From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer 2010 issue of On Stage. Revised to include an important recent production, this is the first of a two-part article looking at Australia’s first ‘gay’ musical, Only Heaven Knows. Click here to read Part 2»
On 13 March 1995 Stephen Dunn claimed in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Home-grown gay theatre has finally ascended to the temple of culture on Bennelong Point.’ He was speaking about the transfer of Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows, Australia’s first gay musical, to the Sydney Opera House. A sell-out season at the Stables Theatre, Sydney, had precipitated the move. It was just another crowning success in the story of this humble little musical that began back in 1988.
Only Heaven Knows was originally a Bicentennial commission. According to Alex Harding: ‘I sensed shock waves when some of the committee came along to a presentation work-in-progress. I think they were expecting an Australian Cabaret, a Sally Bowles equivalent with decadent heterosexuals at play, but were shocked to discover how seriously homosexual the piece was, hoping it would quietly disappear never to be seen or heard of again.’1 In his grant application Harding had cleverly omitted the word ‘gay’, and replaced it with ‘demimonde’.2
But it didn’t go away: it went on to be produced many times around the country to critical and audience acclaim. The playscript has been published twice, the cast recording of the 1995 Sydney production has been released internationally, and there are several versions of the show’s title tune available on record, making it the most recorded song from an Australian musical of recent times.
The show was inspired by Jon Rose’s book At The Cross: Growing Up in King’s Cross, Sydney’s Soho (Andre Deutsch, 1961). According to Robert Dessaix it was ‘one of the first post-war books for a general readership which described in positive tones what was in a sense a gay culture in Sydney during the Second World War.3
Only Heaven Knows is called a ‘Romantic Musical Comedy’ and is set in Sydney during the 1940s (Act 1) and ’50s (Act 2). Each act is top and tailed by the Ghost of Lea Sonia, Australia’s leading female impersonator of the ’40s. Based on a real character, Lea Sonia was actually an American who was caught in Australia, unable to return to America because of the war. Australian audiences loved him/her (‘… is she really a man?’) so convincing s/he was in women’s clothing. S/he was a huge star and often headlined at the Tivoli alongside Mo. S/he was murdered when she was bashed and pushed under a tram by a drunken American serviceman.4
Act One takes place in Sydney in 1944. Seventeen-year-old Tim has left home in Melbourne to try his luck as a writer in Sydney. He rents a room in a Kings Cross boarding house run by night-club singer Guinea Newbolt, who introduces him to her male friend, Lana. Cliff and Alan are former lovers in their late twenties who share a flat. They were both dishonorably discharged from the Army when they were discovered engaging in fellatio with each other. Tim gets a job in a deli, where Cliff spots him, and despite the differences in their ages they fall for each other. On New Year’s Eve the five friends go to the Artists’ Gala Drag and Drain Ball. It is raided by the police, but fortunately none of them is arrested.
Act Two is ten years later and Sydney has changed dramatically. Tim and Cliff are living together but are being discrete about being gay for fear of losing their accommodation which has happened many times. Tim is pretending to be Cliff’s cousin. Guinea and Lana are running a theatrical hire shop, and Alan has been persuaded to have electro-aversion therapy to ‘cure’ his homosexuality. Tim gets a dream job offer to go to England to work on the London production of Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but it will mean leaving Cliff. After becoming violently ill with his treatment, Alan, with the help of Lana, moves towards self-acceptance. After much soul-searching, Tim accepts the London offer and although devastated, Cliff gives his blessing. As Tim boards the ship for London they refrain from showing affection for fear of being arrested, but then finally give in to their emotions and hug each other.
The first time the project saw the light of day was in a reading at the Rocks Theatre, Sydney, in 1987. Mary Haire read Guinea, direction was by Margaret Davis, with Harding on piano. Although the Bicentennial Committee was not impressed, others at the reading were. Harding then applied for and received a grant of $29 000 from the Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council. This enabled the musical to get up as a co-production with the Griffin Theatre Company.5
It opened at the Stables Theatre, Sydney, on 4 May 1988, with a cast including Steve Kidd (Tim), Paul Hunt (Cliff), James Bean (Alan), John Turnbull (Lea Sonia/Lana) and Jacqy Phillips (Guinea). Margaret Davis directed and choreographed the piece, with design by Judith Hoddinott, musical direction by Grant Ovenden (piano), and saxophone and clarinet by Amanda Jones.
The reviews were good. Bob Evans (SMH, 6 May 1988) said, ‘It is a much needed affirmation of love and community. There are moments of great humor and scenes of tenderness and tragedy, thrillingly played, especially by newcomer Steve Kidd, who catches the innocence, the energy and vulnerability of young Tim.’
