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Coming to a stage near you, musicals galore

If Sydney and Melbourne 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 pop stars the Monkees, maybe?

The future for international and Australian-made musicals just grew bigger than Parton's Mount Rushmore-sized edifice with the announcement Tim McFarlane has been appointed chief executive of the Ambassador Theatre Group Asia-Pacific, to be based in Sydney from next year.

Mr McFarlane intends to expand the 20-year-old British theatre company's presence in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea.

It is ATG'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 at Barangaroo, although Mr McFarlane said the area needed better public transport and better safety and lighting at night. He declined to name a potential theatre ATG might buy in Melbourne.

Having previously headed the Australian and Asian activities of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, Mr McFarlane is tight-lipped about which musicals will be imported into Australia, beyond confirming what his boss, ATG co-founder Howard Panter, said last month: 9 to 5 is on the list.

ATG, 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.


But why establish ATG's new base in Sydney and not Melbourne, given the southern city has more available theatres?

"It's partly because I live here [Sydney] already with my family," said Mr McFarlane. "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 the demand for western musicals is insatiable. 

International shows that ATG 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, Mr 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.

"ATG has got a proven track record of employing local artists in the markets that they operate and Australia's not going to be any different," McFarlane said.

"In fact, with the way I've operated for the last 18 years, it actually provides opportunities for Australians not only in Australia but in the Asia-Pacific area."

It is also potentially good news for Australian-created musicals.

"As a matter of principle, ATG are interested in creative people, wherever they come from … It has the resources to commit to developing new shows."