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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Cassie Tongue and Ben Neutze

The 15 greatest Australian musicals, on stage and screen – sorted

From L-R: Marcus Corowa in Bran Nue Day, from Lola Montez, Hugh Jackman in Boy From Oz and Jason Donovan in .
From L-R: Marcus Corowa in Bran Nue Day, from Lola Montez, Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz and Jason Donovan in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Composite: Opera Conference / FilmInk / Newspix/REX /

Musicals speak the language of the heart – we sing when words are no longer enough – so we followed ours to create this list of the greatest Australian musicals of stage and screen.

We also followed a few rules. Musicals that aren’t strictly Australian, but feature a solo Australian collaborator in a key role, don’t count for our purposes (you’ll see no Matildas, Beetlejuices, or Legs Diamonds here). With typically short seasons that often see no returns or revivals, we can’t claim to have seen every great musical. And a musical only has a chance to achieve greatness when it does what the form does best: sing out loud in front of as many audiences as it can. This isn’t always possible: there are a lot of flashes of greatness still waiting to be picked up, developed, and fanned into flame.

15. Fangirls (2019)

Sharon Millerchip, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Chika Ikogwe, Kimberley Hodgson in Fangirls.
Sharon Millerchip, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Chika Ikogwe and Kimberley Hodgson in Fangirls. Photograph: Stephen Henry

Have you ever loved something so much all you could do is scream your guts out? Fangirls, Yve Blake’s musical (which is currently enjoying a raucous and wonderfully evolved new season at the Sydney Opera House) is all about the ways teenage girls and queer kids find themselves, and each other, in fandom. Fourteen-year-old Edna kidnaps a Harry Styles type to make her fanfiction dreams come true, set to a score that manages to both parody, and serve as a love letter to, fizzy teen pop. Its cast recording is packed full of bangers, and the show has set a precedent for casting fresh faces with powerhouse voices in leading roles; watching Fangirls is like getting a glimpse of the future of Australian musicals.

14. The Legend of King O’Malley (1970)

A trailer for the 2014 production of The Legend of King O’Malley.

You may not have heard of it, but this 1970 musical by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy was a big hit when it premiered. In an unruly, vaudevillian style, the show tells the story of Australian politician King O’Malley, who was one of the colourful key figures in the early years of the Labor party. Some historians even believe the US-born politician was responsible for Labor dropping the “u” from its name. O’Malley is great subject matter for a musical, and this show tells his story with anarchic style and great humour (one of the key characters is the devil, to whom O’Malley sells his soul). It had a short season in Sydney back in 2014, but is surely due for another revival.

13. The Deb (2022)

The cast of The Deb, on stage at the Rebel theatre.
The cast of The Deb, on stage at Sydney’s Rebel theatre. Photograph: Tracey Schramm

This is the newest entry on our list, but we’ll happily fight for its place. This sweetly moving show about a dorky high school misfit in a rural town knows its own heart. It’s got a great and classically structured book by Hannah Reilly – like a golden age musical, every character has their resolution by the end of the night – and songs by Megan Washington that meld together Broadway with different pop styles to great, toe-tapping effect. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

12. Lola Montez (1958 on stage, 1962 on TV)

Australian musical theatre history is full of forgotten gems: productions remembered by those who were lucky enough to be in the room where it happened, a song or two surviving to become cabaret and theatre school standards. Lola Montez, the 1958 musical with beautiful classical melodies, is one that may have been forgotten too soon. Written by Alan Burke, Peter Stannard and Peter Benjamin, it’s the story of Montez, the famous 19th-century dancer, courtesan, and full-on celebrity, and her visit to the Ballarat Goldfields. It was adapted for TV by the ABC in 1962, and it seems there’s always some interest in a revival. It may make a comeback yet.

11. Bran Nue Dae (1990 on stage and 2009 on film)

The cast of the 2009 adaptation of Bran Nue Day, including Rocky McKenzie as Willie (centre), Ernie Dingo, Deborah Mailman and Geoffrey Rush.
The cast of the 2009 adaptation of Bran Nue Day, including Rocky McKenzie as Willie (centre), Jessica Mauboy (right), Ernie Dingo, Deborah Mailman and Geoffrey Rush. Photograph: c Everett Collection/Rex Featu

Bran Nue Dae was the first Aboriginal musical, penned by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles. It follows Willie Johnson, expelled from his boarding school in Perth, trying to find a way back home to Broome, and is set to a beautiful set of songs that draw on country and early rock’n’roll. The musical had a successful national tour when it premiered in 1990, but its 2020 revival tour was cut short due to Covid. This spot on the list is for the stage version and the 2009 film, directed by Rachel Perkins. Both have their own charms, but the film takes the action properly on the road and speaks its own musical language.

