From the Archives
Delving into the THA archives, we re-publish an article by Peter Pinne from the Summer and Winter 2010 issues of On Stage. Revised to include an important recent production, this is the second of a two-part article looking at Australia’s first ‘gay’ musical, Only Heaven Knows. Click here to read Part 1»
In his series of articles spotlighting important home-grown musicals, Peter Pinne concludes the story of Australia’s first gay musical and its creator, Alex Harding.
Alex Harding was born in England on 15 October 1949. His first credits appeared in 1975, after he became a founding member and musical director of Gay Sweatshop Theatre. The movement had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club ‘Ambience’, held at the Almost Free Theatre.
According to Harding: ‘Drew Griffiths, who was the backbone and founder of Gay Sweatshop, wanted to form a gay theatre company where we could present alternatives to audiences and help break down their fears and prejudices. What we had from TV and stupid West End farces was the stereotyped queen – which I don’t have an objection to because there are screaming queens out there – but at that time it was never balanced. You never actually saw any other images of gay men or lesbians on the stage to counterbalance the screaming queen and butch dyke – images like John Inman in Are You Being Served?’1
When Harding composed the title song for Only Heaven Knows in 1986, it was Drew Griffiths he was thinking of: ‘His pride and his passion was an inspiration to the original members of the company.’ Later, four people stabbed Griffiths to death in his house. They were never caught.2
As Time Goes By was first produced for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality Conference in Nottingham in 1977. It was written by Noel Grieg and Drew Griffiths, Harding composed original music, and it was in three parts – the first in 1896 after the Oscar Wilde trial, the second in Berlin in the 30s, and the third in 1969 when Gay Liberation was born.3
Harding’s next project was Double Exposure, a collaboration with Alan Pope, another founding member of Gay Sweatshop. Told in story and song, Exposure 1 is an everyday tale of growing up gay, whilst Exposure 2 is a satirical look at Britain’s foremost authority on TV and smutty stuff. Songs included the witty ‘There’s Nothing like a Fairy to make sure the Party’s Gay’, a direct descendent of Coward’s infamous ‘I’ve been to a Marvellous Party’. The show’s first performance was at the Oval House, London, 1978.
The following year Harding and Pope collaborated again on Point Blank, a cabaret that was directed by Martin Sherman (Bent). Songs included ‘Monogamy’ and ‘Boys’ Talk’. The show was recorded live, released on cassette, and sold at second-hand gay bookshops. The same year also produced The Dear Love of Comrades, a play by Noel Grieg, with music by Harding. It premiered at the Oval House Theatre, London, in March.4
Harding and Pope’s final collaboration was Layers, a musical that had a sell-out season at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) Theatre, London, in 1979. It starred a young Michael Cashman, who later played Colin, a gay character in EastEnders. One of the songs was ‘Is the Outlook Somewhat Brighter?’ It was Harding’s first attempt at a full-blown musical, and it worked. The play told a clever and very amusing story of conflicting relationships in modern gay life. The Guardian reviewer called it: ‘the only play I have ever seen that opens with three naked men in one bed …’
During Harding’s time with Gay Sweatshop, the company toured the UK, Berlin and Amsterdam, and performed at the Edinburgh Festival. In its early years Gay Sweatshop nurtured acting talents like Anthony Sher and Simon Callow.5
In 1980 Harding became a musical director of the Bloolips Theatre Company, a drag troupe that toured Europe, Vancouver and New York. It was during his time with Bloolips that Harding created his alter ego drag character ‘Dotty’, and sang the song ‘Drag Queen’. He performed with the Bloolips for two seasons.
Alex Harding migrated to Australia in 1984 and one year later became a citizen. His first Australian credit was Not Quite Sixty Minutes, a cabaret written and performed by him at the Midnight Shift, Sydney, during the 1985 Gay Mardi Gras. The following year saw him appear in, and contribute to, Love, Sex and Romance, an umbrella event during the Gay Mardi Gras at the same venue. Songs featured included ‘What’s a Queen to do Nowadays?’, ‘Love’ and ‘Safe Sex Song’, in which Harding appeared as ‘Nuda the Condom’. According to Harding, ‘an incredibly long monologue preceded the song [written by Denis Gallagher] and at the end I’d sing about the joys of safe sex. It was at the time of the ‘Rubba-Me’ campaign.6 It was a very rude song.’7 It was also outrageously funny.
