From the Archives
Once again we dip into the archives of On Stage. First published in the Winter and Spring 2009 editions of the magazine, Peter Pinne explores the musicalisation of a much-loved children’s classic.
By 1988 Ethel Turner’s classic children’s book Seven Little Australians had sold more than 3 million copies since its first publication in 1894. It had been translated into more than ten languages, made into a stage play (1915), a feature film (1939),1. a radio series, a BBC television series (1953), and a highly successful 10-episode ABC television series (1973)2.—therefore it was no surprise that someone would come up with a musical version of the well-loved property.
Opening on 22 June 1988 at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, the show immediately captivated critics and audiences, and settled down for a four-month run. This was followed by seasons in Hobart, Launceston, Adelaide, and later Sydney and Brisbane, making it one of the most successful Australian musicals of recent times.
Turner’s book, set in the period in which it was written, was a funny, touching and romantic story of a hard-hearted military man, Captain Woolcot (Woolcott in the musical), with seven children, who marries a much younger woman, Esther, after his wife dies. The story hinges on the acceptance of Esther by the children, especially the eldest, Meg, who is almost the same age. The consequences of teenage rebelliousness and a softening of the father’s attitude are what give the story its heart. The tale does have an affinity with The Sound of Music, being about a stern Captain and his children, but there the similarity ends.
According to composer David Reeves, ‘the development of Seven Little Australians as a professional stage musical from my point of view started around 1984 when I approached Noel Ferrier of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). All previous attempts by others to attract a producer had come to nothing and director Rodney Fisher (brought in to help by Noel) stated to all involved at that time that “all that existed was an idea.” Noel encouraged me as a composer to take on the project in association with the AETT with a view to a major production.’
But the journey of the musical version of Seven Little Australians started long before the involvement of the AETT.
The program for the Melbourne premiere, Comedy Theatre, 22 June 1988.
Composer and arranger of the score, musical director and producer David Reeves.
In 1976 Jim Graham, history master at The Armidale School (TAS), an exclusive boys’ school in Armidale, NSW, secured the rights to turn Ethel Turner’s novel into a musical from her son, Sir Adrian Curlewis. The following year, David Reeves took up the position of Director of Music at TAS, and Graham asked him to collaborate on the show, with Graham writing book and lyrics, and Reeves composing the score. Graham had previously written and directed melodramas and plays for the school, as well as producing their annual dose of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Born in Sydney in 1943, Reeves was schooled at Sydney Church of England Grammar and started his professional career as an organist at the Garrison Church in The Rocks. He studied at the NSW Conservatorium of Music under Alexander Sverjensky, and won several scholarships. Later, in tandem with his career as a concert organist, he worked as a jazz pianist and wrote jingles and documentary film scores. He also wrote the all organ score for the Hanna-Barbera animated film Silent Night (1971) and a stage/ballet score for the ABC in 1972. Seven Little Australians was his first score for the musical theatre.
This first version of the show was co-produced by The Armidale School and the Drama Department of the University of New England at the University’s Arts Theatre on 21 April 1978. Graham was the director, with Reeves as Musical Director. The local Armidale Express called it ‘charming’, and said it was ‘bubbling with melody’. It played for five nights and then one month later, with the same cast, played for one night (27 May 1978) at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney—a performance billed as the world premiere.
Following the Seymour Centre performance, producers Malcolm Cooke and Mike Walsh showed interest in the project, but wanted a rewrite of the book and lyrics. David Mitchell, Richard Wherrett and Rodney Fisher were brought in to work on the book at one time or another, but Cooke and Walsh thought there were still problems. Eleanor Witcombe, writer of the Seven Little Australians TV series, was then hired as a script doctor. They signed John Truscott to create the sets and costumes (according to David Mitchell, Truscott’s model for the house was ‘fabulous’), and booked Her Majesty’s Theatres in Sydney and Melbourne for the show.
Unsatisfied with the rewrites, Cooke and Walsh later bowed out, but not before they had a new score (unused) written by ex In Melbourne Tonight arranger Geoff Hales. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas later filled the space in the theatres in Sydney and Melbourne.
Enter Sydney Festival director, Stephen Hall. He displayed an interest in the show and wanted to get it up as a commercial production. Operation Young Composer was an initiative that had begun in 1983 to assist up-and-coming young composers. In the early days, performances were given as part of the Sydney Festival, whose sponsors at that time were Air Canada and James Hardie Industries. It was Hall who brought James Hardie to the table. Eventually the firm agreed to invest $1 million in the musical,3. but the project stalled for some time, the relationship between Reeves and Graham soured, and Graham reluctantly bowed out.
