billy-castThis was a showbiz industry night to the hilt! And what an ‘industry’ it is these days, if that means great gorgeous lumps of quality product flying off the conveyor belt and into the laps of stamping-their-feet paying audiences around Australia. Before citing winners, the cornucopia of worthy contenders is evidence enough that at last we have arrived at a new golden age. And before that…

I would say it all goes back to Gorton (his support for a film industry) and Whitlam and ‘Nugget’ Coombs, and that post-Menzies lot, with the setting up of the then named Australian Council for the Arts. To the generation of talent that had fled abroad who, at that time, decided to come home and share in this experiment of social (artistic) engineering. The setting up of arts centres and drama schools across the country which led to quality training opportunities and quality venues to house new home-grown work. We are talking about the late 60s and early to mid-70s.

So this is a story that began forty years ago as a trickle of high hopes and barely recognized hard labour.

One could write a whole book on the forces that have come together to create a night like this - where, if only ‘live entertainment’ was fresh water, we could revive the ailing Murray-Darling basin. So many megalitres of talent in a veritable flood! Meanwhile, think of the recovery to our parched souls. Look at the profession now. The sheer amount of work the industry is producing, the quality of the product, and the unbelievable number of talented people now ‘peaking’ – singers, actors, writers, impresarios, administrators, designers, directors.

Hot on the heals is a new generation coming through, but this 2008 night at the Helpmann’s was truly historic because – as an event – it mostly paid tribute to a singular generation that has worked and worked, often against all sort of odds, to lift ‘live entertainment’ in its may forms to the heights of possibility: mega-musicals, operas, straight plays, rock concerts, stand-up comedy, concert music, ballets, contemporary dance, even the peculiar genre of event hosting.

Let’s start there. The ‘pre-pay TV broadcast’ first half was hosted by Julia Zemiro. We know she’s fun and quick-witted from her fronting RocKwiz on SBS, and she was fab co-hosting, a few weeks back, The Vagina Monologues (see my report on this website). Those sitting back in their armchairs at home missed something very special. Not only did some lovely talented people win awards, but Julia’s hosting of the first half of the evening was one of the many many highlights of the night. Charm, a delicious wit, and an amazing gift for impro in the face of the odd technical glitch. In my role as pro-groupie, I now I have another diva to which I must now keep a candle burning at my ever-expanding altar.

We had a suitable venue in Star City’s Lyric Theatre, assisted by bits of Phantom of the Opera’s glamorous set, which spills over to decorate the proscenium arch. Creative direction credits: Director – Stuart Maunder, Musical Supervisor – Max Lambert, Musical Director - Vanessa Scammell, Writers – Jonathan Biggins and David Mitchell, Scenic Design – Mark Thompson, Lighting Design – Gavin Swift, and Sound Design – Shelly Lee.

The programming of the night’s entertainment segments was particularly inspired, with a good wink to fun and ‘industry’ in-jokes.

I can’t go into individual CV’s here, but this list of names is evidence enough of how highly skilled the best in our industry has become. I will pull out two names however: Biggins and Mitchell. Biggins served as presenter for the second half of the evening and his contribution in that role was one of the evening’s many highlights. Unlike such shows overseas like the Oscars, we Aussies enjoy a few jokes – even a few ‘expensive’ jokes, meaning at the expense of someone famous, maybe even love and adore.

Biggins’ on-stage persona has a very stylish retro feel that fits such occasions perfectly when a touch of formality if in ‘inverted commas’, still suits. A jobbing funnyman who has worked his way through many a Wharf review, and starred recently in the fabulous Ying Tong as one of the Goons, Biggins is now a superstar in his own right. And his writing is just hilarious as his onstage persona.

Co-writer David Mitchell should also be mentioned. Who knows which bits he contributed, but he too has been in the writing game this last thirty years, going back the underground drag shows of a different era, with not enough recognition for how many times he has made people laugh – as stars from all corners of the industry have practiced and then delivered his apt and pithy gags and one-liners.

Next: to the onstage entertainment. The four big musicals up for that award (Best Musical) got to strut their stuff in big production numbers – Billy Elliot, Company, Guys & Dolls, and Phantom of the Opera. However good the others were, it was no surprise Billy Elliot took out Best Musical, along with a swathe of other awards. Billy Elliot is without doubt one of the finest musicals ever realized – book, lyrics and score. And the Sydney production is surely as good as you would see anywhere in the world. No surprise that Genevieve Lemon took out Best Female Actor in a Musical. Lemon is a perfect example of my theme, jobbing away for years, time after time accepting any gig she can get, and a one-time cohort of the Wharf Review team, this versatile actress with a voice as big and true as that heart on her sleeve now stands in the front row of the first rank of our national contingent of theatre artists. She is surely our next Nancye Hayes – and I don’t think I can pitch my praise any higher.

We got a delicious glimpse of ‘Our Nancye’, by the way, in the evening’s witty opening number, ‘Understudies’,  alongside ‘Our Genevieve’, Derek Metzer and John O’May. It was a lovely skit and a great way to kick-start the evening.

