Thursday, October 15, 2015

Musicals / Industry News

Music Theatre International (Australasia) - SIMON'S TOP PICKS - Part 1



Having been involved in school productions for around twenty years, I know that this time of year sees schools putting together their program for the year ahead. Faced with the same prospect myself, I thought I would take a look at a few choices to get the process going.

Criteria for selecting musicals can vary dramatically. My current school has a policy of big, old fashioned, traditional musicals only, whereas at my previous school, the Principal stated that we would never do traditional musicals, so it was cutting edge choices all the way there.

I am going to start with one of the safest, most familiar shows in the Broadway canon: GUYS AND DOLLS. Almost everyone has seen this show, or been it, or both. For a school that is starting out in musicals, GUYS AND DOLLS is an ideal choice.

The show is never long off the professional stage. The 2005 West End production toured Australia in 2008, starring Ian Stenlake, Lisa McCune, Garry McDonald and Marina Prior. The Production Company presented it a second time in Melbourne in 2014, starring Martin Crewes, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Adam Murphy and Chelsea Plumley. The show returns to the West End this year, opening at the Savoy Theatre in December.

GUYS AND DOLLS The Production Company 2014 Photo by Jeff Busby

Frank Loesser’s songs, such as “Luck Be A Lady,” “Fugue for Tinhorns” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin' the Boat,” are well known, catchy and relatively straightforward to learn and sing. The humour is broad and infectious, and the storyline is clear and engaging. 

One of the benefits for a school is that the male chorus essentially play gangsters. Not very dangerous gangsters, but enough to attract male performers who may be somewhat reticent about theatre. The fact that there are more male lead characters may make the show an attractive option for a boys’ school to select. From suave gambler Sky Masterson, to well intentioned raconteur Nathan Detroit to sidekicks Nicely Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet, the boys are spoilt for choice of roles. Female lead Miss Adelaide, the well-known fiancée, is a highly characterful role, with Sister Sarah Brown, of the local Salvation Army chapter, her more demure counterpart.

GUYS AND DOLLS is also available for younger performers as GUYS AND DOLLS JR.

For schools that have a strong singing program, HOT MIKADO is an ideal choice. While traditional stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan may be bit twee for even the most conservative school, the jazzed up score of HOT MIKADO or the modernized score of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (BROADWAY VERSION) are a great way to bring new audiences to these classics.

Created in 1995, HOT MIKADO puts a fresh spin on The Mikado by updating the sound, look and dance styles to 1940s America. The score is played by rock band and brass instruments, with the songs re-orchestrated to have a jazz or swing sound. This creates a link between parents and grandparents who are familiar with the original music and younger cast members who can enjoy the fresh, exciting sound.

HOT MIKADO - St Michael's Grammar School Photo by Judith Hall

The 1995 London production of the show was recorded as the definitive cast album, and features Australian singing actress Alison Jiear as Pitti-Sing. The show has not been staged professionally in Australia, nor has it been seen on Broadway. Its realm for success seems well grounded in school productions.

The show features an abundance of chorus work. The leads include star-crossed lovers Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, her ineffective guardian Ko-Ko, bloodthirsty matron Katisha and even includes a tap-dancing Mikado.

An appealing aspect of staging the show is the prospect for creative design. The mix of Japanese rice paper walls, cherry blossoms and ornamental fans can be combined with US cityscapes and billboards. Costumes vary from ornate silk kimonos to colourful zoot suits and nifty spats.

Approached with enthusiastic abandon, HOT MIKADO is a great deal of fun for cast members and audiences alike.

For schools looking for a more ambitious project, staging LES MISÉRABLES (SCHOOL EDITION) could capitalise on the recent surge of popularity of the beloved show due to its current Australian tour.

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Photo by Matt Murphy
While a three-hour epic may stretch the resources of school talent (and the endurance of parents and friends in the audience), LES MISÉRABLES (SCHOOL EDITION) has been abridged to a two hour running time. The original authors have approved of this version, so the quality that makes the show so famous is well intact.