Nevertheless, Reeves, an intensely driven man, was determined to see his dream of a musical version of Seven Little Australians reach the commercial stage. He seconded John Palmer, a lyricist and scriptwriter for animated children’s movies (Dot and the Kangaroo) to rewrite the book and lyrics, and then took it to Noel Ferrier at the AETT. Ferrier loved it and work-shopped it at the Trust’s warehouse, Dowling Street, Potts Point, Sydney, in 1985. Melissa Bickerton played the role of Judy.
The plan was for James Hardie Industries to fund a production by the AETT and Reeves. Over a period of eighteen months, because of management and internal difficulties within the Trust, the project languished, and eventually Hardie agreed to Reeves himself producing the work during the Bicentennial year. It was an unusual move for James Hardie which had previously sponsored the James Hardie 100 car race at Bathurst. According to Hardie executive Jim Kelso, ‘The Company always wanted to do something as a gesture to the Bicentennial that would be distinctly Australian.’4.
Three months before the Melbourne opening, Reeves enlisted the aid of noted author and scriptwriter Peter Yeldham (1915, The Alien Years, Captain James Cook) to further revise the book and lyrics. Yeldham had been Reeves’ original choice (before Palmer), to do this work, but Yeldham had been committed to the ABC-TV series Captain James Cook.
With James Hardie’s money in his pocket, Reeves set about finding a production team. Disagreements saw the early departure of feminist director, Chris Johnson, and set designers Ken Wilby and Mark Thompson.5.
Enter John O’May, an American actor, who at that time had been working professionally in Australia for 16 years. His performance credits had included Godspell, Company, The 20s and All That Jazz and Che in Evita, but he did have directing experience. Reeves hired him as the director, and also cast him in the leading role of the father, Captain Woolcott.
Kenneth Rowell, whose work in design had been acclaimed in opera and ballet, then came on board to do sets and costumes, and former TV dancer Pamela French was employed to handle choreography. Rowell’s set drawings were reminiscent of paintings by Tom Roberts and the Heidelberg School.6.
Alyce Platt as Esther, Comedy Theatre, 1988.
Alyce Platt, former hostess of TV’s Sale of the Century was cast as Esther. Platt was no Julie Andrews vocally, but her soprano was sweet and sure. Judith McGrath doubled as Martha and Miss Jolly, Judith Roberts was Miss Burton, and Noel Mitchell played Monsieur Marceau. Others in the adult cast included John Murphy (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Lisa O’Dea (Mrs Bryant/Aldith McCarthy), Dale Burridge (Alan Courtney) and Grant Dale (Andrew Courtney).
In the children’s roles, Melissa Bickerton was Judy (as she had been in the workshop), with Beven Addinsall (Pip), Michelle Pettigrew (Meg), Sean Delahunty and Murray Golding alternating the role of Bunty, Tamsin West and Caroline Graig doing likewise with Nell, Charmaine Gorman and Sheridan Compagnino sharing the part of Baby, and Janelle Fisher and Rebecca Mitchell taking turns as the Little General. The family aspect of the show carried over to the casting with Judith Roberts and her two daughters Charmaine and Kate Gorman all scoring parts in the show.
The orchestra, which was conducted by William (Bill) Motzing, numbered 22. Orchestrations were by Reeves.
Helen Thompson in The Australian (24 June 1988) called it ‘fresh, funny, pleasantly unassuming in style and perfect family entertainment’. She thought Platt was ‘sympathetic and winning’, McGrath’s comic skills were ‘superb’, but found O’May’s Captain ‘too engaging to be a convincing disciplinarian’. However Leonard Radic in The Age (24 June 1988) thought O’May caught the ‘right mix of sternness and humanity’, but found Platt’s role ‘colourless’. On two points they both agreed: Bickerton was ‘excellent’ as Judy, and five-year-old Rebecca Mitchell as the Little General ‘stole the show’.
Clark Forbes in The Sun (23 June 1988) called it a ‘good, old-fashioned show’, which was echoed by almost every other reviewer. The adaptation was faithful to the source material and Reeves and Palmer’s score was toe-tapping and bright. Some made references to possible echoes of songs from other musicals—Annie, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!—but most agreed the big love ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ was a fine number that hit all the right emotional buttons. Other songs singled out included ‘Walking The Block,’ ‘The Academy of Monsieur Marceau’, ‘Can You Love Me’ and ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini.’ Only two songs survived from the 1978 Armidale production: ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, retitled ‘Rattle the Track’.
