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The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.
The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

SocietyDecember 12, 2018

Shortland Street The Musical: A post-mortem

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.
The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

This week it was announced that Auckland Theatre Company’s Shortland Street: The Musical would be cancelling its planned 2019 tour. Sam Brooks asks why the show fell short of its ambitions – and what it says about the industry.

Shortland Street: The Musical had the potential to a be a long-running, bonafide hit. It was a lot of fun to watch. It wasn’t necessarily a show that I’m in the target audience for, but it’s a show that definitely did have a target audience.

When a production that seemed like such a sure bet stumbles at this stage – considering the amount of development this show has also had, three years including a workshop showcase at the Auckland Festival – it’s pretty scary. I say this as someone who regularly makes theatre, and at some point intends to make theatre on the same scale as Shortland Street: The Musical.

It’s not as simple as saying that there’s a cringe around local content – I’d argue there’s a hunger for genuinely good local content. It’s a lot more complex than that.

In the interest of shedding light on complexities, here’s my educated-ish explanation on why Shortland Street: The Musical has halted where it has.

Shortland Street has unique brand saturation – and situation

Shortland Street is our longest running fictional television show. It’s been going for 26 years, with no signs of stopping any time soon – hell, this year alone it has stepped up to being broadcast six nights a week.

Everybody in the country has a relationship with Shortland Street. If your relationship to the show is, “I watch Shortland Street, or have watched Shortland Street before”, then you are in the market for this musical.

If your relationship to the show is, “I do not watch and have no interest in Shortland Street”, you are not going to go see Shortland Street: The Musical. Before you even start to consider the kinds of people who go to see theatre or musicals, that’s a significant amount of the population of New Zealand who are hard-passing on your show before they even see any of the marketing.

Justin Rogers as Doctor Hone Ropata in Shortland Street: The Musical.

The show was a parody of a drama

This is where we get into the content of the show, and I stress again that this isn’t a review of Shortland Street: The Musical. I liked it, I thought it was fun, and I think a great many people would enjoy it.

But the specific content and tone of the show makes it a hard sell. Because Shortland Street: The Musical is both a parody of Shortland Street and very earnestly a love letter to it. That’s hard to explain to somebody.

And harder to explain to a fan of the show: very few people want to see something that makes fun of something you love. There’s a reason why there’s very few musicals based on pre-existing material that are in a different genre from that material. Legally Blonde remains a comedy. Shrek remains a comedy. Once Were Warriors: The Musical, god bless them, remained a drama.

Watching the show, it makes sense and is a good time. But it’s not easy to articulate. When you’re relying on word-of-mouth, you want the audience to be able to recommend it in a sentence. If you can’t: boom, another hurdle.

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

It was set in the 90s

This is related to content, and is, once more, not an assessment of the quality of the show. I saw it, had fun, did not buy the t-shirt, so on and so forth.

The show takes place in a fairly nebulous time period, but I’d set it around the 1994-95 time period. That was Shortland Street‘s ratings heyday – the time where it was most famous. It’s never slipped into obscurity, but in ’94-95 around 600,000 people were watching it every night, according to anecdotes in this NZ Herald piece.

The entire country were invested in Kirsty Knight, in Rachel McKenna (although I am, to this day, invested in feminist icon Rachel McKenna), in Nick Harrison, and in Doctor Chris Warner. The entire country knew what was going on in the show.

Which would be great if this musical was happening in 1997. But it isn’t. It’s happening in 2018.

Shortland Street: The Musical trades on the mid-90s credit that the show had, and leans hard on nostalgia, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many a mortgage has been paid on tugging on nostalgia-clad heartstrings.

The risk it runs is isolating everybody else.

I’m 28, and have a very vague memory of some of these plotlines, somehow. I’d wager if you were any younger than me, you would have no idea that Nick Harrison and Rachel McKenna used to date, or that Lionel was the muffin man, or that Marge was even the receptionist. Hell, you might not even be familiar with the absolute banger that was the Shortland Street theme:

Nostalgia is great – until you’re on the outside of it. In that case, it’s isolating. If you’re an under-30 fan of Shortland Street, you’re going to be on the outside of it before you even rush to the website to buy tickets.

“It’s actually good!”

In the interest of transparency and honesty, I was sceptical about this show before I’d heard a single note. Shortland Street: The Musical, as a concept, seemed like such a bald play for a commercial hit that I assumed it couldn’t possibly be good – regardless of the cast or creative crew involved. We’ve all seen bad things made by very talented people, after all.

I’m not the only one – there were murmurings around certain pockets of the industry well before it was even announced. But that’s not going to hurt ticket sales that much. The industry is an inward-facing circle-jerk or a Caesar-type stabbing, depending on what day it is.

But if the audience has its knives out, that’s a different problem. There will be a solid part of the population, most of whom are in the “I do not watch and have no interest in Shortland Street” group, who looks at that incredibly earnest poster and goes, “This in no way can be good!” and stays away.

And then I saw it, and it was actually good. It wasn’t necessarily made for me, but it was good. I had fun. I wasn’t the only one – the general consensus among friends and colleagues who were putting their knives away, waiting for the kills of 2019, was that the show was “actually good”.

The reviews were also really good. The Herald said it was ‘“easily the most enjoyable thing an Auckland company had staged all year“, Stuff said it was “a quintessential New Zealand musical“.

