I enjoyed myself at The Boy from Oz last Friday night. I’d have loved to see one of Peter Allen’s big Broadway shows and was curious as to what all the fuss was about The Boy’s great success in New York.
Mind you, the reason for its success seems pretty obvious. Peter Allen’s life is an archetypal Hollywood rags to riches story the young boy from a far flung country with a difficult rural home life and huge musical and performing talent is discovered, marries a superstar singer and performer of the time and after various travails finally cracks the big time in the Big Apple. To this already formulaic melodrama add Allen’s status as a gay icon just a few years after gay liberation had dawned and his ultimate succumbing to AIDS related cancer.
So The Boy’s success is hardly a surprise. My verdict in one sentence? I enjoyed the show a lot, but with the story and songs it had to work with, I was quite surprised indeed a little shocked that it wasn’t a whole lot better.
Hugh Jackman’s Peter Allen was good. Making his entrance reclining on the top of a white grand piano slowly lowered from the roof of the Rod Laver arena singing one of my all time faves “Not the boy next door” Jackman’s singing and showmanship seemed pretty wooden to me. Perhaps he was nervous. But as he relaxed into his routine and the audience warmed up things went along well. Even so, I saw cute, confidence and competence. But though plenty of excellent reviewers rave about Jackman’s performance I saw nothing exceptional by way of that rarer gift, charisma.
Supporting players were all somewhere between good and great. Angela Toohey was good at all she had to be good at (including looking and acting like Liza Minelli). Colleen Hewitt was compelling as Allen’s mum, and young Peter as a kid was a marvel of energy and ability.
Without a programme I was unaware of who played Judy Garland. It looked like Sigrid Thornton whom I’ve never much liked so I prepared to revise my opinion of her. It turned out it was Chrissie Amphlett. She was thoroughly arresting marvellous.
Unfortunately for me, the show spent more of its energies on things I don’t care that much for. And it didn’t really celebrate the things I do except for the songs. All my favourites got good treatment with one exception which I’ve already hinted at (more in a moment). The show even did me the favour of excluding a big hit that I don’t think is much chop “The More I See You”. (Woops a Wikipedia check reveals it was a cover and further sources say it is from the 1945 Betty Grable film Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe).
Now there’s one Peter Allen song that is hard to hear without hearing a ubiquitous ad. Allen played a not inconsiderable part in what John Button once wrote an essay about. He called it “The Ad Man’s Patriotism” a new phenomenon in the late 1970s. Thus at around the time John Williamson was penning another anthem “True Blue” evoking more stolid aspirations Allen deigned to pen his own. Both were snapped up and became iconic commercials.
(To digress slightly I recently listened to a touching interview with John Williamson. The interview helped me listen to some of his songs anew. ‘True Blue’ is a touching song, but it’s hard to decode it when you associate not just the song, but Williamson’s voice with the mountain of advertising he did to feed himself and his family through the 1980s Good on ya Mum.)
Anyway, I think I didn’t much like ‘I still call Australia home’ even before it became an ad. In the show it was the opportunity for a kind of minature Olympic games opening ceremony with the Rod Laver arena full of Australian icons and a white clad children’s choir a l¡ the Qantas ad. Nothing wrong with any of that opening ceremonies and like minded extravaganzas are fun. But it wasn’t a big highlight for me, though it received the only standing ovation of the night.
An unsurprising big highlight was Allen’s songs. For a long time I’ve found there’s something particular about his style. I have this theory that one reason people like Nicole Kidman as an actress (of course lots of people don’t) is because of an awkwardness about her acting that gives it a kind of authenticity. It’s a bit like watching a friend acting you can never fully suspend disbelief. Now of course this can be painfully close to being just plain bad acting in the case of Nicole and songwriting in the case of Peter Allen. And both Allen and Nicole have come up with fair quantities of dreck.
Even so, at its best, the quality I’m talking about adds rather than detracts.
Some of Peter Allen’s best songs are a little awkwardly constructed. The verses rhyme, but often in the middle rather than at the end of lines. This can make the words more beguiling and yet more ordinary like a conversation. All at the same time – quite a trick I think.
Thus often and perhaps the skill should be attributed to his collaborator Carole Bayer Sager his best verses are meditations, strung loosely to a melody which shifts with the conversation. Here’s the opening of his tribute to his ‘discoverer’, who gave him entr©e to New York high society and his one time mother in law Judy Garland. It worked very well in the show.
Quiet please, there’s a lady on stage
She may not be the latest rage
But she’s singing and she means it
And she deserves a little silence
Quiet please, there’s a woman up there
And she’s been honest through her songs
Long before your consciousness was raised
Doesn’t that deserve a little praise
Quite strange conversational words I think, but they work well.
Whether or not it was ‘real life’ in the show Judy Garland offers Allen the clich©d advice to write about himself and what he feels most passionately. Most of Allen’s best songs follow this formula, perhaps all of them if you include the fabulously enjoyable “I go to Rio” as an expression of Allen’s considerable passion and no doubt talent for fun.
