On Monday, the day the allegations against Craig McLachlan were on the front page of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, The Advertiser published two pieces on the newly controversial production of The Rocky Horror Show: a story about a proposal on stage the night before, and a rave review of the production, first published online January 1.
It was an unfortunate coincidence, with The Advertiser’s staff being privy to the joint Fairfax/ABC reporting at the same time as everyone else, but the dual pieces highlight the preponderance of fluff The Advertiser is sure to publish when large musical theatre shows come to Adelaide.
In many ways, it is a closed circle: Adelaide has one major presenting theatre, the Adelaide Festival Centre, and one daily paper. The former provides a lot of easy content for the latter. Adding to this, the company behind Rocky Horror, Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO), is the most dominant force in musical theatre in Australia.
Musical theatre is a notoriously fickle industry to invest in. Its primary market, Broadway, which is dominated by musicals, took in almost $1.5 billion in the 2017 season, playing to over 13 million audience members. But only 21% of musicals opening on Broadway are said to recoup their original investment.
Australia, being smaller and decentralised, tends to be a conservative market when it comes to these large-scale productions. Companies such as GFO, lead by John Frost, bringing in shows that have well and truly proven themselves as box-office successes. Alongside Rocky Horror, GFO’s current slate includes Book of Mormon, which opened in Melbourne in 2017 after a 2011 Broadway debut; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz, which originally played on the West End in 2011; and Dream Lover — The Bobby Darrin Story, a jukebox musical and GFO’s only original production.
For a newspaper like The Advertiser, where these musicals offer so many opportunities for content, there is also a tight relationship which develops between the arts and entertainment writers and Frost and his publicists. But GFO’s dominance in the Australian scene, and the hundreds of people consequently employed by their productions, should add extra weight to the questions to the way they have allegedly responded to the sexual misconduct claims. (The Herald Sun has today reported the US producers of The Book of Mormon have taken back production control from GFO in the wake of these allegations.)
While The Advertiser covered the allegations against McLachlan in the subsequent days, there was an interesting divide that occurred between the reporting of the news and the reporting of the production, as if the two events could be held entirely apart. Having reviewed the original opening night, critic Peter Burdon returned on Tuesday to review the production with understudy Adam Rennie stepping into Frank N Furter’s shoes.
Burdon’s review ran alongside reportage of the incident, but his coverage is strangely devoid of context. He mentions “the anxiety of the past few days”, “difficult circumstances” and “fresh casting”, but these phrases could neatly be attached to any show losing its headline actor under less controversial circumstances. (Burdon also neglects to note Peter Goers in the role of the Narrator, who he describes as “unbelievably suave”, is his colleague and Sunday Mail columnist.)
This review raises interesting questions about the place of theatre criticism in these circumstances. There is public interest, certainly, in a review of Rennie’s performance — while understudies are common, these circumstances are rare, and Rennie will now be continuing in the role throughout the national tour.
But should theatre criticism solely concern itself with what is on stage, or is there a responsibility for writers to consider the background and circumstances under which a production has been staged? While McLachlan has been removed from the production, the length of time it took these women to come forward and GFO’s reported original response to the allegations — threatening to sue the women for defamation — raises serious questions about occupational health and safety in the Australian musical theatre industry.
Production companies will always selectively pull-quote from reviews for their marketing, but in neglecting to mention the circumstances which lead to the re-review and giving the producers such a blank-slate to pick from, Burdon’s writing veers perilously close to marketing itself. Criticism and its reportage of opinion is a strange function of the news, but it is incumbent of it to engage with reportage of the facts when they speak loudly to the production. Burdon’s coverage neatly avoids any questions about the state of Australian musical theatre or the work-place culture he is observing: to assume that the only thing a critic should write about appears on stage is a negligence of duties.
The Rocky Horror Show was again on the front page of The Advertiser today. The story by Matt Gilbertson on page 14 begins: “The cast of The Rocky Horror Show have broken their silence since the star of the show, Craig McLachlan dramatically departed on Monday.” The allegations of sexual misconduct are noted briefly in passing, but the cast’s “broken silence” amounts to nothing but praise for Rennie. Monday’s drama has faded well and truly into the background. The arts fluff must go on.