Aussies get major musicals, short runs

Prodcuers meet economy with lower prices

TeAustralia’s musical theater producers have reined in expectations and expenses as tough economic conditions descend on Oz, but consumers continue to be spoiled for choice.

The surfeit of productions playing and poised to open, mostly in the biggest cities of Melbourne and Sydney, is a legacy of the recent era of plenty.

“Jersey Boys” and “Avenue Q” are about to join at least four major musicals in full flight.

Yet the legit biz is opting for shorter runs in light of lowered expectations, given the downturn in the global economy.

John Frost’s production of “Chicago” is playing limited seasons in the country’s top markets, in contrast to “The Phantom of the Opera” revival tour Frost co-produced with the Really Useful Co.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner, with star baritone Anthony Warlow, opened in Melbourne in July 2007 to blockbuster auds and maintained high numbers through its six-month run. It played across Oz and New Zealand, and closed in Perth in March.

But although its box office was strong in places like Brisbane and Sydney, “Phantom” never hit the blockbuster Melbourne numbers in those markets, indicating a contraction in the market.

“Guys and Dolls” similarly opened strongly in Melbourne in 2008 but transferred to Sydney in March for a limited 12-week season. Four weeks later, prime tickets were being discounted 25%.

Tickets to “Buddy” in Sydney were being sold at a 50% discount midway through the three-month season, which began in January.

But insiders are sighing with relief that this downturn is gentler — but longer — compared with the crash in 2002, when “Man of La Mancha,” “Footloose” and “The Witches of Eastwick” shuttered amid mountainous debts.

“Monty Python’s Spamalot” closed prematurely in Melbourne in mid-2008. In that same year, Christmastime offering “High School Musical” hardly got off the ground in Sydney; at about the same time, a return Sydney season of “Priscilla” fell short. The ill-fated Kookaburra  company had a slew of failed productions before drawing the curtains on itself, though more a result of poor management than the economic climate.

Last July, “Wicked” opened big in Melbourne, but anecdotal reports indicate that the cavernous 2,200-seat Regent Theater (most Oz venues log in at around this size) is now half empty more than half the time.

As the much-loved show rolls toward its one-year anniversary, a Sydney transfer has not been confirmed.

As seasons are being kept tight and costs are being minimized, producers are readjusting their profit expectations and audiences are winning with discounted ducats. They are responding accordingly, making ticket purchases at the last minute, mimicking their movie-ticket-buying behavior. Frost says marketing plans for his five shows (he has a share of “Priscilla” in London’s West End and “Exit the King” on Broadway) are under continual review as a result of the current late-ticket-buying market.

At the right ticket price, some live entertainment productions are burning up admissions. Producer Kevin Whyte says April’s monthlong Melbourne Comedy Festival had “a blockbuster year.”

Whyte’s new musical comedy “Shane Warne the Musical,” based on the life of the flamboyant cricketer, opened in Melbourne in late 2008 before a less-than-stellar run in cricket-mad Perth.

“If there was going to be a recession impact (on ticket sales), it was going to be in Perth,” Whyte says of the west-coast city that is coming down off a huge mining boom.

“Shane Warne the Musical” opens May 15 in Sydney, where Whyte says sales are tracking well ahead of Melbourne’s launch.

The Sydney Opera House pushed ahead with a seven-show stand of “Jerry Springer the Opera” despite failing to secure interstate producing partners.

To make the numbers work, the show’s creatives went with full costumes but minimal sets. At the Sydney Theater Company, subscriptions are stable for Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s debut season, which launched amid the financial meltdown and is creatively more adventurous than Robyn Nevin’s final season last year.

General manager Rob Brookman says STC booked 1,000 fewer subscribers than its target but 1,000 more than its historical low in 2008.

He’s confident audiences will stabilize but identifies dwindling vital private sponsorship and philanthropy as his company’s key concern into 2010.