10. Only Heaven Knows (1988)

Alex Harding’s musical charts the changing face of Sydney’s Kings Cross, one of Australia’s longstanding homes for outsiders and social outliers, and the action is observed by an angel: Lea Sonia, a real-life Tivoli-era drag performer. The first act takes place in 1944, where a young boy from the country finds love and family in a community of artists, unmarried women and queer people. In the second act, which takes place in 1956, the family and its community battles to survive under the suffocating Menzies-era conservatism. This story of queer survival, love and resilience is built on simple, direct lyrics and winsome melodies. It made an impact when it premiered during the Aids crisis, and it’s still powerful now.

9. The Sapphires (2004 on stage, 2012 on film)

(L-R) Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in the 2012 film.
(L-R) Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in the 2012 film. Photograph: The Weinstein Company/Sportsphoto/Allstar

The Sapphires takes this spot on the strength of both its original stage production and its more expansive screen version, which had a powerhouse cast in Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell. Written by Tony Briggs, it was inspired by the story of his mother, Laurel Robinson, and aunt Lois Peeler, and follows a singing group of four Yorta Yorta women who tour Vietnam during the war. The Sapphires is packed with beautifully sung jukebox hits, blending warm humour and hope with a still-urgent call for equity and justice for First Nations Australians. Its charm is irresistible.

8. Moulin Rouge! (2001 on film, 2018 on stage)

The Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical.
The Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical. Photograph: Matthew Murphy/Global Creatures

Baz Luhrmann reached peak Baz with his 2001 jukebox movie musical. His kaleidoscopic visual style – which was brewing away in his feature debut Strictly Ballroom, and pushed even further in Romeo + Juliet – explodes in full force in Moulin Rouge! The visuals matched the carefully curated soundtrack, which stitched together pop music from recent decades. The film had an enormous impact across pop culture (its star-studded cover of Lady Marmalade was one of the highest-selling singles of the year) and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, with Luhrmann’s wife, costume and set designer Catherine Martin, winning two. It has now been turned into a stage musical by Australian super producer Carmen Pavlovic, who won the Tony award for best musical.

7. The Boy From Oz (1998)

Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz, in 2006.
Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz. Photograph: Lindsay Moller/Newspix/REX

The first Australian musical to make it to Broadway, the 2004 turn was all but eclipsed by Hugh Jackman’s Tony award-winning Broadway debut. But its original production, starring Todd McKenney, was a classy biographical musical that reminded us of the talents and charisma of its protagonist, Peter Allen. The original book, by Nick Enright, threads together the songs beautifully, and Gale Edwards’ production moved gorgeously through the many chapters of Allen’s life. It also featured a great performance from Divinyls frontwoman Chrissy Amphlett as Judy Garland. Any show that can bring that much diva power deserves a high spot on our list.

6. Keating! (2005)

Keating! at the Seymour Centre, Sydney in 2007.
Keating! at the Seymour Centre, Sydney in 2007. Photograph: Don Arnold/WireImage

Casey Bennetto’s musical about Australia’s 24th prime minister had inauspicious beginnings, having started as a lo-fi production performed to small audiences at the Melbourne international comedy festival. But it quickly became the hottest ticket of the festival, winning the MICF award for best show. It was redeveloped and directed by Neil Armfield for Belvoir St theatre, then toured extensively for several years, beating the far glitzier Priscilla to win the Helpmann award for best musical. Its success is easy to understand: the score constantly evolves from style to style (ska music in a show about Paul Keating? Why not?) and brilliantly lampoons Australia’s political class. Did we mention Alexander Downer’s famous photo in fishnets and heels inspired a Rocky Horror-esque number?

