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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.

Rum DoThe 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!

Beach Blanket TempestOn 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.

Hugh Lunn, Over the top with JimOddodyssey 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.

Live at the TrocaderoIn 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.

The Sunshine ClubIn 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.”

Houdini - The man from BeyondThe 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.