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Making the Next Great Australian Musical

The race to make the next great Australian musical has ramped up in recent years. But have we actually found it yet? The answer may not be so simple.

There are many arguments and discussions in the Musical Theatre world: Sondheim or Lloyd Webber? Hamilton or Burr? Defying Gravity or Seasons of Love? But of late, one in my mind stands out as a fiercely heated debate. Are we currently seeing the race for the next great Australian musical? The question I pose is, have we already found it?

But wait, I hear you asking, haven’t we already seen new record-smashing works from Australians, such as the Tony Award Winning Best Musical Moulin Rouge? Or what about Tim Minchin’s currently running musical Groundhog Day in Melbourne? Both of which are very valid questions. But it stands to reason that neither - whilst both deservedly applauded in their own right-  are the next great “Australian Musical”, despite the influence of their Australian creatives.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that we always knew that a post-COVID world would lead to a renaissance of creativity. Within the Australian theatre world, that explosion of creativity has come in the form of new, original work, both musical, theatrical and operatic alike. 

So what factors make the next great Australian musical? For me, the checkboxes are thus:

  1. Must be written and created by Australian creatives

  2. Must be experimented with, and staged in Australian theatres

  3. Must feature Australian artists, designers and creative teams

  4. Must first be seen by Australian audiences

Natalie Abbott & Stefanie Jones in Zombie! The Musical. The cast of 'Zombie! The Musical'. Image by John McRae
Natalie Abbott & Stefanie Jones in Zombie! The Musical. The cast of 'Zombie! The Musical'. Image by John McRae

New Australian Musicals

The resume is very simple, straightforward and already underway within Australian theatres. Well-solidified in the Australian theatre canon, and about to make its West End debut, Yve Blake’s Fangirls stands out amongst the creative fold. Having just been announced as a text on the NSW High School Drama Curriculum, Fangirls is making waves on home soil as well as internationally, and is considered one of the industry's heavy hitters and is about to make waves internationally with it being held up amongst other examples as an Australian Musical that could stand amongst other heavy hitters in the musical theatre industry. 

In 2024 alone we have already bore witness to two musicals that have made waves throughout the Australian theatre world. Audiences have just seen the curtain call for Laura Murphy’s Zombies! The Musical, which premiered as part of the Hayes Theatre 2024 season and played to sold-out audiences. 

Murphy herself is not new to being crowned a Queen of new musicals here in the land down under. In the last few years, she has gifted us with a score of the Gough Whitlam tale in The Dismissal, as well as her own original Shakespearean pop musical for Bell Shakespeare, The Lovers. With three smash-hit works under belt, it's no wonder that some are comparing her to the Lin Manuel Miranda of the Australian musical theatre world

Elsewhere in 2024, Kate Miller-Heidke and Kier Nuttall's Bananaland featuring Max McKenna premiered to rave reviews in Queensland and Sydney. This comes off the back of their hugely successful musical version of the classic Australian film Muriel’s Wedding which had “the biggest heart in the world”. Starring in this were Natalie Abbott and Stefanie Jones who most recently played leads in Zombie! The Musical. Abbott also starred in the original musical The Deb for the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), with the film version being picked up and led by Australia’s own Rebel Wilson.

In 2023 we saw the likes of Vidya Makan's staged development production of The Lucky Country at Hayes Theatre. Focusing on diverse voices representing this great country we call home, it “successfully illuminates the complexities of Australian society while giving a voice and a stage to those voices that shape the fabric of Australia”. Speaking of Makan, she also appeared in Bloom, a new musical with book and lyrics by Tom Gleisner and Katie Weston at Melbourne Theatre Company. Sticking with Hayes Theatre, we were also gifted with an original musical adaptation of the classic Metropolis by the Little Eggs Collective, again opening to rave reviews on its audacious undertaking with original score and orchestrations led by Zara Stanton.

The cast of The Lucky Country by Vidya Makan
The cast of The Lucky Country by Vidya Makan. Image by Phil Erbacher

Check the Facts

So, let’s take stock and check the facts so far. What do a majority of these works have in common? They are led by, written by, guided by and orchestrated by female artists. It’s not a far stretch to say that women in theatre are leading the game when it comes to creating, developing and presenting new, original works that receive accolades by both critics and audiences alike. 

With works being so long overshadowed by men in the same field, it’s about time that a female creative’s name stands alongside them. As it stands, the most well-known in the larger contemporary theatre world would arguably be Sara Bareilles, who gave us Waitress, which some say would have won the Tony for Best Musical, had it not been in the same year as a little production called Hamilton

Where does this lead us then when it comes to the funding of the arts? Most of the musicals listed so far have been one and done, come and gone, a tiny blip on the larger theatrical radar before another revival musical moves in to smother it. With most companies only being able to afford a short season, there are no further options for life beyond these new pieces of work. Not unless the creatives can conjure a significant amount of money to undertake a studio recording of the original cast. Then the works can live on, recorded and filmed for others to hear and appreciate, creating a thirst and following for the show to be consumed by new audiences.

But as we in the theatre world know all too well by now, the government’s belief and trust in the theatre industry withers in comparison to other entertainment fields. What creatives are left with is the option to go international, finding new markets with deeper pockets, funded by governments with more trust in the arts. Hence, where Fangirls is about to - and I would put money on this - succeed on London’s West End.

The 2022 Cast of 'Fangirls' at Sydney Opera House
The 2022 Cast of 'Fangirls' at Sydney Opera House. Image by Dayna Ransley.

Where to fro.m here?

The question I posed at the beginning seemed open, yet simple. Have we already found the next great Australian musical? I would boldly answer that with a firm YES - but have we as a collective been given the opportunity to actually acknowledge it?

In Melbourne, workshop showcases like Home Grown Australia have allowed creators to showcase their works in progress. From Yve Blake recently showcasing a new musical number from Fangirls on Gadigal land, through to audiences in Naarm hearing a snippet from the development of Paper Stars (a musical retelling of P.L Travers’ journey to writing Mary Poppins). It's opportunities like this that help to drive audience’s hunger and anticipation for new works. 

From Fangirls to The Lucky Country, The Deb to Zombies! there are an abundance of choices laid out in front of us on what will stand the test of time, both nationally and beyond in the theatrical canon. The issue Aussie theatre creators face now is how do we plant ourselves on the international stage?

The answer relies on audience involvement and interaction with these new works, which, if the past ten years have proved anything, is that there is definitely an audience out there for it. Further to this, comes the continued nurturing of new work, with the likes of Belvoir St and Hayes Theatre Co leading the way on this front in NSW, and Theatreworks and Melbourne Theatre Company following suit in Naarm, Melbourne. But mostly, it comes down to the almighty dollar. 

Consider this, all of the musicals listed in this article have exploded into the hearts and minds of audiences - some thanks to government grants, many due to the producers and creatives who fund them and the theatres who take a chance on them. But what if the same care was given as that of those on West End and Broadway? Simply imagine the possibilities. 


See the full 2024 Season of Hayes Theatre Company and book tickets here.

Book tickets to Fangirls on the West End here.

Read more about Home Grown Australia here.

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