Michael Morton-Evans (Australian, 6 May 1988), found: ‘It is very funny in parts, and in parts very touching,’ and called Harding a writer of ‘considerable skill and talent’. The Daily Telegraph said: ‘this is a brave and often poignant piece,’ and claimed there is ‘much pleasure in this heaven,’ whilst the Star Observer rejoiced, ‘at last a Bicentennial surprise.’
Only Heaven Knows has a strong contemporary theatre score. Tim is well served by the composer with three solos: ‘This Is It’, ‘Sydney, You’re Wonderful’ and the standout title tune, one of the best ballads ever written for an Australian musical. Guinea has a raucous moment with ‘Ain’t It A Shame That Your Itty-Bitty Mama’s Gone Fishin’ with Somebody Else’; Lea Sonia’s ‘Stealin’ It Every Way That I Can’ (later just called ‘Stealin’’), is a second act highlight; whilst Cliff’s ‘Without Him’ and Alan’s ‘Where Is The Love?’ are very effective emotional pleas. Two songs were cut before opening: ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’, in which Alan contemplates writing to the agony aunt for advice on his attraction to men, and ‘Lucky For You’, a song for Cliff and Tim.
The show also uses recordings to help recreate the period. It opens with the 40s pop song ‘Six Lessons From Madam La Zonga’. From a 1941 Lupe Velez movie of the same name, this was the real Lea Sonia’s signature tune. Other recordings included ‘Praise the Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ (replaced by ‘Moonlight Serenade’ in the 1995 production), ‘In The Mood’, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘One For My Baby’, plus ‘God Save The King’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’. When Lea Sonia returns at the end of Act One, ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’ was played to denote the character was in a more contemporary place.
The show played Tuesday to Sunday and was so successful that the season had to be extended. It closed on 12 June 1988, after playing 35 performances.
The next production on this show’s ground-breaking journey was by the Playbox Theatre Company, at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Studio, where it opened on 6 February 1989. This time the role of Tim was played by Michael Pope, Guinea by Caroline Gillmer, with Alan Andrews (Lea Sonia/Lana), Robert Morgan (Cliff) and Kurt Geyer (Alan). Robert Meldrum was the director, Amanda Johnson the designer, with musical direction by Tyrone Landau on piano, and wind instruments played by Ken Schroder.
In the Bulletin (21 February 1989), Alison Croggon wrote: ‘The highlight of this production is undoubtedly the excellent acting…[it] makes all of Harding’s characters live and makes Only Heaven Knows as he intended, a celebration of their courage in appallingly difficult situations. While I never forgot I was watching a play centrally concerned with the issue of homosexuality, this was subsumed by the larger human issues it raises: the complexities of love and personal discovery in an often hostile society.’
Dennis Davison headlined his review in the Australian (6 February 1989) with ‘Sensitivity that’s neither gay abandon nor a drag.’ He called it a theatre piece which is a ‘mixture of cabaret, stand-up comedy, musical numbers, camp parody, drag-queen exhibitionism and serious drama.’ He thought Harding’s music ‘caught the flavour of the 1940s. The lyrics wisely refrained from trying to ape musical comedy big numbers and the men sang with feeling, if not with Glimmer’s expertise.’
Leonard Radic (Age, 7 February 1989) also praised Glimmer: ‘Unlike the men, she can sing. She also brings a warmth and naturalness to all her roles.’ He called it ‘a sympathetic study of gay living,’ and said, ‘Only Heaven Knows is a musical play with the strengths, but also the limitations of the genre. The blues and jazz music is atmospheric. But the plot itself is novelettish, and thin on both motivation and psychology.’
This time the show played Monday to Saturday, 7 performances each week, and once again, business was so good the season had to be extended until 11 March 1989. Like Sydney, it too clocked up 35 performances.
One year later The Old Nick Company presented the show at the University Studio Theatre, Hobart. It opened on 15 August 1990, and played a 10-night season, closing on 25 August. With direction by Glenn Braithwaite, who also played the role of Cliff, the cast included Andrew McNicol (Tim), Mark Weeding (Alan) and Amy Vogel (Guinea), with the roles of Lea Sonia and Lana being played by two separate actors, Cameron Hartley and Anthony Speed. Various other bit parts, which had been doubled in previous productions, were handled by Andrew Harper, Kate Johnson and Mimi Phoenix. This time the musical accompaniment was by Ben Sibson on piano and synthesizer, and Phillip Bywater on clarinet and saxophone. Production design was by Keith Bates.
‘This warm and, for the most part, gentle story of homosexual love is told with comedy and compassion,’ said Wal Eastman in his Mercury review (16 August 1990). It has ‘plenty of romance, rollicking humour, good tunes, a brief naked-lovers-in-bed-scene, and a plot with its fair share of misunderstandings and making up.’ He said Braithwaite ‘excels’ as Cliff, and McNicol matches him in a ‘sensitive performance as Tim.’
