NOTE: This piece contains an image of children in racist blackface. We kept the image in the story as an example of history that was once considered okay. But let's be clear, it never was.
This has been republished with the blessing of Norm McVicker's estate. Norm was a good friend of the Mudgee Guardian and we are honoured to share his work with you. Read more Tales From Along the Wallaby Track at our website.
Originally published: Monday, October 23, 2006
The words "Musical Comedy" are used for any form of musical entertainment from grand opera to what was known as vaudeville.
In opera, the flow of music and singing is uninterrupted, while musical comedy tells the story with speech, songs and dances. The revue is also a form of musical comedy even though songs and sketches may be unrelated.
Then there is operetta, with fabulous costumes and its air of romanticism or the musical play considered to be a more serious form of musical comedy. Vaudeville was a mixture of unrelated dances, sketches and songs usually held together by a comedic element.
At various times since white settlement, Mudgee town and, to a lesser extent, Gulgong have had all of the above.
In Mudgee, the late 1970s and early 1980s was a period when hardly a month passed without one or the other or a straight play being produced with locals in the leading roles.
But involvement in theatre productions goes even further back than that as recorded in various issues of the Mudgee Guardian.
The venues varied from Town Hall Theatre to the now demolished Civic Theatre. The Town Hall Theatre had no dressing rooms or wing space. The dressing rooms were to come later even after the theatre was refurbished in 1983.
There is still very little storage space in the wings for sets and props.
The Town Hall and Theatre was opened on December 15, 1881 and the first concert was given on March 17, 1882 by the teachers and students from Mudgee Public School. Entry to the theatre was then through the main door of the building and then by using internal stairs.
Space on the first floor at the Mudgee Soldiers' Club or Mudgee Bowling Club was sometimes brought into use as was The Regent Theatre. Although the Regent has a number of small dressing rooms, backstage space is minimal as is the depth of the stage. It was designed first and foremost as a theatre for showing films.
The loss of the Civic Theatre as a venue was obviously one of the reasons for the death knell of major musical productions. But there were others such as rising costs in royalties, equipment and costume hire. Last but not least is the word "people". Although there was, and still is, a staple population of people interested in "theatre" the lack of "newcomers" and "floaters" (e.g. school teachers and musicians) and available knowledgeable producers must not be discounted.
In researching this Wallaby Track, I was constantly reminded of a backstage theatre story concerning the late Hayes Gordon when he was appearing in the first Sydney production of Kiss Me Kate. This was before he had established the Ensemble Theatre and introduced his particular brand of "method" acting. Hayes was endeavouring to teach the cast of Kiss Me Kate this type of expression. At one stage he had them crawling on the floor when the irrepressible actor Maggie Fitzgibbon got up and said:
"I am not doing this any more. They are not writing good parts for caterpillars". True or not it does not matter.
For many, whose names appear from now on in this story (I have used the names as in published programmes and some may now have changed by marriage) that principle applies. There are simply few roles they can still play. The spirit may be willing but time has caught up with them and replacements have not been found although the population of young people has increased. Some blame the introduction of television, the raising of families, sporting activities or even the ability to now play a DVD at home for the lack of interest. Whatever the reasons we are fast losing our rich and varied cultural heritage.
Gilbert and Sullivan
The operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have enjoyed a special place in musical theatre in Mudgee. No doubt this is because of the rare polish of the libretti and music, and because the texts are in English and ridicule many English institutions.
There have been productions of The Gondoliers, H.M.S Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Ruddigore and at least three productions of The Mikado. There was one in the 1920s with James Pirie and Ivy Rowbotham in the leading roles.
Ralph Griffiths played the comedy role of Koko in the 1971 production by Doug Grigg with Geoff Wells as musical director and his wife Dacia as Katisha.
Recently I caught up with Ralph Griffiths in a local supermarket and we talked about this particular Mikado and the recent TV re-run of the 1937 film with Gregory Stroud in the role of Pish Tush. In 1937 I saw the entire G & S repertoire at the Theatre Royal with an all star cast led by Ivan Menzies and including Gregory Stroud in the same role. We agreed that the stylised movements when D'Oyly Carte had full production rights had been retained until the copyright on the operas ran out.
