The struggle to establish the Australian musical as a viable, successful artform has sometimes been seen as akin to the search for the Holy Grail. But as Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston show in their rigorously researched book, The Australian Musical: From the Beginning, numerous talented enthusiasts have thrown blood, sweat and tears into writing and staging hundreds of Australian musicals over the course of the last 100 years. While umpteen shows have come and gone with barely a trace, others have enjoyed considerable success.

It’s a colourful history with more disappointments than triumphs, but the success of early musicals such as Collits’ Inn in 1932, followed by The Highwayman in 1950, The Sentimental Bloke in 1961, and more recent productions including Keating!, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Boy From Oz, The Sapphires, Bran Nue Dae, and Muriel’s Wedding shows that Australians do love a good Australian musical, and that the genre is finally finding its feet.

As Johnston writes in the book: “The story of the Australian men and women who wrote musicals throughout the twentieth century and created an explosion of musical theatre creativity in the twenty-first century is an emotional roller-coaster ride, oscillating between tales full of high hopes, perseverance, disappointment and even suicide, and those of glorious achievements, fortune and fame, and the fulfilment of dreams. After more than 100 years of success and failure, it is time for that story to be told.” And tell it they do.

Writing The Australian Musical was a labour of love for Pinne and Johnston, who spent eight years working on the book. They have produced a comprehensive tome that traces the development of the genre from small amateur productions in the early days to the international hits of the 1990s, culminating with the critically acclaimed Muriel’s Wedding featuring a fabulous score by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall.

Muriel's Wedding the Musical, Sydney Theatre CompanyThe Cast of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical. Photos © Lisa Tomasetti

The book is divided into two sections. Part I contains a scholarly history that traces the history of the Australian musical chronologically from Federation to 2019, with plenty of anecdotes, surprises and little known facts along the way. It is richly illustrated with photographs and graphic design. Part II provides an A to Z list of Australian musicals with information about the producers, creative teams, cast, production premiere, synopsis and critical response.

As they chart the history of Australian musical theatre, Pinne and Johnson pinpoint various themes. The prominent role taken by women in the early development of the Australian musical is a surprising revelation. The history of the Australian musical began with the early works of two young women. Lyricist and author Ella Airlie wrote the original version of The Bunyip in 1908, which was performed as a musical for the first time in 1916. Meanwhile, prolific composer May Brahe was the first Australian to compose an original score for a musical in 1915 when she wrote Compromising Harriet, which was first staged in 1933.

Well known for her songs and ballads, including Bless this House, Brahe had 290 of her 500 songs published. Other women who really made their mark in helping establish the Australian musical include Edith Aird, Varney Monk, Vivienne Clapp and Edith Harrhy.

The Bunyip was still packing in audiences when FFF premiered in Adelaide in 1920. The rather strangely titled show, written by Melbourne businessman Jack De Garis, with music by Reginald Stoneham, was Australia’s first original book musical. FFF told the story of a playwright called Fitzwilliam ‘Fitz’ Ferguson and his typist girlfriend Flo, but was a disastrous flop.

Pinne and Johnston have kept the definition of an Australian musical broad, focussing not only on shows with an original score created in Australia by Australians, but on jukebox shows and productions created overseas in which an Australian was part of the creative team.

Oscar Asche, for example, wrote the book and lyrics for Chu Chin Chow, with music by Frederic Norton, and starred in it with his famous wife Lily Brayton when it premiered in London’s West End in 1916. Chu Chin Chow was later staged on Broadway. By 1921, it had become the world’s longest running musical, a record it held for nearly 30 years. More recently, Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda The Musical, which was produced in the UK by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Hullo Healo was the first all-Australian musical to be presented on the London stage in 1927. Meanwhile, Richard Frank ‘Dick’ Diamond created an early version of the jukebox musical in 1953 with Reedy River about the 1891 Shearer’s Strike, which proved very popular.

One of the key challenges for Australian writers was the lack of support from commercial producers, with JC Williamson enshrining the tradition of bringing the latest musicals from London and New York to Australia, and overseas performers to play the lead roles. The one and only time JCW commissioned an Australian musical was Blue Mountain Melody by Charles Zwar in 1934, when Zwar was only 23.

Conversely, impresario FW Thring (father of actor Frank Thring) – who became a rival to Williamson – supported a number of Australian musicals including Collits’ Inn and The Cedar Tree, and cast Australian stars such as Gladys Moncrieff. Thring’s death in 1936 left a gaping void in the commercial production of Australian musicals.

Other themes to emerge in the book include the lack of funding and an established mechanism to workshop and develop shows, meaning that far too many were staged before they were ready for public consumption; the disastrous nature of developing shows by committee, with Manning Clark’s History of Australia: The Musical, which flopped in 1988, a prime example; and the larrikin spirit that drives many of Australia’s hit musicals.

The Australian Musical is an authoritative, definitive account of the history of musical theatre in Australia. It is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to investigate Australian musicals, a publication to regularly dip into for information, and a book that musical fans will treasure.

By Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston
Allen & Unwin, HB, 418pp
ISBN: 9781760529666
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