Showbiz showdown: the fight to own Sydney’s theatre scene

“It was the theatre of theatres,” she recalls. “I left home, I left my family, it was my first show, eight shows a week. It was a great show to start off with because it was very athletic and it required you to really keep being at your best. I learned professionalism on this stage. In Cats people used to rip a tendon and keep going. When you work in these big theatres, you feel the majesty, you feel part of the theatrical community in a big way. ”

Actor and TV presenter David Campbell came to his first big opening night at the Theatre Royal. “It was so fancy, a proper big theatre,” he remembers.

The bronze sculpture by Charles Perry and ceiling designed by the Italian consultant architect Professor Pier Luigi Nervi, original to the Harry Seidler design, have been restored.Credit:James Brickwood

Later he played Marius to Beck’s Fantine in the 10th anniversary production of Les Miserables in 1997, for which he received wide acclaim.

Campbell, who is soon to star in an Australian adaption of the Alfred Hitchcock movie classic, North by Northwest, credits the role of Marius for starting his musical theatre career.

“If the government and the city hadn’t saved [the Theatre Royal] it I think it would have been a real tragedy.”

A theatre has existed on the site of the Theatre Royal almost continuously since 1872. When the old theatre was demolished in 1971, a public campaign pushed for it to be rebuilt and incorporated into the Harry Seidler-designed MLC Centre.

In 2018 Arts Minister Don Harwin stepped in to secure its future when it looked to be turned into a food court.

The government has leased the building from Dexus for 55 years, for an upfront capital contribution and annual rent. It then sub-leased the venue to Panter’s Trafalgar Entertainment Asia-Pacific for a contribution towards the external renovations, rent and a ticket premium. The contract contains penalty clauses.

Sir Howard said the government’s push to develop a theatre district in the Sydney CBD was “viable”, especially as the city emerged out of lockdown.

“One of the things that I’ll be doing when I’m out there is talking to various people, looking at various sites, see what the practicalities are, and hoping without the dreaded COVID-19 we can get on with a few of the schemes. We are extremely keen, optimistic.

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“You look at Toronto – it has 14 theatres, depending on which way you count it, that’s about the same size, slightly smaller now than Sydney, but it doesn’t have the growth potential. And you think, ‘Why is Sydney not up there?’”

A new 1550-seat theatre was a “necessary and ideal addition to the Sydney and NSW theatre scene”.

“But I also think something around 900 to 1000 seats, to do plays as well as mid-scale musicals, is good,” Sir Howard said. “I know from my work in Broadway and London, too, that actually 1250 seats, if they are all good seats, is about the ideal number.”

Sir Howard’s confidence in the strength of the Sydney theatre scene comes as Foundation Theatres proposes a Broadway-style theatre and versatile Live Room by 2023 in the Star Casino.

“Competition is great, competition has made London and Broadway flourish,” Sir Howard says. “If the [Foundation] proposal is progressed, I’ll be the first to send them a magnum of champagne when they open.”

At the Theatre Royal, floor-to-ceiling windows have been installed bringing light into the original “drum” entrance.

In the foyer, the bronze sculpture by Charles Perry and a ceiling designed by the Italian consultant architect Professor Pier Luigi Nervi, original to the Harry Seidler design, have been restored.

Downstairs the auditorium has been dressed in red velvet and gold as the cast of Jagged Little Pill rehearses. Jagged will be followed by Girl from the North Country, featuring the music of Bob Dylan, and An American in Paris. All are imported shows.

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The contract between the government and Trafalgar does not specify the staging of Australian productions, its performance indicators ensuring profitable theatre operations.

Sir Howard said a couple of Australian productions were “coming through” but had been delayed by COVID-19 complications, and he planned meetings with various creators in the weeks ahead.

“Sydney’s time has come and hopefully the Royal is the new banner wave for this era.”

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