Head over heels
"Musical of the century" ... The Book of Mormon. Photo: AP
When musical theatre giant Stephen Sondheim thundered to The Times that Broadway was overflowing with ''commercial crap'' and the West End was just as dire, musical theatre's leading producers rolled their eyes.
''He's been saying that for years,'' says John Frost, the producer of An Officer and a Gentleman, Wicked and Annie.
There’s no doubt that most musicals are fundamentally idiotic.
''Sondheim is fabulous but the majority of his shows are too intellectual and esoteric. They're not written for the masses and they don't make any money.''
Note-worthy ... one of the few original musicals, A Chorus Line. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
Argue all you like that the art form has run out of ideas, become stale and is formulaic, but you can't argue with the numbers, Frost says. It's a boom time for musicals worldwide.
Broadway is now a multibillion-dollar industry. Just one musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is pulling $US1.3 million ($1.25 million) at the box office each week, despite being gutted by the critics. In Australia, musical theatre fed $70 million to the NSW economy last year, with Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys and Doctor Zhivago spinning the turnstiles. There is no question that musicals still matter - economically speaking, that is.
Razzle dazzle 'em
The Broadway production of 'Legally Blonde', which plays at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney from October 4.
But do they still matter artistically? How can the art form move forward if every decision is made with the investor's pocket in mind? Are risk-averse producers strangling innovation? Where are the original ideas? Where is the great music?
''I think there are hundreds of innovators out there trying new things but whether they ever make it into a commercial space - well, that's a different story,'' says Bartlett Sher, who is mounting his Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific with Opera Australia in August.
''I'm convinced the musical is still a very viable and wonderful art form, and it's a very unique art form. But finding a subject that can 'sing' is complicated and we need artists who are willing to push the boundaries.''
Ben Mingay and Amanda Harrison, stars of An Officer and a Gentleman. Photo: Marco Del Grande
We forget that Rodgers and Hammerstein were genuinely experimental in their day, Sher says. ''It's hard to believe now but Oklahoma! was an experiment. It was the first time anyone died in a musical. South Pacific brought in complex social themes and different kinds of love relationships. And then Sondheim experimented with more psychological drama and played with time and structure. The music-theatre industry is vibrant right now but it's hard to see if there is another Sondheim out there.''
Neil Tennant, a music critic and the co-founder of pop duo Pet Shop Boys, certainly can't see one. He recently wrote an article in The Spectator that began: ''Going to see the new smash-hit show Matilda the other night, I was once again reminded that, as a creative musical force, the contemporary West End musical is dead. It contains the sort of music you only find in musicals; it has no relevance to contemporary music; it exists in a creative ghetto.''
Even the ''cutting edge'' rock musicals - Tennant cites Rent and Spring Awakening - are ''musically insignificant''.
"Sondheim is fabulous but the majority of his shows are too intellectual and esoteric" ... producer John Frost. Photo: Domino Postiglione
Director Simon Phillips has a chuckle over that one. He's currently working on a show Tennant would probably regard as another nail in the coffin, An Officer and a Gentleman - The Musical.
''There's no doubt that most musicals are fundamentally idiotic,'' Phillips says, during a break in rehearsals.
''I come from straight theatre so people bursting into song is silly to me. But then again a lot of people sitting in a room and watching other people act out a serious drama is silly, too. Once we [have] agreed on a shared ludicrousness, we can turn our attention to keeping the show sharp and edgy.''
Phillips agrees with Tennant's argument that the days of stage shows spawning pop hits are long gone and will likely never return. But he says it has been that way for decades.
''After Cole Porter and the Gershwins, popular music and music-theatre music did start to diverge,'' he says. ''The idiom of theatre music is a kind of storytelling. The songs have to drive the narrative and popular music doesn't have those constraints. It hasn't since they invented rock'n'roll.''
Phillips takes issue with Tennant's plea for musicals to reflect contemporary pop styles, too. ''When you look up what's in the charts at the moment, it's absolutely unbearable. It's schlock. If that's what we need in a musical, I think the world is coming to an end.''
It's true that commercial producers don't want to take risks, Phillips adds. If they have a story that people already know, with a song that's already a hit, a recognisable face or two in the lead roles, they consider they are halfway to making their money back. New work is a gamble.
''I think the financial imperative now is stultifying,'' Phillips says. ''Because it costs so much to put anything on, people are hedging their bets on what they can do; they're playing it very safe out of anxiety for losing $15 [million] to $20 million.''
Frost says he is using sure-bet musicals such as Annie and Legally Blonde to raise money to subsidise riskier ventures, world premieres such as last year's Doctor Zhivago and, now, An Officer and a Gentleman.
''I've worked in theatre since I was 15,'' Frost says. ''I adore theatre, so it's not just a machine to me. But the shows have to make money. I run a multimillion-dollar company and I have wages to pay and I'm driven by that.''
Frost is used to copping the odd brickbat for his choices, especially from the online forums.
Some commentators say Frost will put on anything to make a buck. He disputes this. ''I only put on shows I love. If it was only about making money, I wouldn't be dipping my toe in new, untried shows.''
Frost has an unlikely ally in Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and professor of theatre studies at Yale University in the US.