Many of the great names in the musical theatre first appeared in the 1920s. George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Oscar Hammerstein II and Lorenz Hart. In 1927 musicals were to change forever when Show Boat, the first modern musical was produced in New York.
The Great Depression of the 1930s inspired many satirical and topical revues with the first musical to win a Pulitzer a prize Of Thee I Sing being a satire on politics. The ever popular White Horse Inn made its debut in 1931. In the 1940s Pal Joey and Rogers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! with its blend of songs, dances and story set a new pattern for the development of musical comedy.
Then there was Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific and Brigadoon to name just a few. The 1950s brought forth Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Music Man and the Sound of Music. In later years came Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Mame, Oliver, Pyjama Game, Camelot, and Carousel to be followed by the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber such as Evita, Cats and Phantom of the Opera.
There is a tendency to forget that the 1970s and 1980s were golden years of musical theatre in Mudgee. Individual press cuttings and scrap books show many of the above musicals were being staged either by the then Mudgee Musical Society (now integrated with Mudgee Performing Arts Society) or by specialised revue groups or schools. Names of producers such as Margaret Fountain, Betty McLean, Liz Etherington and Doug Grigg keep recurring year after year. The same applies to cast members such as Don Russell, Robyn Ferguson, Sandy Bobridge, Jill Novak, Brian Heber, Ralph Griffiths, Ken and Judy Charter, Harry Tritton, Charles Spooner, Joe Hughes, Mike Elliott and Lyndsay McEwan and many, far too many to record.
The backbones were the dedicated pianists Patricia Prowse, Ruth Newman and Geoff Wells who gathered a loyal band of musicians around them and the dedicated backstage crews.
Opera in the Bush
In its December 24, 1980 issue The Australian Women's Weekly ran a two page spread about the Orana Opera Company formed by David Forrest and Don Russell developed from Mudgee's 14-year old Musical Society.
The first production was Cavalleria Rusticana with the ABC Sinfonia Orchestra for a two night season. This was followed by Pagliacci in 1982. No further opera productions were undertaken.
During the same years when musicals were being produced with adult performers their children were also appearing in school musicals often produced by the same Betty McLean at Mudgee High School, Ruth Newman at St Matthew's Central School and Liz Etherington at Mudgee Public School.
I remember with considerable pleasure Mudgee High's The Sentimental Bloke, produced by Betty McLean and brilliantly performed by an outstanding cast. I had seen the professional cast at the 2nd Adelaide Festival years before and was delighted with the high standard achieved.
Norman Meader was "The Bloke", Allyson McFaul "Doreen" and David Crowe "Ginger Mick". Another of this school's productions was Oklahoma! with Tim Ferguson, Scott, David and Susan Etherington, Scott Chapple and a talented cast of young people.
In latter years Heather Rushton and Sandy Smith have continued the tradition. In recent years the High School has presented modern, youth oriented musicals such as Bats and Man of Steel.
In the 1980s at St Matthew's Ruth Newman was busy not only as a teacher but involved in music, choirs and musical presentations with much younger children.
Many still remember and talk about The Minstrel Show with a huge cast of singers, dancers and actors on that vast Civic Theatre stage. Later at the Regent Theatre she staged Noah.
Whilst all the musicals were being performed many of the participants were also involved in other theatrical work presenting straight plays, with the Joe Hughes Revues at Mudgee Soldiers' Club or with the Mudgee Revue Kids.
Also during the annual Wine Festival there were events at wineries such as those at Mansfield Winery when Aspects of Love brought together a band of local performers including Tim Ferguson and Geraldine McFaul as the young lovers in the balcony scenes from Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story. Once again also on stage were Don Russell, Betty McLean, Norman Meader, and Jenny Tidey with Ruth Newman as accompanist.
Those days may have past, but they are part of the cultural heritage of a town that says it is "on the move"- one wonders which way.