It was a dreary afternoon, as I sat in café opposite my friend pondering the statement that had just been presented to me. “Kit, you like musical theatre right? You’ll be going to Guys & Dolls then.” I remembered being both offended and confused by the assumption that because I liked musical theatre, I would be interested in going to a show I don’t particularly enjoy, let alone a show whose message is particularly irrelevant in the 21st century. Yes, the show has a couple of catchy and impressive numbers, but on the whole it tends to drag, as if heeding its own advice to sit down and stop rocking the boat. And it’s with this in mind that I look at whether musical theatre is really a dying medium like some people seem to think.
Divorced from reality
There is no doubt that musical theatre stands as a bizarre anomaly against the backdrop of the wider Auckland theatre scene, tending to appeal to those aged between 45-65 with plenty of disposable income. I am, of course, being slightly facetious in suggesting that only Remuera based residents enjoy musical theatre. However, it is evident that the genre of musical theatre finds itself in a silo, separated from the vibrant hub of daring arts and culture that Auckland has become. Over the last few years we’ve see an ever-growing multitude of theatre geared towards pushing the boundaries and challenging audiences. This attitude manifests itself most visibly in The Basement, a space which allows young creatives to produce, direct and perform without the traditional limitations of fully professional theatre. It is here that we can see the next generation of professional performers experimenting with new works and taking risks, and it is here, it seems, that musical theatre has taken a long-term holiday.
A three tiered system
It’s been my observation, over several years, that within the world of Auckland theatre, we are likely to see shows falling into three categories of performance. Firstly, there are those shows that exist in the realm of the amateur world. These are possible due to the die-hard theatre fans who give up their spare time to do what they love. At the centre of these theatrical performances is the community element; people go, not to see great art, but to support friends and family. Needless to say, I am not purporting that amateur theatre is not capable of producing great art.
Then there is the beautiful, some might say, unattainable world of paid theatre, filled with Shorty Street stars and occasional theatre legend. It’s the dream of every young Unitec graduate to book a show that means they can stop dressing up as a reindeer to earn a buck over the Christmas break.
The final space is those basement performers, actors who work part-time in hospo slaving away so that they can produce their art, under the guise of a profit share. Profit share is an interesting term, often bringing with it the sad reality that no one will be getting paid. Regardless, this level of theatre sees trained and non-trained actors taking the stage to create work that is daring and of a quality that rivals the professional world, which can be expected considering most of the actors doing this are professionally trained. And it is here where musical theatre fails.
Aside from Auckland Theatre Company’s one big end of year number and a few other notable exceptions, there is very little quality professional and semi-professional musical theatre in Auckland – yet that is not to say that there isn’t the need or audience.
Why do we need good musical theatre?
The thing is, Auckland needs and deserves good musical theatre. There are only so many reproductions of Jesus Christ Superstar or gods forbid, Joseph that one can see. It’s not to say that these aren’t decent musicals, but Lloyd Webber hardly provides a challenge, a fresh narrative or compelling storytelling for viewers who are seeing the show for the 10th time. Not only this, but people aren’t producing quality Kiwi-written musical theatre (although that’s a conversation for another week, namely, next week). The genius of putting on established American and British shows is that people will pay good money to see them. They are a financial cash cow; making a guaranteed killing at the Box Office. So it is understandable why amateur & even professional companies are taking the safe options of shows like Chicago (although the reinvention of traditional shows by companies like ATC does give them some modernity and make them more impressive). But isn’t it time we started taking a few risks and actually presenting audiences with the kind of musical theatre they deserve? Shouldn’t we be challenging an audience to think, to use a medium rarely considered by the New Zealand audience as a vehicle for good storytelling?
There is hope
It’s not to say that this problem goes unnoticed by those in the theatre world. More and more we are seeing organisations taking risks with new works. More recently, companies have presented shows that are an example of traditional options being tempered with the less conventional, more daring approach. So there is an audience that is looking for contemporary musical theatre as a form of storytelling. The next question is, whether there is Kiwi-written musical theatre capable of doing that?
If you are someone tired with the status quo, interested in standing up and rocking the boat, then join us in what looks to be an exciting new year.
Next Time: We Can’t Keep Just Telling American Stories – A Case for Kiwi Musical Theatre