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Australian theater on the rise

Box office numbers confirm thunder Down Under

SYDNEY — Aussie producers and promoters have been boasting boffo biz the last few years — but with no one publicly reporting figures, who knew if those boasts had any cred?

But figures released by industry org Live Performance Australia have confirmed the upward trend; in 2006, gross live performance box office surged a hefty 38.8%, and in 2007 it climbed by a further 6.1%.

By the end of last year, gross sales reached A$1.2 billion ($773 million) in 10 categories of live performance, from contempo music and dance, to tuners and tyke shows.

Ticket sales reached 20.9 million — that’s one for every Australian.

“There’s just been a massive increase in contemporary music and musical theater,” LPA exec Suzanne Daley Carr says.

In 2006, stadium tours by Robbie Williams and U2, plus an arena tour by Kylie Minogue, were successes, as was a tour of “The Boy From Oz” with Hugh Jackman. Political satire “Keating!” was another unexpected hit show that began as fringe theater and went on to tour Oz for two years.

“There was also growth in ballet and dance in ’07, with ‘Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake’ and the Paris Opera Ballet,” Daley Carr says.

The economy and Aussie dollar were flying high, making it cheaper for music promoters especially, to import acts eager to tour as a boost to flagging record sales.

That was then.

Since September, promoters have been hit by the double whammy of the plummeting Australian dollar (down 30%) and the sudden contraction of the Oz economy, which is still some way from recession but beginning to feel the impact of the global slowdown.

Expensive tours by Billy Joel and Kanye West haven’t sold out, and Madonna canceled her Oz leg before it was announced.

“The problem at the moment is that promoters went crazy when the dollar was high, and now they’re gonna go bust,” says Ken West, promoter of a sold-out Neil Young tour. “When it’s boom time like it has been, promoters just throw things up and they’ve been working, but now it’s shifting.”

Musical theater producers are upbeat despite signs the biz is softening, with Melbourne seasons either pending or under way for “Jersey Boys,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Wicked.” In Sydney, there’s “Chicago,” “Guys and Dolls,” “High School Musical” and a return season of London-bound homegrown tuner “Priscilla Queen of the Desert — The Musical.”

“We expect ’08 to be similar to ’07, but we know the Australian industry exists downstream of Broadway and the West End, where there’s been a significant downturn in investment,” Daley Carr observes. “That will impact our product in the next 12 to 18 months.”

But the LPA exec believes the economic downturn presents opportunities for the industry. “As people cut overseas travel, they’ll stay home and possibly see shows, so we remain optimistic.”

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