidge played Moonlite in a reading of the piece.14
Two of Harding’s one-act plays, The Reunion and Kaleidoscope, were mounted as part of the Queer Fringe by Lookout Theatre, in a program of four plays commencing on 5 February 1996. The other two, Shudder and Swellings, were by Alana Valentine. In The Reunion, a man, grieving over his dead lover, is visited by said lover who tells him to get on with his life. Dominic Chang played the man, and Anthony Cogin the lover. Stephen Dunne (SMH, 9 February 1996) said: ‘It’s a simple, affecting piece, emotionally poignant, wryly humorous, performed with coherency and depth. It’s also the best playlet of the night.’
In Kaleidoscope Harding took a selection of short monologues and two-handers from his play Three. ‘Unfortunately Harding has taken out the material connecting the various characters, leaving a whole lot of people who don’t seem to know each other and have no reason for sharing a stage,’ said Stephen Dunne (SMH, 9 February 1996).
On 18 February 1996 Harding premiered his one-man cabaret Just One More and Then I’ll Go at the Stables Theatre, Sydney. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Stephen Dunne called him a ‘legend’ and went on to say: ‘The songs, ranging from work for London’s Gay Sweatshop to his hit musical Only Heaven Knows, are wonderful, and Harding performs them, accompanying himself on piano, with superb phrasing, humour and passion.’
His remarks were echoed by other reviewers: ‘Highly recommended’ (Sydney Star Observer) and ‘The atmosphere is cabaretesque, the music enchanting, and Harding’s humour shifts from martini dry to fairly camp in nature’ (Beat).
The show, directed by Diana Denley, played until 10 March 1996, and was restaged for a benefit performance at the Luncheon Club on 17 April 1996. Harding recorded a CD (AH 196 CD) of the material; it features songs from Double Exposure, Love, Sex and Romance, Beauty and the Beat, Point Blank, Not Quite Sixty Minutes, Bloolips, Layers and Only Heaven Knows. Composers almost always perform their own material better than anyone else, and Harding is no exception. This is really a ‘best of’ collection and there’s no shortage of wit or melody.
Later in the year Harding teamed with Mary Haire for a series of Sunday afternoon cabaret shows at the Tilbury Hotel. They played on 3, 10, 17 and 24 November 1996, and earned a return season at Hugh and Phillips’ Vegetarian Café, Sydney, in January 1997. He followed this with Harding in the Soup, a Sunday night gig playing piano at Betty’s Soup Kitchen.
In 1999 Harding’s Family Secrets, Sheltered Worlds, was included along with No Secrets (Malcolm Frawley/Tony Harvey) and The Saturday Night Club (Linden Wilkinson) in a season of three short one-act plays at the Stables Theatre under the title of Hungry. A Playpen Theatre production, the plays were all performed by Angela Kennedy, Deborah Jones and Brett Partridge, with direction by Frawley. Family Secrets, Sheltered Worlds brought together two sisters and their brother at the funeral wake of their father, a Reverend, who we learn was anything but a loving Christian – sexual abuse of the son, the beatings of an adopted daughter, and neglect of the other one, all done in the guise of holy righteousness.15 The Sun-Herald (7 February 1999) called it ‘the meat in the sandwich’ of the three plays, and said, ‘It’s shocking and over the top and makes the director lift his game’. The season played for 16 performances, 4-28 February 1999.
Walk down the Avenue, a three-character musical, was to be a Sydney Mardi Gras production for 1999, but the cost was too great so it was pulled at the last minute. Set in the 60s and 70s, it was about a husband and wife lounge act who get a gig entertaining in Vietnam, and their young male protégée singer with whom the husband is in love. Jacqy Phillips was to have starred as the wife and Gary Scale as the husband, with direction by Dean Carey. There was to be a search to find the ‘star’ boy.16 Several songs from the show appear on Jason Stephenson’s CD Found (2000): ‘Dreams do come True’ (also done as a dance mix), ‘Whispered Words, Forgotten Dreams’, ‘New York ’69’, ‘Where is Home?’ and a title tune. The CD also includes two songs, ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Fly Away’, from Beauty and the Beat.
Harding returned to the UK in late 2000 and since then has fallen off the theatrical radar. He currently works as an Activities Co-Ordinator in an aged care facility outside of London.
Prior to living in Australia Harding had only ever written music and lyrics. As a dramatist he was a late starter, but he certainly made up for lost time, writing eight plays over a ten year period, two of them award winners.
Alex Harding lived his life as an out and proud gay man. It didn’t worry him that he was labelled a gay or queer writer. ‘There’s nothing that would bore me to tears more than to write for an exclusive heterosexual audience,’ he says. ‘I write for a gay audience because I’m gay. I’m coming from a gay experience, my experience’.17
Since Only Heaven Knows there have been many gay or gay-themed Australian musicals, but Only Heaven Knows was the first. It was groundbreaking, it broke down the barriers, and it put gay life centre stage. What’s more it did it with honesty, compassion and love. For that we have to thank Alex Harding, an Englishman who considered himself an ‘outsider looking in’. He gave us an Australian classic.18
Special thanks to: Scott Abrahams, Derek Bond, Paul Dellit, Denis Follington, Frank Ford, Alex Harding, Sam Harvey, Gary Jaynes (Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives), Ivan King (HMT Archives, Perth), Margaret Leask, Barry Lowe, Margaret Marshall (APAC), Andrew McNichol, Stephanie Power (WAAPA Archives), Ian Purcell, Peter Reardon, Rick Scarfone, Judith Seeff (STC Archives), Alana Valentine, Frank Van Straten – and, especially, to Alex Harding himself.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith in Australasian Drama Studies, no. 31, October 1997, pp. 57-70.
- Liner notes for the CD Just One More and Then I’ll Go.
- Michael Huxley, A Guide to Gay & Lesbian Writing in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1996.
- Outrage, 43, February 1991, pp. 52-53.
- Liner notes, op cit.
- SMH, 16 February 1996
- Michael Huxley, op cit.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith, op cit.
- Outrage 81, February 1990, p.14
- Michael Huxley, op cit.
- Alex Harding, correspondence with author.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith, op cit.
- Liner notes, op cit., Bayview CD reissue.
The Age, The Australian, The Bulletin, The Guardian (UK). The Mercury (Hobart), The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Star Observer, CD liner notes, theatre programs, playscripts
From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer 2010 issue of On Stage. Revised to include an important recent production, this is the first of a two-part article looking at Australia’s first ‘gay’ musical, Only Heaven Knows. Click here to read Part 2»
On 13 March 1995 Stephen Dunn claimed in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Home-grown gay theatre has finally ascended to the temple of culture on Bennelong Point.’ He was speaking about the transfer of Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows, Australia’s first gay musical, to the Sydney Opera House. A sell-out season at the Stables Theatre, Sydney, had precipitated the move. It was just another crowning success in the story of this humble little musical that began back in 1988.
Only Heaven Knows was originally a Bicentennial commission. According to Alex Harding: ‘I sensed shock waves when some of the committee came along to a presentation work-in-progress. I think they were expecting an Australian Cabaret, a Sally Bowles equivalent with decadent heterosexuals at play, but were shocked to discover how seriously homosexual the piece was, hoping it would quietly disappear never to be seen or heard of again.’1 In his grant application Harding had cleverly omitted the word ‘gay’, and replaced it with ‘demimonde’.2
But it didn’t go away: it went on to be produced many times around the country to critical and audience acclaim. The playscript has been published twice, the cast recording of the 1995 Sydney production has been released internationally, and there are several versions of the show’s title tune available on record, making it the most recorded song from an Australian musical of recent times.
The show was inspired by Jon Rose’s book At The Cross: Growing Up in King’s Cross, Sydney’s Soho (Andre Deutsch, 1961). According to Robert Dessaix it was ‘one of the first post-war books for a general readership which described in positive tones what was in a sense a gay culture in Sydney during the Second World War.3
Only Heaven Knows is called a ‘Romantic Musical Comedy’ and is set in Sydney during the 1940s (Act 1) and ’50s (Act 2). Each act is top and tailed by the Ghost of Lea Sonia, Australia’s leading female impersonator of the ’40s. Based on a real character, Lea Sonia was actually an American who was caught in Australia, unable to return to America because of the war. Australian audiences loved him/her (‘… is she really a man?’) so convincing s/he was in women’s clothing. S/he was a huge star and often headlined at the Tivoli alongside Mo. S/he was murdered when she was bashed and pushed under a tram by a drunken American serviceman.4
Act One takes place in Sydney in 1944. Seventeen-year-old Tim has left home in Melbourne to try his luck as a writer in Sydney. He rents a room in a Kings Cross boarding house run by night-club singer Guinea Newbolt, who introduces him to her male friend, Lana. Cliff and Alan are former lovers in their late twenties who share a flat. They were both dishonorably discharged from the Army when they were discovered engaging in fellatio with each other. Tim gets a job in a deli, where Cliff spots him, and despite the differences in their ages they fall for each other. On New Year’s Eve the five friends go to the Artists’ Gala Drag and Drain Ball. It is raided by the police, but fortunately none of them is arrested.
Act Two is ten years later and Sydney has changed dramatically. Tim and Cliff are living together but are being discrete about being gay for fear of losing their accommodation which has happened many times. Tim is pretending to be Cliff’s cousin. Guinea and Lana are running a theatrical hire shop, and Alan has been persuaded to have electro-aversion therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Tim gets a dream job offer to go to England to work on the London production of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but it will mean leaving Cliff. After becoming violently ill with his treatment, Alan, with the help of Lana, moves towards self-acceptance. After much soul-searching, Tim accepts the London offer and although devastated, Cliff gives his blessing. As Tim boards the ship for London they refrain from showing affection for fear of being arrested, but then finally give in to their emotions and hug each other.
The first time the project saw the light of day was in a reading at the Rocks Theatre, Sydney, in 1987. Mary Haire read Guinea, direction was by Margaret Davis, with Harding on piano. Although the Bicentennial Committee was not impressed, others at the reading were. Harding then applied for and received a grant of $29 000 from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. This enabled the musical to get up as a co-production with the Griffin Theatre Company.5
It opened at the Stables Theatre, Sydney, on 4 May 1988, with a cast including Steve Kidd (Tim), Paul Hunt (Cliff), James Bean (Alan), John Turnbull (Lea Sonia/Lana) and Jacqy Phillips (Guinea). Margaret Davis directed and choreographed the piece, with design by Judith Hoddinott, musical direction by Grant Ovenden (piano), and saxophone and clarinet by Amanda Jones.
The reviews were good. Bob Evans (SMH, 6 May 1988) said, ‘It is a much needed affirmation of love and community. There are moments of great humor and scenes of tenderness and tragedy, thrillingly played, especially by newcomer Steve Kidd, who catches the innocence, the energy and vulnerability of young Tim.’
Michael Morton-Evans (Australian, 6 May 1988), found: ‘It is very funny in parts, and in parts very touching,’ and called Harding a writer of ‘considerable skill and talent’. The Daily Telegraph said: ‘this is a brave and often poignant piece,’ and claimed there is ‘much pleasure in this heaven,’ whilst the Star Observer rejoiced, ‘at last a Bicentennial surprise.’
Only Heaven Knows has a strong contemporary theatre score. Tim is well served by the composer with three solos: ‘This Is It’, ‘Sydney, You’re Wonderful’ and the standout title tune, one of the best ballads ever written for an Australian musical. Guinea has a raucous moment with ‘Ain’t It A Shame That Your Itty-Bitty Mama’s Gone Fishin’ with Somebody Else’; Lea Sonia’s ‘Stealin’ It Every Way That I Can’ (later just called ‘Stealin’’), is a second act highlight; whilst Cliff’s ‘Without Him’ and Alan’s ‘Where Is The Love?’ are very effective emotional pleas. Two songs were cut before opening: ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which Alan contemplates writing to the agony aunt for advice on his attraction to men, and ‘Lucky For You’, a song for Cliff and Tim.
The show also uses recordings to help recreate the period. It opens with the 40s pop song ‘Six Lessons From Madam La Zonga’. From a 1941 Lupe Velez movie of the same name, this was the real Lea Sonia’s signature tune. Other recordings included ‘Praise the Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ (replaced by ‘Moonlight Serenade’ in the 1995 production), ‘In The Mood’, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘One For My Baby’, plus ‘God Save The King’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When Lea Sonia returns at the end of Act One, ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’ was played to denote the character was in a more contemporary place.
