Peter Pinne: The book that I have co-written with Peter Wyllie Johnston is called The Australian Musical—From the Beginning and it will be in bookstores from November the fifth around the country. It gets released in America on January the first . Published by Allen and Unwin with the Queensland Performing Arts Centre—QPAC—and they are having a launch on Friday [8 November]; followed by a launch in Melbourne, which is going to be at Raheen, on Tuesday the nineteenth of November, and then a Sydney launch at the Genesian Theatre on Sunday the twenty-fourth. Nancye Hayes is going to launch it in Sydney. It’s a book that looks at a hundred and two years of Australian musical theatre from 1916 until 2018.
It starts with Chu Chin Chow in London, which opened in 1916 and played until 1921. For years it was the most successful musical in the world, until Oklahoma! overtook it on Broadway in c.1948. And it was the most successful musical in London until Salad Days overtook it in the late ‘50s.
The book goes as far forward as Muriel’s Wedding, which has just finished playing in Brisbane; Beetlejuice, which Eddie Perfect wrote and which is currently playing on Broadway and, of course, Matilda. It goes through the various eras and the book is divided into two sections—the first is an overview of that entire period and the second is an A to Z in-depth detail of 324 entries, which gives all the information that you need to know: who wrote it; who directed it; which production company did it; who the choreographer was, and where it premiered, plus cast members, songs that were in it, a synopsis and comment about the show—what happened to it, basically. A sample of two critical reviews—some are glowing, some are not. If it has been recorded, and if it has been published in some form or another. The book also has an index of the songs that are listed in the book; an index of people and, of course, an index of the shows that are mentioned.
We chose 324 shows to profile; we had over 700 to choose from in that 102 year period, but we feel that the ones that we have included are the most important. And through the book you can trace the career line of many performers, but most of all—writers and composers.
The book also shows that, from the very beginning, Australian women composers were very important in creating the genre. It also shows that from the very beginning, indigenous culture was in Australian musicals, that’s from 1915 onwards. So, although Bran Nue Dae was marvellous, and very successful (and it’s going to be done on tour next year), it wasn’t the first time indigenous culture was seen on stage.
It also shows the Jewish influence of people on the genre and ‘gay’ influences too. While we weren’t the first country in the world to put a ‘gay’ musical in a main stream theatre, we did some ground-breaking work earlier in the ’70s and the ’80s, which culminated, of course, in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Boy From Oz all very successful musicals.
We cover original scores; we cover juke-box scores; we cover some plays with music, because they’re almost musicals (shall we say), and we also cover what Australian composers and lyricists have done on Broadway and the West End. When we looked at doing a book like this, we realised that, unless we covered London and Broadway, we weren’t telling the full story; so, in other words, you’ll find what Ron Grainer, an Australian did in London; you’ll find what Eddie Perfect did, of course; Tim Minchin, recently with Matilda, they’re all in there. They’re all half-Australian musicals because there is this Australian connection there; it’ll be either a composer or a lyricist or something, and a lot of the other creatives will be from Broadway or from the West End. But it was important to capture all of this, because it would have been incomplete if we hadn’t done that.
Rob Morrison: Indeed—and you cite Chu Chin Chow, which was by the Geelong-born Oscar Asche, who wrote the book and lyrics.
Peter: That’s right. The book is also full of photographs; colour, black and white, and a lot that you’ve never seen before —some that you have, but a lot that you haven’t seen before. And there is no book that has ever been published before that is on the Australian Musical—this is a first!
Rob: Indeed—quite an honour! And do you have a complete chapter on the musicals that you wrote with Don Battye?
Peter: Not a complete chapter, no. I mean, I have written 20 musicals, which is quite a lot, but mine are covered under a chapter called ‘No more gumnuts and wattle’, and that reference came from an interview that I gave many, many years ago when I was explaining that when we started writing musicals we were determined not to go the ‘gumnuts and wattle’ road. Because, up to that time we’d only ever seen musicals that were historical—based on historical subjects and things—and we wanted to do something about contemporary Australian life. We started off like that and a lot of our work was on contemporary Australian life. I mean we started out with a show called All Saints Day and that was based on AFL football and the St Kilda Football Club. But we also did, in 1966, an adaptation of a very successful novel called A Bunch of Ratbags and that was a hard and gritty look at gang warfare and teenagers in the late 1950s in Melbourne.
We did go the ‘gumnuts and wattle’ route later, when we adapted the story of Caroline Chisholm—she was the first lady on our $5 note—but she was English and she helped immigrant girls find work here in early Australia in the 1830 period. So, I think that’s one of the few historical shows that Don and I did. I later did one with Ray Kolle and that was A Bit of Petticoat and that was based on a play by Oriel Gray called The Torrents and it had an environmental theme and ‘women in the workplace’, of course.
