More to cultural capitals than a new musical theatre – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Find more stories More to cultural capitals than a new musical theatre Nicholas Pickard

If you had a sense of deja vu reading the comments last weekend by musical theatre producers John Frost and Rodney Rigby calling on the New South Wales Government to build a Broadway-style venue in Sydney, you’re not alone.

”I now can’t get a date for a new show in Sydney for any reasonable amount of time until the end of 2014,” Rodney Rigby told the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s a message he and Frost have given journalists ad nauseum over the last three years as they play off the NSW and Victorian governments for more cash and more infrastructure.

During may, the newly-elected NSW Government made the announcement (for commercial-in-confidence undisclosed Events NSW money) it secured the Australian premieres of the Addams Family and Strictly Ballroom for Sydney. This follows recent premieres of Doctor Zhivago and Legally Blonde opening in Sydney later this year.

Musicals are big business at the moment and the all-powerful producers, with support from lobby group Live Performance Australia, are well placed as they become the Twiggy Forrest and Gina Rinehart of the arts and entertainment world.

Governments are well aware of the value of musicals and the tourist dollar it can attract. It’s estimated that the Melbourne season of Wicked generated over $125 million for the Victorian economy. But it hasn’t always been like this.

“The market place in Australia is not big enough to have high-cost productions with weekly operating costs of over $500,000,” said James Erskine, the former business partner of Frost, in a 2005 Sydney Morning Herald article documenting the Producers’ failing season in Sydney.

“There are only 100,000 ‘regular’ theatre goers in Sydney and Melbourne – that’s people seeing a show at least once a year,” he went on. “In order to make a show like the Producers pay, we need to get 300,000 people to see it. on Broadway they get a million a week.”

Since that article was written, musicals have been going through a boom and the tide turned on their popularity. It’s a wave Frost and Rigby are riding as they mount increasing pressure on the NSW Government to foot the bill to build another musical theatre in Sydney to accompany the existing Capitol Theatre, Theatre Royal, State Theatre, Opera House and Lyric Theatre.

Frost and Rigby have Barangaroo, as well as a multiple number of other venues, in their sights. as the last undeveloped precinct in Sydney’s CBD, the opportunity for a tax-payer funded 1,400-1,600 seat theatre cusped between the Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay and the tourist hot-spot of Darling Harbour, it is a potential solution for the commercial producers.

Barangaroo is a once in a lifetime opportunity¬† for the NSW Government to provide unique cultural infrastructure that could potentially house Australia’s first dedicated Aboriginal art space, an outdoor sculpture park or a much needed contemporary design space for digital, interactive art and film. There’s also a critical shortage of museum exhibition space and Sydney also needs new music venues, mid-size spaces for theatre and dance as well as grand opera, ballet and symphony halls.

But the noise the musical theatre industry is creating and the column inches they continually attract is ignoring a much bigger discussion about cultural infrastructure and it’s to the detriment of other less-cashed up parts of the sector as they vie for much needed space. With media outlets so quick to publish their oft-repeated comments, the cultural capital feud between Melbourne and Sydney has become a race to the bottom to see who has the most musical premieres.

What Rigby and Frost are demanding is tantamount to the creation of another Melbourne with a theatre district centrally located in the Sydney CBD. the first question Sydney needs to ask is whether musical theatre as an art-form will be still riding this wave of popularity in five to 10 years. And if a new theatre was to be built, would it have to be at Barangaroo? Could it potentially be better situated in a re-imagined Seymour Centre, as part of a new development in Haymarket or even, God forbid, in western Sydney?

The other question is whether Sydney wants to become just another Melbourne, overrun by musicals, or does it want to create arts spaces for the 21st century? in the great developments of new cultural facilities that have been built in the last decade in Europe, Asia and the Americas, none have been new musical theatre venues.

Sydney may not have the litany of blockbuster musical openings like Melbourne, but Sydney is a vastly different town that is an international destination for a much broader range of art forms. if Barangaroo and the rest of the city is to be something culturally relevant for future generations, NSW should stop looking over its shoulder at their southern neighbours and start looking out into the international domain.

Nicholas Pickard is a freelance arts writer and a former arts advisor to the NSW Government.

More to cultural capitals than a new musical theatre – The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

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