The show played Tuesday to Sunday and was so successful that the season had to be extended. It closed on 12 June 1988, after playing 35 performances.
The next production on this show’s ground-breaking journey was by the Playbox Theatre Company, at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Studio, where it opened on 6 February 1989. This time the role of Tim was played by Michael Pope, Guinea by Caroline Gillmer, with Alan Andrews (Lea Sonia/Lana), Robert Morgan (Cliff) and Kurt Geyer (Alan). Robert Meldrum was the director, Amanda Johnson the designer, with musical direction by Tyrone Landau on piano, and wind instruments played by Ken Schroder.
In the Bulletin (21 February 1989), Alison Croggon wrote: ‘The highlight of this production is undoubtedly the excellent acting…[it] makes all of Harding’s characters live and makes Only Heaven Knows as he intended, a celebration of their courage in appallingly difficult situations. While I never forgot I was watching a play centrally concerned with the issue of homosexuality, this was subsumed by the larger human issues it raises: the complexities of love and personal discovery in an often hostile society.’
Dennis Davison headlined his review in the Australian (6 February 1989) with ‘Sensitivity that’s neither gay abandon nor a drag.’ He called it a theatre piece which is a ‘mixture of cabaret, stand-up comedy, musical numbers, camp parody, drag-queen exhibitionism and serious drama.’ He thought Harding’s music ‘caught the flavour of the 1940s. The lyrics wisely refrained from trying to ape musical comedy big numbers and the men sang with feeling, if not with Glimmer’s expertise.’
Leonard Radic (Age, 7 February 1989) also praised Glimmer: ‘Unlike the men, she can sing. She also brings a warmth and naturalness to all her roles.’ He called it ‘a sympathetic study of gay living,’ and said, ‘Only Heaven Knows is a musical play with the strengths, but also the limitations of the genre. The blues and jazz music is atmospheric. But the plot itself is novelettish, and thin on both motivation and psychology.’
This time the show played Monday to Saturday, 7 performances each week, and once again, business was so good the season had to be extended until 11 March 1989. Like Sydney, it too clocked up 35 performances.
One year later The Old Nick Company presented the show at the University Studio Theatre, Hobart. It opened on 15 August 1990, and played a 10-night season, closing on 25 August. With direction by Glenn Braithwaite, who also played the role of Cliff, the cast included Andrew McNicol (Tim), Mark Weeding (Alan) and Amy Vogel (Guinea), with the roles of Lea Sonia and Lana being played by two separate actors, Cameron Hartley and Anthony Speed. Various other bit parts, which had been doubled in previous productions, were handled by Andrew Harper, Kate Johnson and Mimi Phoenix. This time the musical accompaniment was by Ben Sibson on piano and synthesizer, and Phillip Bywater on clarinet and saxophone. Production design was by Keith Bates.
‘This warm and, for the most part, gentle story of homosexual love is told with comedy and compassion,’ said Wal Eastman in his Mercury review (16 August 1990). It has ‘plenty of romance, rollicking humour, good tunes, a brief naked-lovers-in-bed-scene, and a plot with its fair share of misunderstandings and making up.’ He said Braithwaite ‘excels’ as Cliff, and McNicol matches him in a ‘sensitive performance as Tim.’
In 1991 a group of gay Adelaide actors presented a play reading of the first act. This resulted in them mounting a full production as a Fringe Festival attraction during the 1992 Adelaide Festival of Arts. Calling themselves Theatre Sagitta – The Theatre of the Times, they hired the Sheridan Theatre for a two week season of the show – 17-28 March 1992. Tom Maloney played Lea Sonia, and Paul Halton was Tim.
Next up was a new production of the show by Umbrella Productions for the 1995 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Again playing at the Stables Theatre, it opened on 3 February 1995. The cast included Gary Scale (Lea Sonia/Lana), Anthony Cogon (Cliff), Jason Longley (Alan) and newcomer David Campbell (Tim). Jacqy Phillips was back again to play Guinea as she had done in the original 1988 production.
Les Solomon handled direction, Jason Langley did set design, and Michael Huxley was musical director. The production used Judith Hoddinott’s Sydney Habour Bridge backdrop design from the 1988 production. A reduced version of ‘Lucky For You’ was reinserted in Act Two, and Guinea’s Act One song was now listed as ‘Itty Bitty Momma’. It was later retitled ‘Ain’t it a Shame’. ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’ had been dropped from the end of the first act, and an epilogue had been added for Lea Sonia in Act Two.
‘Campbell is absolutely terrific as the young Tim, all fresh-faced with a sweet voice to match,’ raved James Waites (SMH, 7 February 1995). ‘Gary Scale, of Tilbury Hotel fame, offers us his Lea Sonia, and a hilariously prune-faced Lana.’ He also liked Cogon, Langley, and said Phillips as Guinea was ‘total class’. Solomon came in for his share of accolades: ‘It takes good old-fashioned professionalism to make a show like this work and that’s what Les Solomon’s production has in bucket-loads.’
Bryce Hallett (Australian, 17 February 1995) said Harding has ‘fashioned an intelligent and immensely appealing gay musical that evokes Sydney, or more specifically King’s Cross bohemia in the 40s and 50s.’ He called the production ‘a timely, life-affirming theatrical occasion,’ and went on to praise Scale for his ‘humour and warmth’ and Phillips for her ‘knockabout experience and a slightly unhinged madness.’
The praise was also echoed by the Sun Herald (19 February 1995): ‘Harding tells his story through words, action and, perhaps most emphatically, music – songs that haunt: that raunch. This company delivers his story with lots of flash and zing.’
The production won the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Award for Outstanding Performing Arts Event, 1995.
The show played 30 sellout performances at the Stables until it closed 5 April 1995. It moved immediately to the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House, opening on 11 April and playing another 37 full-houses until it closed on 13 May.
For the Opera House season Paul Hunt replaced Anthony Cogon as Cliff. Stephen Dunne (SMH, 13 April 1995) headlined: ‘Quirky charmer still joy to watch,’ also saying the production had survived the shift from the intimate Stables venue to the larger Playhouse with the loss of intimacy made up for by more ‘settled performances’. Scale, Phillips and Langley still received plaudits, with Hunt giving Cliff a ‘nicely down-played blokey realism,’ and Campbell ‘dramatically fine but somewhat vocally tenuous.’
It was David Campbell’s breakout role. He was nominated for a ‘Mo’ award for ‘Best Musical Theatre Performer’ of 1995, and later moved to New York where he made a name in cabaret and starred in Stephen Sondheim’s Saturday Night and the Encores production of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms.
In October 1996, an off-campus play-reading of the show was given by Music Theatre students from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Presented during Gay Pride week, the reading was directed by John Milson, with Denis Follington as musical director.
It featured a cast of performers on the brink of their careers. Tyran Parke played Tim, Kane McErvale (he later changed his name to Kane Alexander) was Alan, with Nathan Carter (Cliff), Larissa Gallagher (Guinea) and Peter Cathie White (Lea Sonia). Other roles were filled by Peter Eyers, Sharon Wisniewski and Mathew Dale.
Parke remembers: ‘I really loved doing that show – mind you I think we only did three or four performances – but it was really, really well received. People felt very moved by the piece. I think the atmosphere of the Blue Room in Perth really added – it was very intimate.’
Since 1996, Only Heaven Knows has been revived twice in Melbourne. During the 1998 Midsumma Festival it played the David Williamson Theatre, Prahran, from 22 January to 14 February. The cast included Luke Gallagher, Larry Hunter-Stewart, Kurt Kansley, Catherine Rutten and Michael Smallwood, with Nigel Ubrihien on piano. Midsumma Festival was also responsible for a later production directed by Adrian Barnes at Chapel Off Chapel, 17 January–3 February, 2001.
Sydney has also experienced two revivals, both at the New Theatre. The first ran from 7 November to 19 December 1998. It featured Paul Flynn (Tim), Mark Fuller (Cliff), Lloyd King (Alan), with Benjamin O’Reilly (Lea Sonia), Alice Livingstone (Guinea), George Hoad (Lana) and Mary Lindsay, Don Ferguson and Karren Lewis. Direction was by Pete Nettell, with John Short as musical director. The second was a One-Off Moved play-reading on 4 December 2002, with basically the same cast and director. Musical direction was handled by Andrew Davidson. An unofficial video of the complete 1988 production survives.
In 2017 the Hayes Theatre, Sydney, produced a new professional production of the musical with Tim Draxl as Cliff, Hayden Tee as Lea Sonia and Lana, West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) graduate Ben Hall as Tim, Matthew Backer as Alan and Blazey Best as Guinea. David Spicer in Stage Whispers claimed it was "Stylish, humorous and as relevant as when it was written." It played 43 performances.
The show has not been without controversy. According to Harding, one reviewer of the initial season, failing totally to see the politics of the piece, couldn’t get past the fact that Only Heaven Knows is a love story between two men – and whilst he was quite correct, he nevertheless felt obliged to demand that there be some sort of warning on the poster in order to alert potential theatregoers! A similar thing was to occur during the Opera House season. A group of American tourists walked out declaring that ‘… if this play and these actors ever come to Milwaukee, we’ll shoot them!’ And in Melbourne at the Arts Centre a booking clerk was advising people who wanted to see the show ‘… oh, you won’t like that, it’s about two poofters!’ An internal hunt to expose said booking clerk failed, but gave the show added publicity. And the work wasn’t without its gay critics. Outrage magazine complained that the show was ‘all white’ – i.e. there were no Aborigines in it.6
The show has been published twice by Currency Press. The first version appeared in 1989 and a second revised edition in 1996. Festival Music published a single sheet of the title song in 1988.
The 1995 Stables Theatre cast recorded the complete score (OHK95). It contains a ‘Prologue’, ‘This Is It’, ‘Night-Time In The City’, ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Would You Like That Too?, ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, ‘Asking Me Questions’ ‘Act 1 Scene 15’, ‘Act 2 Scene 1’, ‘Lucky For You’, ‘Where Is The Love?’, ‘Stealin’’, ‘Without Him’, ‘Only Heaven Knows’ and an ‘Epilogue’.
In 2000 this cast recording was reissued in the US and distributed in the UK on Bayview Records (RNBW005) with 6 bonus tracks by the composer: ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Stealin’’, ‘Where Is The Love?’, ‘Only Heaven Knows’, the cut ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’ and a full version of ‘Lucky For You’. The US and UK reviewers enthused: ‘The score is excellent, a lovely blend of poignant and witty songs…’ (Mike Gibb, Masquerade); ‘…the disc does boast as leading man David Campbell, who is excellent.’ (Ken Mandelbaum, broadway.com); and ‘Alex Harding’s music and lyrics are pop hook-laden enough to hold interest.’ (Jonathan Padget, GLAA Metro Weekly).
The title tune has been recorded by David Campbell on his album Yesterday Is Now (Philips 532 714-2), and No.1 Musicals Album (Polygram 539-736), by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir on Something to Sing About (ABC LRF 295, 1993), and Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir (Larrikin LRF-481, 1997), Les Ms on Les Ms – Therapy (L-M, 1998), and by Jason Stephenson on Found (2000). This album also contains a version of ‘Where Is The Love?’. Harding’s version also turns up on Musicals From The Land Of Oz (Bayview RNBW 012), Just One More And Then I’ll Go (AH 196 CD, 1996), which also has ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Stealin’’, and ‘Where Is The Love?’ on it, and on a cassette released for the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. There are two tracks on the cassette, the other being ‘Fly Away’, which was used in the cabaret Beauty and the Beat (1991). Mark Fuller, who played Cliff in the 1998 New Theatre production, also features ‘Lucky For You’ and ‘Stealin’ on his live album Mark Fuller – Songs about Adam (Pride 010LPD, 1996).
To be continued.
- Liner notes from Bayview CD reissue.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith in Australasian Drama Studies No 31, October 1997, pp57-70
- Liner notes from Bayview CD reissue.
