BWW REVIEW: Questions Abound As To The Validity Of Australia's HELPMANN AWARDS As the Nominations for 2017 Are Announced
The nominations for Australia's Live Performance industry awards, the HELPMANN AWARDS were announced last night at simultaneous events across the country (2017 Nominations List). Named in honour of Sir Robert Helpmann's long and diverse career, the awards principle objective, according to Live Performance Australia (LPA) is to "promote the Australian live performance industry" by recognising "distinguished artistic achievement and excellence". LPA consider the HELPMANN AWARDS as Australia's version of Broadway's Tony Awards and London's Olivier Awards.
Whilst the nominations have often been surrounded in controversy over the years, this year was possibly even more so. Individual nominees appeared in odd categories, notably the number of performers in Lead roles for Opera Australia productions nominated under supporting categories, possibly a strategic move from the company but oddly not picked up by the Nominating Panel, and Sophie Wright's listing as Best Female Actor in a Musical when the Kinky Boots character is clearly a supporting role. The Best Director nomination for Julie Andrews for a production that as marketed as a faithful a recreation of a 60 year old production being nominated as if it were a new interpretation plus a nomination for the same production's long dead costume designer. Additionally there is the distinct omission of Australian designed Musical Theatre.
It is noted that for productions to be considered, they must be produced or presented by an eligible member of LPA or professionally produced by a non-member that has paid an Industry Service Fee, which BroadwayWorld understands to be a considerable sum, often out of reach for Independent production companies, along with the relevant application fee per submission.
Whilst there is nothing in the Rules of the Awards stating the origin of works, apart from the Best Australian Contemporary Concert and Best New Australian Work, it was disappointing to see so much of the Musical Theatre categories go to works that are essentially restaging of Broadway and West End productions, overlooking new staging's by Australian directors. In addition to not helping promote new works, or at least new interpretations of existing works and celebrating Australian creatives, it is also disappointing that Australian performers aren't getting the recognition, and work with the nominations reflecting the level of lead roles that went to international performers. (It is noted that Michael Cassel Group entered into the new casting guidelines with MEAA after the casting of Kinky Boots and has an Australian Cast for its upcoming production of BEAUTIFUL). Australia is creating new productions of heartfelt stories with more breadth and depth and wonderfully emotive performances than just box office populist pulling power but they aren't getting the recognition they deserve. Works such as Hayes Theatre's Calamity Jane and Big Fish along with new Australian work The Detectives' Handbook are examples of fabulous Australian productions that were overlooked, whether due to inability to meet the fees or the bias towards 'blockbuster' shows with long seasons.
The geographical challenge of the Helpmann Awards was also very noticeable this year. Whilst the Tony Awards and the Olivier Awards deal, for the most part, with a single city, the Helpmann Awards cover the whole country. This results in the nominations, and the eventual winners usually becoming quite Sydney and Melbourne centric, particularly when the voting criteria that requires voters to have seen at least two entries in a category before they can vote on that category.
Whilst celebrating some wonderful performances, these issues do raise the question as to the value of the Awards and whether they really do recognise quality and creativity in the industry and whether they should be better supporting Australian works.
*Note: BWW Sydney Senior Editor Jade Kops is a Helpmann Voter as a member of the Industry Media.