The same year Harding also contributed to Acid ’n’ Tonic, another gay cabaret whose chief writer was Larry Galbraith. The show reunited Harding with Dennis Scott, one of the founders of Sydney Gay Theatre Company, who had just returned to Sydney. It also featured Rob Dallas and Robin Fellows, with Grant Ovenden on piano. Richard Turner was the director. It opened at the Paddington Green Hotel, Sydney, in September 1985.8
Harding followed Only Heaven Knows with the play Blood and Honor. Written in a style that was at times stream-of-consciousness and at others with dialogue that cut back and forth between past and present, the play was a powerful statement about racism, homophobia and living with AIDS. Margaret Davis was back in the director’s chair, as were two of the cast from Only Heaven Knows, Jacqy Phillips as the feminist Mother, and John Turnbull as her son Colin, who is HIV positive. The third member of the play’s triangle was Anthony Wong, as Michael, Colin’s Australian-born Asian lover.
The first play to be produced by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Blood and Honor opened at Belvoir Street Theatre on 7 February 1990. Bob Evans (SMH, 12 February 1990) said it ‘is one of those rare works in Australian theatre which seeks to explore the links between sexual and racial intolerance in our society.’ He went on to say: ‘At its core, the play is an intensely personal response to the AIDS pandemic and to the questions which it poses for our society, pitting compassion and understanding against repression, guilt and punitive indifference.’ He said it wasn’t an easy night in the theatre and dramatically it was flawed, but ‘its manifest anger is a reminder these are not easy times.’
Rosemary Neill (Australian, 13 February 1990) concurred that the play was dramatically weak. Her criticism hinged on the fact that she thought Harding ‘attempts too vast a narrative and thematic territory: he raises a multiplicity of issues and gives insufficient attention to all of them’.
Of his work in Blood and Honor Harding says: ‘I had a lot of anger to get out in that play, because I hated the Liberal party. The person I was actually going for in that play was John Howard, but midway through they changed to Andrew Peacock. And also, the play was paralleling what I was going through in my own life. My lover at the time was dying. People called it an AIDS play, but it isn’t just about AIDS. It’s about racism. It’s about a political party that would not give a shit.’9 It is well-known that Harding’s lover of 15 years, David E. Thompson, died of AIDS five months after the premiere of Blood and Honor. The play was written for him and is dedicated to him.
In early drafts, the play was titled Two-Legged Pricks Down Under. Later, when Harding heard of a British neo-Nazi rock group called Blood and Honor, he decided to go with that because it fitted in with one of the themes of the play.10
Despite the play’s critics and a soft box office, it went on to win the 1990 UN Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Award for Drama. It was published by Currency Press in 1996.
Harding was back at Belvoir Street Theatre the following year in a one-man musical, Beauty and the Beat, which was part of the 1991 Gay and Lesbian Arts Festival. Written and directed by Rex Lay, a former Harding collaborator from his Bloolips days, and with songs by Harding and Lay, the show is set in a public lavatory. Bruce, a bank teller, comes in to change into his beautiful drag costume for Mardi Gras, and is locked in. The show explores the two characters in one – Bruce and Beauty – which are the opposite sides of his personality.11 Songs included ‘If I were God’, ‘Perfect Stranger’, ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Fly Away’. The latter has lyrics by Harding and was written by him as a tribute to his lover, David E. Thompson, whilst ‘Perfect Stranger’ is a touching ballad every bit as good as the title song from Only Heaven Knows.
‘In this beat there is self-discovery, vignettes of delicious and camp delight, and music that ranges from the bitingly funny ‘If I Were God’ through to soft and tender ballads like ‘Perfect Stranger’… There are gags and glitter in glorious abundance in this public toilet’ (Sydney Star Observer, 22 February 1991). There was an opening night hiccup when ten seconds into the script Harding forgot his lines, so he went home, much to the dismay of the director and the audience. Later it was revealed there had not been enough time for a technical run or dress rehearsal in the theatre. It was subsequently re-scheduled and opened a few days later. It ran from 5 to 24 February 1991.
