Musical slate way up Down Under

Aussie stages crowded as 24 productions sing

It’s always feast or famine in the musical theater market in Australia, but right now auds are feasting like never before.

Beginning with the December bow of “Billy Elliot the Musical,” producers have lined up a whopping 24 major tuners to open in as many months.

That’s astonishing optimism for a country of only 21 million people, where the recent Sydney run of “The Lion King” lasted just 18 months — paltry by Broadway and West End standards, but considered a massive blockbuster in Oz.

What’s more, “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which looked in advance like a surefire hit, just sputtered to an early close.

While everyone’s aware that the odds are steep and the competition will be sharp, original producers of several of the imported tuners will be partnering with local entities — a significant shift widely interpreted as a vote of confidence in the market.

And London entertainment ad-marketing vet Adam Kenwright speaks for many when he says this is “an extraordinary boom time” for Aussie legit.

Kenwright, who is making a splashy entrance into the local biz with the launch of his new company, says Oz is a key territory in more ways than one. Beyond its domestic market, the country is ideally placed to push work into further territories through Southeast Asia, the Pacific Rim, Japan and beyond.

Those territories have shown a recent fascination with Broadway- and West End-style tuners, which could help further the legit upswing Down Under.

“It’s the busiest I can remember with so many very good quality productions,” says Tim McFarlane, topper of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and a producer of the blockbuster “Phantom of the Opera” Australian tour and Disney’s newly announced “High School Musical on Stage!”

Following “Billy Elliot” — which opened in Sydney in December to strong reviews and sell-out business — London’s Ambassador Theater Group (ATG) followed up with two more shows on the boards: Michael Grandage’s “Guys and Dolls” and “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Broadway behemoth “Wicked” arrives in July, “Jersey Boys” is slated for early 2009, and “West Side Story” appears in August 2009, with the Cameron Mackintosh/Disney “Mary Poppins” hot on its heels.

ATG co-topper Howard Panter says so long as the Oz theater biz keeps the supply line open, there is no reason for erratic shifts in the number of shows on offer.

“In the U.K., we have only one city of more than 4 million and that’s London,” offers Panter. “You’ve got two cities, Melbourne and Sydney.”

Plus, there’s Australia’s proximity to Asia. The Oz production of “Mamma Mia!” also played New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore, making a total 4-year run.

The Australian office of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company was fully occupied touring productions through Asia for five years before re-entering the Oz market mid-2007 with “Phantom.”

Mackintosh, meanwhile, is slightly more circumspect. He ran a producing office in Australia for 15 years from the mid-’80s beginning with “Cats,” the first of four massively successful tuners. He shut down the operation in 2000.

“Theater has taken a bit of a dip out there,” says Mackintosh from London. “The costs of putting the shows on were rising, but audiences had stabilized or shrunk. Even ‘Mamma Mia!’ only managed 10 months in Sydney.”

Compare the 2½ year combined total for “The Lion King” in Sydney and Melbourne with the Disney show’s London incarnation, which is still looking robust after 8 ½ years. London’s considerably higher tourist traffic clearly is a key factor.

Mackintosh is confident about “Mary Poppins,” not least because he believes there’s a “coming-home” sense to the project. The property might feel British, but its original author, P.L. Travers, was Australian.

“It’s one of their best-known popular classics,” he points out. “That’s going to be a significant card in the potential audience embrace of the show.”

Alongside everyone in the industry, Mackintosh is keenly aware that there isn’t room for every show to succeed. Not only is there intense competition for theaters — especially in smaller state capitals like Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, which each currently boast only one major musical venue. But in Sydney and Melbourne, the competition is for audiences.

The first high-profile casualty is “Spamalot,” which just closed a five-month Melbourne run in deficit on April 5 despite strong reviews. Legit grosses are not routinely disclosed in Oz, but, according to local producer Michael Coppel, the Python tuner cost A$8 million ($7.3 million) but only pulled 70%-75% houses. Its producers are keen to remount “Spamalot” for a penciled Sydney season and national tour, but the likelihood of this happening now appears slim.

Pundits said locally birthed hit “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical,” which in Melbourne outperformed its Sydney premiere season, hurt “Spamalot.” “Priscilla” will close April 27, with combined box office for the two cities expected to be $69 million.

Additional proof of the market’s buoyancy comes in the shape of a new player in the territory. London entertainment advertising and marketing agency AKA (Adam Kenwright Associates) is opening a Sydney office at a cost in excess of $1.8 million.

“We’re going to be the first entertainment-focused, full-service advertising and marketing agency in Australia,” announces Kenwright. “It’s a mirror image of our U.K. operation.”

AKA Australia will use traditional print and digital platforms to create everything from graphic design to ticketing via TV advertising, viral and Internet marketing, buying and planning media advertising. The novelty will be that unlike other Australian firms, all this will be created inhouse.

“It’s proactive and sales-focused,” says Kenwright. “There is no agency with our experience that will offer that complete package.”

Aside from its location as an entryway to Asian legit venues, Oz is an important market for big-scale tuners.

“It has both the creative teams and the technical facilities,” says Kenwright.

He cites not only “Priscilla,” but also “Walking With Dinosaurs,” the hit touring entertainment built from the BBC TV series that fuses theatrical techniques with live arena-scale spectacle.

AKA Australia will be headed up by Australian-born Kendra Reid, who has worked in the U.K. for a decade, the last seven years of which as director of press and marketing for Cameron Mackintosh.

Mackintosh himself believes that although the producing market may be potentially flooded with competition, the success of AKA will rest on its ability to build a diverse cross-section of clients. “The balance of companies large and small will be the determining factor,” he predicts.

Mackintosh adds that times have changed since the 1980s boom, when he spent $14.6 million producing “Miss Saigon” in Australia. “You couldn’t think of spending that now,” he says. “The potential run for a show simply isn’t what it once was. You have to balance costs accordingly with smaller projected audience figures.”

Kenwright, however, remains gung-ho. Arguing that the challenges in Australia are the same as anywhere else, he outlines his ethos about turning the theatrical experience into an event.

“Audiences have high expectations, but ticket prices are rising faster than inflation,” he explains. “We have to become more adept, imaginative and innovative in the ways we sell because of increased competition from the multimedia world. But audience numbers are rising, and live theater is more exciting and fashionable than it ever has been.”

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