'Miss Saigon' premieres, 'Priscilla' preens Down Under

For five years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Co. has given the Oz musical theater biz a wide berth as the Sydney office mounted productions in Shanghai, Tokyo and beyond.

RUC’s Asian adventure is still going gangbusters, with “The Phantom of the Opera” playing Singapore and “Cats” touring Taiwan and Korea, but the company has decided the time is right to return to Oz.

In partnership with John Frost, RUC returns to the market with a five-city “Phantom” revival toplining Anthony Warlow. Unlike the old days of open-ended runs, this “Phantom” will play limited seasons of about eight weeks in capital cities.

“We’re just being prudent,” says Really Useful Oz topper Tim McFarlane.

In at least three cities, “Phantom” will ride the coattails of a new production of “Miss Saigon” that is also on a limited-run national tour, staged by Louise Withers.

In addition, Withers is behind new Oz productions of “Billy Elliot” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” slated for end-of-year preems in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively, and helping ensure that 2007 will become known as the year tuners returned to Oz.

“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical” is flamboyantly installed at Sydney’s Lyric Theater; “Priscilla” producer Back Row just wrapped a triumphant national tour of Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake”; and in the first three months of ’07, the new arena spectacular “Walking With Dinosaurs” trampled 300,000 paleontology fans on a national tour.

The market is awash with optimism, underscored so far by strong ticket sales.

“There are a number of good productions landed, about to land or just happened,” McFarlane says. “The quality is first class. You’re competing against other good shows, so people have to make a choice, but if they have a good time, they’re likely to return.”

However, he adds that the broader market has grown more crowded and confused now that sports and shopping are grouped as “entertainment” in the competition for discretionary spending.

Withers, who managed the bumper “Mamma Mia!” and “We Will Rock You” Oz tours, says containing costs was key to making “Miss Saigon” work. The show’s modest startup budget was A$4 million (approximately $3 million), contained through the use of a set and costumes from a former U.K. production. In contrast, the pre-premiere budgets for “Priscilla” and “Dinosaurs” were double that.

But those shows are new, while “Miss Saigon” is a 17-year-old revival.

Whereas ’80s tuners “Phantom” and “Cats” visited Australia before, Withers found incentive to stage “Miss Saigon” in ’07 because it’s “the only one of the ‘big four’ that never toured, and it is a contemporary, dramatic love story.”

Ticket sales are tracking 20% ahead of her conservative projections, and notices from the Melbourne preem were strong.

“Priscilla,” adapted from Stephan Elliott’s 1994 pic, has been a much riskier adventure.

Rock promoter Michael Chugg, who produced with Back Row and the Gordon Frost Organization, says the show, now in its eighth month at Sydney’s 2,000-seat Lyric Theater, has taken $15 million after 200 perfs.

“It could be doing a bit better,” Chugg admits, but “the crowds have not dwindled; they’re growing steadily.”

Contained weekly running costs of $300,000 recently enabled “Priscilla” to go into the black. Tickets are selling through to September, but producers are really banking on international success as payoff for their years of toil.

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