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Back in black in Oz

Sydney, Melbourne groups see B.O. upswing

SYDNEY — Australia’s legit biz is rallying after a six-month slump that affected subscription companies and the commercial producers.

The top two subscription houses, Sydney Theater Co. and Melbourne Theater Co., are reporting record box office, while commercial producers are prepping for the upcoming season after a hiatus.

In July, STC’s “Proof,” starring Jacqueline McKenzie, set an all-time record for its venue, the Drama Theater at Sydney’s Opera House. Season sold 30,000 tix for A$1.35 million ($896,000) gross, surpassing the hit season of David Williamson’s “Soulmates” last year.

Concurrently, David Hare’s “The Breath of Life,” starring company topper Robyn Nevin and Noni Hazlehurst, played to 20,000 ($564,000 B.O.), the second-highest selling season at the STC’s Wharf Theater.

STC’s Wharf Revue also is powering along, having tripled in popularity since its launch four years ago.

STC general manager Rob Brookman says, “We’re probably seeing one of those upturns you see after a slump, and there’s no escaping there was a significant dip during the war in March and April.”

Sales fell 50%, likely compounded by the fact both STC shows at the time dealt with war — George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” and Alan Seymour’s “The One Day of the Year.”

But Brookman says the company experienced a similar dip after the Bali bombing in October 2002 and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Melbourne Theater Co. G.M. Ann Tonks says the war had zero impact on B.O. in Melbourne. The MTC and Melbourne Comedy Festival powered right through.

“I suspect Sydney is more impacted by the war and threat of terrorism,” Tonks says.

During that period, Hannie Rayson’s “Inheritance” registered the best B.O. for a new Aussie play at MTC in nine years — $930,000 B.O. and 27,000 tickets sold.

“We had a play that was ‘bomb-proof,’ ” Tonks says.

Celebrating its 50th anni this year, the MTC is forecasting its best B.O. since 1990 — “when we presented 20 plays; this year we have 12,” says a spokesman.

Subscriber tix are up 9% from 2002, which was up 32% from the previous year, which in turn was up 19% from the year before.

But the subscription companies are flourishing in a market where there’s little competition.

After a glut of big tuners and tours in 2002, Australia’s commercial producers went into “development mode.” The exceptions have been Barry Humphries’ (aka Dame Edna) hit national tour of “Back to My Roots,” “Birthrights,” “Mamma Mia!” (approaching its 12th month in Sydney) and a tour of Pete Postlethwaite’s “Scaramouche Jones.” In Melbourne, theater owner Jason Mariner turned impresario by staging “Noises Off” at his Comedy Theater.

Andrew Kay, co-topper at Intl. Concert Attractions, says, “We had a shocking time in April/May, too.

“A lot of people suffered during that period, but a lot of people are fighting back. The major commercial producers are drawing breath in preparation for a full-on onslaught over the next six months.”

Among the shows coming up: Queen tuner “We Will Rock You” launches in August in Melbourne, while in Sydney “The Blue Room” starts in August and “The Lion King” launches in September.