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The Hayes Theatre has just announced a stellar line-up of musicals for 2020

Written by
Ben Neutze

Since opening its doors in 2014, the Hayes Theatre has been Sydney’s home for musicals, with award-winning productions of recent international hits, reimagined Broadway classics, and a handful of new Australian shows. But in 2020, the Hayes is really stepping up its game with a full season of nine musicals – four of which are brand new and by local writers – and a handful of cabarets.

Australia mightn’t be known for having an abundance of successful musical theatre writers, but Hayes chair Lisa Campbell says it was always part of the organisation’s plan to be presenting a range of new, locally penned shows.

“The biggest and most exciting thing for us is that our audiences are coming to the new works,” she says. “Hopefully people are gaining trust with us, that if something is at the Hayes it will be of a certain calibre or worth a punt at least.”

Next year the new shows range from a comedy set in the world of competitive wrestling in Dubbo to a colonial satire by queer theatre dynamos Sisters Grimm and Keating! composer Casey Bennetto. 

The Hayes says new musicals are now coming to the organisation from all different sources, meaning its development arm – Hayes Creative Development (formerly New Musicals Australia) – is being rethought to be more responsive to what writers are creating. The company recently commissioned its first musical from New York-based Australian composer Carmel Dean.

“We’re going to open our doors for submissions of anything, whether it be an immediate idea, something somebody has worked on for 20 years, or a writer who needs funding for dramaturgical support, or to expand an orchestration, whatever it may be,” Campbell says. “We’re going to try to tailor the funding we have available to specific projects.”

International work still plays a significant role at the Hayes in 2020, with recent Broadway shows Head Over Heels, Bonnie & Clyde and The Bridges of Madison County all having their professional Sydney debut, alongside a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.

Hayes Theatre 2020 season

The Life of Us (from Jan 16)
Book: Ashleigh Taylor & Ben Bennett
Music & lyrics: Ben Bennett
Director Neil Gooding

This new musical from local writers and performers Ashleigh Taylor and Ben Bennett has been floating around for a while now but is getting its first major staging at the Hayes. It tells the story of Charlie and Ellie, a young couple trying to negotiate the demands of a long-distance relationship, both helped and hindered by technology. Expect to be reaching for the tissues in this tear-jerking romance, with a lush contemporary score reminiscent of Pasek and Paul (the songwriting team behind The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen and Dogfight). The musical was workshopped in Los Angeles earlier this year under Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz and had a development showing at the Hayes Theatre.

“The uptake was phenomenal, and it was so heartening to see a whole new generation of fans of musicals who have never come through our doors before but were such fans of Ashleigh and Ben’s writing,” Campbell says.

Taylor and Bennett are starring in the show, alongside Pippa Grandison and Toby Francis.

The Rise and Disguise of Elizabeth R (from Feb 13)
By Gerry Connolly with Nick Coyle & Gus Murray
Director: Shaun Rennie

Move aside The Crown – Gerry Connolly’s performance as Queen Elizabeth II might just be the finest out there. It’s so fine, in fact, that Connolly is building a whole new musical around QEII, whom he’s been channelling for four decades to hilarious effect. He’ll also be channelling other famous characters from her life, along with a cast of comedic triple threats to tell an unexpected story of Her Majesty.

Shaun Rennie (Rent, Only Heaven Knows) is directing the production, which has been written by Connolly with the help of producer Gus Murray and award-winning playwright Nick Coyle (The Feather in the Web).

The Bridges of Madison County (from Mar 6)
Book: Marsha Norman
Music & lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Director: Neil Gooding

This musical adaptation of Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel (perhaps known best for the 1995 film version starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood) wasn’t an enormous Broadway hit, but its cast recording developed a devoted following in the years following its 2014 premiere. Jason Robert Brown’s score, which mixes folk and pop with operatic influences, is widely considered one of his finest.

It’s another romance in the season, following Francesca, an Italian immigrant housewife who falls into a fiery and passionate affair with Robert, a National Geographic photographer.

“It’s one of the most beloved scores of this century,” Campbell says. “It’s been shrunk down to suit the Hayes beautifully, and I think it will work incredibly well given the chamber nature of the piece.”

Merrily We Roll Along (from Apr 16)
Based on the play by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Music & lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: George Furth
Director: Dean Bryant

Dean Bryant has directed three of the Hayes’s most successful productions – Sweet Charity, Little Shop of Horrors, Assassins – and is returning to take on this decades-spanning Sondheim gem. The musical famously unfolds in reverse, telling the story of a trio of friends who start out as wide-eyed, optimistic writers ready to change the world. But success has a way of corrupting, and the musical uncovers how the trio fall apart.

