The Musicals (1969-1975)

Words by Andrew Fuhrmann – April 2015

Invited by producer Harry M. Miller to direct the Sydney production of the passionately anti-war hippie rock musical Hair, Jim Sharman is told that he can do what he likes with it. He is twenty-five years old.

There is some precedent for this—the show’s New York director Tom O’Horgan is also a man of his tripped-out moment—but it’s nonetheless a striking departure from standard practice with major commercial musicals in Australia, which usually reproduce their Broadway or West End originals, restaged by one of the director’s lieutenants.

Sharman designs and lights the production himself and he also decides to cast (at least in part) non-professional actors. This is a nod to the anti-establishment theme of the musical itself, but also, maybe naively, some guarantee of the show’s authenticity, some sense of spontaneity, or at least of a roughness that might look like it. The cast in fact includes such future stars as Marcia Hines and Reg Livermore, and presents a striking example of interracial integration.

The show itself, when it emerges from rehearsals, rattles and roars like the wildest sort of rock’n’roll cult. In five-and-a-half years the Sydney show is seen by more than one-and-half million people.

“Its effect was less that of a piece of theatre and more that of an event that changed almost the entire social structure of the city,” recalls Sharman.

There’s more to the legend of Hair than hitherto buttoned-up Sydneysiders wearing kaftans and talking cool and groovy. Hair is the moment where the counter-culture goes mainstream. It represents—and in its way contributes to—a significant shift in public attitudes about sex, race and the war.

The musical proves an instant culmination of Sharman’s early ideas about performance, rock music, ritual and community. The irresistible rock’n’roll beat recalls for Sharman the drumming that he heard as a boy, the beat that drew punters to his father’s tent boxing troupe. And before that, like a memory in his blood’s pulse, it recalls an ancient ceremonial drum, and the summoning of the tribe: a corroboree.

With a radically inclusive design, Sharman transforms Sydney’s Kings Cross Metro theatre into a site of public celebration, where the cast and the audience are joined together in a happening that transcended hierarchies—the old distinction between the entertainer and his crowd. And by the enthusiasm of the audience, it does seem sometimes to have approached an ecstatic collective experience. It’s a time that likes such acts of faith, and Sharman is glad to be a magus.

After Hair in Sydney there’s a very light, very playful production of As You Like It for the Old Tote, designed by Brian Thomson, which gives the fullest possible play to everything that is frothy and bouncy in Shakespeare’s pastoral romp. Centre stage is a large box which unfolds to reveal a Warhol-influenced pop art forest of Arden, as if nature was a myth always apprehended ironically.

This is the first of many collaborations between Sharman and Thomson, one of the most influential creative partnerships in Australian theatre history.

And so from the blithe to the blasted. In 1970, at Melbourne’s Russell Street Theatre, Sharman does a very stern King Lear for the Melbourne Theatre Company with Tim Elliott as Lear. It’s a production which invokes the darker elements of Kabuki and post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Later that year Sharman goes to Japan to directed the Japanese production of Hair, working with local underground theatremakers but basing everything on the Sydney production. The trip also gives him the chance to observe at first-hand the traditions of Noh theatre, an influence throughout his career.

Back in Sydney, in the narrow space between commitments, he finds time to shoot a film with his friend Helmut Bakaitis: Shirley Thompson versus the Aliens, a rough-and-ready celluloid beast with a counter-cultural theme. It remains a cult item among film-school students. After that there’s Reg Livermore’s musical Lasseter, which Livermore also starred in, about a group of young things fleeing the stifling conservatism of society.

Then, as if hippie ecstasies are not enough, there is Sharman’s encounter with the Most High. Jesus Christ Superstar is first produced by Sharman as an enormous rock concert for the Adelaide Festival in 1972. When he comes to stage a full production of Tim Rice and Andrew Llyod Webber’s rock oratorio at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, Sharman’s vision is essentially operatic, with a consciously monumental ostentation, part arena spectacular and part evangelical revival.

Because of the success of the Australian production, Sharman and designer Brian Thomson are invited to produce the London production at the Palace Theatre. The vision becomes more refined. Now the show has the glowing medieval quality of a morality play. Brian Thomson and New York lighting designer Jules Fisher create an overall effect of elevated simplicity, through which sprawls Rufus Collins’s free-form choreography. The West End production of Superstar runs for nine years, becoming the longest running musical ever. (It is soon outlasted by the Broadway production of Grease.)

The production establishes a new template for popular “operatic” musicals, the direct inspiration for blockbuster British musicals such as Cats, Les Mis and The Phantom of the Opera.

With this tremendous success bubbling away in the West End, Sharman turns his attention to smaller projects. A curious revue-style work of documentary theatre—The Trials of Oz—takes him to New York. Then, back in London, Sharman and Thomson do American drummer-turned-playwright Sam Shepard’s comic sci-fi The Unseen Hand in the 63-seat Theatre Upstairs at the top of the Royal Court. Approaching the text at an oblique angle, Thomson covers the entire theatre in live grass, and also drags a Cadillac upstairs, piece by piece. Four years later Sharman describes this as his best production to date.

In 1974, Sharman and Thomson will take on another Shepard work at the Royal Court – The Tooth of Crime.

But first, what can we say about the juggernaut Rocky Horror Show? It premieres in the same venue, the Theatre Upstairs, in 1973. And, in one way or another, its influence continues, always mutant, but still weirdly strong, generation after generation. Richard O’Brien, who played Willie the alien in The Unseen Hand, came to Sharman with a script. They put it together with contributions from everyone, including the original cast. From the very first preview it was a huge success.

Sharman is rather less satisfied with his take on David Williamson’s The Removalists, with Ed Devereaux and Mark McManus, but the production does give a major boost to Williamson’s career.

Returning to Australia, Sharman has his first face-to-face encounter with the work of Brecht since he was a student. He directs The Threepenny Opera for the Old Tote at the opening of the Sydney Opera House. It stars Robin Ramsay as Macheath, Kate Fitzpatrick, Arthur Dignam and Gloria Dawn. Despite mixed local reviews, the London Times music critic who is out for the opening of the opera house likes it immensely.

And so to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the movie version of the musical, which seems virtually to have defined the Australian sense of weird camp and made it go international and viral. Though it has meant different things to different people over the years, it has always been about fun.

And yet, with all its irony and vulgarity, and sheer gusto in the nonsense of dressing up and showing up, Rocky Horror does mark the end of an era, or perhaps the last, decisive shot in a revolution.

According to Sharman, the era of the great rock musical begins with “This Is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” and ends with “Frank’n’Furter, it’s all over”. Having been such a central figure in this transformation, is it any wonder he is so little tempted to return to the world of stage musicals?

And yet, if not musicals, then what?