A LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA: Love Never Dies, Annie, Cate Blanchett, David Williamson and More

By Mark Shenton
February 1, 2012

Playbill.com's London correspondent Mark Shenton recently traveled Down Under and filed this report on Sydney's thriving theatre scene, which includes theatres great and small.



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Hugh Jackman, Australia's biggest theatrical export since Peter Allen (whom, of course, Jackman played on Broadway in The Boy From Oz), did record business during his recent Broadway stand, and a stage version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that began in Sydney is still parading more sequins and feathers at Broadway's Palace since that theatre housed the original Broadway run of La Cage Aux Folles.

Another Australian-originated stage version of Dirty Dancing is now simultaneously touring across the U.S. and U.K., after completing a four-and-a-half year West End run last year. Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett, now co-artistic director at Sydney Theatre Company with her husband, writer-director Andrew Upton, has visited the U.S. with the company's productions of A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya (to BAM and Washington's Kennedy Center, respectively, in 2009 and 2011), with Vanya due to be reprised at New York's City Center in July as part of the Lincoln Center Fetival in a production that Ben Brantley described as "among the happiest of my theatregoing life." This year STC will also bring their production of Botho Strauss's Gross und Klein (Big and Small), also starring Blanchett, to London's Barbican Theatre in April.

So although Australia may be on the other side of the world, not just hemisphere, from the West End and Broadway, its theatrical endeavors have an increasingly international profile. As an English-speaking nation with a rich cultural past and present, it has become a hotbed of theatrical creativity, equally at home with lavish commercial musicals as it is with avant-garde experimentalism.

Anthony Warlow in Annie.
photo by Jeff Busby

Right now, for example, Sydney is hosting a production of that old Broadway warhorse Annie, with Anthony Warlow — Australia's original Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera — as Daddy Warbucks (at the Star's Lyric Theatre, through March 4, then touring to Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth).

There's also a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel Love Never Dies (at the Capitol, through April 1) that has transferred from Melbourne, where its composer saw it and declared it "the finest I could ever, ever hope for." He went on to say, "Three times in my career this has happened. The first time was when I saw Evita in rehearsals and I thought, 'This design and production is absolutely perfect and what I want,' and again when I saw The Phantom, and this is the third time I can say it again…. You wouldn't recognize this from London."

Last October, Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera marked its 25th West End anniversary with a spectacular staging at the Royal Albert Hall (now available on DVD); but it was an anniversary that Love Never Dies never lived to see in London, where love for it quickly died after a run of only 16 months.

It was arguably the most eagerly anticipated new musical the composer had ever written, but the original production failed to realize its potential, though a subsequent extensive London make-over restructured and vastly improved it. Now, Down Under, an entirely fresh set of creative eyes —under the leadership of director Simon Phillips (who also directed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) — has applied a brand-new vision to it, and here, at last, said some critics, including this one, was the masterpiece that was always crying to be let out. (It's re-designed by Gabriela Tylesova with a Gothic grandeur that echoes those of late Maria Bjornson's original designs.)

Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne in Love Never Dies.

Love Never Dies, I wrote, is now ready for Broadway. Where Australia once waited patiently for Broadway shows to come to it, it is now increasing its role as a tryout house for Broadway: Last year Des McAnuff came there to direct a new stage version of Dr. Zhivago, with music by Lucy Simon, book by Michael Weller and lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers, that also starred Anthony Warlow in the title role. This coming May, Simon Phillips will direct a new stage musical version of the film "An Officer and a Gentleman" in Sydney.

But if Australia's commercial theatre scene — dominated by producer John Frost (universally known as "Frostie"), who is the Cameron Mackintosh of Sydney, responsible for Annie, Dr. Zhivago and An Officer and a Gentleman — is showing some resilience, there are also problems, not least the lack of venues. Sydney only has three theatres typically open (and large enough) to stage commercial musical runs, and one of them, the Theatre Royal, is currently dark after the planned transfer of Rock of Ages from Melbourne was suddenly cancelled. The venue is now reported to be under threat of redevelopment.

But elsewhere Sydney has a thriving network of resident companies. Sydney Theatre Company get the lion's share of publicity, thanks to Blanchett and Upton at the helm (though they have recently announced their intention to step down from running it next year after six years in charge), operating out of four regular theatres. Their home space is the Wharf Theatres, comprising two studio theatres on a wharf in the bay around the corner from the Harbour Bridge; they also operate the Sydney Theatre across the street, which they also make available to external hires. They are also the resident company at Sydney Opera House's Drama Theatre.

Sydney Opera House is, of course, one of the great artistic buildings in the world, like the entire South Bank complex in London put under one roof, which is itself an architectural sculpture of world renown. As well as the Drama Theatre, there's also a flexible studio space; and it's rather wonderful that, next to the high art of Mozart and the like upstairs, the studio below it has been turned into a cabaret carnival to house a local edition of the ongoing London hit La Soiree, where Norway's Captain Frodo contorts his entire body through the heads of two tennis rackets and Croydon-born Ursula Martinez produces a red handkerchief from improbable places on her body.

Greta Scaachi

But there are also many more smaller theatre companies operating out of permanent homes elsewhere in the city, including the Ensemble Theatre (across the bay at Milson's Point), Australia's longest, continuously running professional theatre company, specializing in promoting local playwrights, including Australia's longest-serving and most prolific international writer David Williamson. Greta Scaachi recently starred there in his most recent play Nothing Personal, and the upcoming season has yet another Williamson play, When Dad Married Fury, opening in May in between revivals of plays by Neil Simon and David Hare.

A more adventurous repertoire is pursued by the Griffin in their upstairs warehouse Stables Theatre in King's Cross, and the Belvoir at their two-theatre home in Surry Hills, a building partly funded by none other than Russell Crowe.

And here's a contrast, too, and source of the problem for commercial theatre operators in Sydney: as in London and on Broadway, regular theatregoers are simply being priced out of the commercial offerings. Tickets for Annie run to $135 and for Love Never Dies to $145 (and with the Australian dollar having rough parity to the U.S. one, that means that those shows are running almost equal to the current ducat for regular, non-premium Broadway seats). By contrast, tickets for a play at the Griffin are just $49. In other words, you can see three plays there for the price of one ticket to Love Never Dies.

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