5. Summer Rain (1983)

If you were asked to imagine what an Australian musical looked like, you might dream up Summer Rain. A classic musical comedy, it is set in the 1940s in the fictional rural town of Turnaround Creek, dusty from a seven-year drought. The travelling song-and-dance Slocum family have landed in town and the pragmatic locals aren’t having a bar of it – but then a sudden rain falls, breaking the riverbanks and trapping the showies with the country folks. Rain heals the land, and it heals hearts, too: suddenly love is in the air, and – more crucially – a sense of hope for better days ahead. Written for the National Institute of Dramatic Art’s graduating students, its first outing flopped, but eventually soared. Nick Enright’s words and lyrics are enduring, naturalistic and flow with ease, while Terence Clarke’s music is bright and hopeful.

4. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994 film, 2006 stage)

Jason Donovan (Tick), Tony Sheldon (Bernadette) and Oliver Thornton (Adam) in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert in London, 2009.
Jason Donovan (Tick), Tony Sheldon (Bernadette) and Oliver Thornton (Adam) in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert in London, 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Big heart, big hair and big hits. This jukebox musical adaptation of Stephan Elliot’s road movie about two drag queens and a trans woman travelling through the outback is a sequin-covered delight. Sure, it doesn’t have the emotional depth of the film, and skips over some of its darker aspects, but this musical finds an enormous amount of joy as it rattles off disco hits. And it provided the perfect vehicle (the decked-out titular bus) to take Australian showbiz royalty Tony Sheldon to the West End and Broadway, where he was nominated for both an Olivier and Tony award.

3. Barbara and the Camp Dogs (2017)

Elaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs at Belvoir theatre, 2017.
Elaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs at Belvoir St theatre in 2017. Photograph: Brett Boardman Photography

In Barbara and the Camp Dogs, two great Australian music traditions collide: the musical and the pub gig. Written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, with songs by the pair and Adam Ventura, it debuted at Sydney’s Belvoir St theatre with a chalkboard backdrop advertising pub-grub specials and an RSL-style carpet. It is in this setting that it becomes extraordinary. As pub singer Barbara and her sister René take a scrappy road trip home to Katherine to farewell their dying mother, bubbling anger and sadness spills over, holding up a mirror to Australia’s national wounds. The music is the heart of this piece, borrowing from rock, punk, jazz and folk to build a heartrending landscape of loss, grief, love, survival – and hope.

2. Muriel’s Wedding the Musical (2017)

Natalie Abbott as Muriel Heslop (centre) is seen with performers in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in 2019.
Natalie Abbott as Muriel Heslop (centre) is seen with performers in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical at the Sydney Lyric theatre in 2019. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

Australia’s musical theatre community desperately wanted Muriel’s Wedding the Musical to be great. It had a lot working in its favour: beloved source material, a wonderful director in Simon Phillips, and the perfect songwriters in Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, whose work has always eloquently expressed awkward emotion. Miraculously, it lived up to its potential. The show manages to take its audience to the liberated highs possible in musical theatre, and then down into the depths of its hapless protagonist’s desperation. And its story continues: more development workshops have been held in recent years by Carmen Pavlovic. Rumour has it she is looking to bring the show to Broadway.

1. Miracle City (1996)

Singer Missy Higgins (3rd right) performs on stage with other cast members during a media call for the musical ‘Miracle City’ at the Opera House in Sydney, Friday, October 13, 2017. (AAP Image/David Moir) NO ARCHIVING
Singer Missy Higgins (third right) performs in Miracle City at the Sydney Opera House in 2017. Photograph: David Moir/AAP

Our No 1 musical isn’t perfect; very few musicals are. But this gem has breathtaking ambition, a fully realised pop-gospel sound and a stunning, galvanising ending that reverberates through Australian musical theatre, just as the click of a closing door in A Doll’s House ushered in a new century of western theatre.

Written by Nick Enright and Max Lambert, and inspired by Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, the show is staged during the broadcast of an evangelical family’s TV show. The family’s preacher-patriarch will do anything to bring in enough money to build the Christian theme park of his dreams, even if it costs him his family.

Miracle City was almost forgotten, despite rapturous response to a 1996 workshop at Sydney Theatre Company (partially funded by Cameron Mackintosh). Finally, it was staged in 2014 by Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, where it received a full cast recording, preserving Australia’s definitive musical theatre standard, I’ll Hold On, performed by Esther Hannaford, for posterity. This song, and the whole show, lives under the skin. That’s peak musical theatre greatness.

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