In 1991 a group of gay Adelaide actors presented a play reading of the first act. This resulted in them mounting a full production as a Fringe Festival attraction during the 1992 Adelaide Festival of Arts. Calling themselves Theatre Sagitta – The Theatre of the Times, they hired the Sheridan Theatre for a two week season of the show – 17-28 March 1992. Tom Maloney played Lea Sonia, and Paul Halton was Tim.
Next up was a new production of the show by Umbrella Productions for the 1995 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Again playing at the Stables Theatre, it opened on 3 February 1995. The cast included Gary Scale (Lea Sonia/Lana), Anthony Cogon (Cliff), Jason Longley (Alan) and newcomer David Campbell (Tim). Jacqy Phillips was back again to play Guinea as she had done in the original 1988 production.
Les Solomon handled direction, Jason Langley did set design, and Michael Huxley was musical director. The production used Judith Hoddinott’s Sydney Habour Bridge backdrop design from the 1988 production. A reduced version of ‘Lucky For You’ was reinserted in Act Two, and Guinea’s Act One song was now listed as ‘Itty Bitty Momma’. It was later retitled ‘Ain’t it a Shame’. ‘Everyone’s Gone To The Moon’ had been dropped from the end of the first act, and an epilogue had been added for Lea Sonia in Act Two.
‘Campbell is absolutely terrific as the young Tim, all fresh-faced with a sweet voice to match,’ raved James Waites (SMH, 7 February 1995). ‘Gary Scale, of Tilbury Hotel fame, offers us his Lea Sonia, and a hilariously prune-faced Lana.’ He also liked Cogon, Langley, and said Phillips as Guinea was ‘total class’. Solomon came in for his share of accolades: ‘It takes good old-fashioned professionalism to make a show like this work and that’s what Les Solomon’s production has in bucket-loads.’
Bryce Hallett (Australian, 17 February 1995) said Harding has ‘fashioned an intelligent and immensely appealing gay musical that evokes Sydney, or more specifically King’s Cross bohemia in the 40s and 50s.’ He called the production ‘a timely, life-affirming theatrical occasion,’ and went on to praise Scale for his ‘humour and warmth’ and Phillips for her ‘knockabout experience and a slightly unhinged madness.’
The praise was also echoed by the Sun Herald (19 February 1995): ‘Harding tells his story through words, action and, perhaps most emphatically, music – songs that haunt: that raunch. This company delivers his story with lots of flash and zing.’
The production won the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Award for Outstanding Performing Arts Event, 1995.
The show played 30 sellout performances at the Stables until it closed 5 April 1995. It moved immediately to the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House, opening on 11 April and playing another 37 full-houses until it closed on 13 May.
For the Opera House season Paul Hunt replaced Anthony Cogon as Cliff. Stephen Dunne (SMH, 13 April 1995) headlined: ‘Quirky charmer still joy to watch,’ also saying the production had survived the shift from the intimate Stables venue to the larger Playhouse with the loss of intimacy made up for by more ‘settled performances’. Scale, Phillips and Langley still received plaudits, with Hunt giving Cliff a ‘nicely down-played blokey realism,’ and Campbell ‘dramatically fine but somewhat vocally tenuous.’
It was David Campbell’s breakout role. He was nominated for a ‘Mo’ award for ‘Best Musical Theatre Performer’ of 1995, and later moved to New York where he made a name in cabaret and starred in Stephen Sondheim’s Saturday Night and the Encores production of Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms.
In October 1996, an off-campus play-reading of the show was given by Music Theatre students from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Presented during Gay Pride week, the reading was directed by John Milson, with Denis Follington as musical director.
It featured a cast of performers on the brink of their careers. Tyran Parke played Tim, Kane McErvale (he later changed his name to Kane Alexander) was Alan, with Nathan Carter (Cliff), Larissa Gallagher (Guinea) and Peter Cathie White (Lea Sonia). Other roles were filled by Peter Eyers, Sharon Wisniewski and Mathew Dale.
Parke remembers: ‘I really loved doing that show – mind you I think we only did three or four performances – but it was really, really well received. People felt very moved by the piece. I think the atmosphere of the Blue Room in Perth really added – it was very intimate.’
Since 1996, Only Heaven Knows has been revived twice in Melbourne. During the 1998 Midsumma Festival it played the David Williamson Theatre, Prahran, from 22 January to 14 February. The cast included Luke Gallagher, Larry Hunter-Stewart, Kurt Kansley, Catherine Rutten and Michael Smallwood, with Nigel Ubrihien on piano. Midsumma Festival was also responsible for a later production directed by Adrian Barnes at Chapel Off Chapel, 17 January–3 February, 2001.
