How Sydney’s oldest theatre became one of the top spots to see a Broadway musical in Australia
Most of Australia’s large-capacity theatrical venues are in Melbourne, where you can see such popular shows as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Who’s Tommy. Sydney, too, has a small but mighty array of storied venues that have hosted famous shows like Hamilton and The King and I, but one of the city’s oldest venues has been out of use for six years: the Theatre Royal, located within the MLC Centre at 25 Martin Place.
Recently, producers have called for more large venues in Sydney as most Broadway and West End productions went to Melbourne. So Trafalgar Entertainment company renovated Theatre Royal Sydney, and it will reopen in December 2021 with the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, featuring songs from the 1995 Alanis Morissette album. The venue will follow Jagged up with the Australian premiere of another jukebox musical: Girl From The North Country, with a score of Bob Dylan’s music, as part of the 2022 Sydney Festival.
In honor of Theatre Royal’s grand reopening, check out some fun facts and iconic productions from the venue’s 180-year history.
Theatre Royal is Sydney’s oldest theatrical institution.
The Theatre Royal has given its name to multiple buildings in Sydney over the years. Even as the buildings were closed or destroyed, they always rose from the ashes stronger and performance-ready as new owners and designers invested their time and money into the historic institution.
The current Theatre Royal building was constructed in 1976, but four other theatres preceded it. Three have been named Theatre Royal. The first Theatre Royal, located around the corner from the current building, opened in 1833. When that theatre’s lease was up, its proprietor, Joseph Wyatt, built the Royal Victoria Theatre nearby, and many of the Theatre Royal actors moved to perform there.
Wyatt then sold the Royal Victoria in 1854 and built the Prince of Wales in 1855, the first performance venue on the Theatre Royal’s current site. The second Theatre Royal was built in 1875, and the final and current Theatre Royal in 1976.
Theatre Royal has been renovated many times.
Theatre Royals have an unlucky historical trend of burning down, though each theatre has lasted longer than its predecessor. The first Theatre Royal burned down two years after its 1838 closure, as did the Royal Victoria. The Prince of Wales Theatre was first destroyed by fire in 1860 and rebuilt, only for it to burn down again in 1872 and not reopen.
The second Theatre Royal also suffered a fire in 1892 which destroyed most of the auditorium, but the building remained intact enough that it was refurbished and reopened a year later. That venue got another facelift in 1921 and stayed open for another 50 years until it was demolished to build the MLC Centre skyscraper and complex. Public outcry prompted the developer to add a theatre into the construction plans — the 1976 Theatre Royal building. The venue closed in 2016 and stayed dormant until its current renovation.
The most recent renovation aims to more fully realize the architect’s original vision.
The 1976 building was designed by the late Harry Seidler and his wife Penelope, and Penelope remains on the design team for the renovated Theatre Royal. The refurbished venue is meant to recall a “20th-century grand theatre,” as Seidler intended, “to replace the historic Royal” that was demolished in 1971, she told the Australian Financial Review. The $40 million renovation includes baroque elements like a ribbed ceiling and a grand staircase, along with new, modern elements like a floor-to-ceiling glass window, allowing passersby to see the opulent lobby from the street. The theatre will have a seating capacity of just over 1,200.
In addition, Mercator, a hanging sculpture by the American artist Charles Perry, has been restored for display in the new theatre. Mercator hung in the 1976 building until the 1990s, when it was taken down due to safety concerns. Sydney-based sculptor Stephen Coburn carried out the restoration of the sculpture.
Here are the Broadway musicals that premiered at Theatre Royal Sydney
Not all major Broadway productions stay in Melbourne. Some transfer from there and have successful Sydney runs, and the Theatre Royal has even housed a few notable Australian premieres of its own.
H.M.S. Pinafore (1879)
The American actor James Cassius Williamson began his theatrical career in New York but later moved to Australia to try his luck at making it there. He ended up building a thriving career as an impresario, beginning with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. Gilbert himself granted Williamson the rights to produce the show, which he did at the Theatre Royal in 1879. Gilbert and Sullivan soon gave the rights to their entire canon to Williamson. As the duo was rising in popularity then, H.M.S. Pinafore was only the beginning of a slate of commercially successful productions at the Theatre Royal, including The Pirates of Penzance in 1881.
The Rocky Horror Show (1981, 1984, 1987)
The Rocky Horror Show has had dozens of Australian productions, and three revival productions in Sydney have taken place at the Theatre Royal. (The original Sydney production in 1974 was at the New Arts Cinema.) The 1981 revival originated there before touring around Australia. Reg Livermore, who is best known for playing Dr. Frank-n-Furter in the original production, reprised the role when the 1984 tour stopped at the Sydney venue. And in 1987, when yet another Rocky Horror tour stopped at Theatre Royal, Richard O’Brien stepped in as a special guest replacement for Riff-Raff, a role he played in the 1975 film adaptation. O’Brien wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical and co-wrote the movie script!
The Australian premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical took place at Theatre Royal, reviving the success of musical theatre in Australia when interest was low, according to a 1987 news article. The Australian Prime Minister, the Treasurer, and the Minister for the Arts all attended the opening performance — but a bomb scare right before the interval cut the performance short. Luckily, no one was hurt, and Cats had a much better run from there on out. In just over two years at the Theatre Royal, the musical played a total of 897 performances for 770,000 people. The cast recording from that production is the only Cats cast album to include “The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles.”
Les Misérables (1987-1988)
Following the success of Cats, the next mega-musical from producer Cameron Mackintosh, Les Misérables, also made its Australian premiere at the Theatre Royal Sydney. The musical ran there from 1987-1988. The venue was the first stop on the musical’s first Australian tour, which would continue in Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide before returning to Sydney for the final stop, this time at the Lyric Theatre.
The Phantom of the Opera (1993-1996)
Rounding out the Mackintosh trilogy was The Phantom of the Opera, which opened in Sydney at the Theatre Royal in 1993 as part of the Australian premiere tour. The musical would go on to be the longest-running show in Australian history, playing various cities from 1990-1998, as well as the longest-running show in the venue’s history. The Phantom of the Opera’s stint at the Theatre Royal lasted from 1993 to 1996, and approximately 1.5 million people saw the show in that time. As the theatre was being renovated for its 2021 reopening, pieces of the original Phantom set were found within the walls!
Jersey Boys (2010)
By the time Jersey Boys arrived at the Theatre Royal, the musical had already won an Olivier Award, a Grammy Award, multiple Tony Awards, and a Best Musical Helpmann Award for the Australian premiere in Melbourne. The show began performances on 18 September 2010 and played a successful 15-month run in Sydney before closing on 18 December 2011. The show was immediately followed at the Theatre Royal by Rock of Ages. Between these two shows, Jagged Little Pill, and Girl From The North Country, staging jukebox musicals at the Theatre Royal is shaping up to be somewhat of a tradition!