Here come the Helpmann Awards, and once again they’re bringing with them a bag full of controversy and confusion. The wonderful world of Australian, theatrical, social media whipped themselves into a frenzied buzz today as they back and forthed over the technicalities of nomination criteria, who was nominated for what and why. Why seemed to be a big question. Why do we need the Helpmann awards? Who are they really helping?
The Tony Awards do big things for business, in a few ways. First for Broadway as a whole. It’s a mass televised event, on a public channel, that showcases what’s on Broadway, what’s hot on Broadway, and is one huge tourism ad for New York and the Great White Way, which makes billions of dollars off the backs of these shows. For individual shows it’s also a great advertising opportunity, an announcement of a Tony Nomination, or even better a win, can help secure your run for a longer period of time. A best musical win usually ensures sell out crowds for a couple of years. A performance during the ceremony is a 2-5 minute advertisement of what your show is about (and just in case any of you still didn’t know, you PAY for your performance slot on the Tonys, it’s not a freebie you get for being nominated, it’s a good $100,000 advertising investment.)
They’re also important for North American regional producing, and that’s why a large number of the Tony voters are regional presenters and producers. They know a nomination and win or two can make a big difference to whether audiences will come out in their towns. For this reason the Tonys are still important for shows that have shuttered on Broadway but are hoping for a future on the road, where runs can be many years longer than in NYC.
Unfortunately, and I’m sorry to shatter dreams and fairytales here, the Tony Awards are not just about awarding the best talents, the most creative etc. They are political, they are a marketing tool, and they’re a big part of the business side of showbusiness. Just like any other award ceremony.
That’s where I get confused about the Helpmanns.
We liken the Helpmanns to the Tony Awards even though they’re vastly different. The Tony’s award plays and musicals in Broadway houses in New York City that have officially opened (no previews) during the eligibility period. The Helpmanns award live performance across multiple genres including musicals, plays, dance, opera, live music and, you know, probably busking (I’m not sure, it was taking so long for me to read through the mammoth list of nomination categories this morning that I basically gave up.) They’re also not limited to one city, but ALL of Australia. That said, I would still argue that the musical categories are the most anticipated, and I will speak mainly about these categories because it’s the world I choose to primarily work in.
To be nominated you need to be a member of Live Performance Australia- the industry body for the live entertainment and performance industry (basically a body of Producers) or pay an industry service fee. Your show also has to be produced professionally (that means paying everyone), and it also has to have been produced during the eligibility period. (More specific details about eligibility for the Helpmanns are here.)
By the time this year’s Helpmann awards are presented all the nominated shows for Best Musical will have closed, and shows that could have used the marketing push of award nominations (Addams Family, Legally Blonde) will not get the opportunity. South Pacific will be returning and there was rumours of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum transferring to Broadway, but do these shows with their pedigree require a Helpmann to boost sales? No one on Broadway probably even knows what a Helpmann is (Geoffrey Rush would be a bigger push, and he has a Tony), and South Pacific already has 7 Tony Awards in the bag, which would still be a stronger sell. (As I also have to ask: how many Australians know what a Helpmann is?)
Tony Awards can also give small time producers a big boost of industry support. Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller took big risks on shows like RENT, Avenue Q and In The Heights, and were rewarded with multiple Tony Awards, it helped give them credibility. In Australia this year it’s Frost vs Frost vs Frost vs Rigby for the title, as it probably was last year, and the year before. We’re awarding the same group of people, year after year. There’s probably not a door left in Frosty’s house that needs a stop any more. Who does this help? How does this help our industry?
If any production should win this category it should be A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, because it was a new production of the piece with an Australian creative team. Not an import. We should be utilising awards such as the Helpmanns to encourage Australian productions. It saddens me no end to see categories such as Best Director of a Musical filled with American names, because of imported productions. Sure original productions replicated are great, we want to see that, but why have a category awarding international directors that may not have even stepped foot on our shores to direct this production? Funny Thing, just like Love Never Dies, showed how we can make productions that rival or trump international ones. We have kids studying direction and design who will all graduate looking for jobs, let’s give them the chance to work on these great, well known musicals, and award them for their efforts.
Then there’s the elephant in the room, or should I say the gorilla. King Kong pulled out a huge amount of Helpmann nominations, which resulted in an equally huge outpouring of “how?” from the Twitterverse. Here’s a show that needed the boost of nominations (and potentially awards) to help sell tickets. From what I’ve heard the mighty beast needs as much help as it can get to get bums on seats, even if this will be a deficit led development. Which is why it comes as no surprise to me that the producers of Kong submitted the piece to the Helpmanns despite it only being in previews at the close of eligibility dates. That means they were inviting nominating panels before critics, or before any kind of review could be published. This would not be allowed to happen if it were the Tony Awards.
More shockingly it picked up a nomination for best original score, a part of the production that came under heavy scrutiny from critics, and for Best New Australian Work. “But Sean!” I hear you cry, “last week you were praising King Kong as part of the Australian development scene!” To which I respond yes, BUT, Kong is helmed by mainly international creatives, the book, score and director are all from overseas. In my mind that makes it very hard to consider it an Australian work, despite who conceived the idea, who designed the puppetry etc. Could it have been nominated for best new musical? Of course, but best new Australian work? Now that’s a tough call.
So how do we get the Helpmanns to help Musical Theatre in Australia?
The Helpmanns need value, as this will help encourage the industry around it. If Helpmann awards were only given to Australian productions, and considered to be a very serious accolade, I believe we’d see more interest from producers in creating new Australian works, and revivals of classic productions with Australian creative teams. This means that import productions could not be eligible, or alternatively, import productions would become eligible in a separate category. Let’s not stop there either, let’s encourage new Australian composers by only allowing Aussies in that category too, and the design categories. Where’s our awards night that awards US?
The awards also need to be more accessible to the public. Foxtel currently broadcasts the awards (I’m sure the ratings aren’t high) but if we want them to have an impact on our industry we need them front and centre on our publicly accesible television channels. I don’t care if contestants from The Block or The Voice have to give out an award, get them on TV, and pump the broadcast FULL of performances. Let’s see current musicals that are playing get some air time, let’s see a Bangarra dance number, even Gotye’s tour is up for an award this year, let’s get him on there singing! Let’s have Sydney advertising how it’s the entertainment capital in one ad break, and Melbourne rolling a ball of wool down the street in the next. The Tony Awards had the highest ratings ever this year and New York knows how much money they’ll bring in through bums on seats on Broadway in the next 12 months. Let’s do the same.
Because if the Helpmanns are just the same producers patting all the same producers on the back we’re left with an unrewarding awards night, and really, who is that helping?
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You may also like to read how I thought Addams Family was Dead on Arrival, and how we can learn from it’s ‘grave’ ending.