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Australians love musical theatre. In 2013, 22 percent of the population attended a musical or cabaret, compared with the 20 percent who attended traditional or contemporary theatre. And the economic impact of the industry is massive; each year Australians buy around $200 million worth of tickets to major musicals.

Musical theatre forms a huge part of our creative culture and Australians have fallen for all the biggest blockbusters of the last 30 years: Phantom, Wicked, Mary Poppins, Cats, Les Miserables, The Lion King. We're rightfully proud of the strength of our local productions of these works – the original Australian production of Les Miserables, for example, made stars of Anthony Warlow, Marina Prior and Philip Quast, and was so strong that producer Cameron Mackintosh invited several local artists to perform leading roles on his Complete Symphonic Recording of the score.

These are the productions that have fostered our deep love of musical theatre and built an audience base for all forms of musical theatre. But how much of the product that we see on our biggest stages is actually homegrown?

Although about half of the plays on Australian stages are written by local writers (that figure fluctuates year-to-year), the vast majority of musical theatre is written by American or British writers. And while most plays performed in Australia are directed and designed by Australians, most of our musical theatre is made up of imported productions directed, designed and choreographed by international talent.

These productions are known as "replica" productions, because they replicate the direction, the design, the sets, the costumes, the props, the lighting, the sound design and even the make-up of the original production. To mount a replica production, either the original creative team will travel to a new location and work with the local cast, or they will send associates who can replicate the work of the original, working from archival footage and notes.

While smaller venues and production companies like Hayes Theatre Co and Squabbalogic in Sydney, Chapel off Chapel in Melbourne and Harvest Rain in Brisbane present entirely new productions of international work, our large-scale musical stages are dominated by replica productions from New York and London, with a few exceptions.

Dean Bryant is currently mid-way through rehearsals for the upcoming Opera Australia and John Frost co-production of Anything Goes, which is the biggest original (non-replica) production of a musical he's directed. While he's known for his work as a writer of musical theatre and cabaret, alongside partner Mathew Frank, Bryant's career as a director has taken off over the last several years, creating productions for Melbourne Theatre Company and The Production Company. He most recently picked up a Helpmann Award for his work on Hayes Theatre Co's Sweet Charity. But that production was created for the 110-seat Hayes, while Anything Goes is designed for 1500-seat theatres.

"I was just saying to our producers yesterday – it's so rare to build an original, commercial-sized musical production in Australia," Bryant says. "I don't think audiences realise how rarely they get to see something built by an Australian creative team."

While elements of the Anything Goes set are inherited from a New Zealand production, Opera Australia and John Frost have taken a chance on an entirely new product from Bryant, designer Dale Ferguson and choreographer Andrew Hallsworth.

"When you licence a show [for a non-replica production] what you have to do is the script and the score that they send you," Bryant says. "There's very rarely anything that you physically have to do in musicals in terms of design, choreography or stage directions. Even things like musical arrangements – you're free to do your own arrangements as long as you respect the integrity of the songwriting.

"The fact is that it can actually be cheaper to use an Australian creative team and build a show from scratch. You don't have to pay all the royalties – and they can be huge – and you don't have to fly out all the creatives in first and business class. And it's more exciting for our industry to get to build it."

It's the type of opportunity that comes along pretty rarely for Australian directors; our biggest musicals have been almost entirely imported ever since the Golden Age of musical theatre in the late 1940s and ‘50s.

In the 1960s, John Robertson was a stage director for Australia's biggest musical theatre production company at the time, J.C. Wiliamsons. Robertson eventually became a prominent executive producer, working on the original Australian productions of Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Rent, and is now an advisor to the Hayes Theatre Co board. He says that not a whole lot has changed in the commercial sphere since he started out.

"Generally, the producers' executives, either in London or New York, would see what was being presented and recommend to the producers here what productions might suitable for presentation in Australia," Robertson says.

The sets would sometimes be imported, but mostly recreated locally from photographs while Australian choreographers and directors, like the legendary Betty Pounder, would attend the original production for a week with a notepad, meticulously notating the choreography and direction (no easy task for a production with choreography as iconic and distinctive as Bob Fosse's Sweet Charity). They would then return to Australia and teach it to the local cast.

At the time, producers would usually import an international "star" to play the leading roles, but Robertson says the situation changed dramatically in the mid-60s when Nancye Hayes was cast in the leading role of Sweet Charity and Jill Perryman took on Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.

