Interview: Melbourne Musical Theatre Festival Director, Trevor Alexander

Melbourne, a festival city, has always been an enormous supporter of the performing arts community with Fringe, Comedy and the Cabaret Festival to name just a few of these events on her busy calendar.

The Melbourne Musical Theatre Festival, debuting in Melbourne for the first time in January 2017, is the latest of one of such events, and is set to entertain musical lovers with a classic line-up of well-loved family musical favourites, timeless adult productions and new Australian shows in the iconic Athenaeum Theatre.

We spoke to the event’s founder and Artist Director, Trevor Alexander about his vision for the event and his personal journey to bring this concept to creation.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Sports mad as a child, I was dragged off the school football field at the age of 15 by a girl I had a crush on, to be in the school musical.  The rest, as they say is history. An ‘undiscovered talent,’ I had my first lead role the following year, followed by roles in amateur musicals. I was president of an opera company at 21 and studied opera simultaneously both at the VCA and Melbourne Uni. By 22 I was designing sets as well as doing lead roles for pro-am productions and singing in the chorus of The Australian Opera, but I was hungry to know everything about theatre.  I started directing at 23, and in one two-year period I did 20 musicals and operas, rehearsing performing or directing up to 5 shows at once. At 30 I set up my own company producing and touring operas. That was followed by writing plays and musicals, novels, film scripts and producing my own TV show ‘Curtain Up’ for Channel 31.

I now have extensive experience over the past 40 years in ‘the business’ including 25 years as an Artistic Director, stage and screen writer, manuscript assessor, performer, director, set designer, composer, stage manager, dramaturge, producer and production manager in singing and acting coach in opera, film, television, theatre and musical theatre.

With a such a broad and varied repertoire, what do you like best (if it’s possible to choose) on the stage under the lights, or bringing things to like behind the scenes via artistic direction?

Despite apparently coming into my prime, I happily ‘retired’ from the stage 15 years ago; I much preferred writing, directing and producing and having the artistic vision to create something special.

This is the first year that musical theatre has been celebrated in Melbourne through a dedicated festival (a huge achievement). What was the journey like in the lead up to bringing this to life?

Huge and long. I first had the idea back in 1984; it was a time when Melbourne was poised to become the next West End. But certain events happened and that concept was shelved. It raised its head in 2007 when I was asked to be the Chairperson of a proposed London Musical Theatre Festival. After doing all the leg work, setting up the dates, venues such as Covent Garden etc, I handed the ‘blueprint’ over to a ‘Brit’ who subsequently changed all the plans and instead applied for funding – hence why there is no London Musical Theatre Festival.

Around the same time, I became close friends and associates with Chris Grady who was building Musical Matters in Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Fringe and we had long discussion of what was needed, not just in London, but anywhere musical theatre played. Soon after that, in 2009, I was directing a workshop of a new musical by Bill Kotswinkle (ET fame) with lyrics and music by Lieber and Stoller for NYMF and took note of how NYMF operated.

All the time it was all resurrecting my thoughts about a festival in Melbourne; we had the theatres, we had the population, we had the musical theatre community. And there were others, some of whom I had mentored, who went off down the path of setting up such a festival, or of developing new Australian Works. But they all failed to manifest.

During this time I took 5 years off to write RED GRANITE, a book series on what is really below the sand in Egypt that we are not being told about (that’s another story!). That completed, it seemed the time was right to set up the MMTF. That decided it was a matter of selecting shows, theatres, performers, the usual production things.

How do you want people who attend the 2017 Festival to walk away feeling?

It depends on the show really, but, engaged, amused, happy, that life is worth living and they got more than value for money.

What do you love most about the musical theatre scene in Melbourne?

Big question. Basically everything; its broad range of shows, it’s vibrancy, it’s spontaneity, its passion, it’s accessibility.

What is your all-time favourite musical and why?

Easy – It’s an opera – Turandot. Extraordinary score. As for a traditional ‘musical’ it’s West Side Story. There are several landmark musicals that changed the face of musicals, Show Boat, Oklahoma, Les Miserables, and so on. But for me West Side Story has it all. It is such a powerful story and an extraordinary score. Having directed it twice I still cry even just thinking about the ending. THAT’s what musical theatre is all about for me – moving an audience.

Where do you see the Melbourne Musical Theatre Festival going in 2018?

Well, we do have VERY big plans on the drawing board for 2018 and beyond which I would love to tell you about, but not just yet, lets crawl before we run. If the Melbourne public get behind this year’s shows, and why wouldn’t they, Great Shows, Great Casts and Great prices, then the festival will grow quite rapidly and quickly become THE major Musical Theatre Festival in the world.

The Melbourne Musical Theatre Festival runs from 6-28 January 2017.

Interview by Kerstyn Dance