- Michael Huxley: A Guide to Gay & Lesbian Writing in Australia. Allen & Unwin, 1996
- Alex Harding correspondence with author
The Age, The Australian, Bulletin, Guardian, (UK), Hobart Mercury, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Star Observer, Stage Whispers
CD Liner notes
From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer 2008 issue of On Stage written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Australian musical Lola Montez. This article has now been brought up to date by Peter and includes by way of illustration some newly revealed costume designs by Hermia Boyd.
When Lola Montez opened on 19 February 1958, a breath of fresh air blew across the Australian musical theatre landscape. Here, at last, was a show the critics thought could hold its own against the American and British imports of the day. The composer, lyricist and writer were young and unknown, but the quality of their work promised a bright future for all three. The show and its score have since been recognized as the landmark that they were, and fifty years later Lola is still kicking up her heels on Australian stages.
Peter Stannard (b. 1931) composer, Peter Benjamin (b. 1930) lyricist, and Alan Burke (1923-2007) book writer, met in 1951 at the Intervarsity Drama Festival, Sydney. They all shared an interest in musicals, and talk revolved around them writing one together. The subject of Lola Montez and her four-day visit to the Ballarat goldfields in 1856 was a story the trio thought had potential.
The colourful Lola was working-class Irish who improved her station by marrying an army officer. When he was posted to India, she walked out on him, later dancing her provocative ‘spider dance’ for the crowned heads of Europe. For a time she was mistress to Ludwig I of Bavaria (and others), but eventually she fled to America. Gold-rich Australia soon beckoned. She gave performances in Sydney and Melbourne and, of course, Ballarat – where she infamously publicly horsewhipped the editor of the Ballarat Times for daring to give her a bad review.
Stannard began writing music in his teens, sending his efforts to such radio programs as Search for a Song. Later, while studying Arts at Sydney University, he produced, scripted and appeared in student revues. During a stint working for an advertising agency in Brisbane in 1956, he produced, directed, wrote and performed in the revue Heaven’s Above – The Sky’s The Limit (14 March 1956), which was mostly recycled material that he’d written for the Sydney University Revue of 1954. Benjamin also studied Arts at Sydney University, where he majored in Maths. During his time there his clever facility with words found him also contributing to the annual student revues.
Burke, who graduated from Melbourne University, began his career working with Brett Randall at the Little Theatre in South Yarra. In 1952, he was appointed administrator of Canberra Repertory. He followed that with a three-year London stint, working with BBC television courtesy of a UNESCO fellowship. On his return to Australia in 1956 he spent two years working with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, before joining ABC TV.
Correspondence about a Lola musical continued between the trio throughout 1953 and 1954. Eventually they gathered under one roof and between Boxing Day 1956 and New Year’s Day 1957, they completed the first draft of the book, music and lyrics.
The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust agreed to fund a tryout production of the work by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (now MTC), at the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne. John Sumner was to have directed the show, but during rehearsals he fell ill, so Alan Burke took over. It wasn’t the last time he would direct Lola. The show was cast from the then current group of repertory players, many of whom later went to local and international fame; Frank Gatliff, Hugh McDermott, Patricia Conolly, Neil Fitzpatrick, Robin Ramsay, Monica Maughan, Alan Hopgood, and George Ogilvy. Justine Rettick, an operetta comedienne, was recruited to play Lola. Glen Balmford, also cast from outside the ranks, played the young love interest, Jane Oliver.
The musical’s story centred around Lola’s four-day visit to the Ballarat goldfields, where the miners in appreciation of her performance threw gold nuggets to her on the stage, and her subsequent infamous Editor horsewhipping episode. A sub-plot was a sweet little love story that had an Irishman travelling halfway around the world to find the girl who nursed him in the Crimean War. As for the score, the opening song, ‘Southerly Buster’, was a hearty and memorable men’s chorus, and ‘Let Me Sing! Let Me Dance’ was an appropriate and effective big number for the lead. ‘Partner, Name Your Poison’ and ‘Maria, Dolores, Eliza, Rosanna’, were clever duets for Lola and her manager Sam Vanderburg, and there were two ballads that stood out, ‘I Alone’ and the pretty waltz that had hit potential, ‘Saturday Girl’.
The Bulletin (26 February 1958) said: ‘Lola Montez was a definite success, and looks likely to continue for some time.’ It praised Justine Rettick, ‘the most accomplished singer and an energetic actress,’ Neil Fitzpatrick for playing ‘a sufficiently naïve and Irish, Daniel Brady,’ and said ‘Frank Gatliff was an amusing and swaggering American Sam Vanderberg.’ Others to be noticed were Glen Balmford and Hugh McDermott. Although the Bulletin carped that, ‘Some of the best songs have overseas big brothers,’ the score was generally liked. Howard Palmer’s headline in The Sun (20 February 1958) called Lola Montez ‘a show to see’. He went on to say that he thought it would sell abroad. The Herald’s Harry Standish (20 February 1958) said, ‘there are good choruses and songs with world class lyrics and catchy enough tunes.’ But he thought Lola lacked fire: ‘Lola herself is the disappointment of the show. However much past her prime, she should be a dancer, with fire to stir the diggers to throw nuggets. Justine Rettick doesn’t get near it.’
The public responded positively to the notices, which resulted in the season being extended. On opening night, Hugh Hunt, executive director of the Elizabethan Trust, announced that the Trust would mount a full-scale production later in the year.
The Trust came good on its word. It scheduled its production of Lola Montez to open at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Brisbane, on 1 October 1958, to be followed by a transfer to its Elizabethan Theatre in the Sydney suburb of Newtown. Top-starred as Lola was English dancer Mary Preston, whose previous London credits included playing a ‘starlet’ in Grab Me a Gondola. Frank Wilson, who had spent some time in London appearing in Call Me Madam (1952), Paint Your Wagon (1953), and had a stint as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls (1954), was cast as Lola’s American manager, Sam, with Jane Martin and Michael Cole as the young lovers, Jane and Daniel. Others in the cast included John Auld, Bernard Shine, Doreen Oakshott, Ron Pinnell and Alan Hopgood, who was the only cast member retained from the tryout season in Melbourne.
Direction and choreography were in the hands of expatriate Australian George Carden, who returned from London for the assignment. His London credits included dance direction of the Arthur Askey–Julie Wilson musical Bet Your Life, which had a score by another expatriate Australian, Charles Zwar. Leo Packer was assigned as musical director, and orchestrations were by Verdon Williams. Between the Union Theatre season and Brisbane, the second act song, ‘She Was Like the Gold’ was cut and replaced with a reprise of ‘I Alone’.
In the Courier Mail (2 October 1958) Roger Covell called the show a ‘genuine home-hewn nugget,’ and went on to praise George Carden’s choreography, ‘some of the most supple and inventive dancing seen here,’ as well as the sets: ‘Hermia Boyd’s warmly coloured scenery waltzed round in spectacular fashion.’ The score also found favour; ‘Peter Stannard has thought up some excellent tunes in the current Broadway style. “Be My Saturday Girl”, “I Alone” and “I’m the Man” should find their way about without any trouble. Peter Benjamin’s lyrics alternated wit and sentiment judiciously, and probably came over best in “The Wages of Sin,” one of the hit scenes of the show.’ Covell’s criticism of the cast was reserved for Mary Preston, who ‘made us sit up and take notice,’ and Frank Wilson, ‘who clinched every scene in which he appeared – a truly masterful performance.’
But a good notice in the most important paper in town was not enough. Brisbane was unaccustomed to tryouts of any musical, let alone a local one, and with little pre-show publicity, audiences were sparse for its brief run.
By the time the Sydney season opened on 25 October 1958, Eric Thornton had replaced Michael Cole as Daniel, and Lola’s second act solo, ‘A Lady Finds Love’ had been cut. The press was again positive. L.B. in the Sydney Morning Herald (24 October 1958), thought, ‘there was still plenty of Gold in Ballarat,’ and that the Trust had ‘dug up a rich nugget of it,’ and that it had ‘zest, pace and colour.’ Stannard’s score was called ‘crisp and racy,’ and Benjamin’s lyrics ‘danced with verbal fun.’ But they did complain the show was not particularly Australian and could easily have been called, ‘Annie Get My Fair Damned Okladoon Game,’ for it was never less than a skilful synthesis of oft-proven New York tricks.’ They thought it ‘needed a bigger and more forceful personality than soubrettish little Mary Preston’ in the title role, that Eric Thornton ‘sang well,’ but ‘the finest singing came from the rugged men’s choruses, most of all in the unaccompanied little folk ballad of the second act [‘Ballad of a Tree’].’ Alan Burke’s book was said to rely too often for laughs on ‘copious bloodys and raucous insults about trollops and “dingoes” and such.’
But the writing was on the wall. Audience response was dismal and the show closed at a loss of £31,581. A few weeks later EMI, in a first for Australian theatre, released an original cast LP. It had been recorded in Sydney by Ron Wills, on 19, 23, 24, 25 September with the Brisbane cast, in between the Brisbane and Sydney seasons. It was the first stereo recording ever produced in Australia. Two songs, ‘There’s Gold in Them There Hills’ and ‘Ballad of a Tree’, were dropped from the score for the LP release. There is no doubt it is this historic recording that has kept the show alive for the past fifty years.
The following January, on Australia Day, the ABC broadcast a condensed radio version of the show with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust cast. Three years later ABC TV produced it for television. Both versions were directed by Alan Burke. The television cast featured New Zealand actress Brigid Lenihan as Lola, pop-singer Johnny Rohan as Daniel, Patsy Hemingway as Jane, Campbell Copelin as Seekamp, and two original Trust cast members, Frank Wilson as Sam and Alan Hopgood as Smith. Lenihan was ‘superb’ according to The Televiewer in the Age (3 May 1962), and they also liked Frank Wilson and Johnny Rohan. Their major criticism however was for the absence of any close-ups of the legendary whipping scene. Hopgood was the only actor to appear in all four productions, the original Union tryout, plus the Trust, radio and TV versions.
Thirty years after its first production, the show had a major revival in Canberra (3 December 1988) for the1988 bicentennial. Using a slightly revised script, it was again directed by Alan Burke, and featured Kate Peters as Lola. W.L. Hoffman in the Canberra Times (4 December 1988) said it ‘offers a pleasantly entertaining evening of music-theatre.’
At the time of the show’s major production in 1958, Chappell and Co. published a Piano Selection of the score with lyrics, which included the songs ‘Southerly Buster’, ‘A Lady Finds Love’, ‘The Wages of Sin’, ‘I Alone’, ‘I’m the Man’ and ‘He’s Mine’ and ‘Saturday Girl’. The latter two were also published as single sheets.
Apart from the EMI cast recording, which was produced in stereo and mono, there was also a medley released on LP from the Bobby Limb Sound of Music TV series. This was sung by Rosalind Keene, Bill Newman and Darryl Stewart with Bob Gibson’s orchestra. It featured the songs ‘Southerly Buster,’ ‘I’m the Man,’ ‘Saturday Girl’ and ‘I Can See a Town’. Stewart Harvey released ‘I’m The Man’ as a single in 1958, and several artists through the years have recorded ‘Saturday Girl’ – Johnny O’Connor, Tony Bonner, Philip Gould, David Campbell, and an orchestral version with Brian May and the ABC Melbourne Show Band. In 2000 the Bayview (US) CD reissue of the Original Trust Cast album restored the two songs that had been dropped from the LP. ‘There’s Gold in Them There Hills’ was taken from a radio program of the show, and the unaccompanied ‘Ballad of a Tree’ was specially recorded for the reissue.
Although Lola finished in the red, it certainly put the names of Stannard, Benjamin and Burke on the map. They were next commissioned by ATN 7, Sydney, and Shell, to write an Australian musical for family television which resulted in the trio creating Pardon Miss Westcott, which was broadcast live at 9.30pm, 12 December 1959 and repeated two weeks later on Christmas Day at 5pm. It was the most ambitious and costly project ever undertaken by ATN 7 at the time, and was the first original Australian television musical.