In 1992 Harding was commissioned by Playbox Theatre Company, Melbourne, to write The Life and Times of Hanky Bannister, a futuristic piece about an eccentric theatre troupe living and performing in an eerie desert. It featured dwarfs, ballerinas and lion-taming strong men, all led by a mad genius called Hanky who would send Porky (a dwarf dressed as a general with a huge pompadour wig) out into the real world and have him come back with reports of what corruption and thug trickery was going in government and elsewhere. Harding got the idea for Hanky’s name when he went to Liquorland and saw cheap Scotch whisky labelled Hanky Bannister. ‘I liked the name,’ he said, ‘and the play was written on a lot of that cheap Scotch’. In early drafts it was titled Earthly Possessions: A Comedy of Ill Manners. It remains unproduced.12
Sydney Theatre Company commissioned Harding to write the play Three. It was given a full-day workshop and an evening open reading under the auspices of STC’s research and development wing, New Stages, in the Wharf Studio, on 13 May 1993. The director was Michael Gow, assistant director Lex Biolos, and Hugo Weaving, Judi Farr and Les Wilson were the three-hander cast. The story had Walter, an elderly transvestite who lives in Darlinghurst, commentating on what was going on around him in his neighbourhood. He spoke of shopping at the deli, Betty’s soup kitchen and so on – real places, real times. In the same year, the show also had a reading at the Lookout Theatre, Woollahra, directed by Diana Denley. In early drafts it was called Surry Hills 2010. It has never had a full production.13
In 1993 Harding also worked as the pianist with a group called Body Tales in a piece called The Will. According to Leonard Radic (Age, 21 May 1993): ‘It is an amalgam of mime, music, dance and shadow play in which the performers exploit and satirize the techniques and conventions of the silent movie … The pianist Alex Harding goes at a steady beat throughout, working up to a fine frenzy in the final chase and rescue sequence.’ He was the only performer mentioned.
In 1994 Harding wrote a radio adaptation for ABC Radio National of Romeo and Juliet.
In the mid 90s Harding was commissioned by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras to write and workshop a two-hander on the bushranger Captain Moonlite. Called Beloved, it was based on the death cell letters of Captain Scott (Moonlite) and his love for another man in the gang. Brett Partidge played Moonlite in a reading of the piece.14
Two of Harding’s one-act plays, The Reunion and Kaleidoscope, were mounted as part of the Queer Fringe by Lookout Theatre, in a program of four plays commencing on 5 February 1996. The other two, Shudder and Swellings, were by Alana Valentine. In The Reunion, a man, grieving over his dead lover, is visited by said lover who tells him to get on with his life. Dominic Chang played the man, and Anthony Cogin the lover. Stephen Dunne (SMH, 9 February 1996) said: ‘It’s a simple, affecting piece, emotionally poignant, wryly humorous, performed with coherency and depth. It’s also the best playlet of the night.’
In Kaleidoscope Harding took a selection of short monologues and two-handers from his play Three. ‘Unfortunately Harding has taken out the material connecting the various characters, leaving a whole lot of people who don’t seem to know each other and have no reason for sharing a stage,’ said Stephen Dunne (SMH, 9 February 1996).
On 18 February 1996 Harding premiered his one-man cabaret Just One More and Then I’ll Go at the Stables Theatre, Sydney. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Stephen Dunne called him a ‘legend’ and went on to say: ‘The songs, ranging from work for London’s Gay Sweatshop to his hit musical Only Heaven Knows, are wonderful, and Harding performs them, accompanying himself on piano, with superb phrasing, humour and passion.’
His remarks were echoed by other reviewers: ‘Highly recommended’ (Sydney Star Observer) and ‘The atmosphere is cabaretesque, the music enchanting, and Harding’s humour shifts from martini dry to fairly camp in nature’ (Beat).
The show, directed by Diana Denley, played until 10 March 1996, and was restaged for a benefit performance at the Luncheon Club on 17 April 1996. Harding recorded a CD (AH 196 CD) of the material; it features songs from Double Exposure, Love, Sex and Romance, Beauty and the Beat, Point Blank, Not Quite Sixty Minutes, Bloolips, Layers and Only Heaven Knows. Composers almost always perform their own material better than anyone else, and Harding is no exception. This is really a ‘best of’ collection and there’s no shortage of wit or melody.
