Thursday, May 24, 2012

Overview: Hooray for Hollywood and Now Broadway Bound

Do I need to write anything more?

There’s a cynical line in the fun 1930s Hollywood Hotel’s hit song, Hooray for Hollywood, that goes Hooray for Hollywood, Where You’re Fantastic if You’re Even Good.

That might be the case for off-the-peg, easy on the eye, American idols, but over there would-be-star imports have had to prove themselves in the big playpen.

In the last decade or so Australian actors of the calibre of Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackson, Heath Ledger, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush, among others, have done it in spades.

They’ve won industry adulation, a popular fan following and a swag of Oscars and Emmys to demonstrate that, when it comes to punching above their weight, Aussies can go the distance.

The conquering heroes flash across our TV screens on award nights and, more often than not, walk away with some glittering prize or at least the echo of winsome superlatives ringing in their ears.

That’s all part of the Hollywood hype – which is an integral part of this  zillion, dollar business – but what about Broadway which has its own brand of razzamatazz?

There’s a Give My Regards to Broadway, Broadway Bound, Strike up the Band streak running along the Big White Way, but, compared to Hooray for Hollywood, seems more subtle.
There’s a sense – and maybe it’s not altogether fair – that actors and performers need something a little more special to get up night after night and win over an audience that’s right there in front.

There’s no second take, studio stand-in, action double or technological enhancement for the trouper facing his or her destiny in the long Broadway night between curtain up and taking a bow.

There’s a Broadway buzz and, in recent times, its embraced a handful of Aussies and imported shows and plays such as  Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Tony Sheldon, Exit the King, Geoffrey Rush, Hugh Jackson, Back on Broadway and Rachel Griffith (Other Desert Cities) and the play Honour by kingpin Aussie wordsmith Joanna Murray-Smith.

The Australian Broadway story, however, has both a past and, of course, a future of which the above standard bearers represent only a handful of stations along the Great White Way to US Theatrical glory.

Then there’s the scribes who tell our stories and take them to the world risking all the positive stock they’ve earned at home.

Adelaide-born playwright Malcolm ‘Max’ Afford was among the first home-grown playwrights to be seen on Broadway, when his comedy thriller Lady in Danger played the Broadhurst Theatre in 1945.

The play had been a hit in Sydney, under the direction of Doris Fitton, but could only manage a three and half week run in post-war New York City before closing.

Ray Lawler’s seminal Summer of the 17th Doll went to New York City in 1958, following crackerjack seasons in Australian and later London, where the darlings of the British stage, Laurence Oliver and Vivien Leigh championed the production.

The Lawler play found NYC a much harder nut to crack, despite certain tweaks, such as dropping the very home-based terms and references, which had warmed Australian hearts.

The Australian presence on Broadway wasn’t really felt until the late 1980s, ‘90s and the initial years of the millennium, when writers such as David Williamson went off-Broadway with Emerald City and then in 1992 Brisbane playwright Jill Shearer’s Shimada put her in the record books.
Jill Shearer and Shimada star Ben Gazzara on Broadway 

The popular Brisbane playwright and theatre identity was the first Australian female playwright to be seen on Broadway – once again at the Broadhurst Theatre- with her no holds barred  powerful account of Japanese-Australian relations during and after World War II.

Jill’s Broadway experience was what the Australian media like to call a roller-coaster ride as the production, starring Ben Gazzara, Ellen Burstyn, Mako and Estelle Parsons, had to contend with Broadway at its must belligerent.

There were, it has been reported many times, mistakes.

The final nail in the coffin coming from the wrath of Frank – The Butcher of Broadway – Rich whose scathing attack completely derailed the whole project
 within days of opening.

Jill, who had been ill for sometime, died on May 6 and at her Brisbane funeral on May 14 at St Paul’s Anglican Church, Ashgrove, Edith Piaf’s No Regrets was among the songs played.

That amply sums up Jill’s good natured response to what was both undoubtedly ‘the best and worst’ of times alhough the playwright never looked back in anger.

Indeed, Jill was always happy to talk about her brush with Broadway and even wrote a warts and all book, Nowhere But Broadway, which told her story with humour and a big heart.

As Shimada player and good friend, Estelle Parsons said in her introduction to the book, describing Broadway as the ‘ultimate game of chance’, “the consolation is that it (the event) makes a good story and Jill is a good storyteller.”

Jill Shearer was a pioneer and those who lead the way into new territory often have to face the slings and arrows of the adventurer, but eventually others follow and with tenacity so does success.

That was Jill’s American adventure but I would like to conclude with a line or two about her outstanding record in Australia, where she wrote, and had staged, more than 20 plays, earned a swag of awards and the respect and love of admirers and friends both within and outside the business.

Jill Shearer, like so many who lead so that other might follow and try something outside their comfort zone, was both an inspiration and a true trail blazer.

I saw Shimada in Brisbane nearly a quarter of a century ago and I still remember it as a work with more to recommend it than Rich credited it.

But then I go to the theatre with an open mind rather than a closed agenda.

The new century has seen the first Australian musical performed on Broadway – back in 2003 The Boy from Oz earned Hugh Jackman a Tony Award- more award winning success with Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King, the success of playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and most successful producer John Frost.

The entrepreneurial guru has more tentacles in more US and Australian projects than an octopus – he’s won Tonys for productions of The King and I and Hairspray – but I’ll leave his story for another posting.

(Note: Nowhere but Broadway by Jill Sheaer was published by the author in 2002 and there are several copies available at the Brisbane City Library.)

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