This time the authors again chose to work in period, and set their show in Sydney in 1809 after Governor Bligh’s departure and before Governor Macquarie’s arrival. It told the story of Elizabeth Westcott, a young woman transported from England who slyly arranges her own ticket-of-leave and opens an inn with the help of the colonel who runs the colony. It starred Wendy Blacklock in the title role, with Michael Cole, Queenie Ashton, Nigel Lovell, Chris Christensen, Nat Levison and Michael Walshe. David Cahill directed the show, which had orchestrations by Julian Lee and Tommy Tycho and musical direction by Tycho.
As with the score of Lola Montez, there were a couple of rousing male choruses, ‘Heigh Ho, You’ll Never Go Back’, and ‘Grog Song’, two feisty numbers for Wendy Blacklock, ‘Send For Me’ and ‘I’m On My Way’ and two solid ballads for Michael Cole, ‘You Walk By’, and ‘Sometimes’. One of the highlights was Queenie Ashton in her character number, ‘Our Own Bare Hands’.
The television critics enthused: ‘…an entertaining and beguiling tuneful premiere…Nine numbers in a 75-minute show is pretty fair value and the Stannard–Benjamin tunes and lyrics were fluent, neatly turned and literate.’ (SMH, 15 December 1959), ‘As a musical I liked Pardon Miss Westcott even better than Lola Montez written by the same team of Peter Stannard and Peter Benjamin’ (Sun-Herald, December 1959). ‘Diminutive Wendy Blacklock, as the Miss Westcott of the title, had difficulty in reaching some of the high notes,’ said the Sun’s TV Topics (18 December 1959), but thought, ‘Nigel Lovell as Colonel Patterson, the Acting Governor of NSW, was outstanding in the supporting cast.’
The show was recorded for LP by Peggy Mortimer, Neil Williams, Stewart Harvey, James Harris, Alan Light and the Claire Poole Singers, with Tommy Tycho conducting the ATN Concert Orchestra. Queenie Ashton was the only member of the original TV cast to repeat her performance on the disc. On the release of the album a year later, the reviewers were impressed. ‘ATN stars Peggy Mortimer and Neil Williams skip through the light Stannard and Benjamin numbers with grace and humour, and Queenie Ashton is… well, Queenie Ashton’ (Sun, 24 November 1960).
In 1965 the trio wrote their most ambitious work yet, a light opera version of Ruth Park’s much-loved, working-class novel, Harp in the South. Burke had already directed a play based on the book for BBC TV in London, and was keen to bring it to the stage. To this day the work remains unproduced. The reasons are probably cost. In 1965 no producer was prepared to gamble on a local work that required a large cast, a big orchestra, and expensive sets, but there’s no denying the piece contains some of Stannard and Benjamin’s finest work, as this excerpt from the lyric of ‘The Red Shawl’ testifies:
ROIE: (SINGS) Mumma, I wanted to touch it, hold it,
And it just had to be mine –
Silky and shiny and bright as a ruby,
So filmy and fancy and fine.
Mumma, you mustn’t be angry. Mumma?
Couldn’t you please understand?
Would you believe you could hold so much beauty
And not feel its weight in your hand?
Shimmering there in the breeze
The red flashed in my eye.
Oh, the fringes were flying
And so was I –
When there’s Irish in you,
Whether you’re faded or fair,
How can you feel like a queen in a palace
And not have a crown in your hair?
Stannard and Benjamin began working on a fourth musical, Hot X Line, an original idea that was based on a joke. In the 1960s Australia’s population was around 12 million. The premise for the show was that the country would be sold for 12 million and each member of the population would receive one million each, which they could use to move and live anywhere they wanted to in the world. The tag of course was that nobody wanted to move. The show was never completed, but one of the songs from the score, ‘Nothing’s Going to Stop Me Now’, survives on a recording by Dawn Dixon with Tommy Tycho’s Orchestra.
Hot X Line was the end of the line for the partnership. Although continuing to write music, Stannard focused his career on advertising, while Benjamin went into his family’s retail department store business. In 1995 Benjamin surfaced as the creator of the ‘Oxford Street Medley’ in Jeannie Little’s cabaret act, writing parody lyrics to three Cole Porter Tunes, ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’, ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘You’re the Top’.
Stannard went on to compose some serious works, notably “Capriccietto” (1998) for flute and piano, and “The Entheon Concertino” (1999). He returned to musical theatre with Rosie in 2005. With music by Stannard and book and lyrics by Frank Hatherley, Rosie premiered at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, (6 August 2005) with Geraldine Turner in the title role, and a cast that included Angela Toohey, Rodney Dobson, Jillian O’Dowd, Hilton Bonner, Tyran Parke, Jeannie Kelso, Rohan Seinor, Nick Simpson-Deeks and Alexander Lewis.
The show was inspired by Rose Shaw, a Martin Place flower seller, who dreamt of one day becoming an opera star, but instead ended up a Sydney icon. Stannard’s score was old-fashioned, but still highly melodic. Hatherley’s lyrics, while not as felicitous and lyrical as Peter Benjamin’s, were nevertheless workmanlike. The title character had several good songs, ‘My Name is Rosie’, ‘I Came Here to Sing’, ‘You Can Take It From Rosie’, and there was one exceptional male ballad, ‘Never Wait Until Tomorrow’, but there were also some clunkers, ‘The Things You See in a Big City’ and ‘Hi There, Sydney!’
Critics called the show old-fashioned, which it was, but praised the cast. ‘Turner is convincing as the larger-than-life, warm-hearted and charismatic Rose … In “Never Wait Until Tomorrow”, Dobson touchingly renders the show’s finest song.’ Audiences were hard to come by, and the show limped along until it closed on 1 October. A theatre that was frequently dark was no help. No commercial recordings were released of the music, although a three-track promo CD of instrumental versions of ‘The Gumboot’, ‘Hi There, Sydney’ and ‘High Time’ was sold with the souvenir program. Agent David Spicer, who controls the performing rights, also included a vocal version of ‘My Name is Rosie’ sung by Jillian O’Dowd (who as young Rosie sang it in the show), on his promo CD Musical Spice 2.
Peter Stannard and Peter Benjamin are to be proud of Lola Montez. It’s not the best show in the world, but it is entertaining. Part of the problem is that the title character is not really a starring role. In the original production Lola’s entrance was 45 minutes into the first act. (The script has since been revised and now she enters 15 minutes after the show starts). She has one major number to sing, ‘Let Me Sing! Let Me Dance!’ two duets with her manager, ‘Maria, Dolores, Eliza, Rosanna’ and ‘Partner Name Your Poison’, and one comic ballet in the ‘Spider Dance’. It’s not enough. In contrast, the character of Charity, in Sweet Charity, a major singing and dancing role, has seven numbers either with chorus or solo. But the score of Lola Montez still ranks as one of the best written for an Australian musical; it was even endorsed by Broadway critic Ken Mandelbaum on the CD reissue of the EMI Cast Recording: ‘wildly tuneful with half a dozen terrific numbers.’ And it is. When it was written it might not have seemed very Australian, and it does have echoes of Broadway shows of the period, but fifty years later, as Frank Van Straten said reviewing the CD reissue, the score still ‘sparkles’.
Special thanks in the preparation of the article go to Peter Stannard, Peter Benjamin, Gay Laurance-Daniel and Frank Van Straten.
Lyrics of ‘The Red Shawl’ are used by kind permission of Peter Benjamin.
UTRC photo courtesy of Justine Rettick. AETT production photos by Fred Carew.
Hermia Boyd’s costume designs reproduced by permission of Lucina and Cassandra Boyd, and Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection.
Books and newspapers sourced for this article include:
Philip Parsons, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Peter Pinne, Australian Performers, Australian Performances, Performing Arts Museum, 1987
Liner notes for Bayview CD reissue of the original cast recording, 2000
Sydney Morning Herald, Bulletin, Age, Courier Mail, Canberra Times, Sun, Sun-Herald.
QUEENSLAND SINGS – Original Musical Theatre in Queensland 1955-2015
Paper given at the PAHN Conference, QPAC, 22 October 2015
The Battle of Brisbane, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, bushrangers, Superman, Boadicea, Smiley, Cyrano, Lottie Lyell, Houdini, and the Cuban Revolution are just some of the subjects of original musicals that have premiered in Queensland over the last 60 years.
Beginning with Under the Coolibah Tree in 1956 and ending with Ladies in Black in 2015, this eclectic range of subjects and musical styles embraces everything from traditional musical comedy, through folk, big-band, and rock in its many forms.
The Australian Musical – The First 100 Years is a book in preparation that has been written by Dr. Peter Whyllie Johnston and myself and the 34 entries under discussion today are culled from it.
The first original musical that we have come across that originated in Queensland was the Brisbane New Theatre production of Dick Diamond’s Under the Coolibah Tree. Dick Diamond had had great success with Reedy River at Melbourne’s New Theatre in 1953 which went on to be produced by New Theatre’s in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and at the Unity Theatre, London.
Prior to writing Reedy River, Diamond, a journalist, had written the political satire Soak the Rich in 1941, and a political pantomime Jack the Giant Killer in 1947. During the 1930s he had been a member of the communist party so he was a good fit for the left-leaning New Theatre. Reedy River used traditional folk songs as its score and could arguably be called one of Australia’s first “jukebox” musicals.
Diamond’s second venture into musical theatre was Under the Coolibah Tree, which like Reedy River used a collection of folk songs as its score. It was a period piece set in the 1880s on the banks of the Darling River where a paddle steamer has run aground while carrying a cargo of beer to Bourke. The plot revolved around a villainous squatter, a free selector hero, and the Captain of the steamer. The song-and-dance chorus was provided by girls from a third-rate touring show who were on board the steamer, and a group of shearer’s from a nearby sheep station.
It opened at All Saints’ Hall, Brisbane, on the 18th March, 1955, and played for 22 performances, a decent run in those days. The critics endorsed it with the Guardian saying “It takes great versatility and imagination to produce a musical play of this kind. New Theatre has both.” The songs included; “The Old Bullock Dray,” “The Old Bark Hut,” “Andy’s Gone With Cattle,” and “Flash Jack from Gundagai.” The musical also featured a ballet based on an Aboriginal legend. Most of the cast had appeared in the Brisbane production of Reedy River in 1954. The musical was later produced in Adelaide and by New Theatre’s in Sydney and Melbourne as an Olympic attraction in 1956.
Whilst Sydney and Melbourne were enjoying Under the Coolibah Tree, Brisbane New Theatre mounted another folk-song musical called The Wild Colonial Boy. It was written by John Meredith and Joan Clarke, two luminaries of New Theatre, Sydney. Meredith had been one of the driving forces behind the success of Reedy River in Sydney leading “The Bushwacker’s Band” which accompanied the show, and New Theatre Sydney and Adelaide had produced Clarke’s play Home Brew in 1954.
The Wild Colonial Boy opened at All Saint’s Hall, Brisbane, on the 6th April, 1956. It was loosely based on the life of the Irish convict John Donahoe who at 18-years of age was sentenced to transportation for life to Australia in 1925. According to the Tribune it “captured the spirit of the period” and had “wonderful songs” but could only manage a 6 performance season and has never been produced again.
From Australiana and convicts our next two musicals move us into the world of the marionette. Little Fella Bindi was a large-scale marionette musical set in the Australian bush and was a follow up to the enormously popular and successful The Tintookie in 1956. Created by Peter Scriven, who also created The Tintookies, it had music by Eric Rasdall and was produced by Scriven and the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, opening at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Brisbane, on the 4th August 1958.
The story followed the adventures of a small Aboriginal boy, Bindi, who makes friends with all the animals in the bush, in particular Ga-Ga a little baby wombat. The musical was voiced by actors, who included Ray Barratt and Beryl Marshall, and sung by Neil Williams and Valda Bagnall and others. The critics were unanimous in their praise, “As gay and thoroughly Australian as waratah and wattle blossom” said Constance Cummings in the Courier Mail, whilst Roger Covell in the same paper claimed Eric Rasdall’s music was “tuneful, lively, and continuously interesting.”
The musical played 39 performances in Brisbane before touring to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart, and Sydney notching up a total of 537 performances. The musical was remounted in 1966 with new puppets, new scenery and new songs, and then in 1967, against the background of the Vietnam War and political unrest in Indonesia, it played a 7-month, 30 cities in 12 countries South East Asian tour. It was the first and largest tour ever undertaken by an Australian Arts company at the time. On its return it played another national tour in 1967.