The production is bringing back several Hayes favourites: choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, musical director Lucy Bermingham, and actors Elise McCann and Ryan Gonzalez.

Dubbo Championship Wrestling (from May 29)
Book, music & lyrics: Daniel Cullen & James Cullen
Director: Sheridan Harbridge

As far as we know, Daniel and James Cullen’s debut musical is the first musical ever set in Dubbo. It’s definitely the first rock musical set in the competitive world of wrestling and in Dubbo. 

“It’s The Castle meets Hulk Hogan,” Campbell says. “So it’s got this great charm and heart, of Australian humour, but of course all the Lycra of GLOW. But within that are themes of the progression of middle Australia and their acceptance of outsiders, and it’s really beautiful because of that.”

The musical came through the New Musicals Australia program and has been workshopped a number of times under director and dramaturg Sheridan Harbridge. It follows Rose, a young woman with wrestling in her veins who is drawn back home to Dubbo on the eve of Dubbomania, the biggest wrestling event of the year. The first half of the musical establishes the world of Dubbo, while the second is all about Dubbomania.

Dubbo Championship Wrestling. Photograph: Peter Brew-Bevan.

Head Over Heels (from Jul 3)
Songs: The Go-Go’s
Based upon The Arcadia by Sir Phillip Sidney
Conceived & original book by Jeff Whitty
Director: Ellen Simpson

Head Over Heels was always a bit of an unlikely proposition, but it became a small surprise hit on Broadway last year.

“This is the quickest we’ve ever had anything from Broadway,” Campbell says. “It’s really exciting that we’re getting trusted to have things almost directly.”

The score is made up of songs by ‘80s all-female rock band the Go-Go’s (including ‘We Got the Beat’, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ and ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’), while the story comes from about 400 years earlier: Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. It scored stellar reviews on Broadway, full of praise for the show’s left-of-centre humour, and will be directed in Sydney by Ellen Simpson, who has been working as an assistant director and choreographer on a number of high-profile shows and is finally getting one all to herself.

The Sovereign Wife (from Aug 7)
Music & lyrics: Casey Bennetto
Book: Sisters Grimm
Director: Sisters Grimm (Declan Greene & Ash Flanders)

It’s been a few years since there’s been a show from the wilder-than-wild Sisters Grimm, the queer theatre duo of Declan Greene and Ash Flanders. But they’re finally making their first musical, a colonial satire that promises to get to the guts of the nation.

“Declan put it forward for our artist-led submissions, and it was an absolute slam-dunk for us,” Campbell says. “There’s a large committee of people who make decisions on that, and everybody was so enamoured with it because it’s so unlike anything else. It’s fascinating and completely anarchic but tells a story from so many different viewpoints and gives us insights into so many different people. It’s unlike anything else I’ve ever read.”

Sisters Grimm previously told the story of Irish immigrant Moira O’Flaherty and her struggle to survive on the Ballarat goldfields in a previous iteration of this show in 2013 as part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon independent theatre season. But the show has developed since then and is now a musical with a score by Casey Bennetto, the mastermind behind Keating! The Musical.

The Sovereign Wife. Photograph: Peter Brew Bevan.

Bonnie & Clyde (from Sep 18)
Book: Ivan Menchall
Lyrics: Don Black
Music: Frank Wildhorn
Director: Amy Campbell

The larger-than-life stories of criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde have been told in just about every medium, but this 2009 show by Frank Wildhorn (Jekyll & Hyde) marks their musical debut. The score combines rockabilly with blues and gospel to tell the story of the pair’s rise and eventual fall.

Amy Campbell, who has choreographed several of the Hayes’s most successful productions (In The Heights, Violet), is taking on the role of director for this musical’s professional Sydney debut.

Young Frankenstein (from Nov 6)
Book: Mel Brooks & Thomas Meehan
Music & lyrics: Mel Brooks
Director: Alexander Berlage

Alexander Berlage has directed two very different musicals for the Hayes before: he brought the campy world of John Waters’ Cry-Baby to the stage in 2018 and the dark horror of American Psycho earlier this year. His next musical will combine those two sensibilities: Mel Brooks’ musical version of his horror spoof Young Frankenstein.

“He’ll be bringing in some genuine terror, and it’ll be really, really fun,” Campbell says. “The aesthetic is going to be hugely important, as is the comedy, and the heightened nature of the characters. I think we can expect a really well-defined version of this, but still pleasing all the people who’ll come to see a Mel Brooks comedy.”

Young Frankenstein. Photograph: Peter Brew-Bevan.

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Sydney's theatres are packed to the rafters with musicals. Here's every major show coming your way. 

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