Dusty: death of oz musical theatre?


Tamsin Carroll belts one out in Dusty: The Musical

Troy Dodds at AussieTheatre.com has an engaging rant about the “jukebox musical” genre, of which Dusty: The Musical (recently doco’d to death on ABC TV) is the most recent Australian example:

Australia has been dealt some incredibly bad musicals over the last five years – musicals that are “passable” when it comes to viewing, but certainly don’t provide the magic of a Broadway show, or the even the excitement that Australian theatre provided in the pre-jukebox era. The jukebox musical has always existed – but the last five years has seen an explosion of them and it’s about time we ended this awful era that is in no way engaging a new generation. Going to the theatre now doesn’t provide the magic that once was experienced when the lights went down, the orchestra started playing and the curtain went up. …

Mamma Mia, Leader of the Pack, Saturday Night Fever, Oh! What A Night, Dirty Dancing, We Will Rock You and now Dusty – musicals that have arrived with plenty of fanfare in recent years and shows that, in some cases, have found tremendous success. But they are all ‘take it or leave it’ kind of shows – no truly original storylines, no brilliant scores to remember.

Mamma Mia is perhaps the most original jukebox musical ever and that’s why it has been such a success. But thanks to it, and the rest of the jukebox shows, has the facet of a wonderful score just crawled away and died?

Dusty was always going to be a jukebox musical but I held a lot of hope for it. After all, it had been workshopped for years, the Melbourne reviews weren’t too bad and the ABC documentary suggested we had a cast and crew that wanted to make this show something special. In fact, in the recent episode of the Dusty TV documentary series, Tamsin Carroll suggested the show needed to go very deep and explore the life of Dusty Springfield. The show ended up doing the exact opposite. It was a disappointment. It relied on the brilliant music of a pop icon to get it over the line. And don’t forget, they were working with music they already knew the public loved.

People walked out of Dusty saying “How good is Tamsin Carroll”, “How good was the music” and “Great costumes!”. But how many people said “What a brilliant show”?

Assorted rehearsal shots from Jen’s Beauty and the Beast production (in costume but  without sets)

These shows mostly have very thin plots, little more than pretexts to string together the songs, creating something that is really just a thinly disguised popstar “tribute” show rather than a genuine theatrical experience.   The producers rely on the instant recognisability and established mainstream popular appeal of the songs (at least with the suburban bogan babyboomer  audience to which they typically pitch)  to reduce the financial risk of staging a hugely expensive musical.  

Money spent on a decent script with coherent plot, motivation and character development is money wasted.   The audience is there for a “greatest hits” nostalgia night, not a theatrical experience.

The same is true of the Disney musical genre (Lion King 1, 2 and 3, Beauty and the Beast etc).   I’ve just experienced the latter at very close quarters for the last 10 weeks, and lived to tell the tale.   Unsurprisingly I suppose, they’re cartoon musicals with all that implies.   The characters are cardboard cutouts, the plot is episodic and lacking in sustained dramatic tension (it’s just an excuse for cartoonish hijinks, just as the “jukebox” musical is  merely a pretext for trotting out some dead or faded pop diva’s greatest hits), and the characters usually lack any  plausible human motivation for their actions.   Why does the Road Runner run?   Why does the fox keep trying to kill him by ingeniously inept means?   Why does Yosemite Sam want to kill Bugs Bunny?

In cartoon musicals, the surefire money-making recipe is slightly different from the jukebox sub-genre.   Cartoon characters, music and antics that the under-12s know and love from the movie version, with just enough semi-adult humorous asides to keep parents from getting terminally bored when they take the little tackers along to see it.

In Beauty and the Beast, Jen was forced to write in extra characters and substantial slices of additional  dialogue to make the show even vaguely coherent and plausible.    A lack of plot, character or motivation  probably doesn’t matter if you’re staging  a cartoon musical  on Broadway and have a budget of millions for spectacular special effects, but in  a high school musical you don’t have that luxury.   The lack of characterisation, motivation or plot development is nakedly exposed to audience view.   Luckily, Jen’s radical surgery on Beauty and the Beast was successful, and  the end product  was enormously enjoyable.   But that was because it  morphed into  Jen McCulloch’s Beauty and the Beast (with substantial writing help from some of her students) rather than  Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.   The latter would have been almost unwatchable  in anything remotely close to its original form.

The sad thing is that it appears Australian theatrical investors are increasingly unwilling to pour their money into anything other than these jukebox and cartoon musicals, because they’re seen as offering a higher probability of making a profit.   I suppose you can’t blame them for that.   But if the ageing bogan mums and dads audience want a Dusty Springfield or Abba tribute show, why don’t they piss off down to the local RSL  club and watch one, and leave the professional theatre for genuine  musical theatre  productions; you know, ones that actually have a plot and characters and everything?

Admittedly, Chicago got a local professional re-run recently, and there are a couple of other examples.   But they’re few and far between.     There are plenty of slightly older and much better musicals around that would  well and truly bear a professional revival: Cabaret, Les Mis, any number of Sondheim musicals.    And I never thought I’d say this, but even some of the Rice-Webber extravaganzas would be a big step up from the cartoon and jukebox musicals.   Moreover, there are good newer works  which have succeeded overseas  but will probably never make it to an Australian production, as Dodds argues:

So, what producer out there is willing to take the risk? Who is willing to bring a musical like Wicked or Avenue Q to Australia? Who is willing to look at the brilliant writers we have in this country and start workshopping a new mainstream Aussie musical?

Or are we just going to keep kidding ourselves by suggesting jukebox musicals have “something special” and “different”.

Australian theatre is heading very close to being an absolute disgrace.


About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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17 years ago

What about the ‘The Producers’? I saw the Australian version and it was one of the funniest 3 hours I’ve ever witnessed. And I, for a rule, don’t like musicals.

17 years ago

Careful mate, there’s something of the “luvvie” about this post … :)

david tiley
17 years ago

Hi Dan – good to see you out and about too..

I wonder what would happen if other companies took up the Darwin version? Besides giving the Disney IP monsters a conniption fit..

Writing for kids and or non-professionals has always been an important strand in mainstream music. Yes? Brecht. Carl Orff.

Be fabulous to have the money to commission a show in that broad tradition.

Love the snaps, btw. Triumph of the Dag as Wonderful.

The other tradition in this area is panto. You could build on that in very interesting ways.