Live theatres are closed for now, so artists are developing their technology skills and coming up with some lively digital events to give musical theatre performers, musicians and other entertainers the chance to flex their creative muscles, earn some money and delight audiences. This week Jo Litson raises a hat to a live digital variety show and two live streamed concerts, all of which are paying the participating performers through donations or ticket sales.

Art Centre Melbourne's Big Night In
John Foreman. Photograph courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne

Last week John Foreman and his Aussie Pops Orchestra launched a new digital live variety show with Arts Centre Melbourne – and a hugely enjoyable night of feel-good entertainment it was too.

Arts Centre Melbourne’s Big Night In will stream each Wednesday at 7pm AEST on the ACM website, and is free to view. It will then be available on demand. Each episode will see Foreman – a popular musical director, pianist and composer – chat with different stars of the entertainment industry from their homes, and perform some piano and vocal numbers with them.

The first episode featured Casey Donovan, John Piterman – who called in from London where he has been starring in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera – and Vika and Linda Bull. Foreman proved a warm, engaging host and the performances had a lovely energy, with Donovan sending tingles down the spine with a gorgeous performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow with the Aussie Pops Orchestra.

There were also some very funny comedy sketches by Jonathan Biggins in Paul Keating mode, and Trevor Ashley channelling Liza Minnelli, both of whom will be regular guests. It was a good mix of entertainment. The use of technology was niftily done and it all came together in a fun show that left you smiling.

This week’s guests will be Marina Prior, Rob Mills and Meghan Picerno, a coloratura soprano, who was playing Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway when COVID-19 struck. Guests for next week will be announced soon.

The idea for Big Night In began after Arts Centre Melbourne staff saw a YouTube video of What a Wonderful World that Foreman and his Aussie Pops Orchestra performed in isolation with artists including Rhonda Burchmore, Casey Donovan, Bert and Patti Newton, and Courtney Act.

They loved the video, had a chat with Foreman, and together decided that a digital variety show could be just what we need right now.

“I think there is a real appetite for old-fashioned television at the moment, in the same way that we are seeking out comfort food. Normally in times of crisis, the arts do really well. People flock to the theatre, to the ballet, to the orchestra to remind ourselves of what it is to be human, to cheer ourselves up, and to connect with other people,” says Foreman.

“So, for many people there is this triple whammy of disease, isolation and the inability to connect with other people in the same room in an artistic way, so I think that’s why these sorts of outlets are so important for people. Nothing replaces the experience of being in the room with people making music but until it’s safe to do so, I think this is the next best option.”

While audiences can view Big Night In for free, the performers are being paid thanks to the support of patrons including Linda Herd, Jeanne Pratt, Andrew Myer, ACM CEO Claire Spencer and her husband Andrew Spencer.

Foreman says he was happy with the first episode. “Like everyone, we are sort of making it up as we go along, but we’ve had some fantastic reactions.”

Naturally he can’t wait until theatres finally reopen: “Let’s hope that Big Night In turns into a Big Night Out.”

MEMO Music Hall: Here’s to the Ladies
Rhonda Burchmore. Photograph supplied

MEMO Music Hall in St Kilda, Melbourne, may not be well-known, but it is coming to the fore as the perfect space to live stream concerts during the COVID-19 crisis given its elegant art deco décor, its spaciousness, and its professional camera and sound equipment, courtesy of a partnership with Renegade Films, who make RocKwiz.

On Mother’s Day, MEMO will live stream a concert called Here’s to the Ladies featuring Rhonda Burchmore, Alinta Chidzey, Lucy Durack, Amanda Harrison and Queenie van de Zandt. The five leading ladies will perform songs from shows they have starred in – including Funny Girl, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Boy From Oz, and Wicked – as well as other numbers specially chosen for Mother’s Day.

Here’s to the Ladies was conceived by Tyran Parke who directs the event, with Stephen Gray as Musical Director.

MEMO Music Hall opened as a dance hall in 1924 and has been through many incarnations over the years including a cinema, a recording studio and a film studio. Given its size (750 metres square), musicians are able to perform on the grand art deco proscenium arch stage, meeting current Government indoor workplace social distancing guides.

Parke had been talking for a while with producer Simon Myers, who runs the venue, about doing an immersive theatre show there. Then when the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of theatres, Myers began streaming concerts by the likes of Kate Ceberano and The Black Sorrows. Myers asked Parke if he had any ideas for a musical theatre concert, and Here’s to the Ladies was born.

Parke has planned an intimate, stylish concert. The stage will be specially lit, the ladies will be accompanied on piano, and filmed on five cameras.

“It is strange singing in an empty venue but I thought if we have all those amazing women supporting each other, and getting up and doing their numbers and being the audience for each other, the natural warmth that they have will be really lovely and something to share,” says Parke.

Here’s to the Ladies is the first in a series of musical theatre live stream concerts that Parke will direct for MEMO. “We are looking at celebrations of composers, but we have also applied for rights to do some small concert versions of musicals.”

Tickets cost $15. Says Parke: “It’s a chance for the performers to earn a little bit of money and exercise their creative muscles.”

Here’s to the Ladies live streams on Sunday May 10 at 7.30pm AEST. Tickets are available from the MEMO Music Hall website

Lights Up on the Arts [Home Delivery]
The line-up for Lights Up on the Arts [Home Delivery]

Joshua Robson was performing in Shrek the Musical when the rest of the tour was cancelled because of COVID-19 restrictions. He also had to cancel the musical Bonnie & Clyde, which he was scheduled to produce at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co in September.

“It was a big blow,” he admits. “It’s been tough when you have a whole year planned out, and you know exactly what you’ve got coming up, and how you are going to be using your money,” says Robson, who is getting married in October.

He is currently working as a labourer. At the same time his production company Joshua Robson Productions is co-producing a concert with James Cutler called Lights Up on the Arts [Home Delivery], which will be live streamed on May 11.

The concert will feature a line-up of musical theatre performers including Ryan Gonzalez, Georgina Hopson, Loren Hunter, Lucy Maunder, Todd McKenney, Ben Mingay and Chloe Zuel among many others, all performing from their homes. Cutler will host the event.

The concert will feature the music of Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell, The Prince of Egypt, Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife), who has given them permission to access his extensive repertoire without paying royalties. His only stipulation was that they use no more than three songs from each show.

“We had a chat to him about The Prince of Egypt [which opened in the West End in February but had to close because of the coronavirus pandemic] because obviously he has just written that and we wanted to promote that, and he said you can use all of my songs if you like,” says Robson.

“That to us meant less cost, so more reward for our performers as we are having a GoFundMe link throughout the night and every donation that goes into that night will be split evenly among everyone involved.”

“It is our hope that the optimistic and uplifting nature of Stephen Schwartz’ music, together with our program, will remind Australia and beyond that the arts matter, that we are a source of joy in the world, and, failing all else, the arts will sustain our world through even the toughest of situations. We think that’s worth celebrating!”

Robson says that it is up to the performers whether they choose to dress up or keeps thing casual. “We want it to be raw and relaxed. If the artists want to dress to the nines and have their tux on or their ballgown on, we were ‘like go for it’. You are in your own home, that’s part of the fun. If someone is in their ballgown in their kitchen that is an honest representation of where we are at the moment. But if you want to be in your pajamas in your bedroom, do that too. We want to represent what artists are doing.”

Robson says he is keen to do what he can “to help keep our industry afloat. If the concert goes well maybe we will put on another one. We’ll see.”

Lights Up on the Arts [Home Deliver] will live stream on May 11 at 7pm AEST on Facebook