Producing this show is made easier thanks to the extensive range of additional resources that can be hired. There is a set of Production Slides to help with scenery, Rehearscore®PLUS to ease practice of harmonies, a Sound Effects CD to provide the gunfire, and Keyboard Patch SolutionsTM to create the authentic musical sound on keyboards. Schools can also pay for a licence to film an archival copy of the performance, and can even apply for Transpositions on Demand, to have the key of any vocally challenging songs changed.

From Gavroche to Valjean, there are roles for all ages, with plenty of chorus work as well. Performing this iconic show is likely to gain the attention of the whole school community and beyond.

Another powerful, but lesser known, Broadway show available for schools is ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE’S AIDA (SCHOOL EDITION). This hit musical ran for over four years on Broadway, but has not been seen in a professional season in Australia.

The credentials of the show are impeccable, with a score by Elton John (THE LION KING, BILLY ELLIOT) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Disney's ALADDIN, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING). The score has an exciting pop-rock sound, with soaring ballads and stirring choruses, with the added touch of class of being based on Verdi’s famous opera, Aida.

AIDA_Broadway Photo by Joan Marcus

Set in Ancient Egypt, the portrayal of warring nations provides the opportunity to embrace diversity and multi-cultural casting. The title role calls for a female performer with a rock solid belt. For the act one finale, “The Gods Love Nubia,” Aida begins singing softly, then is joined by the ensemble as the song builds to a vocal climax that is sure to bring down the house.

A particular attraction to presenting ELTON JOHN & TIM RICE’S AIDA (SCHOOL EDITION) is the scope for incredibly beautiful and creative staging. Against a haze of searing orange middays and dusky purple twilights, scenic elements include the shimmering River Nile, waving palm trees and mighty pyramids. This is a production to involve and inspire a school’s art department as part of a cohesive design whole.



One of the most upbeat and infectious to come from Broadway last decade was LEGALLY BLONDE, an adaptation of the popular 2001 film. The musical was even more successful on the West End than on Broadway, and is well known locally thanks to its 2012-13 Australian Tour starring Lucy Durack, Rob Mills and David Harris.

LEGALLY BLONDE Australia Photo by Jeff Busby

The high energy musical follows Elle Woods as she follows her first love Warner across the country to Harvard Law School only to discover true love where she least expected. There is more lead character and chorus work for females, which may make the show a suitable choice for an inter-school collaboration where the girls’ school is choosing the musical.

One of the best aspects that makes this an ideal choice for a school show is the very clear message that academic success takes hard work and determination. Elle Woods succeeds not because she is blonde but because she is loyal, unswervingly dedicated and can think quickly and creatively.

The score features any number of infectious, toe tapping tunes, which go along with snappy choreography featuring sorority girls, rope-skipping prison inmates and even a bit of Riverdancing by the whole cast.

A joyous and inclusive celebration of the fruits of hard labour, LEGALLY BLONDE is the type of show that is as much fun for the cast to perform as it is for the audience to watch. It is also available for younger audiences as LEGALLY BLONDE JR.

For the really imaginative school, whose teachers perhaps grew up in the 1980s, there is the UK cult favourite OUR HOUSE, which features the addictive music of English ska group Madness.

Premiering on the West End in 2002, the musical was somewhat lost in the onslaught of jukebox musicals at the time, but deserves a closer look for its creative storyline and sensational score. The title and story may be unfamiliar to local theatregoers, but the music is a very strong selling point.

OUR HOUSE UK Tour 2013

Using a Sliding Doors approach, we see two versions of young Camden lad Joe Casey – one who runs from the police and one who gives himself in. “Good Joe” and “Bad Joe” are represented by white and black in the costumes, sets and lighting. As each story progresses, the pace of the transitions back and forth are only limited by the design team’s imagination.

With a host of young, lively characters, the casting of OUR HOUSE is ideal for a school-age company. The thought of a new generation discovering hits such as “Our House,” “Baggy Trousers,” “Driving In My Car” and “It Must Be Love” will thrill any Madness aficionado, and the music director will surely love conducting the jazzy score.


Have a look at these shows, and search for other choices, in Hal Leonard’s extensive catalogue, which is fully searchable through the FIND A SHOW page.

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