It takes a great deal of time and money to develop new musicals, and sometimes a venture between a commercial producer and a funded arts company can bear fruit. Cameron Macintosh famously developed an English language version of Les Misérables in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In Australia, Global Creatures developed Muriel’s Wedding the Musical in association with Sydney Theatre Company, before producing the recent commercial tour.

Tonight, a new Australian musical based on the 1982 film Starstruck will open at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), resulting from a collaborative partnership with commercial producer Garry McQuinn, who heads RGM Productions with Rina Gill.

Starstruck – The Stage Musical. Photographs supplied

The fully-staged production will be performed by graduating musical theatre and acting students, and staged by design and technical students, as part of the NIDA October 2019 Season of Student Productions, co-produced with RGM Productions in association with Palm Beach Pictures.

McQuinn, who produced one of Australia’s most successful homegrown musicals Priscilla Queen of the Desert, studied at NIDA himself and has maintained a relationship with the training organisation. Speaking to Limelight, he says that the idea he put to NIDA of working together on a new Australian musical preceded the suggestion of Starstruck as a new stage show.

“It was an idea to provide a way to develop new Australian musicals that didn’t cost someone half a million dollars,” says McQuinn. “And also there wasn’t the stress and pressure on getting [the show] to performance. In the big musical theatre arena you can spend half a million dollars workshopping a show. If you have two workshops that easily costs half a million dollars. The problem that causes is that no one lightly gives away that half million dollars, so there is a momentum behind it that drives you to production, and I think sometimes we need to step back, stay a bit calmer and make sure the book is right before we go full-on into production.”

“And that’s the idea behind this – just to provide a forum to develop [a show]. It’s like a musical theatre lab in a way, and if the show doesn’t work it’s fine. The kids have had a great experience, we’ve allowed them to work on a new work, they have worked with professionals and it’s been a good experience. If it works, great. And it must be working because NIDA are already asking me what the next one is.”

Starstruck – The Stage Musical is adapted from the semi-autobiographical 1982 film written by Stephen MacLean (The Boy From Oz). Directed by Gillian Armstrong, and produced by David Elfick and Richard Brennan, it told the story of quirky teenager Jackie who lives in a failing pub with her mother and dreams of becoming a rock star, with her cousin Angus as her manager. The film featured a soundtrack of 1980s songs, many from Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Records, including Body and Soul by Tim Finn, the title song by Phil Judd, and The Monkey in Me! by Dennis Nattrass.

For the current production, NIDA has has provided the resources it would usually provide for a graduation show, while McQuinn has paid for the professional expertise – writers Mitchell Butel and Hilary Bell who have written the book, and director Kim Hardwick. The production was designed by graduating design students, Jake Pitcher (sets and props) and Kate Beere (costumes).

“In doing so, I have been supported by the industry really significantly,” says McQuinn. “Stephen Found has been a great supporter [through Foundation Theatres] Sandra Chipchase at Destination NSW – I know she’s leaving – has financially supported it, Origin Theatrical are supporting it by licencing it, and Mushroom Music have given us access to their entire musical catalogue. So there have been some peak industry bodies and the state government, who have supported this as a good idea, just to quietly plug away at developing a new musical and see what we’ve got and then move onto production if we can. And if not, it’s been a noble experiment but nobody has spent half a million dollars, and it doesn’t matter that much [if it doesn’t succeed] because the experience has been worth it.”

As part of the development process, a two-week workshop was held at NIDA last year at which the professional creative team worked with the students. At that point Simon Phillips was directing and Butel was writing the book. Since then, Hardwick has taken over the direction and Bell has joined the team as a writer after Butel was appointed as the new Artistic Director of State Theatre South Australia and had to withdraw from the musical having already made headway on the book. But it has proved “a fortuitous combination”, says McQuinn. “Mitchell has an absolutely gold-plated life-time experience and knowledge about musical theatre, which is wrapped around Hilary’s slight edginess and economy with words, and there has been something alchemical about that combination.”

McQuinn was in Sydney for the first week of rehearsals then spent two weeks in Paris working with Simon Phillips on the new Jean Paul Gaultier show that RGM Productions is currently developing – which he says “is due here in late 2021”. He then returned to Sydney for the technical rehearsals and opening night of Starstruck – The Stage Musical.

Asked how he feels it is going, he says: “To be frank I am happy we are even here. I think given that it’s a youth-oriented musical anyway, that’s good news. I think [watching the show] would be a slightly different experience if you had experienced adult performers in some of the adult roles but it doesn’t matter, these kids are having a really good go at it. But I think what shines through is that there is a good story being well told, which is essentially what we’re all about.”

“I’m not predicting anything here. There will be a period of reflection and discussion once this is done. It kind of depends on what the next phase is. I want to stick with the creative team we’ve got so I’ll sit down with Kim afterwards and say ‘now what do you need if we are going to go into production with this?’ It may be that we choose to go into another workshop if and when we take it forward. I don’t really know yet until I see it.”

Starstruck – The Stage Musical runs at NIDA until November 5