Legit producer trying out shows in Sydney

SYDNEY — The stage musical version of “An Officer and a Gentleman,” which opened May 19 at Sydney’s Lyric Theater, reps the latest in a string of ambitious tuners hoping to use a Down Under run as a springboard to Broadway or the West End.

It’s not such a crazy idea, given the international play enjoyed by Oz-originating titles such as “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Dirty Dancing.”

The Gordon/Frost Organization, the company behind “Priscilla” and last year’s “Dr. Zhivago” — currently playing a six-month run in South Korea before undergoing some tweaks in hopes of a Stateside berth — is teaming with U.S. producer Sharleen Cooper Cohen on “Officer.” ” ‘Priscilla’ moved straight away(to Broadway), and we are hoping for that (with ‘Officer,’)?” Cohen says.

Not long ago an Oz-generated Broadway tuner was rare. When “The Boy From Oz” landed on Broadway in 2003, it seemed an anomaly explained in large part by the show’s lead — Rialto topliner (and native Aussie) Hugh Jackman.

But then the Jacobsen Entertainment-produced tuner “Dirty Dancing” bowed in Sydney in 2004, and went on to sell out a six-month Blighty run before it even opened there; in the U.S., the show toured Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. “Priscilla” preemed Down Under in 2006, ran in the West End and is playing Broadway’s Palace Theater. Add “Zhivago” to the mix, and it’s starting to look like a trend.

Cost is a major advantage for new tuners bowing in Australia. “Our budget for ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ is $6.3 million,” says Gordon/Frost topper John Frost. “If we were to (produce the show) in New York, we’d be talking $12 million-$15 million.”

Frost adds that the new production also will develop out of the glare of the media spotlight, and the showbiz gossip that goes with it. The plan is for potential international partners who are interested in the title to come to Oz to see the show, then team up with Frost and Cohen to bring it to their territories.

The Australian model is appealing, Cohen says, because the only real Stateside option, as she sees it, is to bow at a major regional nonprofit, where a limited run (shoehorned into a nonprofit’s typically busy calendar of programming) could be enhanced by a significant chunk of commercial money that a producer would “donate” to the nonprofit in return for first rights to shepherd the show commercially if it proves successful.

“At a nonprofit, you have only four to five weeks to mount your show, so investors can’t recoup,” Cohen adds.

The plan for “Officer” is for all stakeholders in the Oz production to see a return on investment from its limited Sydney engagement, which wouldn’t be feasible in the U.S.

Co-writer and original scribe Douglas Day Stewart cites a side-benefit: avoiding early exposure to U.S. critics. “By the time you get to New York, you might be critic-proof,” he says. “I don’t see one single drawback, having done four workshops now — two in New York and two here.”

“Officer” director Simon Phillips, also the helmer of “Priscilla” and the Oz version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies,” points out that although titles have been making the jump, local talent tends not to travel with them.

“Whereas in Australia we are used to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing out the creative teams from the U.S. or Britain, the Americans rarely have to do that, because most of the shows grow up in America,” he says.

But if the Australian pipeline continues to flow, Philips hopes that will change. “The more we do it, the more U.S. producers will get used to the idea (of bringing the talent along with the show),” he says.

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