Originality, Margulies says, has never been a prerequisite for an artistically successful musical.
''I can think of very few original musicals,'' he says. ''A Little Night Music was based on an Ingmar Bergman film, West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet. Fiddler on the Roof was from a short story by Sholom Aleichem. Even The Lion King is basically Hamlet.''
What is new, he says, is the trend towards using movies as source material - and that won't be going away.
''Adaptation is becoming bread and butter for writers in America now. The three-act structure of a film gives musical writers an armature on which to hang the songs. I don't think there is anything wrong with that but you do have to decide which films might be appropriate to musicalise and which ones are not.''
A great musical is about more than the music, says Sher, who compares a good musical to a Shakespeare play.
''It's got potential if it has an exotic foreign location,'' he says. ''It's got potential when there are two couples and when it's positive and very emotional with a smart book. But just like Shakespeare, there has to be a good reason to do it.
''For example, we wanted to reinvestigate South Pacific and look at the ways it is still relevant now. We're looking at issues of race, different kinds of marriage and family, which anticipates gay marriage, and American imperialism abroad. That is a lot different to taking a Hollywood movie that all the kids love or finding some pop songs and wrapping a story around it.''
Sydney can look forward to a glut of populist film- and TV-based musicals: Legally Blonde, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Addams Family, Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom and the return of Disney's The Lion King.
Next year, Melbourne will host the world premiere of King Kong the Musical and pick up the London production of Ghost the Musical.
It's not all retreads and movie adaptations, however. In July, the paradigm-shifting A Chorus Line will open in Sydney and in September, we'll see a short season of Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt's Next to Normal, the critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical focusing on the travails of a woman with worsening bipolar disorder and the effect her instability has on her family. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang it is not.
''It's a musical for grown-ups,'' says Tyran Parke, the actor-singer who will make his directorial debut with Next to Normal.
''They speak like us and they sing like us and the music is really connecting with younger people,'' he says. ''I know some people will think, 'A musical about bipolar, really?' But it's a new way of doing music theatre. I hope there's room for A Chorus Line and An Officer and a Gentleman, and something really different like Next to Normal.''
Margulies says a vibrant and wide-ranging musical theatre industry is essential for the future of all theatre.
''If the theatre is going to survive - and people have been talking about its imminent death for a very long time - then musicals are vital,'' he says. ''They are the productions that hook a new generation into theatre. I think they are a very powerful entry point, almost a rite of passage. There is something very soothing and almost primal about being told a story through song.''
Sher agrees and says TV shows such as Glee and the various talent shows are leading audiences back to the theatres. ''Ironically, while the film and music industries are having trouble getting people to leave the house because everyone is busy downloading their entertainment, we've seen a big increase in people going to the theatres,'' he says.
''It's a way of being with other human beings. It's the only place you can be without looking at your phone. It has an ancient campfire quality.
''No matter how fast our consciousness is getting, we still have a primitive longing to sit around the campfire and listen to someone tell a story or sing or play an instrument.
''It is still an important human activity. Happily, that primitive need and capitalism agree.''
Australia's most wanted
THE two hottest musicals in the world right now - The Book of Mormon and Matilda the Musical - are expected to open in Sydney, possibly within 18 months.
Dubbed the ''best musical of the century'' by The New York Times, The Book of Mormon, created by South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, mercilessly lampoons organised religion and traditional musical theatre. It has been a monster hit on Broadway, winning nine Tony Awards. It boasts some of the filthiest lyrics ever written for the stage.
On the other end of the spectrum, Tim Minchin's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic children's novel Matilda, the Australian comedian's first musical, won seven Olivier Awards in London on Monday night. The show has been a smash hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company, winning rave reviews when it transferred to the West End last year.
''Every producer in the country has their hand up for The Book of Mormon and Matilda,'' John Frost says. ''I can assure you, I have my hand up, too.''
In the meantime, Frost is workshopping two brand new musicals, Red Dog the Musical, based on the recent film, and Dream Lover: The Bobby Darin Story. He has also acquired the rights to The First Wives Club - The Musical, the stage version of the Bette Midler-Diane Keaton-Goldie Hawn chick flick. Simon Phillips is workshopping all three but is not officially on board to direct yet.
Opera Australia is looking closely at musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein (in particular Carousel), Lerner and Loewe (Brigadoon, Camelot, My Fair Lady) and George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess).
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is confirmed to open at the Capitol Theatre at the end of this year. The local producer of A Chorus Line, Tim Lawson, says it will be an all-Australian version of the long-running London show.
Other musicals tipped to make an appearance include Newsies, based on the 1992 Disney flop (''It's Oliver! meets Annie,'' The New York Times snipped), and Once, based on the 2006 cult Irish film created by Glen Hansard (of the Frames). Both are hot tickets on Broadway.
Shrek was rumoured for Australia but closed disappointingly early on Broadway. If it picks up in London, it might be back on the agenda. A musical version of Whitney Houston's 1992 film The Bodyguard will open in the West End in November and if it goes well, it could end up here, as could Thriller - Live, the Michael Jackson tribute show that has been a hit in the West End since the singer's death.