Last week, AFL star Shane Crawford was announced to make his musical theatre debut in the Melbourne season of the upcoming new production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Crawford (as Pharaoh) joins the all-star Australian cast that includes Euan Fistrovic Doidge as Joseph and Paulini as the Narrator. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat follows the story of Jacob’s favourite son Joseph and his eleven brothers. After being sold into slavery by the brothers, he ingratiates himself with Egyptian noble Potiphar, but ends up in jail after refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife. While imprisoned, Joseph discovers his ability to interpret dreams, and he soon finds himself in front of the mighty but troubled showman, the Pharaoh. As Joseph strives to resolve Egypt’s famine, he becomes Pharaoh’s right-hand man and eventually reunites with his family.
Crawford says, “I have done so many different things in my sporting and media career, but I have never performed in a musical, and I can’t wait! To be given the chance to be on stage, working with so many talented performers, entertaining an audience will be a huge buzz. Playing the role of the Pharaoh in this new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is going to be fun – and a little daunting. Bring on the rehearsals!”
Although Joseph has been enjoyed by over 30 million people worldwide, it’s still a relatively unknown musical to many. It’s no Les Misérables, Wicked, or similar, which has a large fanbase, Joseph’s reach is smaller. I myself only became aware of it through my love of Donny Osmond in the 1999 direct-to-video recorded production. Also, it’s slight biblical storyline is harder to sell than that of say a Hairspray, which is currently playing in Melbourne at the Regent Theatre.
And so, when you’re trying to put arses on seats, you need a drawcard – a name who, despite the material, will bring in a sizable crowd. And, although he has a wide-ranging television background (Sport Sunday, Postcards, Australia Ninja Warrior), Crawford is an odd choice.
I am focusing mainly on his sporting background (as I’m less familiar with his media work), but I would assume many AFL fans wouldn’t also be into Broadway musicals. While not trying to stereotype, as I’m sure there would be plenty, would the addition of Crawford be enough to bring non-musical fans to the theatre? Especially one as wondering camp? I’m guessing not. It would be like if they brought in my favourite musical theatre performer – Anthony Warlow – to play a season of AFL. Despite my love for Warlow, my interest in football would not increase, nor would I tune into a game.
So, if the idea behind a drawcard is to bring people in – I don’t think Crawford is the right person. Is Crawford’s fan base large enough to gain such overwhelming pull?
Crawford is taking on the role as Pharaoh who, traditionally, for all intents and purposes is Elvis Presley in sound, dance, and style. Not taking anything away from the musical genius that is Presley, the role doesn’t require a demanding vocal performance of say Elphaba from Wicked, for example. This might work in his favour as, unless he’s made an appearance of The Masked Singer that I’m unaware of, as far as I know, he isn’t known for his vocal work. So, whether he can sing or not and do a mean Elvis impression will be a surprise to the audience.
Following the announcement of Crawford’s casting on August 15, the musical theatre community was not shy about voicing their disappointment, frustration, and anger online.
“Let’s cast performers in these roles, people who work, train, sacrifice and give their lives to the arts,” said comedian Tanya Hennessy.
“Did Shane have to audition? Probably not,” added newcomer Benoit Vari. “But auditioning for most of us is constant anxiety, so to see an iconic role just handed to someone who hasn’t been a part of this profession when we have a plethora of incredible performers, it’s pretty grim.”
‘Incredibly disappointing but not at all surprised,’ Melbourne-based composer Samantha Andrew told The Age. ‘It just sends such a disheartening message to performers who have dedicated their lives to this industry, battled through all the heartbreaking steps to even get into an audition room, and then you see these roles going to someone who played AFL once.”
“Hawthorn isn’t signing Lucy Durack, it’s offensive to the industry in that it’s essentially saying, “Oh no, you don’t need the training to do this; anyone can do it,” she added.
“This just confirms everything we’ve long suspected about where our priorities lie in this country. It speaks really highly to how important sport is considered over the arts, and I think that’s an added layer of frustration.”
While AFL and other sports were allowed to continue as usual, musical theatre was one of the worst-hit industries during the pandemic, contending with state lockdowns, travel restrictions and capacity limits. Hamilton, King Lear, La Boheme, A Chorus Line, Jagged Little Pill and Come From Away were impacted by covid-related delays, while The Secret Garden was cancelled.
According to social media, a number of theatregoers have asked about getting their tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat refunded following the news.
On the flip side, if this role really is a passion project for Crawford, are people just reacting badly because he’s a sportsman coming into musical theatre – two industries on opposite ends of pandemic-affected spectrums? Is this just a matter of they could but didn’t ask if they should?
As a lover of musical theatre and, especially, of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I fear the role of Pharaoh will be treated as a joke (see here) and Crawford will receive boos from the audience. My only hope is that he doesn’t start handballing corn like he did with a football.
I will give those involved the benefit of the doubt and will wait to cast judgment on Crawford until after I’ve seen him in the role. This musical is near and dear to my heart, and I can’t wait to see it live! The musical theatre community is usually very welcoming – as people from other professions have entered the industry before – so maybe the casting of Crawford will be a fruitful welcome into a blossoming musical theatre career, but I have my doubts.
The role of Pharaoh has yet to be announced for the Sydney season, opening February 2023.
In Melbourne from November, playing at the Regent Theatre, for a strictly limited season. For all the latest information and tickets, head to the website here.