Why everyone thinks they have a musical in them … and why maybe they should leave it in there

I READ with interest today’s news that Rocky the Musical will close on Broadway next month after only 28 previews and 188 regular performances at the Winter Garden Theatre.
The news brings me some amusement because, from my time in entertainment journalism, particularly at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Metro lift-out, I know there is no greater folly that trying to start up a musical from scratch.
The story of the maverick prepared to sacrifice everything to chase their dream – in this case, the poignant story of a mumbling boxer who achieves redemption through the pugilistic arts – is an old one.
The musical theatrical genre is full of  people who’ve bankrupted themselves to pursue their vision. You need a great songbook, truly original concept or guaranteed crowd puller (like Cate Blanchett is with Sydney Theatre Company plays) to make a fist of it in musicals, where profit margins are already slender. And musicals can be hugely expensive to put on, so you need to get that concept idea right in the first place.
While working on Metro I can recall a cavalcade of new and sometimes intriguing musicals coming across the pages. But one has to wonder why Menopause the Musical was a success whereas one man’s self-funded puppet opera failed to inspire the box office. Or why Mamma Mia! was huge while other musicals based on movies (cough, cough) underwhelmed.
It would be cruel to name some of the failures here, particularly if their creators are still in the industry. But with such a high rate of failure for new projects, I can understand why theatre and musical types like to stick with tried and true plays and musicals rather than take the financial and critical risk of anything new.
But there does seem to be a belief that just about anything can become a musical. It’s just like the idea that if you put anything “on ice” it’s automatically better. Just add the right ingredient and, wham, you’ve got the next Tommy.
The improbability of the ideas behind some of the most famous musicals encourage adventurous (even foolhardy) thinking. On the face of it, the idea of a musical about caterwauling cats sounds mad. Surely, you think, if you wanted to listen to howling alley cats, you only had to open your window at midnight and hear the nightly a cappella chorus. But sure enough, despite some catty criticism, Cats was hugged to the collective bosom.
I have no idea what Starlight Express is about. Rollerskating? Trains? Some nightmarish Dr Frankenstein-style experiment where half-men, half-train hybrids sang loudly that they “shouldn’t be”? But it seemed to be big when I was a kid.
Chess? You’re going to make a musical about a board game? Are you mad? Bafflingly, folks seemed to love it (and I do love Murray Head’s song One Night In Bangkok).
Plus when everyone got their kit out in Hair, it meant that anything went on stage.
After that, it almost became a dinner party game to see what could be turned into a musical by simply adding “the Musical” after its title. (“Grouting the Musical?” “Enemas the Musical?” Hours of fun for the whole family.)
Mind you, I’m not complete averse to musicals. One musical I’m really hanging out for is Tim Minchin’s upcoming Groundhog Day the Musical. I would also like to see Spinal Tap’s Jack the Ripper-themed musical, Saucy Jack, if the full-length version is ever made.
It’s not really a musical, but Ben-Hur the Stage Spectacular seems to me to epitomise the kind of high-concept nonsense that should have been nipped in the bud right from the beginning. Then again, maybe I’m bitter because I auditioned for a part all with hundreds of others at a cattle call at ANZ Stadium only to be rejected.
The show went on to attract some of the most scathing reviews I’d ever seen for a big-scale theatrical production in Sydney.
Although I like to believe it flopped because they didn’t cast me. 

My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is out now on Amazon.

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