Theatre dying at the altar of corporate greed and government indifference

In just under a week the hottest theatrical product in the world will open in Australia.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is currently selling tickets through to the start of December, will make its premiere in Melbourne and remain there for its life in this country.

The Theatre Royal has been closed since 2016.Credit:AAP

It will not tour here, it is not a show that can be put on the back of a truck and driven up the Hume. Sydney misses out.

There are two key reasons for this. The first being that the Victorian government offered a more lucrative investment to lure the show – and the tourists it will bring – to Melbourne.

The second is that there simply isn't enough room in Sydney. One of the most important cities in the world has just two theatres large enough to accommodate large-scale productions.

Of course, there is one more: the Theatre Royal, which has been sitting dark for nearly three years while the owners of the MLC Centre it occupies drag their heels towards a decision about what to do with the space.

Last year the industry got jack of the ongoing delays in getting the theatre reopened, and launched a petition which was delivered to the building's owners – GPT and Dexus – in November. At the time Live Performance Australia president Andrew Kay said that without intervention, "Sydney is about to sacrifice yet another great venue to the altar of developer greed".

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is about to open in Melbourne.

Conveniently, just a week beforehand, British theatre impresario Sir Howard Panter had met with GPT and Dexus to pitch the prospect of his company Trafalgar Entertainment taking over the management of the Theatre Royal.

The industry rubbed their collective hands with glee that a decision could be imminent and the space would reopen.

And yet here we are, in February, still waiting.

A decision about what GPT and Dexus will do with the theatre space has been delayed again by the news that GPT wants to decrease its Sydney footprint and is bailing out of the MLC centre, selling its half.

Dexus has until the middle of March to decide if it wants to buy GPT's half or whether it can be sold to someone else.

I asked Dexus this week what the hold up is.

In a statement, they said while they are under no obligation to reopen the theatre, it is an option that is still under consideration, there is no time frame on the decision and they recognise the benefit a theatre could bring to the community.

They also said, however, that a retail and dining precinct in the MLC Centre is essential, and substantial refurbishment costs are required to bring the theatre up to scratch.

They are chatting to the council and the state government about the refurbishments and, given it is an election year, you'd have thought Gladys would have whipped out the Amex by now.

Dexus failed to mention the fact that when they built the MLC Centre a gentleman's agreement took place that allowed them significantly more retail space if they accommodated the Theatre Royal. Of course, it wasn't written down so they don't have to acknowledge it.

While we wait, Sydney, and Australia, are missing out on shows like Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, upcoming productions of Moulin Rouge and The Cher Show, Pretty Woman: The Musical and Beetlejuice, with music from Australia's own Eddie Perfect.

The spread-out nature of our population means that for a large-scale production to be commercially viable, dates in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane need to line up.

If one of the three major cities' theatres is full, tours get delayed or just don't happen.

One producer lamented that they were struggling to book a show into Australia in 2021 because the theatres in Sydney are full until then. Another suggested it could go as far ahead as 2022.

We are talking about plays and musicals here and the government certainly has more important problems to solve than when Hamilton is going to find some theatre space. But blockbuster theatre is part of the beating heart of a city.

Theatres also inject an enormous amount of money into the economy. The current average price for a ticket to a musical in Sydney is around $129. A comfortable occupancy for musicals to sit at is around 65 per cent (any less than that and producers start losing money) and if you look at a house the size of the Theatre Royal, that's $793,000 a week that isn't being spent. Book in a blockbuster that is going to sell out its run and you are looking at closer to $1.2 million.

Dexus and GPT might think more shops and a food court are important, but the hundreds of people who work on the shows and the 1180 people who could go to see them every night would much rather they just open the theatre's doors again and stop being so greedy.

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