In 1960 Peter Scriven again opted to premiere his latest marionette musical in Brisbane, when The Magic Pudding opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre, on the 3rd June. Based on Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s book about a pudding that no matter how often it is eaten, always re-forms in order to be eaten again, it was another success for Australia’s premiere puppeteer. Music was by Hal Evans, whilst Gordon Chater, Stuart Wagstaff and Beryl Marshall were amongst the actors who brought Lindsay’s classic to life.
The Bulletin called it “An exquisite little work of art” and claimed it “has a unique enchantment.” Following Brisbane the musical toured to Sydney, Devonport, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, and later did national tours in 1971 and 1972 and again in 1981. It became one of the most popular titles in the Tintookies series.
From puppets to paw-paws and Tropicana a musical set in Far North Queensland and one that opened on the 1st October 1962 at Merrilands Hall, in Atherton. With music by Gloria and Billee McMahon and book and lyrics by Joyce Peterson, Tropicana was a salute to the scenic grandeur of the Tablelands and rainforest areas of North Queensland. A simple story of young lovers, Bill, a proprietor of a holiday hotel on a Barrier Reef island, and Jane, a schoolteacher from the South, and their squabbles, was held together with satirical songs whose titles speak for themselves, “Hooking a Bloke,” “Life’s a Blasted Mess,” and “A Man Must Stir a Woman’s Blood.”
After playing two performances in Atherton, the musical toured to Ravenshoe, Mareeba, Innisfail and Cairns playing one performance in each city. The critical reception was good with the Cairns Post claiming it had “Bright music” and that it “provided light-hearted entertainment.” The production featured an underwater observatory scene with dancers in leotards carrying phosphorescent stylised coral and fish. And it has the distinction of being the only known musical to include a real live baby crocodile in its cast!
On 30th April 1963, Orana Hall, Clayfield, saw the premiere of Starlight, or as it was later known Captain Starlight. It was a musical based on Rolf Bolderwood’s classic bushranging novel Robbery under Arms which was written in 1888. The story was set around the Marston Gang, young brothers Dick and Jim, and their leader, the mysterious Captain Starlight, and their adventures as cattle thieves and bushrangers.
The score was written by Ian McInlay, with book and lyrics by Paul Sherman. Both McInlay and Sherman were teachers at Banyo High School, and the first production of the show, which had a cast of 150, was mounted by the school. It played 4 performances but after a positive review in the Courier Mail, “with a little more polish and a professional cast this play could be another Summer of the 17th Doll success for Australia,” the season was extended by 2 performances.
McInlay’s original score was augmented by traditional folk songs. Following it’s first production, the musical was mounted in 1964 by the Brisbane Choral Society and played as a Warana Festival feature at the Rialto Theatre, West End. A North Queensland production in 1985 played Charters Towers, Ingham and Home Hill. The musical was widely produced by high schools during 1988, the bicentennial year.
In 1969 author Jay McKee, who hailed from Atherton and whose real name was Rod McEllhinney, created an original children’s musical Raggedyanne for Brisbane Arts Theatre, about an inanimate rag doll and a one-armed golliwog. With music by Jan Bates, who was also musical director, the show opened 15 March 1969 and played 17 performances. It was produced by Doris Fitton at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, in 1970, and later in New Zealand and Alabama in the U.S. The Sunday Mail called it, “An enchanting spectacle of make-believe,” whilst the SMH echoed the comment saying “Make-believe that is enchanted.” It has been produced widely throughout Australia for the last 40 years with Brisbane Arts Theatre mounting a 10th Anniversary production in 1979.
1970 saw the inauguration of the new federally funded Queensland Theatre Company, with Englishman Alan Edwards sitting in the Artistic Director’s chair. He decided to launch Queensland’s first professional drama company with Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt for the Sun and follow it with an original musical A Rum Do.
A Rum Do had music by Robin Wood, book and lyrics by Rob Inglis, and was set in Sydney in 1825. It told the story of Governor Macquarie and his achievements as a builder and of Francis Greenaway the convict architect who helped him achieve his aims. In 1968 Inglis applied for a grant to research and write two historical plays. He was given $2,700 and the entire sum was consumed by one play, The Old Viceroy, about Governor Macquarie and the evolution of the colony from a gaol state. On advice from the Arts Council and the ABC, Inglis invited composer Robin Wood to turn the play into a musical.
In August 1969, excertps of the new version which was now called Everybody Sniff Your Neighbour were presented to an invited audience at the Independent Theatre, Sydney, to great success. QTC bought the property, renamed it A Rum Do, and cast it with Raymond Duparc as Macquarie and Donald Batchelor as Greenaway. Appearing alongside them were Geraldine Turner, Terry Bader, Ron Shand, Brent Verdon and Ken Kennett.
Three days after the premiere, which took place at the SGIO Theatre, Brisbane, 10 April 1970, the musical was presented as a gala performance in the presence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne. Following a four week run of 27 performances, the musical toured regional Queensland to Stanthorpe, Toowoomba, Roma, Longreach, Innisfail, Cairns, Ingham, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, and Nambour.
David Rowbotham in the Courier Mail said “It’s the finest Australian musical I’ve seen,” but Brian Johnston in Truth thought otherwise, “The most puzzling thing about the Australian musical A Rum Do is why it was ever written at all. The songs would be hard pressed changing a temperature chart, let alone getting within cooee of the Top 40.”
Talented composer Ralph Tyrell makes his first appearance as a composer in 1970 with The Bacchoi, a rock-opera version of Euripdes Bacchoi originally written in 405BCE. It launched the newly constructed Schonell Theatre, at the Queensland University, opening 24 September 1970 and playing for 15 performances. Book and lyrics were by director Bryan Nason with choreography by Keith Bain. The cast included Geoffrey Rush and Ross Thompson. Katherine Thompson in the Australian said it was “A spectacular success” and that the music was “the evening’s chief pleasure.”
Four years later when the show again opened a new venue, the new Nimrod Theatre in Belvoir Street, Sydney, with a cast that included Anna Volska, Jon English and Jeannie Lewis, the critical reaction was decidedly different. Most carped that John Bell’s staging had reduced the promising work to comic book level and the mix of singers and actors at times worked against the drama, although Brian Hoad in the Bulletin has praise for Tyrell’s score, “the most insidiously pungent music for theatre since Kurt Weill joined up with Bert Brecht to the annoyance of Nazi Germany.”
Ralph Tyrell was back at the Schonell 4 February 1971 for Childhead’s Doll, a pop-opera about a young man, Childhead, and his friends who search far and wide for a doll stolen from Childhood by the Black Prince. Working for the first time with librettist and director, Willy Young, who later changed his name to William Yang, the cast again included Geoffrey Rush. David Rowbottom in the Courier Mail called it “pretentious” but did concede “Tyrell composes music which is easy on the ear,” and that Young had written a “cross between Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm and clothed it with a mixture of Hair and Greek tragedy.”
Brian Nason later directed a production of it at Jane Street Theatre, Sydney, in 1971, which was choreographed by Keith Bain, and featured Maggie Kirkpatrick, Ross Thompson, Elaine Cusick and Jeannie Lewis. It played 15 performances in Brisbane and 9 in Sydney.
Tyrell was again back at the Schonell in 1972 for Oddodyssey a science-fiction musical with an anti-pollution theme. He was again working with Willy Young who provided book and lyrics plus the costumes which had a Barbarella comic-book look. Direction was by Jeremy Gadd, and the cast included Kris McQuade, Terry O’Brien, and Barbara Llewellyn.
Peter Charlton in the Brisbane Telegraph said it was “One of the most exciting pieces of new theatre to hit Brisbane for a long time,” whilst Brian Johnston in the Sunday Truth called it “a weird mixture of brilliant flashes and stretches of boredom.” It played 34 performances and did not travel.
Oddodyssey was the last musical Ralph Tyrell premiered in Brisbane, but he continued to write with Willy Young and created Cooper and Borges for NIDA, which played at the Jane Street Theatre in 1974, and then worked with Dorothy Hewitt on Pandora’s Box which played the ill-fated Paris Theatre, Sydney, in 1978. It was his final mainstream stage musical. He later composed music for film and television including over forty-eight titles for Network 7s The World Around Us series.
Moving forward four years and we find another prolific Brisbane theatre composer making his first appearance in our story. Clarry Evans, working with his wife Judy Stevens, wrote book, music and lyrics for a rock-opera version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth called Macbeth: The Contemporary Rock Opera. It premiered at La Boite, 22 January 1976, directed by Graeme Johnston, with a cast that included Ray Meric, Sean Mee, Kim Durant, and the authors. Sue Gough’s Courier Mail review enthused, “a crowd pleaser that does Shakespeare proud.” It played 15 performances.
Since its premiere the rock-opera has been revived at 12th Night Theatre in 1994, the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, in 2006 and 2009, and at St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre, Melbourne, where Jim Murphy in the Age wrote, “Judy Stevens and Clarry Evans write a much more interesting recitative than Lloyd Webber seems able to manage, and they make splendid use of the Shakespearian libretto, both in setting actual text and using it as a jumping-off point for original songs.”
The next musical Man of Steel has the distinction of being the most performed Australian musical of all time. According to Maverick Musicals, the agent who licence the show, up until the end of 2010 it had played 4003 performances, mostly in high-schools.
Now, let’s put that into perspective. Priscilla – Queen of the Desert the Musical is the most successful commercial musical. If we add all of its Australian and New Zealand performances together plus a 3 year London run and Canada and Broadway we come up with 2,563 performances. Therefore 4003 is an amazing achievement.
The musical was a take on the Superman comic book legend, and played La Boite for a short 5 performance season from 28 November 1977. David Rowbottom in the Courier Mail claimed “The finale ‘Everybody Needs a Superhero,” is a fine, finishing flourish indeed, enough to send anyone home with a case of acute exhilaration.”
Man of Steel had music by Ian Dorricott with book and lyrics by Simon Denver, but a scan of the original program will reveal he was called Simon Carrington. The reason was that Denver’s mother was the La Boite Drama Teacher and the La Boite committee did not want two “Denvers” in the program so they changed Simon’s name for that one production.
Denver has continued to write musicals and plays for the schools market, including six with Dorricott: Sheerluck Holmes (1980), Bats (1983), The Circus (1985), Smithy (1986), Henry (1993), and The Curse of the Mummy (2000).
The Grand Adventure in 1978 was a lavish return to marionette musicals. It was Phillip Edmiston’s first production under the umbrella of his own company Theatrestrings. Edmiston was 26 and had previously toured extensively with the Marionette Theatre of Australia, throughout Australia, India and Asia.
It used 127 life-sized puppets and a budget of $120,000, and opened in Edmiston’s home town of Nambour at the Civic Hall, 28 May 1977. The musical had music by Eric Gross, with book and lyrics by Hal Saunders, and was broadly based on the story of Captain James Cook’s voyage to the South Seas with botanist Joseph Banks on the H.M.S. Endeavour in 1770. The production later toured Queensland and NSW, and played Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.
The critics raved: “The most exquisite production imaginable” said Frances Evers in The Australian, whilst Romola Constantino in the SMH claimed it had “everything that could be desired for a fantasy entertainment.” Edmiston was later responsible for setting up the Queensland Marionette Theatre Limited which created and produced puppet shows throughout Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1979 Clarry Evans made a return to musical theatre stages when he composed the musical and lyrics for Boadicea – The Celtic Opera. It was written in a rock opera style and was based on the story of Boadicea, the Queen of the British Icini tribe, and the uprising she led against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire in AD 60. It ran for 5 weeks at 12th Night Theatre, Brisbane, from 1 February 1979, with later productions appearing at the Princess Theatre, Brisbane, in 1998, and the Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove, in 2014. The critical reception was mixed. Veronica Kelly in Theatre Australia, said “the musical electricity and dramatic tension pick the show up to a real high,” whilst the Sunday Sun were not impressed, “When Boadicea opened at 12th Night Theatre last Thursday it still had more teething problems than a crocodile with pyorrhea.” But with it still being produced in 2014 it has proved it’s got legs.