Allen’s marvellous ‘Don’t cry out loud’ follows the same conversational style.
Baby cried the day the circus came to town
‘Cause she didn’t want parades just passin’ by her
So she painted on a smile and took up with some clown
While she danced without a net upon the wire
I know a lot about her ’cause, you see
Baby is an awful lot like me
Allen invites us into a tough kind of sympathy with himself, and also into his fantasy the fantasy of mega success.
Don’t cry out loud
Just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings
Fly high and proud
And if you should fall, remember you almost had it all
Well, almost none of those lines represent my values, but there you go. They even look a bit silly when written down, but set to Allen’s music . . . well they make for quite a song. I completely loved it.
My biggest disappointment relates to the shallowness of the storytelling. Allen’s journey must have been a difficult one. And when he made it, there was a special and fatal surprise in store.
As his success grew, Allen came out in his own camp, ambiguous way at a time when it was far from easy it’s still not all that easy and it was impossible a generation before him. (I think he was suggesting his own homosexuality in his public appearances before Elton John came out but I’m not sure of that). I remember watching him in the 1970s or perhaps it was the early 1980s as he teased the media and his audience with double entrendres that turned up in the show. Lines like “I know you’re all wondering ‘is he or isn’t he?’. Well yes I am and I’m proud to be an Australian.”
It’s a very subtle thing, but it’s rare to see a straight person getting a gay person quite right. Jackman doesn’t manage particularly well on this score. (It certainly didn’t help with him encouraging the whistles from the girls and looking into the camera there were large video screens for us all to see him asking us, giggling and winking how he was looking for a James Bond audition).
The show doesn’t turn away from Allen’s sexuality but it is treated as a fairly substantial, but nevertheless neutral fact about him like his taste in clothes for instance. Greg his lover gives him a kiss on the lips in the New York show, but not in Australia. That’s hardly a big deal on it’s own and quite defensible if they don’t want to shove it down our throats (as it were!). But it’s nevertheless a clue that the whole gay thing is not really much more than a detail to the producers.
As a story this is hardly plausible. And listening to his songs it’s even less plausible. One of his most famous songs, Tenterfield Saddler is not a ‘coming out’ song about his sexuality but its subject is the (triumphant and no doubt painful) distance he’s travelled from rural Australia to New York. Beginning on his grandfather George’s porch sewing saddles and travelling through his father’s suicide it ends bemused with Peter Allen’s jet-setting life.
The grandson of George
Has been all around the world
And lives no special place
Changed his last name
And he married a girl
With an interesting face
He’d almost forgotten them both
Because in this life that he leads
There’s nowhere for George and his library
Or the son with his gun to belong
Except in this song
I still call Australia home pays homage to the same tension between ‘home’ and Allen’s jet-setting life. But for me anyway, the real anthem is “Not the boy next door”. In it, in place of sentimentality is camp defiance.
The song was released when I was in my twenties and various friends of mine were wondering about and confronting their sexual identity. I didn’t have much to confront being straight, but though I didn’t have much to worry about, but thinking “there but for the grace of God go I” I came to celebrate the culture of camp, a culture of subversion of so many of life’s pomposities a medium of the powerless – irony and multiple meanings operating on various levels of concealment.
Not the Boy Next Door was an anthem of that sensibility for me. It was Allen saying to all the poofter bashers he’d encountered, perhaps to his abusive father, to just go and get f*cked. He was going to be himself, not the person they’d defined was acceptable. And if they didn’t like it then that was their problem, not his.
Comin’ home used to feel so good
I’m a stranger now in my neighborhood
I’ve seen the world at a faster pace
And I’m comin’ now from a diff’rent place
Though I may look the same way to you
Underneath there is somebody new
I am not the boy next door
I don’t belong like I did before
Nothin’ ever seems like it used to be
You can have your dreams, but you can’t have me
Just to rub it in that living well is the best revenge, Allen goes on.
And those mem’ries will just weigh me down
‘Cause I got no place to keep ’em uptown
I guess that you don’t have to sing the song according to this interpretation, (though I don’t really know of any other interpretation) but it was just another boppy song in the show. Certainly the presentation of the story offered no assistance in setting the song in any kind of dramatic context which might have vivified its performance.
And then the most amazing thing of all.
If you had never heard of Peter Allen and went to see The Boy from Oz you wouldn’t know that Allen had died of AIDS related cancer. Indeed, I don’t think you’d know he was dead! Now, particularly given the dramatic potential of that fact, I think that’s pretty odd. It left me amazed and underwhelmed.
But go see the show if you get the chance. It’s very enjoyable. It’s just a big pity that its not a lot better by which I’m not suggesting it needed to be higher brow. Addressing the kinds of issues I’m raising would have enabled it to rise to a new (and gripping) level of engagement with the audience.
Heaven knows Peter Allen’s courage, tenacity and talent gave it every chance to rise to that level.