When Pretty Woman The Musical plays its first Broadway show this weekend, one Australian producer and his investors will be paying close attention to the reaction. After years of development and a budget north of $20 million, the social media posts out of New York’s Nederlander Theatre will give Pretty Woman‘s financiers and creative team their first sense of whether they have a hit on their hands.
In Sydney, that Australian is Michael Cassel. The young producer has bet his own and others’ money that the “love story for the ages” – the most successful romantic comedy film of all time – can transcend the years and the #MeToo movement and reprise that success on stage. If it comes off, he tells AFR Weekend, he and his investors will earn returns for years to come. If it doesn’t, their money could burn up in a bonfire of bad reviews.
Cassel has already had a very good year. On Monday, after nine months of strong ticket sales, his show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical beat out home-grown favourite Muriel’s Wedding to most of the top Helpmann awards for musicals. In March his mentors, including British billionaire producer Cameron Mackintosh and Disney Theatrical chief Tom Schumacher, flew round the world to celebrate the opening of the first tour of The Lion King with a licence to go anywhere, which Disney has entrusted to Cassel. And in August tickets will begin selling for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the most successful new play to hit the stage in decades and one Cassel was chosen to produce in Australia.
For the personable, ginger-haired Cassel, 38, it’s all part of a plan to build one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world.
To fully appreciate the scale of that ambition and the size of the risk, AFR Weekend spent months tracking Cassel and the musical business more broadly – talking to producers, directors and financiers from Sydney to Broadway and the West End ‒ to understand how it all works. Getting everything pitch perfect, it turns out, is far from guaranteed.
When AFR Weekend first speaks to Cassel in November it is moving day for Michael Cassel Group. As tradies paint, plaster and wire their way around his not-quite-finished Potts Point office space, Cassel tells me his company has grown from from two to 21 full-time staff in four years. Having spent those years in a windowless space beneath the backstage at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, the move to floor-to-ceiling glass and leafy views seems like a neat metaphor for a company on the rise.
As Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive plays somewhere in the background, he runs me through his schedule. There’s a lot going on.
Michael Cassel Group has just opened Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in Sydney to strong reviews and ticket sales; it will transfer to Melbourne in February and Brisbane after that. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is in its final months of preparations for a national tour. Auditions for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child are scheduled for Melbourne in January. In the Philippine capital Manila, dozens of costume and puppet makers, set designers and staging engineers are assembling to launch what Cassel hopes will be a years-long international tour of Disney’s blockbuster The Lion King.
And on Monday he’s off to New York. That’s in part to see what’s new on Broadway ‒ he’s planning to see six musicals in five days ‒ but also for the meeting he hopes will finalise his position on a secret new project, which turns out to be Pretty Woman The Musical. Cassel travels to New York and London twice a year to see new shows and stay in the the theatre loop.
This dizzying schedule means he’ll be in his new corner office just seven days before Christmas, and 10 days between Christmas and the end of March.
For a man not yet 40 Cassel has been in the musical game for a long time.
Raised in Minnamurra, a sleepy beachside town 90 minutes south of Sydney, Cassel wrote to TV host Ray Martin and impresario Harry M Miller when he was in primary school. Encouraged by their responses, and a day trip to Sydney to see Jesus Christ Superstar, he produced his first show ‒ a carols-by- candlelight event for more than 3000 people ‒ at the age of 15.
He started his first production company when he was at high school and when school finished he went to work for Miller. By 21 he had been hired to help set up Disney Theatrical Group’s Australian business with James Thane (who, 17 years later, works for Cassel). The next step was New York when Disney’s Schumacher made Cassel director of international business. That involved touring the House of Mouse’s global brands into less-developed markets, including Beauty and the Beast to South America, The Lion King to South Africa and China, and Aida to South Korea. In 2011, after six years in the Big Apple with wife Camille and shortly after the birth of their daughter Eveleigh, an offer from Gerry Ryan’s ambitious Sydney-based production company Global Creatures was enough to bring him home.
Cassel became Global Creatures’ marketing manager and, as Ryan tells me, was a great marketer of the product until Mackintosh came calling in 2013.
Mackintosh is the most successful producer of musical theatre alive (he was knighted in 1996 for services to musical theatre) and certainly the only one to have made, by Forbes’ calculation, a personal fortune of $US1 billion from the business. The producer-turned-impresario and theatre owner made his name, and money, with four of the most recognisable shows in musical theatre: Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables.