Jim Graham’s involvement in the show was reduced to a ‘based on a concept by’ credit in the program.
Reeves’ belief in his material had been vindicated. He had a hit on his hands, which was endorsed by the public when the show played for 15 weeks, ending in October 1988. At that point it had become the most successful Australian musical to play the Comedy Theatre since The Sentimental Bloke’s five-month record in 1961-62.
Next up was a tour. The first stop was a short season at Australia’s oldest surviving theatre, Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal, from 8 October 1988. For the Hobart performances the roles of Baby and the Little General were recast with local children. According to John Unicomb, then the general manager of the Theatre Royal, it was ‘the biggest musical to come to the state in the past decade’.7.
Rosina Beaumont in The Mercury said it was ‘three hours of dinkum Aussie entertainment sure to please everyone from the littlies to grandma’. She liked the ‘energetic dancing of the chorus’, and thought O’May’s direction was ‘masterful’. The show played 8 performances. It closed on 15 October and moved to Launceston’s Princess Theatre, where it opened on 21 October and closed 26 October after 11 performances.
John Lorey in the Launceston Examiner labelled it, ‘Our own Sound of Music!’ and praised Platt for her ‘warmth and charm’, O’May for his ‘commanding stage presence and fine baritone voice’, Roberts and Mitchell in their various roles, and McGrath for her ‘droll’ playing of Martha.
A little over three weeks later, on 20 November 1988, the show berthed at the Adelaide Festival Centre just in time for the Christmas holidays. The cast remained the same except for the younger children’s roles which were again played by locals.
Tim Lloyd in The Advertiser (21 November 1988) said, ‘Thanks to Ethel Turner, it will warm many hearts in this country.’ He thought there were ‘two-and-a-half passably good songs and several enjoyable dance routines.’ He liked Platt, O’May and Bickerton, and called French’s choreography ‘the best thing about the production’. The News printed a review by a nine-year-old child. This was strongly condemned by Reeves in a Letter to the Editor (1 December); he claimed his was ‘not a children’s musical’, but a show ‘designed to appeal to a mass audience and to provide a good night’s entertainment’. Despite a lack of promotion, the show played a solid three-week season, closing on 10 December 1988.
It was to be almost nine months before the reached Sydney. It opened at the Footbridge Theatre on 16 September 1989. The producers and the production were identical, but the show had undergone some major cast changes. John O’May was back to direct and play Captain Woolcott, as was Melissa Bickerton (Judy). They were joined by newcomers Edwina Cox (Esther), Robert Berry (Monsieur Marceau), Judy Glen (Miss Burton), Shirley Cameron (Martha), Wayne Scott Kermond (Andrew Courtney), Marcia Gaye Snowden (Meg), Chris Dickson (Alan Courtney) and Dean McRae (Pip).
Script and score rewrites included moving ‘Parramatta River’ to the head of the show, cutting ‘Spring’, and ‘Children’, adding the new song ‘Back, Back to Sydney’, plus reinstating ‘Soldiers of the Lord’ and ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which had originally been dropped in Melbourne. The orchestra had been reduced to nine. The program included the lyrics of all of the show’s songs, with O’May now credited for lyrics along with Reeves, Palmer and Yeldham. Graham’s ‘based on a concept by’ credit had disappeared.
Bob Evans in The Sydney Morning Herald (18 September 1989) said it was ‘a show that is brimming with sentiment and spiced with smiles. It is guaranteed to have you blinking back the tears’. Frank Gauntlett in the Daily Mirror headlined ‘Family show hits home’, and Bronwen Gora in the Sunday Telegraph called it an ‘Aussie musical made for the family’.
Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.
Scenes from the Melbourne production, 1988.
A scene from the Sydney season, Footbridge Theatre, 1989.
Bruce Dellit (with fiddle) in the Brisbane season, Suncorp Theatre, 1991.
All the critics loved Bickerton with the SMH saying she ‘gives one of the most dynamic and appealing performances seen on any Sydney stage this year’. They thought O’May played Woolcott to ‘perfection’, and that Cox’s performance was ‘exemplary’, along with Kermond, Berry, Glen and Cameron.
Eighteen months later a new production of the show was mounted by the Royal Queensland Theatre Company under the direction of Alan Edwards, using the revised Sydney script and score. It opened at the Suncorp Theatre on 21 February 1991.