Starstud which was later retitled Starbuck first appeared at the Schonell Theatre, 20 August 1981. It had music by John Rush, Book and Lyrics by Malcolm James Cook, and was directed by Sean Mee. It was a rock musical that revolved around the space hero Starbuck and his sidekick Jason, who on retuning to their home planet find it has been taken over by the evil fast-food king, Shall Bizarre, whose plan is to dope the community with hamburger mayonnaise that’s been laced with drugs.
The Courier Mail said it “has its terrific moments but they are few and far between,” whilst the Sunday Mail thought it was “the most energetic rhythmic rock show to hit the stage for yonks.” It played for 16 performances and later did a season at the Rialto Theatre, West End, for another 16, with Chris Herden playing Starbuck.
Helmut Bakaitis commissioned Dennis Watkins and Chris Harriott to write Beach Blanket Tempest for the New Moon Theatre Company, a satire which mixed Shakespeare’s The Tempest with teenage beach movies using a score of cloned rock ‘n’ roll hits of the 1950s and 1960s. It opened 25 July 1984 at Cairns Civic Theatre, where it played 5 performances before touring the North Queensland circuit of Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton. The critics enthused calling it an “Inspired rock musical.”
The musical attracted the support of John Frost, and under the Gordon-Frost Management it played Adelaide, Canberra, and Sydney. Later productionws appeared in Brisbane, Penrith and Perth. It became and still is a popular title on the amateur market. The title song had originally been used in the musical Dingo Girl in 1982. Watkins and Harriott went on to success with their Vietnam War satire Pearls Before Swine in 1986. Later Watkins became an Executive Producer for the ABC, whilst Harriott after scoring McLeod’s Daughters achieved even greater success writing for the phenomenally successful Hi-5 group.
In 1994 Clarry Evans returned with Live at the Trocadero, a big-band musical that used the infamous “Battle of Brisbane” in 1942 as its plot. The one-night only battle was waged on the streets of Brisbane between Aussie Diggers and American soldiers. Evans and Michael Lynch created the music with both working on the lyrics with Christopher Toogood and Brett Heath. Toogood and Heath were responsible for the book.
The musical opened at the Rialto Theatre, West End, 16 December 1991 and played 10 performances. Three years later it had a 10 night season at Brisbane Arts Theatre, and in 2009 was mounted by Villanova Players for 11 performances. Peter Dean in The Courier Mail said, “Trocadero provides novelty, a well-mounted setting and a lot of charm,” whilst Richard Waller writing of a later production for the same paper noted it was a “nostalgic look at local history.”
In 1991 Horrortorio was workshopped with Stephen Sondheim at the Cameron Macintosh Music Theatre Workshop at Oxford University, England. It had music by Denise Wharmby, lyrics by Tony Taylor, with a book by Taylor, Wharmby and Alisa Piper. It was set in the golden age of 19th Century song and staged in Grand Guignol style. The plot had Tonetta who will stop at nothing to sing in the new opera which will make or break the young composer Raffael. She is the one behind a blinding flash of red light which terrifies the diva Gilda and forces her to flee the final rehearsal.
With a $32,330 Australia Council grant, the production opened at La Boite Theatre, Milton, 10 June 1992, with direction by David Bell, design by Christopher Smith, and Christen O’Leary, Valeria Bader and Darryl Hukins as the cast. Sue Gough in the Bulletin said “It is all too clear why Horratorio has not been staged before: it still needs a lot of work,” with Barbara Hebden’s Sunday Mail review endorsing Gough’s opinion, “Pruning some of the dead wood, instead of the bodies, would make this a better piece of theatre and take it beyond undergraduate material.” It closed after playing 24 performances and had not been revived since
The same year also saw the premiere of a much different beast, a musical version of the beloved movie Smiley. John Watson based his book and lyrics on the novels by Moore Raymond, Smiley (1945) and Smiley Gets a Gun (1947). The story was set in the outback community of Murrumbilla in the post war 1940s just prior to Christmas. Smiley, a young larrikin boy is obsessed with owning a bicycle, but his plans are thwarted by the return of his alcoholic father.
When the films were released in the 1950s Queenslander Clyde Collins wrote a song “A Boy Called Smiley” which was not connected to the original film but became an enormous hit when the 1956 movie was released. This song was retained for the stage version which had a score by David Cocker, with additional songs by Mark Jones and Lance Strauss.
Smiley – The Musical opened at the Redcliffe Entertainment Centre, 15 October 1992, where it played 14 performances with a cast that included Gaye MacFarlane as the mother. The critics noticed her song “He’s all the world to Me” which they called a “showstopper.” Later productions were mounted in Rockhampton and Beaumaris, Victoria.
Our next musical first saw the light of day as a concept CD in 1992. David Reeves, who had had great success with a musical version of Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians in the bi-centennial year, opted to musicalise Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French comedy Cyrano de Bergerac. Released by EMI, the recording had a starry cast headlined by Simon Gallaher, Kirri Adams, Penny Hay, and Normie Rowe as the flamboyant romantic soldier and poet.
A free concert version of the musical was mounted in Suncorp Plaza, South Bank, 7th November 1992. It featured all of the performers on the EMI disc accompanied by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. In 1994 Cyrano was produced for a second time after a complete rewrite by West End writer Hal Shaper who reworked book and lyrics. The musical was given a 6 performance staged concert production in the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. Normie Rowe again played the title character, with a cast that included Kirri Adams, and John O’May. British actor Sir John Mills was imported to introduce and close the performances, something that was criticised as being unnecessary.
A popular Queensland book became a popular Queensland musical when Over the Top with Jim was produced at the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, 26 August 1996. Journalist and author Hugh Lunn’s autobiography of his childhood years growing up in Brisbane in the 1950s had been the country’s best-selling non-fiction book of 1991. It was serialized by ABC radio and produced as a documentary film. The humour was gentle, very Australian, and the musical captured the era perfectly.
A jukebox musical of popular songs of the period, “Honey Hush,” “Chickery Chick,” and “The pub with no Beer,” with one original song “As I Wander (Down Memory Lane)” written by Paul Dellit. Following the Brisbane season it toured to Caloundra, Gold Coast, Rockhampton, Mackay, Cairns, Charters Towers, and Burdekin. Later Villanova Players mounted a 12 performance production in 2006.
In 1999, QTC mounted their first original musical since A Rum Do in 1970. With book and lyrics by Wesley Enoch and music by John Rodgers, The Sunshine Club, was based on Roger Scholes documentary-drama The Coolbaroo Club, which looked at a post-World War Two Aboriginal dance club in Perth. The plot centred on a returned Aboriginal soldier who found attitudes were just a racist in the late 1940s as they were before the war so he defiantly creates an Aboriginal dance club where he can dance with his white girlfriend.
The musical did a brief North Queensland tour starting in Cairns, and then playing Mackay and Townsville before opening in Brisbane. Alison Coates in The Courier Mail was full of praise, especially for the jazz ensemble – which she called “fantastic,” and David Page as the male lead, “an engaging young actor with a great future.”
One year later the musical was produced by the STC in Sydney, directed by the author, with some of the Brisbane cast that included Wayne Blair and Ursula Yovich. The white girlfriend was played in Brisbane by Christen O’Leary and in Sydney by Natalie O’Donnell. Stephen Page was the choreographer in both productions. Nick Enright was script consultant. It played 17 performances in Brisbane, and 42 in Sydney.
Cuba premiered in Atherton at the Atherton International Club, 10 October 2002. It was not the first Australian musical to use Latin themes, but it was the first to use the overthrow of the corrupt Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista by the revolutionary Fidel Castro as its background.
The Mafia want promising young boxer Raul to take a dive in his next bout. He refuses, slugs the Mafia guy and goes on the run ending up in the rebel camp in the mountains. He joins them and falls in love with a fiery rebel girl, Juanita.
Ken Cottrill wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Tjeerd Micola von Furstenrecht. Music was by Rhonda Micola von Furstenrecht. Apart from the lovers the characters also included Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara, and Jayne Mansfield. It played 6 performances in Cairns, 2 in Mareeba and 2 at Malanda. Brian Sager in the Tablelander called it “an exciting musical” with “infectious numbers.”
The armed rebellion of goldminers 1854 known as the Eureka Stockade has been the inspiration of at least six Australian musicals. Eureka – The Musical was the latest. Composed by Michael Maurice Harvey, with book and lyrics by Maggie May Gordon, a concert version opened at the Arts Centre, Gold Coast, 9th August 2003, after playing a preview performance at the Sydney Opera House Studio Theatre, the night before. It then did a regional tour up the eastern coast of Queensland culminating at Cairns. The cast included Rob Guest, Barry Crocker, Peter Cousins, Leonie Page and Trisha Crowe.
Harvey had previously written Pan in 2000, a version of Peter Pan that contained lots of background music and a few songs, and had been Julie Anthony and Peter Allen’s musical director for many years. He had also written pop songs.
With Simon Gallaher on board as co-producer the musical, heavily revised, played a 72 performance season at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, 28 September 2004. Directed by Gale Edwards, with musical direction by Michael Tyack, and choreography by Tony Bartuccio, the cast featured Rachael Beck, Ian Stenlake, Michael Cormick, Barry Crocker, Nancye Hayes, John Lidgerwood, James Millar and Trisha Crowe. Crocker and Crowe were the only performers to repeat their roles from the concert version.
Jim Murphy in the Age said “Eureka fashions Australian history into a rousing contemporary entertainment and does it well,” whilst Bill Perrett in The Sunday Age opined, “The show is essentially a couple of predictable love stories, strung together with some banal rhetoric about democracy and the Fair Go.” Veteran Nancye Hayes was labelled the best thing in it.
From a miners rebellion to the early silent era of Australian cinema, our next musical Lottie – The Musical premiered in 2005 and told of the secret love affair between pioneering film director Raymond Longford, and Australia’s first movie star Lottie Lyell. Longford remained married to another woman throughout the duration of his affair with Lyell who suffered a tragic early death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-five just before she and Longford were due to marry.
With a score by Alathea Monsour and book and lyrics by Katy Forde, the musical was produced by Villanova Players on 25 November 2005. Alison Coates on Stage Diary said the score was “enchanting,” claiming “this sparkling piece of musical theatre offers much more than just patriotism and pride.”
The authors received a “Career Development Grant” from Arts Queensland to finance a fully-arranged recording of the complete score. Scenes from the musical were presented as part of Magnormos’ “On the Drawing Board” showcase in OzMade 2010.
With a fanfare of publicity, Sideshow Alley came to the Playhouse, QPAC, with a promising history. It had won the inaugural Pratt Prize for New Musical Theatre in 2002. As part of the prize a workshop production, directed by the esteemed Gale Edwards, was staged at Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne in 2003. It had a score by Paul Keenan, with book and lyrics by Gary Young, and prior to opening the cast recorded an original cast CD, a rare occurrence in the history of Australian musicals.
The musical concerned a money-losing touring sideshow run by Bev and Tiny in Australia during the late 1950s. The main plot revolved around a love triangle between Italian fortune-teller Rita, tent show boxer Billy, and drifter Alex. Billy and Alex love Rita, but discover they have feelings for each other. After being beaten and raped, Billy commits suicide, but not before Lady Chaing, the half man/half woman has been murdered and the sideshow has been burnt to the ground.
A high profile cast featured Silvie Paladino as Rita, Alex Rathgeber as Billy and Christopher Parker as Alex. It opened 20 January 2007. The critics were underwhelmed, but the principals were praised, “Paladino is likeable as Rita, and Rathgeber and Parker pull off roles that require them to be blokey one moment and super-sensitive the next.”
It played 47 performances and has not been produced since. It was scheduled to play a Melbourne season at Crown Casino but due to poor houses at the Playhouse was cancelled.
One was a musical, written in a rock-opera format, of love, revenge and murder set in Jerusalem in 28AD. It premiered at the Arts Centre, Gold Coast, 11 August 2007. Book, music and lyrics were by Shannon D. Whitelock and Brad Golby. The production spawned a 2CD live recording. Whitelock later had great success writing music for Rachel Dunham’s Oprification which was a hit at the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
My own name as a composer makes the first of two appearances in this story with the workshop production of Suddenly Single at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, 20 March 2009. The musical followed the lives of three twenty-something guys, Ryan, an electrician, Aaron, an IT specialist, and Luke, a sensitive new-age priest and their relationships over a four-year period. When the musical starts all three guys are in a relationship but by intermission they are all Suddenly Single. By story’s end they are all back in a relationship again but not necessarily with the same partner.