Sydney has also experienced two revivals, both at the New Theatre. The first ran from 7 November to 19 December 1998. It featured Paul Flynn (Tim), Mark Fuller (Cliff), Lloyd King (Alan), with Benjamin O’Reilly (Lea Sonia), Alice Livingstone (Guinea), George Hoad (Lana) and Mary Lindsay, Don Ferguson and Karren Lewis. Direction was by Pete Nettell, with John Short as musical director. The second was a One-Off Moved play-reading on 4 December 2002, with basically the same cast and director. Musical direction was handled by Andrew Davidson. An unofficial video of the complete 1988 production survives.
In 2017 the Hayes Theatre, Sydney, produced a new professional production of the musical with Tim Draxl as Cliff, Hayden Tee as Lea Sonia and Lana, West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) graduate Ben Hall as Tim, Matthew Backer as Alan and Blazey Best as Guinea. David Spicer in Stage Whispers claimed it was "Stylish, humorous and as relevant as when it was written." It played 43 performances.
The show has not been without controversy. According to Harding, one reviewer of the initial season, failing totally to see the politics of the piece, couldn’t get past the fact that Only Heaven Knows is a love story between two men – and whilst he was quite correct, he nevertheless felt obliged to demand that there be some sort of warning on the poster in order to alert potential theatregoers! A similar thing was to occur during the Opera House season. A group of American tourists walked out declaring that ‘… if this play and these actors ever come to Milwaukee, we’ll shoot them!’ And in Melbourne at the Arts Centre a booking clerk was advising people who wanted to see the show ‘… oh, you won’t like that, it’s about two poofters!’ An internal hunt to expose said booking clerk failed, but gave the show added publicity. And the work wasn’t without its gay critics. Outrage magazine complained that the show was ‘all white’ – i.e. there were no Aborigines in it.6
The show has been published twice by Currency Press. The first version appeared in 1989 and a second revised edition in 1996. Festival Music published a single sheet of the title song in 1988.
The 1995 Stables Theatre cast recorded the complete score (OHK95). It contains a ‘Prologue’, ‘This Is It’, ‘Night-Time In The City’, ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Would You Like That Too?, ‘Ain’t It A Shame’, ‘Asking Me Questions’ ‘Act 1 Scene 15’, ‘Act 2 Scene 1’, ‘Lucky For You’, ‘Where Is The Love?’, ‘Stealin’’, ‘Without Him’, ‘Only Heaven Knows’ and an ‘Epilogue’.
In 2000 this cast recording was reissued in the US and distributed in the UK on Bayview Records (RNBW005) with 6 bonus tracks by the composer: ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Stealin’’, ‘Where Is The Love?’, ‘Only Heaven Knows’, the cut ‘Dear Dorothy Dix’ and a full version of ‘Lucky For You’. The US and UK reviewers enthused: ‘The score is excellent, a lovely blend of poignant and witty songs…’ (Mike Gibb, Masquerade); ‘…the disc does boast as leading man David Campbell, who is excellent.’ (Ken Mandelbaum, broadway.com); and ‘Alex Harding’s music and lyrics are pop hook-laden enough to hold interest.’ (Jonathan Padget, GLAA Metro Weekly).
The title tune has been recorded by David Campbell on his album Yesterday Is Now (Philips 532 714-2), and No.1 Musicals Album (Polygram 539-736), by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir on Something to Sing About (ABC LRF 295, 1993), and Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir (Larrikin LRF-481, 1997), Les Ms on Les Ms – Therapy (L-M, 1998), and by Jason Stephenson on Found (2000). This album also contains a version of ‘Where Is The Love?’. Harding’s version also turns up on Musicals From The Land Of Oz (Bayview RNBW 012), Just One More And Then I’ll Go (AH 196 CD, 1996), which also has ‘Sydney You’re Wonderful’, ‘Stealin’’, and ‘Where Is The Love?’ on it, and on a cassette released for the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project. There are two tracks on the cassette, the other being ‘Fly Away’, which was used in the cabaret Beauty and the Beat (1991). Mark Fuller, who played Cliff in the 1998 New Theatre production, also features ‘Lucky For You’ and ‘Stealin’ on his live album Mark Fuller – Songs about Adam (Pride 010LPD, 1996).
To be continued.
- Liner notes from Bayview CD reissue.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith in Australasian Drama Studies No 31, October 1997, pp57-70
- Liner notes from Bayview CD reissue.
- Michael Huxley: A Guide to Gay & Lesbian Writing in Australia. Allen & Unwin, 1996
- Alex Harding correspondence with author
The Age, The Australian, Bulletin, Guardian, (UK), Hobart Mercury, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Star Observer, Stage Whispers
CD Liner notes