Co-production teams Australian, Stateside talent and producers
Sydney– If the world preem of tuner “Doctor Zhivago” goes well this month, it could prompt a theatrical revolution Down Under.
That’s what the producers of the $5.4 million musical — a co-production between key U.S. creatives and an Aussie production company — are hoping for.
With helmer Des McAnuff and Gotham-based producer Anita Waxman attached, the show, bowing in Sydney Feb. 19, is clearly aimed toward a future life Stateside. And Aussie producers see a potential boon in upping the quotient of co-productions aiming for an international afterlife on Broadway or elsewhere.
Oz isn’t a traditional pre-Gotham stop for a stage tuner, but it’s not unheard of. In 2006, “Priscilla, Queen of Desert” began its life in Australia prior to opening in London and, imminently, Broadway, where the musical opens March 20; and in 2003, Hugh Jackman topliner “The Boy From Oz” was a new production on Broadway of a stage property that bowed Down Under.
Producers John Frost of Gordon Frost Org and Waxman of Alexis Prods. hope that “Zhivago,” based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, may inspire more productions to use Australia as a pre-Broadway proving ground.
“If the world down here embraces ‘Doctor Zhivago’ I think you’ll see a lot of producers coming down here,” says Waxman (“Enron,” “American Idiot”).
“Zhivago” reunites Frost and Waxman with American composer Lucy Simon as well as Aussie star Anthony Warlow, who were all involved in “The Secret Garden” in Australia in 1995 following that tuner’s 1991 run on the Main Stem.
Michael Weller (whose play “Side Effects” bows Off Broadway later this year) penned “Zhivago’s” book with Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”) and Amy Powers writing lyrics.
The long-gestating “Zhivago” first hit the U.S. stage in 2006 in a McAnuff-helmed tryout in La Jolla, Calif. That incarnation received mixed notices, but the current production “is more than 75% different” according to Waxman, thereby earning its world preem tag.
Waxman says that in Sydney, mounting the tuner cost one-third of what it would cost to produce in New York. She also cites Oz’s “deep talent pool” and love of musical theater as benefits of a Down Under preem.
Besides, the Aussie bow also allows the project to develop outside the intense glare of Broadway.
Frost, producer of “Wicked” in Oz, hopes “Zhivago” will launch another pre-Broadway trend in his homeland. “It would be an amazing injection for the industry down here,” he says. “But at the same time, what I want to see is that the productions that do come down are co-productions with a mixture of creative talent. I think that’s very important.”
According to creatives, “Zhivago” marks a return a more epic, romantic brand of musical theater production, and a move away from jukebox tuners.
“Since ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ there hasn’t been a huge sweeping love story,” says Simon. “I think people have been scared of them.”
McAnuff is also enthused about returning to a more serious theme. “Some of the most significant events of the 20th century are contained within this story,” he says. “But it’s really about five people. It’s about three men in love with one woman and two women in love with one man. It is tremendously intimate and you need that in a musical.”
That focus on the personal against the story’s political and historical backdrop has been one of the major shifts between the La Jolla incarnation and the new version.
“What we learned from the audience (in La Jolla) is that they loved the music, but with the story, they got confused,” she says. “What you are going to see on stage now is a great love affair based around the Russian Revolution as opposed to the Russian Revolution with a love story involved.”
For McAnuff, the elephant in the room was David Lean’s popular film adaptation. But while everyone is very familiar with the celluloid doctor, the musical’s team made a conscious decision to return to the novel, McAnuff says. This even meant the controversial decision to jettison the popular “Lara’s Theme,” a tune written for the film by composer Maurice Jarre.
“I hope we have been true to Pasternak but we haven’t been obedient,” McAnuff adds.
So far things are looking positive, with $4.4 million in advance booking in Sydney, more than $2 million in Melbourne and a Brisbane engagement going on sale this month. John Frost attributes the response to “a mixture of Anthony Warlow, the title and the hype.”
Opening night is also peopled with a host of legit investors and theater owners who hold the show’s international aspirations in their hands, including Canada’s Mirvish family and New York’s Dodger Theatricals.
“‘Doctor Zhivago’ is one of the great stories of the 20th century,” McAnuff says, “and this kind of show hasn’t occupied center stage in musical theater for some time.”