As the New Wave of Australian theatre took off in the early 1970s, and new producers like Harry M. Miller gained prominence, there was an even greater shift towards using Australian talent.

Local creative teams were beginning to get the chance to create original productions on a massive scale, most notably Jim Sharman and Brian Thomson, who created a legendary local production of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972, which was radically different to the one which opened on Broadway just a year earlier. Immediately following the success of that production, Sharman and Thomson created the first ever production of The Rocky Horror Show in London.

But then, in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats opened on the West End and became an instant smash hit, changing the business of musical theatre all around the world. The direction by Trevor Nunn, choreography by Gillian Lynne and design by John Napier became as iconic as the score and lyrics, and producers were keen to roll out replica productions in as many places around the world as they could.

The same then happened with other massive ‘80s hits such as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, and more recent blockbusters like Wicked and The Lion King. Australian audiences were now able to see the work of the world's greatest musical directors and designers on stage and experience the musicals exactly as they were initially intended. They got to see the chandelier from The Phantom of the Opera, the helicopter from Miss Saigon and the thrilling flying sequence from Wicked, exactly as it appeared on Broadway, down to the final lighting cue.

Kerry Comerford is vice president of the Australasian arm of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company, and one of her responsibilities is overseeing all the company's replica productions playing around the region, most prominently Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

"A replica production usually happens as a result of something being a major hit," she says. "You have a show that's been well-received and audiences are loving; it's about making sure you continue to do that."

Of course, there are massive risks involved in mounting a major commercial musical – their budgets are usually more than $10 million nowadays – so a replica production can act as a kind of quality control for producers. But Comerford says it doesn't mean that audiences outside Broadway or the West End are getting just an imitation of the original product.

"Every director wants a performer to bring something of themselves to the creation, so it's not saying ‘copy this emotion' or ‘copy this line reading'. It's not meant to be a cookie cutter; it's still meant to be a creative process where people discover the role and discover new things about the role.

"I can't tell you how many productions or casts of Phantom or Cats that I've seen in the last 20 years, but I will still say that every night is different and the performers deliver something different. It should be vibrant and new for the audience every night."

Comerford says she's advocated for Australian creatives to be given the chance to steer new productions of international work whenever possible, and in 2011 an Australian team built a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, just a year after it opened on the West End.

"Andrew was open to the idea of bringing a new team together," Comerford recalls. "He, I suppose, wasn't as happy with the original production in the UK. It hadn't been well-received by critics and audiences, so an opportunity existed to take another look at it, and he was really excited by [director] Simon Phillips and [designer] Gabriela Tylesova's ideas."

The Australian production was so successful that it opened in Japan last year and is due to be mounted in Germany later this year.

But it's not the first homegrown production that Phillips has directed which has gone on to have replicas rolled out around the world. He created the original production of the 2006 Australian musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which had successful seasons in London and New York.

Dean Bryant has worked alongside Phillips since the initial workshops of Priscilla, and is currently the associate director for productions around the world, having mounted the work in cities including Seoul, Sao Paulo and Madrid. Given his close association with the original production, Bryant has the unusual licence to adjust many elements of the show in its various replicas to suit the actors or the sensibilities of the local audiences (songs may even be moved in or out of the production).

Both Priscilla and Love Never Dies would seem toprove that Australian creative teams are working at the highest possible level in musical theatre (Phillips is again working with Tylesova on a US production of The First Wives Club). So will audiences get to see the work of more Australian creatives on our biggest stages?

Bryant says that although he hopes there'll be more chances granted to locals, he understands that there'll always be a thirst to see great productions from around the world.

"People here want to see Diane Paulus' Pippinbecause of what she did with the acrobats," Bryant says. "It would be a bit redundant for me to then go: ‘I want to do Pippin and I'm going to put circus in it'."

John Robertson agrees that Australians should be given a few more opportunities on our biggest stages amongst the international productions. He says that there are now more chances for the work of local directors, designers and choreographers to be seen with the rise of smaller production companies, albeit on a different scale to the blockbusters.

"I don't think the country will ever be without product that comes in from overseas as a replica of what's showing," he says. "But people can do it here, and I've always thought that. I think it's extremely well demonstrated by Love Never Dies, and there are other great examples. There's a great creative urge here, and I don't think that will ever stop."

By Ben Neutze