Billy Elliot’s other awards included ‘Best Male Actor in a Musical’ – going to the four young boys who play Billy on various nights – Lachlan Denholm, Nick Twiney, Rarmian Newton & Rhys Kosakowski.  I look forward in my old age reading their celebrity profiles as they look back on the amazing start they have had to their careers.

paul-capsis This was one of the many categories where all those short-listed deserved a gong: Mitchell Butel in Little Me, iOTA in Rocky Horror, and Anthony Warlow back again as the Phantom. Cute won out, but not undeservingly.

The other massive winner of the night was the Belvoir Street Theatre, confirming its status as THE centre of drama creativity in Australia right now. For those who love this form (my favourite form), I do hope the new leadership at the Sydney Theatre Company - the Upton-Blanchetts – will rise to the challenge, without either losing out in the box office stakes.

To cite just some of the awards that went Belvoir’s way: Russell Dyskstra took out Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in Toy Symphony, Michael Gow got a gong for writing Toy Symphony, and Richard Roxburgh in the same production for Best Male Actor in a play. Notably, and to the credit of Belvoir, neither Gow nor Roxburgh has delivered new work to the stage in many years. Both have shied away for various reason, so how good is it that in rising to the challenge, and putting aside many fears, both have been aptly rewarded. 

It goes without saying director Neil Armfield took out Best Direction of a Play for the Toy. As Armfield noted in his acceptance speech, the three other directors short-listed deserved equally to win: Benedict Andrews for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Barrie Kosky for The Tell-Tale Heart and John Tiffany for Black Watch.

It was a small consolation that Benedict Andrews’ production of Virginia Woolf was awarded Best Play. But this is an odd category: it would win just about any year, wouldn’t it, unless it was up against Hamlet or King Lear?

What needs to be said here is that, with Toy Symphony scooping the pool at both the Sydney Theatre Critics Awards and now the Helpmann’s, Benedict Andrew’s coming of age this last year – with his brilliant production of The Season at Sarsaparilla for the STC and his almost equally superb Virginia Woolf – has been sadly overlooked. Such is the role of the dice component involved in such awards nights, and one can hark back to the many movie actors and directors who never got the Oscar the year they were truly deserved. I think all award ceremonies should include that Cannes category, ‘Un Certain Regard’, to ensure the history of achievement in our ‘live arts’ is more accurately documented.

Rest assured, I am not going to bang on about every award, winner and loser. From here on, I am defaulting to my own favourite moments.

So far as the entertainment on stage, mention must be made of the astounding ‘unusualist’, Ray Crowe, who put aside his shadow puppetry (seen at last year’s awards) for some great magical and skills tricks. Other highlights included cellists, the Ng twins, performing composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s Courting the Dragon. If we are talking ‘art’, this was the high point of the night. The Umbilical Brothers dazzled yet again – their theatrical ideas as impressive as their renowned execution. And, a particular treat for me as I tend to ignore this realm of creativity, ‘pop singing’, was Vanessa Amorosi’s rendition of a song called Perfect – it was too!

Co-recipients of this year’s (life-time) JC Williamson Award were Sue Nattress, a life devoted to the industry over the years of which I speak, from lighting designer to industry management goddess; and Barry Humphries, who – as Dame Edna rightly put it, twisting her pink mouth, on video link from London – has lived off her rare gifts for far too long now.

Among the other winners with which whose work I am familiar, I would like to congratulate Julie Forsythe for her supporting actress role in Exit the King and Julie Lynch for her beautifully detailed costumes for Rocky Horror. The creative team behind Keating! – winner of  Best Regional Touring Production. Tanya Liedke - Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Production for Construct. Choreographer Gideon Obarzanek - Best Visual or Physical Theatre production for Mortal Engine. And Sara Black - Best Female Dancer in Glow (Gideon Obazarnek’s Chunky Move troupe again).

In a tentative move to comment on the realm of opera, I was thrilled to see Cheryl Barker take out the award for Best Female Performer in an Opera. This was for her title role performance in Arabella, which I did not see. But who cares – I saw and heard Barker in Otello last week – and oh my gosh! Here is another perfect candidate to support my theme.

I did happen to be there eighteen years ago on the opening night of Baz Luhrmann/Catherine Martin’s La Boheme – which not only set that mildly talented duo up for all that has since followed; but where Cheryl Barker made us weep as a most tender of Mimi’s. A star was born.

Cheryl Barker - look at you now! Your Desdemona is incandescent. You are in full flight. As the guy who gets to hangs out in the stalls with the punters, I had to stop and pinch myself: how goddam lucky am I?

View images from the 2008 Helpmann Awards - slideshow.gifSlideshow

View MORE images from the 2008 Helpmann Awards- slideshow.gifSlideshow


Top Right: Cast of Billy Elliot
Centre Left - Paul Capsis
Photos - James Morgan

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Jo Bloom

Jo Bloom is Head of Education Development at the Australian Shakespeare Company.

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