“Good” is an asset. “Actually good” is a hurdle. When you’re relying on critics and word-of-mouth to convince people that something is not just good but “actually good”, then you’re fighting an uphill battle against an Indiana Jones-style rock.

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

The numbers don’t add up

(The following is some very rough maths based on numbers, estimations, and wild guesses.)

Shortland Street is watched by 300,000 people across the nation a night, give or take.

Lacking more specific data, I’m going to be generous and say that 100,000 of those people are in Auckland. It is generally understood, at least to me, that Shortland Street is more popular outside of Auckland than it is in Auckland. Just ask Tara Ward.

The ASB Waterfront Theatre seats 675 people at its maximum.

With 42 shows, and 675 seats a night, that’s 28,360 tickets to sell. Let’s round it down to 27000 when you consider complimentary tickets – one of which I benefited from. Sorry, Shortland Street: The Musical.

Most theatre shows budget at about 30% houses. You obviously want to do better, but 30% is the general break-even. I can’t speak for what ATC’s break-even was, but I’d be willing to bet they hoped for more than 30%, and I’d be willing to guess they’d hoped for more than 50%.

At 30% houses, that’s 8100 tickets you need to sell. At 50% houses, that’s 14000 tickets you need sold. If you want to sell out, which is everybody’s dream and ambition, you have to sell 27000 tickets.

Now let’s return to that (estimated) number of 100,000 people. If you want to break even at standard theatre rates, you need to convince 8% of those people. If you want to ‘do well’, you need to convince 14% of those people. If you want to sell out, you need to convince one of every four of people who watch Shortland Street in Auckland to buy a ticket.

You need to convince one out of four people that not only is it worth missing Shortland Street for a night, you need to convince them to see a musical, a new musical that is untested, you need to convince them that it’s good, that it’s ‘actually’ good’.

And you need to convince them to do all of that for a minimum of $72 per ticket, with tickets that ranged up to $101. (Or, if you’re under 30, $30 a ticket, because ATC does this cool thing where if you’re under 30 you can do that, and I encourage you to look into it.)

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

The ticket price

I’m not here to litigate if Shortland Street: The Musical was worth $72 a ticket. As someone who makes a bulk of their living by theatre and is also an avid ticket-buying theatregoer, I feel wildly biased in conflicting directions.

I’m not the one who needs convincing. It’s the people who need to get over all the above hurdles who need convincing. It’s a lot of money, and not everybody has that to throw around, and especially not around Christmas time. If you can get in with corporates who are booking out group tickets en masse, you’re away cackling like Doctor Mackenzie (RIP). There’s a lot of competition around that, and with the ‘it’s actually good!’ factor in play, you’re pretty screwed.

Complicating matters even more, you’ve got an unproven musical, with no huge names above the title, with the unique brand situation that Shortland Street has… there’s so many mitigating factors before you get to the fact that only a few people have the ability to spend that much on seeing a show.

Especially when…

The show was at 7pm in Auckland – and likely around the country

Do you know what else is on at 7pm?

And is free to watch?

And if you miss even one night, you’ll have to play catch-up?

Shortland Street: Not A Musical.

(Some nights the show played at 8pm, but realistically, if you’re waiting until 7:30pm to leave your house and get to the theatre, even one with the ample parking at the ASB Waterfront, you’re… not gonna make it.)

The cast of Shortland Street: The Musical.

It’s a local show

I think the cringe around Shortland Street is more of an issue than the cringe around local content. People are hungry for local content, I think. The soap opera wouldn’t have survived for as long as it has if people didn’t want to watch it.

The problem is that it doesn’t come with the same cultural cachet as something like Chicago, which sold out over 60 shows for Auckland Theatre Company. Our shows have to make it here first, and then go overseas.

And when your overheads are as high as the overheads I’ve outlined above – how on earth can you expect to make it big when you don’t already have the backing of sell-out seasons, rave reviews, and word-of-mouth from overseas?

And, finally, taking a risk can destroy a company

I’m going to get personal for a bit.

I did a show called Burn Her earlier this year. It got funding from Creative New Zealand, got really good reviews and word of mouth, and sold out. Crucially, the threshold for us selling out was much lower than for Shortland Street: The Musical. Our sold out season could not even fill three nights of that show.

In an ideal world, we would’ve extended that show and toured it for the next few months and made a shit tonne of money on it. But it was an expensive show – and the cost of touring six actors plus a crew and a complicated set around the country is a lot of start-up investment on something that isn’t guaranteed a return. A lot of people loved it, a lot of people missed out on tickets and wanted to see it, but you can’t pay your rent on love and promises.

For a show like Shortland Street: The Musical, with a cast and crew of well over a dozen, and a company like Auckland Theatre Company which programmes a multitude of shows a year and has a huge full-time staff, the risk of touring a show that might not be a success is magnified.

When people aren’t buying in the other centres around the country – Christchurch, New Plymouth, Hamilton – then you can’t take that risk. You have to pull out.

It’s sad, and a little scary, to see a show that seemed like such a surefire hit fail. What the hell does it mean for the rest of us making work?

It’s all well and good to say, “Build it and they will come.” But what if you don’t even have the materials or the money to build it in the first place?

Or worse –  you build it, and they don’t come.

Keep going!