Something big hit Melbourne tonight. It’s been a long time coming but it’s finally here. As I write this the Global Premiere audience of the musical version of King Kong are probably staggering home in the dark after a night of excitement at The Regent Theatre on Collins Street. A beast was unleashed, revealing to the world what Global Creatures have been working on tirelessly for years. The biggest question in my mind though is not what antics the giant gorilla will get up to in Melbourne (we all already know what he gets up to in New York) but what kind of an impact will he have upon the Australian musical theatre industry?
All responses I’ve seen so far today from the critics I follow on Twitter point to Kong being technically exciting, but lacking in areas of clear storytelling, strong casting but some random and bizarre numbers. That’s nothing unusual for a new musical of this scale (and this is quite a scale, as the show is rumoured to be one of the most expensive in the world) the good news is Melbourne isn’t the end result for the King. He’s aiming- just like in the original story- for New York City, so teething issues from this production can be sorted.
It’s very exciting though for Melbourne, and Australian audiences to see this kind of work. Following in the footsteps of Dr Zhivago, Officer and A Gentleman and Moonshadow we now have a wonderful new trend of big name pieces developing on Australian shores. It means a lot. Traditionally if these shows were being workshopped it would be done in a regional house in the US. (Though another expensive musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark experimented on Broadway itself. It broke records for it’s extensively long preview period, but is now raking in over a million dollars on a weekly basis. It’s not going anywhere fast.)
Producing this scale of show in Australia is significantly cheaper for international producers. It gives the Australian industry a chance to show off to the rest of the world. Productions get to be trialled in front of real audiences and local critics at full scale, gaining feedback for the next incarnation. It’s a bit of a win-win for all involved (if the show material is up to it…which sometimes it’s just not). Or at least it seems so from the surface.
One of the things producers in the US have to consider when developing shows in regional houses is a union rule which guarantees workshop and development casts continuing on to Broadway with a production, or if not, receiving a nice payout for the work they’ve done and the right to recast the role. This is a significant issue that isn’t being addressed right now for major shows developing in Australia. So far it’s something we haven’t particularly had to worry about, no show that has developed on our shores seems to be about to open on Broadway any time soon. If the trend keeps going though, soon enough one will, and producers won’t need to take members of our Australian casts with them. But don’t our performers, who consistently receive some of the greatest praise from critics no matter what the quality of the show is, deserve the chance to shine on Broadway too?
We’re also seeing great results in the home grown development department now as well. Keating! has already long established itself as one of the most successful Australian musicals to come from fringe style beginnings and Shane Warne: The Musical is enjoying a fully orchestrated revival and reboot at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Flowerchildren the Magnormos produced backstage story of The Mamas And The Papas is enjoying a commercial season at The Regent Theatre in Melbourne while Margaret Fulton: Queen Of The Dessert which, like Flowerchildren, was developed at Theatre Works in St Kilda, will be going on to big things in the future too. There are young writers and composers releasing new shows on Fringe and Comedy festivals every year and even financing their own small productions and readings.
Where is the big time support for these artists?
We are working out how to tell our stories via musical theatre. We’re finding our voices. This isn’t just an American field, and it’s far from a purely commercial one. That’s something funding bodies want to make you believe through their neglect to invest in musical theatre. Not every musical is instantly commercial, and musical theatre is still very much an art form that deserves funding. Instead we launch another crowdfunding campaign to try and raise another $5-10,000 that is still less than what we really need to get these shows off the ground and in front of the people that could really make a difference.
Hopefully the might and power of King Kong directs eyes towards Australia, and opens the eyes of funding bodies around the country to the other talents we have working in this field. I’m incredibly passionate about developing musical theatre in Australia, and developing Australian musical theatre. As our young industry grows let’s make sure we give all involved the best opportunities possible on our own, and foreign shores.
Meanwhile if you’d like to make an immediate impact on developing new theatre, including musicals, donations are currently being accepted for the Theatre Works BRIDGE Program. Theatre Works provides an excellent and supportive environment for artists to develop and create exciting theatre. Recently Creative Producer Dan Clarke has really put this little hot house on the map with fantastic and powerful programming, but it takes more than programming to make Theatre Works the success it is. Twenty percent of the funding for this phenomenal development centre in St Kilda come from people like you and me. Click here to make a donation right now.