In 2013, Mackintosh wanted to bring Les Miserables back to Australia. And he wanted Cassel to produce it. It was time for Cassel to go out on his own…
“I’d like to run the most successful entertainment company in the world, albeit based in Australia, and here’s what I’m cooking up,” he says, recalling the request. “Here’s the business plan, could you, as someone who’s run the most successful entertainment company in the world, be able to meet with me?”
Although Cassel had worked for Disney for almost 10 years, he’d never met Eisner, who was based in Los Angeles while the theatrical division is based in New York. Eisner checked with Schumacher, who had been Cassel’s boss at Disney, that Cassel was worth his time before agreeing to a meeting.
“So I went in, met with Michael, he was in New York,” explains Cassel. “We spent the majority of the day together; he grilled me on it, questioned me.” Cassel’s plan centred on producing existing titles but also included creating new work, boutique concerts and client management. Eisner liked what he saw. “But at the end he said, ‘I’ve got three or four pieces of advice’,” Cassel goes on, clearly enjoying the memory.
“He said, ‘One, stick to your business plan, you’ve articulated it and there’s the potential to be distracted, but stick to it.’
” ‘Two, keep it lean. Because you’re in a creative organisation there’s the desire to surround yourself with people, don’t succumb.’
“And he said, ‘Three, if this all works in the first couple of years investors will approach you, or private equity companies will approach you wanting to invest in the business, and my advice to you is to say no. Because if they’re doing that in years one, two or three, then imagine the approach you’ll get in years five, six, seven or eight as you grow.’
“And he was right. The first call we got was about a year in, from a private equity firm. That was flattering, but …”
Michael Cassel Group was created and Les Mis was a smashing success: it played to full theatres in Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane then headed to Manila, Singapore and Dubai. By the time the tour wrapped in late 2016, Mackintosh had agreed to give Cassel preferential rights to produce future shows in Australia and Asia.
An Officer and a Gentleman was a show developed almost from scratch by Frost and the scale of its failure illustrates why so few shows are developed in Australia.
“It’s really, really hard to raise money for Australian brand-new musicals,” says Frost, though his latest effort on that front, a biographical jukebox show about American singer Bobby Darin, paid off in spades. “With Dream Lover we had one investor who put up two-thirds of the money. We put up the other third ourselves and we were lucky, it came home for us.” Frost says he and his brave investor doubled their money. But with star David Campbell no longer wanting to sing the role he won a Helpmann Award for on Monday, the show won’t be going to America just yet.
Gerry Ryan sounds like he’s been run over by a truck – or perhaps that should be the Tour de France peloton. The caravan maker, who is on the Financial Review 2018 Rich List with a personal fortune of $487 million, is in Berlin on business and jetlag has him returning my call at 3am. We’re talking because in addition to his Jayco caravans empire, his Mitchelton-Scott cycling team, his women’s basketball team, wine, art, retail platform, horses and football, Ryan is far and away Australia’s biggest investor in the fairytales and broken dreams of musical theatre.
Ryan founded Sydney-based producer Global Creatures in 2007. The production company, run by Carmen Pavlovic, owns the rights to Walking With Dinosaurs, an arena-scale production starring 18 life-size, animatronic dinosaur puppets that was developed in Australia and has sold $US455 million of tickets since it opened in 2007. Ryan has invested a significant part of the profits in the rarely attempted business of new musicals created in Australia.
A modest part of these funds has also gone into Cassel’s productions Singin’ in the Rain, Kinky Boots and Beautiful. “You know, Michael’s a good operator. The returns are coming, I’ll invest again.”
Ryan’s bigger question right now, one being closely watched by musical types around the world, is whether Global Creatures can pull off one of the most ambitious projects in years. While he won’t say how much he and investors have put in, there are many tens of millions of dollars tied up in four new or newly reworked musicals.
In London, Strictly Ballroom is playing to less-than-stellar reviews. Moulin Rouge began its pre-Broadway season in Boston on July 10. Muriel’s Wedding is gearing up for a longer run at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre in 2019. And then there’s the really big one, King Kong. After 10 years of development, including a season in Melbourne in 2013 and a book and score that have since been completely rewritten, it will finally open on Broadway in October. The word in theatre land is that Kong has already gobbled up a scream-inducing $60 million. With this tilt at Broadway capitalised up to a hefty $US36.5 million, according to US Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and Moulin Rouge up to $US27 million, Ryan has plenty to lose.