Book, music and lyrics were written by Paul Dellit and myself. Sue Porter was musical director, direction was by Shaun Murphy, and the cast included, Natalie O’Donnell, Christopher Parker, Chris Fennessy, Penny Farrow, Judy Hainsworth and Tim Dashwood. Twenty minutes of the musical had previously been performed at OzMade Musical 2007 in Melbourne. There are currently four commercial recordings of the anthemic song, “Making a Difference.”
The first man to fly in Australia, Houdini was the subject of Houdini – The Man from Beyond which premiered at the University of Southern Queensland, Arts Theatre, Toowoomba, 20 August 2010, and played 7 performances. With music by Russell Bauer, and book and lyrics by him and acclaimed Queensland poet, Bruce Dawe, the musical in the first act focused on Houdini’s exploits as an escapologist, whilst the second concentrated on his debunking of spiritualists and spiritualism.
Musical direction was by the composer with direction by Sue Rider. Chris White was noticed favourably as the title character. The score also included the song “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel” which was originally written by Paul Dresser in 1893. Historical footage of Houdini’s first flight in Australia was screened as an overture. A snapshop of the work was presented by New Musicals Australia in Sydney in 2011.
2010 also brought forth Megan Shorey’s four mini-musicals which went under the collective title of Handle With Care, and celebrated the beauty and bitch of being a woman. Lewis Jones was the director, with the composer as musical director, when it premiered at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, 14 April 2010. It played four performances.
In 3 Kilos Eve Penny Farrow struggled to lose those last 3 magical kilos to keep her weight in double digits; in Girlfriend it’s the eve of Judy Hainsworth’s wedding and although her fiends are excited for her, they are both struggling with their own demons; The Silk Powersuit found Sarah Knight vying for promotion against her male counterpart in the corporate workplace; while in In My Arms Rachel Dunham and Liz Buchanan shared the trauma of having, or not having a child.
Gilliam Bramley Moore in the Courier Mail called it “elegant and uncluttered,” whilst Amy Hyslop’s Australian Stage review said “Shorey’s latest offering, Handle With Care, should deservedly cement her reputation as one of Australia’s brightest talents.” Later In My Arms was given a one performance Showcase by New Musicals Australia at the National Playwrights Festival, Sydney, in March 2011.
My second entry in this overview was the jukebox musical Pyjamas In Paradise which opened at the Arts Centre, Gold Coast 2 September 2011, and played for 8 performances. Conceived by John Michael Howson, the musical had a book by Howson and myself, and was set against a background of the notorious pyjamas parties on the Gold Coast in the late 50s and early 60s, and used a score of pop hits of the period.
Three girls from Gympie meet up with three guys from Melbourne, on the Gold Coast and fall in love. It was directed and choreographed by Tony Bartuccio, and the cast included Jane Scali, Donna Lee, Stephen Tandy, Terry Stewart, Mathew Ward, Alana Tierney and Emma Taviani. When we couldn’t find pop songs to fit some situations, Howson and I wrote some originals with Ashley Irwin who also orchestrated the show.
The musical was first presented as a “rehearsed reading” at Metro Arts Studio, Brisbane, 9 May 2005, with a cast that included Stephen Tandy, Karen Crone, Miranda Deakin, Bryan Proberts, Mark Conaghan, Carita Farrar, Hazel Phillips, Sheila Bradley and John-Michael Howson who played the role of mayor Bruce Large.
Jay McKee’s Stage Whispers review said “This show sizzles,” whilst Suzanne Simonet in the Gold Coast Bulletin claimed it was “a work that should find favour on stages around the country for years to come.”
Hopelessly Devoted was another jukebox musical, this time mining the hits of Olivia Newton John. A two-hander it was set in the suburban lounge room of a middle-aged sister, Amy, and brother, Andy, who are caring for their chronically ill mother. To help her cope with the depressing situation Amy escapes into a fantasy world where she imagines she is Olivia Newton John.
The musical had a book by Elise Grieg who also played the part of Amy in the initial production. Dan Crestini was her other half, Andy. Marc James, Aegis Theatrical said the musical was “one of those happy discoveries with an intellectual and emotional script.” The production opened at the Zamba Theatre, North Tambourine, 23 March 2012 and played for 3 performances. It then toured to the Gold Coast Arts Centre for another 3 performances and later in 2014 played the Glen Street Theatre, Sydney, for 8 performances.
The first new musical of 2015 takes us back up to the Atherton Tablelands again, where on 28th August, Nania, The Horse and His Boy opened at the Silo Road Theatre, Atherton, for 10 performances. Based on the 1954 book by C.S. Lewis, the musical was adapted by Jacqueline Stephens and Patricia Prohaska, who both created music and lyrics. With a seven-piece orchestra, and direction by Stephens the cast numbered eighty.
The story is an adventure of what happened in Narnia and Calorman and the lands between in the golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and his two sisters were King and Queen under him.
The final musical in our overview is Ladies in Black which is due to open in a few weeks on the 14th November 2015, at the Playhouse, QPAC. The QTC production is directed by Simon Phillips, has a book by his wife Carolyn Burns, music and lyrics by Tim Finn, and is based on the 1993 novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John.
The three major creative personel all hail from New Zealand but have built their careers in Australia. Finn is a former member of the rock groups Split Enz and Crowded House, Phillips is best known as the director of the Pricilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, whilst Burns had adapted the MGM movie High Society, with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, into a stage musical in 1992. The State theatre companies in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland produced it and followed it with a capital cities tour.
Ladies in Black is set in Sydney in the late 1950s. 17-year old Lesley, a would-be-poet, gets a seasonal job at F.G. Goode’s (think David Jones) a large department store, changes her first name to Lisa and gets embroiled in the world of haute couture fashion and the lives of her co-workers; Pattie whose husband may or may not be sterile, Fay who gets engaged to a ‘continental,’ and the exotic European Magda, head buyer of Model Gowns.
The musical has already had two development workshops, one in 2013, and another in 2014. The cast includes Christen O’Leary, Lucy Maunder, Bobby Fox, Naomi Price and Deidre Rubenstein.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to the end of this 60 year overview of original Queensland musicals. By any standards it’s an impressive list, with a truly diverse range of subjects, and it proves that Queensland’s contribution to the Australian musical landscape has been significant.
THERE'S NO TUNE LIKE A SHOW TUNE by Peter Pinne May 2013
There's a line in the script of 42nd Street when Julian Marsh, the producer, says to Peggy Sawyer, the understudy he's trying to convince to go on in the show, "think of musical comedy – the most glorious words in the English language." Or as Jerry Herman so succinctly put it in the song he wrote for his 1960 Off-Broadway revue Parade "There's No Tune Like A Show Tune." Everybody's heard one. Some people can hum, sing or whistle one, and some are addicted to them. Count me in the latter.
I could not have imagined my life without musical theatre. Growing up on a diet of MGM musicals, the Tivoli and J.C.Williamson, I've been in love with the genre since I was a child. And with that love came my passion for collecting the music from it. Ever since I learnt to play the piano when I was eleven I have been collecting music sheets from every type of musical show. In the early days I bought them from the ordinary music retailers, but in later years I discovered flea markets, opportunity shops and secondhand stores as a wonderful source for those hard to find gems. I haunted them, not only in Australia, but around the world. I was lucky I had a career that took me to other countries so I was able to indulge my passion in the U.S., the UK, Europe and South America. This has resulted in a wide-embracing show music collection of over 3,500 pieces.
Collecting sheet music today is a very different hobby to what it was when I started. With the advent of the internet and the demise of the traditional music retailer, the sole source of new sheet music with show covers is in theatre lobbies when a musical is playing. It is still possible to find older sheets in secondhand shops but the rare titles are harder to come by.
The 'Pinne Collection' as it is informally known, was acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2004 and is one of the largest collections of its type in Australia, encompassing single sheets, vocal selections, piano selections and vocal scores from Broadway, the West End, Europe, Australia, Television (mainly musicals that were written for the medium), and Movies. It is divided into three sections; sheets that were published in the U.S., the UK and Australia, and covers a period from the early 1920s to the present. From the hits to the flops, the songs which were dropped out-of-town, the title and cast changes, are all documented in the collection which is essentially a history of the musical theatre throughout the world.
All of the famous American and English theatre composers are represented, along with the obscure. The same can be said for the performers. There are the stars, the popular matinee idols and the divas, along with the one-shot wonders and the forgotten. Some sheets have been easy to find but most are rare and several are extremely valuable. As the fashions changed so did the musical theatre and so did the cover artwork. Moving from the heady Charleston era of the twenties, to art-deco in the thirties, war influences in the forties, psychedelic in the seventies, to the iconic show logos of today. It's not only a history of the musical theatre but also a history of fashion, fads, and the changing times.
Australian names abound throughout the collection on Broadway and the West End and it is possible to chart a composer, lyricist, performer, choreographer, musical director or designer's international career through the sheets that are represented. Charles Zwar, a composer born in Broadford, Victoria, had the distinction of having J.C.Williamson's produce his first show Blue Mountain Melody (1934) one of only two original Australian musicals the 'Firm' ever mounted. Albert Arlen's The Sentimental Bloke (1961) was the other. He later went to London and became very successful writing for intimate revue and the musical theatre. His West End credits include the Arthur Askey and Julie Wilson vehicle Bet Your Life (1952), and Marigold (1959), a show which starred Sophie Stewart and Jean Kent.
Blue Mountain Melody (1934) also starred Australia's answer to Astaire and Rogers, Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott. Their careers took them to London and New York where Ritchard, working solo after Elliott died, had a major Broadway career. It began when he directed John Murray Anderson's Almanac (1953), and followed with a career-making turn as Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin in Peter Pan (1954), the lead in The Happiest Girl In The World (1961) with music by Offenbach, and then top-starred with Anthony Newley in Newley and Bricusse's The Road of the Gresepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (1964). Ritchard also appeared in many original U.S. TV musicals and graces the cover of the music sheets for The King and Mrs Candle (1955) which had a screenplay written by another expatriot Australian, Sumner Locke Elliott whose most famous work was the hit play Rusty Bugles (1948).
In 1950, Sydney pharmarcist Edmond Samuels premiered his musical The Highwayman at the Kings Theatre, Melbourne, which was the original version of a musical he'd had produced in the West End titled At the Silver Swan (1936) which starred the popular French actress Alice Delysia. Two music sheets survive from the original London production. Samuels however was not the first Australian composer to have his musical presented in London. That honour goes to Dudley Glass whose The Beloved Vagabond (1927) opened a decade earlier.
John Taylor began his writing career at Sydney's Phillip Street Theatre writing topical revue material for Two To One (1955) a show that featured Max Oldaker. He later went to London where he coauthored with David Heneker the wildly successful Charlie Girl (1965) which starred Anna Neagle, Derek Nimmo and Joe Brown. He later musicalised two of Noel Coward's one-act plays, Fumed Oak and Still Life as Mr and Mrs (1968) which featured Honor Blackman, John Neville and Hylda Baker. He also wrote additional songs for the Jeannie Carson musical Strike A Light (1966).
Ron Grainer, born in Atherton, Queensland, is best remembered for his outstanding light-operatic score for Robert and Elizabeth (1964) a musical version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. It starred two Australian perfomers who had built their careers in the West End, June Bronhill and Keith Michell. Prior to Grainer's theatrical success he had composed the popular television themes to Steptoe and Son, Maigret and Dr Who and several film soundtracks. He followed Robert and Elizabeth with the pop piece On the Level (1966) but without the same success. Michell had previously scored in Vivian Ellis' And So To Bed (1951) and opposite Elizabeth Seal in Irma La Douce (1956).
Australian choreographers abounded in the West End in the 50s. Freddie Carpenter had many credits, such as Noel Coward's Ace of Clubs (1950), Harry Parr Davies' Dear Miss Phoebe (1950), and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1958), which introduced pop star Tommy Steele to the musical theatre. Robert Helpmann likewise had the South African themed Golden City (1950), and Noel Coward's After The Ball (1954), a musicalisation of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, whilst George Carden worked on Charles Zwar's Bet Your Life (1952). Later Noel Tovey choreographed the revival of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend (1967), a chore he also did for the Phillip Theatre revival of the show in Sydney in 1968.