The 22-strong cast included Simon Burvill-Holmes (Captain Woolcott), Susie French (Esther), Veronica Neave (Judy), Kevin Hides (Monsieur Marceau), Margery Forde (Miss Burton/Mrs Hassal), Sally McKenzie-Mee (Martha/Miss Jolly), Bill French (Mr Hassal/Colonel Bryant), Alinta Coady (Meg) and Matt Leighton (Pip). Musical direction was by Dale Ringland, with choreography by Graeme Watson.
Peta Koch was scathing in her review in The Courier Mail (23 February 1991), saying the show ‘had not been reworked enough to make its remounting worthwhile’. She said, ‘Reeves’ music and the script were not memorable and the plot is tenuous and laboured’. Her praise was reserved for Burvill-Holmes as Woolcott, French as Esther, Neave as Judy, and McKenzie-Mee as Martha and Miss Jolly.
Just as dismissive was Brett Debritz in the Brisbane Sun (22 February 1991): ‘[It’s] too long, too slow, and it lacks truly memorable tunes.’ Sue Gough in The Bulletin questioned why QTC couldn’t have found ‘something better than this pinchbeck G&S, this antipodean version of The Sound of Music’ to start its season.
Before the production opened at the Suncorp Theatre, the scheduled three-week season had been sold out, so it was decided to extend it by one week, to March 16. The bad notices killed the box office and for some nights of the extra week the show played to an audience of only 75.
To date, this was the last professional production of the work, although there have been several productions on the amateur circuit. In 1996 Reeves and British producer Dan Crawford went searching for finance for a projected London season. The show was to have had a name change to Judy, but to date British audiences have not been exposed to the tears and joys of the Woolcott family.8.
The show made money in Melbourne and Tasmania, lost in Adelaide and Sydney and despite the poor last week, did very well in Brisbane.
Reeves recorded the original cast and released it on cassette under his own label Bodemo (BOD 003). Later the album was picked up by EMI who reissued it on LP (EMC-791157) and CD (CDP 791157). It received an ARIA nomination for Best Original Soundtrack or Cast Album in 1989.9. Recorded two months after the show premiered in Melbourne, the album is missing ‘Have a Hearty Meal’, which was dropped after the opening. Two songs also have different titles: ‘Dear Miss Woolcott’ is listed as ‘Fall in Like with You’ and ‘Rattle the Track’ is titled ‘Catching the Central Express’. The album also includes ‘Soldiers of the Lord’.
EMI also released a 45rpm single of the ballad ‘Look for a Rainbow’ sung by Julie Anthony, with ‘Monsieur Marceau’ sung by The Seven Chorus on the flip side (EMI 2065). The Tommy Tycho Orchestra accompanied both tracks. During the 1988 Melbourne season, the entire cast made a TV appearance on The Mike Walsh Show, singing ‘The Boys from Yarrahappini’. An archival tape survives of this performance. Castle Music published the sheet music of ‘Look for a Rainbow’ with Julie Anthony on the cover, but there was no credit for the show.
A private original cast LP recording of the 1978 Armidale School production contains an Overture and Entr’acte, a title tune, plus 12 other songs, including the two songs, ‘Discipline’ and ‘The Train Song’, that ended up in the commercial production.
To be continued...
Special thanks to: Malcolm Cooke, Paul Dellit, Reg Gorman, Jim Graham, Robyn Holmes (Music Department, National Library of Australia), Peter Wyllie Johnston, Margaret Leask (NIDA Oral History), David Mitchell, Dr Peter Orlovich (SBW/NIDA Archives), David Reeves, Judith Roberts, Frank Van Straten, Anne White (The Armidale School), Peter Yeldham.
Images courtesy of Peter Pinne & Frank Van Straten.
- Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press, 1981
- Albert Moran, Moran’s Guide to Australian TV Series, Allen & Unwin, 1993
- ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
- ‘Seven up after ten years’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1988
- ‘Musical hopes to make history’, The Age, 3 June 1988
- ‘Turning point for State’s theatre’, The Examiner, 17 October 1988
- Matt Mollett, ‘Against The Odds’, unknown publication, 23 January 1996
The Adelaide Advertiser (SA), The Age (Melbourne, Vic), Armidale Express (NSW), The Australian (Melbourne, Vic), The Courier-Mail (Brisbane), Daily Mirror (Sydney, NSW), The Examiner (Launceston, Tas), The Financial Times (London), London Theatre Guide—Online, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), The News (Hobart, Tas), On Stage (Melbourne, Vic), The Sun (Brisbane, Qld), The Sun (Melbourne, Vic), Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), The Times (London), LP and CD notes, theatre programs