Rob: And your spoof of Hollywood musicals—It Happened in Tanjablanca aka Red, White and Boogie too?
Peter: Oh, yes—that’s covered in there. All of mine are covered, and most of everybody else’s are covered. We looked at people who have contributed to the genre and who kept contributing to the genre, regardless of whether they had great success or not; but who kept on writing Australian musicals. So you can find the career of Reg Livermore; you can find Nick Enright’s career there; you find Dennis Watkins and you find, also, at Phillip Street, Dot Mendoza, who penned a lot of musicals and successfully.
So, it’s a wonderful ‘read’. When the publishers sent me an advanced copy a few weeks ago, I sat down to read it—to see if there were any mistakes, of course—well, it took me two weeks to read! There’s a lot of material in there—there really is! But it’s one of those reference books that you can dip into and out of any time you like, and you’ll enjoy it. And anybody who loves theatre—anybody who loves musical theatre—and anybody who’s interested in theatre in Australia, will love it!
Image from Peter Pinne's Caroline
Image from Peter Pinne's Caroline
Rob: Great! And about what proportion of the book did you do and what proportion did Peter Wyllie Johnston do?
Peter: He did the overview section, which is good because he could talk about the shows that I did, because it’s very difficult to write about yourself; and we worked on the A to Z together. So that’s it.
Rob: And many years in the making and no doubt you’re very proud to have it done at last?
Peter: Oh, yes—it took eight years to create. I first met Peter Wyllie Johnston at the ‘Making a Song and Dance’ exhibition at the Victorian Arts Centre in about 2004 and then we got to know each other in the next few years, and then we decided to work together. We signed a contract in 2011 and it was finished in 2018 when we sold it. But we’ve kept adding things up to the last minute, that’s why it is as current as it is. What I didn’t realise at the time, of course, when Peter and I met was that one of my shows had a big influence on him and his love of Australian musicals and that was when he was young and a teenager, his mother took him to a production of Caroline—the original production of Caroline at St Martin’s Theatre—and that then inspired him to follow my career, shall we say. And so, I didn’t know that and I was very chuffed about it —that I’ve had some influence.
Rob: Indeed—not knowing that, years later, he’d actually be working with the author of the production!
Peter: No—of course! I say to everybody ‘go out and buy it’. You can buy it on line—it’s available everywhere on line—and at any bookshop. But go to your local bookshop and buy it; I think that’s a good thing, because I love bookshops and we have a lot fewer bookshops today, and so I think it’s good if you can go and buy it at a bookshop. That would be wonderful.
Rob: And with so many days left till Christmas it will make a great Christmas present for anyone interested in the theatrical scene!
Peter: Indeed it will!
Rob: Well—we wish you every success with The Australian Musical, and hopefully it will go into many more editions as well.
Peter: Well, that would be nice, too!
Rob: Which would no doubt necessitate periodic updates too, to add in a few more Australian musicals in coming years. And other than Eddie Perfect and Tim Minchin, do you feel there are many other promising talents on the way?
Peter: Oh, yes! There’s a lot of promising talents; yes, yes, yes! I mean, what I believe—I was asked this question the other day—and I thought about this long and hard, that there is a great future for the Australian musical, but it needs the State funded theatre companies to come on board. We have them in every State—their funding should be based on whether their seasons include a musical. If it doesn’t then they get less but if they do a musical and it’s Australian, then they get more. I think that’s a very workable system. They used to do musicals like the Melbourne Theatre Company started off doing a revue at the end of the year and then they did musicals.
Rob: Lola Montez for one.
Peter: Yes—and Sydney’s Old Tote did some too. Now I know that recently Queensland Theatre Company have done Ladies in Black, Sydney Theatre Company have done Muriel’s Wedding, and Melbourne Theatre Company have done Vivid White, but it’s not enough to do them every few years. You’ve got to do something every year! We’re only asking for one—but every year. Because the problem is with funding, you can go to the Music board and they’ll say: ‘Oh, no; this is the Drama board that’s responsible for this.’ You’ll go to the Drama board and they’ll say: ‘Oh, no; this is the Music board that’s responsible for this’. So, Musical Theatre loses out and has lost out since the Elizabethan Theatre Trust began back in the ’50s. This is what needs to happen now! The State theatre companies need to step up their game and do one [musical] a year; and that’s not putting on a glorified cabaret concert with three people and calling it a musical. It’s got to be a proper written musical with book, music and lyrics.
Anyway, I’ll get of my soap-box now, but that’s the way of the future—I believe!
The Australian Musical: from the beginning
by Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston
Allen & Unwin in association with Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), 2019