Later in the year Harding teamed with Mary Haire for a series of Sunday afternoon cabaret shows at the Tilbury Hotel. They played on 3, 10, 17 and 24 November 1996, and earned a return season at Hugh and Phillips’ Vegetarian Café, Sydney, in January 1997. He followed this with Harding in the Soup, a Sunday night gig playing piano at Betty’s Soup Kitchen.
In 1999 Harding’s Family Secrets, Sheltered Worlds, was included along with No Secrets (Malcolm Frawley/Tony Harvey) and The Saturday Night Club (Linden Wilkinson) in a season of three short one-act plays at the Stables Theatre under the title of Hungry. A Playpen Theatre production, the plays were all performed by Angela Kennedy, Deborah Jones and Brett Partridge, with direction by Frawley. Family Secrets, Sheltered Worlds brought together two sisters and their brother at the funeral wake of their father, a Reverend, who we learn was anything but a loving Christian – sexual abuse of the son, the beatings of an adopted daughter, and neglect of the other one, all done in the guise of holy righteousness.15 The Sun-Herald (7 February 1999) called it ‘the meat in the sandwich’ of the three plays, and said, ‘It’s shocking and over the top and makes the director lift his game’. The season played for 16 performances, 4-28 February 1999.
Walk down the Avenue, a three-character musical, was to be a Sydney Mardi Gras production for 1999, but the cost was too great so it was pulled at the last minute. Set in the 60s and 70s, it was about a husband and wife lounge act who get a gig entertaining in Vietnam, and their young male protégée singer with whom the husband is in love. Jacqy Phillips was to have starred as the wife and Gary Scale as the husband, with direction by Dean Carey. There was to be a search to find the ‘star’ boy.16 Several songs from the show appear on Jason Stephenson’s CD Found (2000): ‘Dreams do come True’ (also done as a dance mix), ‘Whispered Words, Forgotten Dreams’, ‘New York ’69’, ‘Where is Home?’ and a title tune. The CD also includes two songs, ‘Draughtsman’s Contract’ and ‘Fly Away’, from Beauty and the Beat.
Harding returned to the UK in late 2000 and since then has fallen off the theatrical radar. He currently works as an Activities Co-Ordinator in an aged care facility outside of London.
Prior to living in Australia Harding had only ever written music and lyrics. As a dramatist he was a late starter, but he certainly made up for lost time, writing eight plays over a ten year period, two of them award winners.
Alex Harding lived his life as an out and proud gay man. It didn’t worry him that he was labelled a gay or queer writer. ‘There’s nothing that would bore me to tears more than to write for an exclusive heterosexual audience,’ he says. ‘I write for a gay audience because I’m gay. I’m coming from a gay experience, my experience’.17
Since Only Heaven Knows there have been many gay or gay-themed Australian musicals, but Only Heaven Knows was the first. It was groundbreaking, it broke down the barriers, and it put gay life centre stage. What’s more it did it with honesty, compassion and love. For that we have to thank Alex Harding, an Englishman who considered himself an ‘outsider looking in’. He gave us an Australian classic.18
Special thanks to: Scott Abrahams, Derek Bond, Paul Dellit, Denis Follington, Frank Ford, Alex Harding, Sam Harvey, Gary Jaynes (Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives), Ivan King (HMT Archives, Perth), Margaret Leask, Barry Lowe, Margaret Marshall (APAC), Andrew McNichol, Stephanie Power (WAAPA Archives), Ian Purcell, Peter Reardon, Rick Scarfone, Judith Seeff (STC Archives), Alana Valentine, Frank Van Straten – and, especially, to Alex Harding himself.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith in Australasian Drama Studies, no. 31, October 1997, pp. 57-70.
- Liner notes for the CD Just One More and Then I’ll Go.
- Michael Huxley, A Guide to Gay & Lesbian Writing in Australia, Allen & Unwin, 1996.
- Outrage, 43, February 1991, pp. 52-53.
- Liner notes, op cit.
- SMH, 16 February 1996
- Michael Huxley, op cit.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith, op cit.
- Outrage 81, February 1990, p.14
- Michael Huxley, op cit.
- Alex Harding, correspondence with author.
- Phillip Bilton-Smith, op cit.
- Liner notes, op cit., Bayview CD reissue.
The Age, The Australian, The Bulletin, The Guardian (UK). The Mercury (Hobart), The Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Star Observer, CD liner notes, theatre programs, playscripts