Loudon Sainthill, the acclaimed Australian set and costume designer, also worked on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (1958) in London, and followed with David Heneker, Monty Norman and Julian More's cynical take on the pop industry, Expresso Bongo (1958), which starred Paul Schofield in his only musical appearance; David Henker's Half A Sixpence (1963), with Tommy Steele; Noel Coward's Sail Away (1961), with Elaine Stritch; and Wolf Mankowitz and Monty Norman's music-hall pastiche Belle (1961) with Rose Hill in the title role.
Musical Director, Ray Cook, who started his career playing piano at Sydney's Phillip Street Theatre, also has numerous West End credits which included working with Ginger Rogers in Jerry Herman's Mame (1969).
Robert Chisholm, who had been a leading man in Australia playing opposite Gladys Moncrieff in three shows, The Maid of the Mountains (1921), Sybil (1923), and Collits' Inn (1933), also had a substantial Broadway career starting with Jerome Kern's Sweet Adeline (1929), then followed with two Rodgers and Hart shows, Higher and Higher (1940) and the revival of A Connecticut Yankee (1943), Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's groundbreaking On The Town (1945), and again with Comden and Green in Billion Dollar Baby (1945) which had music by Morton Gould, and in Harold Rome's Bless You All (1950).
Maggie Fitzgibbon after appearing as Bianca in J.C.Williamson's Australian production of Kiss Me Kate (1952), had a successful London career which began with Leslie Bricusse's first show Lady At the Wheel (1958), and followed it with Jule Styne and Comden and Green's Do Re Mi (1960) where she starred opposite Max Bygraves. Joy Nichols, popular on radio in Australia in the forties, also made it big in the UK on the BBC's Take It From Here. At the height of her popularity she top-starred in the London production of Adler and Ross' The Pajama Game (1955) with Edmund Hockridge and Max Wall. Lewis Fiander got his chance in I And Albert (1972),a musical about Queen Victoria and her consort by the American composer Charles Strouse. Kevin Colsen was part of the principal 'menage au trois' in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love (1988), Bruce Barry became D.W.Griffith for The Biograph Girl (1980), Jason Donovan fresh from his Neighbours soapie, raked in the audiences and the cash in Webber and Rice's Joseph And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1991), as did Craig McLachlan from the same soap who headlined a revival of Grease (1993) with Debbie Gibson.
Before Barry Humphries made an impression as Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker, in the original London production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! (1960), he appeared in the short-lived The Demon Barber (1959) a pallid version of the grisly Sweeney Todd tale by South African composer Brian Burke.
And what are the gems, the ultra rare and 'pieces de resistance' of this extensive collection? By far the most prized sheets are from Rodgers and Hammerstein's tryout of Oklahoma! When the show opened out-of-town in New Haven it had the title Away We Go (1943) and five songs from the score were published under this title before the title of the show was changed to Oklahoma! The Away We Go sheets with brown and yellow covers were only sold in the theatre lobby and when the show's title was changed they were immediately withdrawn. Each sheet is now worth in excess of $1000. Four sheets grace the collection, "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top", "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "People Will Say We're In Love", and "Boys And Girls Like You And Me" which was ultimately cut. Rodgers and Hammerstein later kept adding it to several scores but it was always dropped until it was finally used in the stage version of their hit movie musical State Fair (1996).
Also extremely rare and worth the same as the Away We Go sheets is a song from Cole Porter's London disaster Nymph Errant (1933) a show that starred the enchanting Gertrude Lawrence and expatriot American, Elizabeth Welch. Of all of the songs in Porter's ouvre "The Physician" is probably one of his wittiest and with the original thirties show artwork on the cover the sheet is indeed a gem. Another rare Porter piece is a copy of an original edition of "Begin The Beguine" also with its thirties artwork from the hit musical Jubilee (1935).
Jerry Herman had his first Broadway success in 1961 with Milk And Honey but at the same time he also had Madame Aphrodite (1961) playing Off-Broadway. This show turned out to be a 13 performance flop. Four songs were published from the score, three of them in this collection and all autographed by the show's book writer Tad Mosel, "The Girls Who Sit And Wait", "Only Only Love" and "Take A Good Look Around". With an eye-catching design of a woman's bejewelled hand putting drops into a cook pot on a red background, the sheets have a distinctive look. There are also five rare sheets from Herman's Off-Broadway success Parade (1960), "The Next Time I Love", "Your Hand In Mine", "Two A Day," "Your Good Morning", and "There's No Tune Like A Show Tune", a song he later reworked and which became "It's Today" in Mame (1966). When Ben Franklin In Paris (1963) was in trouble out-of-town Jerry Herman was called in as a show doctor and wrote two songs, both credited to the original composer Mark Sandridge Jnr. Of all of the songs published from the score Herman's contributions, "To Be Alone With You" and "Too Charming" ended up as a single sheet and as part of the Vocal Selection but without giving him credit.
Also in the extremely rare category is the title song from Stephen Sondheim's 1948 college show Phinney's Rainbow. Josiah T.S. Horton had a co-lyricist credit. The three songs published from the score by Broadcast Music represent the first published work of the esteemed composer.
Similarly to Oklahoma! some shows have a title change out-of-town and this was the case with Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's Roberta (1933). Out-of-town it was titled Gowns by Roberta (1933) and the collection boasts five sheets with this title including "Armful Of Trouble", a song which was ultimately cut. Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Fields Up In Central Park (1944) out-of-town was simply called Central Park. There are four sheets with the out-of-town title and six from the Broadway edition. The sheets are notable in that they all use a distinctive Currier and Ives drawing on the cover which is perfect for a show set in turn-of-the-century New York. Carol Channing's Delilah (1955) also had a title change before it hit Broadway as The Vamp (1955) but the delicious cover artwork of Channing in a Theda Bara pose stayed. When Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's The Firebrand of Florence (1945) opened out-of-town it was called Much Ado About Love (1945). There are music sheets with both titles.
When a show is on the road, music publishers, in anticipation of a Broadway opening, print songs from the show, but sometimes the shows don't make it. This is what happened with one of songwriter Jimmy McHugh's rare Broadway ventures Strip For Action (1955). The same fate dogged Vernon Duke's Zenda (1963) which closed out-of-town in Los Angeles and Andrew Lloyd Webber's WhistleDown the Wind (1996) which closed in Washington. Whistle Down the Wind however did have a successful London production directed by Australian Gail Edwards in 1998. When Kurt Weill died in 1950 he was working with Maxwell Anderson on a musical version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1950). Some songs were published from the score and one of these, "This Time Next Year" features in the collection.
Sometimes a road tour uses different artwork which was the case when Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's Jekyll And Hyde (1995) toured before coming to Broadway. Three songs were published from both versions. The tour artwork has a Jekyll and Hyde drawing on all three, whilst the Broadway edition uses a Jekyll & Hyde word logo.
Booed by the first night audience and slaughtered by the critics, John Osborne's only foray into the musical theatre The World of Paul Slickey (1959) had a hasty demise from the Palace Theatre in London six weeks after it opened. Osborne, working with composer Christopher Whelan wrote a score that was labelled 'yellow-and-grey' and the only thing that survives from their creative marriage is an album containing five songs from the score. A five song album with a striking white and green cover with a cartoon of a rabbit is also all that survives of the London revue Share My Lettuce (1957).
Arthur Askey's popular piece for the West End, The Kid From Stratford (1948) was tailor made for his talents yet little remains from the six month season. One of the rare song sheets from the score, "As For You", written by Manning Sherwin,the composer of the wartime hit "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square", features a cheeky drawing of the star dressed in Shakespearian attire.
Other striking covers include New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno's brilliant caricature of Ethel Merman on the original song sheets from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam (1950), and Richard Addinsall's "A Jabberwocky Song" from the London revue Tuppence Coloured (1947) with the show title in various colours on a yellow/gold background.
Original television musicals are a rare breed, and music sheets from them even rarer. In the days before videotape it was one performance and no repeat. Therefore to find a sheet from Stephen Sondheim's only work for the medium, Evening Primrose (1966) was like striking gold. "Take Me To The World" has of course been published in various forms since the show aired but to have it in its original publication with the purple filigreed tree and show title and credits in yellow is a bonus.
Other rare television sheets include two songs from Cole Porter's Aladdin (1957) which had a London stage production in 1960 with Doretta Morrow, Bob Monkhouse and Ronald Shiner, and six songs from Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen's musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1955) which starred Frank Sinatra.
As the collection grew there were songs that no matter how hard I searched I simply could not find. One was the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song from the Bing Crosby movie Mississippi (1935) called "Down By The River". As a child I'd had a 12" 78 recording of a selection by George Melanchrino and his Orchestra from the film Words and Music (1948) about the life of the famous writing duo. The melody was pretty and it remained embedded in my memory for years but I could not find the music. Finally, I did come across it in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a Spanish and English lyric. That was also where I found a vocal version of Leonard Bernstein's theme from the film On The Waterfront (1954) with a lyric by the underrated American poet and muse, John Latouche. Brussells, Belgium, was where I found "People In Love" a song from the British musical version of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" titled A Girl Called Jo (1955). The thing that's unusual about this song is that no one knew it had been published. It was not listed on any of the other song sheets from the show so it became one of the prized pieces in the collection.
Rare entries from Australian musicals include three of Lance Mulcahy's songs from early Phillip Street revues, "To Have And Hold" from Merry-Go-Round (1952), and "Begone The Beguine" and "You Came From Outer Space" from Top of the Bill (1954), plus the "Tintookie March" from the large-scale Marionette musical The Tintookies (1956). The gem of the Australian section however, and the sheet that brings us full circle, is "Shadows" from Charles Zwar's Blue Mountain Melody (1934) with its green bush-setting artwork by the show's book writer J.C.Bancks, better known as the creator of the Ginger Meggs comic strip. It's a fitting finale to the joy to be found in this comprehensive show music collection.
The complete "Pinne Collection" can be accessed at www.nla.gov.au
A full set of larger images relating to this article can be seen by clicking on any of the thumbnails below, then by using the 'next' or 'previous' button.
HER MAJESTY'S PLEASURE by Frank Van Straten (Wakefield Press $39.95)
Australia's pre-eminent theatre historian Frank Van Straten has been at it again, this time documenting the 100 year history of Adelaide's Her Majesty's Theatre, affectionately known as the Grand Old Lady of Grote Street. Originally built in 1913 and called the Tivoli, then one of many around Australia, it is now the only Tivoli theatre still standing. Starting as a vaudeville and variety house that saw the likes of W.C. Fields, Sir Harry Lauder, and Stiffy and Mo treading its boards, the venue has presented a kaleidoscope of entertainment throughout its history. From classic musicals like My Fair Lady, Camelot, The Rocky Horror Show, and innumerable ballet and opera companies, to operetta, jazz and rock 'n' roll with lots of comics, grand pageants, movies, university revues, amateur Rep., and boxing and wrestling in between. John Guilgud, Marcel Marceau, Reg Livermore, Spike Milligan, Danny La Rue, Julian Clary, Whoopi Goldberg and Barry Humphries are just some of the stars who have performed there in one-man shows. Humphries claims it's his favourite Australian theatre. He first appeared there in 1953 playing a Welsh peasant in Emlyn Williams Wind of Heaven during a University Drama Festival. Apart from Humphries, other major talents to emerge from the theatre have included; Keith Michell, Robert Helpmann, Bobby Limb, Robyn Archer, Glynn Nicholas, Paul Kelly and Glenn Shorrock. Milestones have included the premiere of the first Australian musical, F.F.F., in 1920, the premiere of Robert Helpmann's ballet Electra before the Queen Mother in 1966, and Menopause – The Musical's record-breaking run of 20 weeks in 2007. Written in the same format as Van Straten's previous work on the Tivoli, fifty per-cent of the book is photographs. And what marvellous photographs they are. They not only capture the stars and styles of the eras, but also a changing Adelaide as well. Her Majesty's Pleasure is much more than a pleasure it's a banquet of riches. Handsomely produced by Wakefield it comes with an extensive index. Peter Pinne