Mega-musicals on Australian docket

'Saigon' and 'Phantom' have played Oz before, but backers have compelling reasons to restage prod'ns

SYDNEY — The “Wicked” of Oz never materialized, but Down Under audiences craving mega-tuners will get their fix in 2007 with the return of two popular Cameron Mackintosh warhorses, “Miss Saigon” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”

Producer Louise Withers failed to realize her ambition to bring “Wicked” to Australia (“too much at risk”) in 2006, but she’s in overdrive on “Saigon” for 2007 and prepping London hit “Billy Elliot” for 2008, ahead of its Broadway bow.

Both “Saigon” and “Phantom” have played Oz before, but their backers have compelling reasons to restage them now.

Tim McFarlane, topper of the Really Useful Co. in Oz, is partnering with Aussie producer John Frost on “Phantom,” which will haunt Melbourne’s Princess Theater beginning in July before touring to Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland, New Zealand. The production marks RUC’s first Oz venture in five years, though the Australian shingle has been busy producing tours through Asia.

Louise Withers and Associates and Michael Coppel Ventures will launch “Miss Saigon” at Her Majesty’s Theater in March ahead of a national tour.

“It’s 10 or 12 years since the two shows played Australia, depending on which city you’re talking about, and the “Phantom” movie ignited interest all around the world,” McFarlane pointing out that 4 million people saw “Phantom” in Australia.

Withers and McFarlane are banking on the potent combination of repeat customers and a new generation of first-timers to propel the two musicals back onto the hit list.

“Miss Saigon” was seen by 775,000 people at Sydney’s Capitol Theater, where it played for 15 months starting in 1995. But the A$15 million ($11.7 million) production was too massive to travel interstate so it never toured.

“We have a very strong belief the time is ripe to bring back dramatic musicals, something that takes us on an emotional journey,” says Withers, who produced the hugely successful jukebox tuners “Mamma Mia!” and We Will Rock You” in Australia. “All the other musicals of the last few years are of a lighter note.”

“Miss Saigon” will cost A$4 million ($3 million) to produce and while McFarlane is coy about the cost of “Phantom,” he admits it’s higher than $3 million.

Mirroring the approach of Broadway’s “Les Miserables” revival, both productions will limit costs by using existing touring sets. The “Saigon” set has come from the U.K. tour, via Korea, and has been modified from the original set designed for vast stages.

“It makes a tour viable whereas it wasn’t in ’95,” Withers says.