Leading role: Tim McFarlane has expansion plans.

Leading role: Tim McFarlane has expansion plans. Photo: Tamara Dean

IF MELBOURNE and Sydney are big enough for Dolly Parton's amply endowed 9 to 5 the Musical in the wake of the musical version of the movie Legally Blonde, what next? Ghost: The Musical? That new one based on '60s popsters the Monkees, maybe?

The future for international and Australian-made musicals just grew bigger than Parton's Mount Rushmore-sized edifice with the announcement that Tim McFarlane has been appointed chief executive of the Ambassador Theatre Group Asia-Pacific.

McFarlane intends to expand the 20-year-old British theatre company's presence in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea. It is the group's emphasis on owning theatres, however, that will really stir the musical scene in Australia: the company has its eyes on a potential new theatre in Melbourne and at the redeveloped Barangaroo precinct in Sydney.

Having previously headed the Australian and Asian activities of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, McFarlane is tight-lipped about which musicals will be imported here, beyond confirming what his boss, ATG co-founder Howard Panter, told Fairfax Media last month: 9 to 5 is on the list. The group, which owns 39 theatres in Britain, has already staged in Sydney the $4 million musical Legally Blonde in a co-production with John Frost, the producer of hit shows Wicked and Annie. Legally Blonde will open in Brisbane in March before moving to Melbourne.

But why establish the group's base in Sydney and not Melbourne, given the latter has more available theatres?

''It's partly because I live … [in Sydney] already with my family,'' McFarlane said. ''Sydney and Melbourne in musical terms are probably comparable sized markets, and ATG will be operating in other Australian as well as Asian markets.''

This is good news for Australian creative talent, with the likelihood locally produced shows and their Aussie cast and crew will travel to Asia, where demand for Western musicals is insatiable.

International shows that the group produces - having already brought The Rocky Horror Show, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story to Australia in recent years - will continue to be cast locally, McFarlane said.

This is despite an ongoing industry dispute over a live performance agreement, the lapse of which means producers have little barrier to using international stars on Australian stages.