This should have been the show to save musicals from themselves: the one that proved quality song-writing and dialogue could trounce spectacular sets, vacuous stories and recycled hits.
But Dirty Rotten Scoundrels failed on a grand scale, closing after eight weeks late last year. And it will have made every producer of musicals just a little more nervous about entering the Sydney market.
In an era when shows have routinely been confected from the flimsiest source material, such as a few hit songs being the basis for numerous juke-box musicals, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was a refreshing return to the real thing.
Yes, it was based on a movie, which has usually been another guarantee of mediocrity. But, uniquely, this show actually improved on its source, the amusing 1988 film directed by Frank Oz and starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Jeffrey Lane's book (the show's text) was funny, and David Yazbeck's songs were strong.
Most importantly Yazbeck's lyrics restored wit to the primacy it had enjoyed in the best works by Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Sondheim. The production, staring Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington, was handsome to look at it, and was even graced with a real orchestra in the pit – a rarity these days, when producers opt for lavish sets and budget bands.
So what went wrong? Why did a show I described in my review as “the best new musical to hit Sydney this century” – one that snapped up major prizes at January's Sydney Theatre Awards – close so early, with such disappointing houses?
It is hard to blame ticket prices when audiences have come to expect to cough up similar amounts for other musicals, and will pay more for good seats at the opera and for high-profile rock concerts. Perhaps the timing of its opening was inauspicious. Grease had opened a week earlier, The Wharf Revue opened the same night, and people were already buying tickets for the devouring monster that is The Lion King, which would open six weeks after Scoundrels.
But is a city of some 5 million people not up to sustaining this level of competition? If that is the case, it sadly undermines the arguments that we need an extra theatre capable of hosting major musicals.
An even sadder conclusion would be that a hefty proportion of the Sydney audience for musical theatre opts for the banal over the clever. On that basis Baz Luhrman should be ensuring that the gags in Strictly Ballroom (opening on April 12) aren't too sharp. The producers of Wicked, meanwhile, should be nervously eyeing any competition for the show's return Sydney season later this year after its Melbourne run.
The success of King Kong suggests Melbourne audiences are just as ready to choose spectacle over more subtle sophistication, so Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may not have fared any better there had its producer, George Youakim, been in a financial position to take it there as planned. That will remain one of those imponderables that makes producers deserve every dollar they earn. Especially when the best show for years flops.