Over the weekend the NSW Government confirmed its plans to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta by 2023 as part of a major cultural centre redevelopment. But hidden within the announcement was another exciting tidbit: Sydney is set to get a new 1,500-seat theatre designed to house large-scale musicals.
It will be located at the current Powerhouse Museum site in Ultimo, smack bang between Sydney's two major musical theatres: the Capitol in Haymarket and the Sydney Lyric at the Star. The site will also include a fashion and design museum.
The theatre could still be quite a way off – it will need to wait until the Powerhouse has vacated the site before work can start, and the operation of the theatre is being opened up to commercial tender – but this is the most concrete news about a new theatre in Sydney in years. In 2014 it was announced that the UK outfit Ambassador Theatre Group was considering building a major new theatre for Barangaroo, but those plans seem to have been totally abandoned.
Sydney's producers have been calling for a new theatre of this size for years, and although they've all got skin in the game just about everybody working in the area agrees that Sydney's stock of large theatres is well below what a city of this size should have. A 2011 review commissioned by the state government found that Sydney was in serious need of more theatres in the 1,500-2,000 seat range and demand has only continued to grow since then.
At the time the review said such a theatre would cost around $150 million to build, but there's been no commitment from the government. (Although they've been throwing around promises of billions to renovate the city's sporting stadiums.)
Currently, Sydney only has two open commercial theatres appropriate for major musicals: the Capitol and the Sydney Lyric. Both are on the larger end of the scale, seating around 2,000 people, and both are booked solidly for years into the future. It means that although local producers and audiences may be ready and willing to pay for new local content or the latest hit shows from Broadway, those shows can be delayed for years while producers wait for theatres to become available. Good luck to anybody trying to get a theatre booking long enough to premiere Hamilton.
The situation has been made even more difficult in recent years with the closure of the 1,100-seat Theatre Royal at the MLC Centre, which has been empty since March 2016. Its future is now under a cloud with the owners considering how the centre may be redeveloped – and they're not making any promises to reopen the theatre.
Live Performance Australia – a body that represents performing arts companies and producers – today welcomed the announcement of a new theatre in Ultimo, but called on the government to ensure that the Theatre Royal reopens.
LPA chief executive Evelyn Richardson said: "Every day the Theatre Royal is closed is another missed opportunity for Sydney’s live performance industry and audiences, and the government should make reactivation of the site an immediate strategic priority for live performance in NSW."
"Sydney has fallen way behind Melbourne when it comes to live performance venue capacity which is not only bad for Sydney but also impacts on audiences around the rest of the country. The NSW government cannot idly stand by and allow the demolition or downgrading of existing infrastructure."
Which big shows are squeezing into Sydney this year? See our hit-list of the city's best musicals.
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