Transcript of David Spicer chat

This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the podcast (31:01)

Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance along with all first nations people hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our elders past, present and future, especially those Aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us with their wisdom.

Welcome to the creative cast podcast series. My name is Jackie King, and I'm a creative arts project officer with the New South Wales Department of Education. Today we're going to have an industry chat with theatre producer and agent David Spicer.

Hi, David. How are you?

David – Very well. How are you?

Jackie – I'm very well, thank you. Thanks for joining us today for our creative cast podcast series for our industry chats. I'm really excited for the industry chats to try and connect what we do in the classroom to the industry. So, I've asked you to have a chat with us today because you've obviously got a fair bit of knowledge and experience within the theatre industry, being a theatre producer and an agent and also your magazine Stage Whispers, which we'll get into later. But I was just wondering if we could start by you talking a little bit about your history and your career.

David – Well, when I was in school, I loved being in the school musical. At Epping West Primary and I played the lead in Joseph in 1979. I wanted to be either a journalist or an actor when I left school, and I did a Bachelor of Arts and Communications at the University of Technology and kept up my hobby as a singer. And so, I was in a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on Sydney's North Shore, eastern suburbs and western suburbs. I was introduced into performing arts in the Scouts through the gang show, which I was a member of as a little kid until a young adult. Then I became journalist for the ABC, after completing Bachelor of Arts and Communications at what University of Technology in Sydney and so really theatre and singing was my hobby and being a journalist at the ABC when I'm got a cadetship at the age of 20 that was my day job. And then my night job, my hobby was being a thespian. And so I was basically, you know, doing the odd role here or there. Usually a second lead, never the big lead but the second lead. That was what I aimed for.

Jackie – Sure. I actually saw a picture of you as Ralph Rackstraw from H. M S Pinafore.

David – H.M.S Pinafore. That's right.

Jackie –So you obviously played some decent parts?

David – Yeah, that was a good. That was a good, juicy role. The funny thing about that one was that I was the agent for that musical, because that's a unique adaptation of Gilbert Sullivan which is still under copyright. I was the agent for it and I was in it, they said they couldn't find a tenor, so I got roped in, and it was my local theatre. I really enjoyed being in that show.

Jackie – I also, as I was doing a little bit of reading up on you, saw that you were the winner of the ‘97 City of Sydney Eisteddfod in the tenor section.

David – Yes, I was the best in the field of five. It was a prestigious award and flu absolutely wiped out Sydney's Tenors that year. And I was definitely the best of five. But I'll still claim it.

Jackie – Absolutely claim it.

David – The best tenor in the City of Sydney Eisteddfod.

Jackie – The City of Sydney Eisteddfod is a huge Eisteddfod. I remember competing in that, probably in the early 2000s I think is when I was competing in that, but it was a really big deal at the time. I remember when I came down and competed in it, so I certainly wouldn't be washing that under the carpet. It's a big award.

David – Well, in 1997 I was the only person in world history to win a Walkley Award and the City of Sydney tenor competition in the same year.

Jackie – Oh, wow, that's fantastic. So, you've touched on being a theatre agent a little bit? Do you want to explain how you got into being a theatre agent and a little bit about your business that you have at the moment?

David – Well, I, of course, like being in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. But then something amazing happened in my life. I became a father in 1996. And so, my wife said, “You're not going out twice a week to rehearse anything for a little while.” So, I looked for a different hobby from being in shows, looking what I could do behind the scenes. So, I thought that I would write a book, because I was a journalist, about musicals, and I got some interest from a publisher. The book fizzled out, but while I was doing the research an eccentric composer lyricist in England said to me, “Oh, David, will you be my agent?” He wrote lots of musicals, including an adaptation off the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, it was Pride and Prejudice The Musical. It's got good songs, of course, it's got a great story and great characters. So, I started promoting that in a theatre industry magazine called Stage Whispers, and I got three bookings. So, I then flew down to Melbourne to see a production that I licenced of Pride and Prejudice the Musical. So, when the book fell over, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a way I could get theatres and schools to do a greater variety of musicals.” Don't write a book about it, which, you know, fizzled out and was going to be out of date soon, get musicals and try to encourage other people to do them.’ So, I became by accident an agent for musicals and plays. So, I mean people ask “What is it exactly you do? I mean, do you put the show on?” No, I don't put the show on. I represent the composer, and I provide the sheet music and the script to the schools and the community theatres to allow them to put the show on. So that was the very specialised and unusual sort of part time hobby, career that I did while I was a journalist at the ABC.

Jackie – And now you've got some of my favourite musicals under your belt or that you hold the rights to. You've got Back to the Eighties, We Will Rock You, Paris just to name a couple of my favourites.

David – Yes, well, that's right. So, two years ago I left the ABC. I was able to give up my day job where I was part time for the last 10 years. The first thing I did was ask what Australian musicals are there out that not published to a high enough standard or promoted properly. So, the sheet music is not printed properly. What's not promoted? What could I uncover? So, I became a bit like a music theatre archaeologist, and I was digging up old scripts.

One of them was Paris. Now that was that was a real adventure because it was a cast album only based on the Trojan War. So, then I got the sheet music, which was hand written, I got it published and then promoted and found theatres to put it on. And we've had 26 different productions, it's been translated into German and performed in five different countries. So that was sort of, a labour of love, although you know that it has had a level of commercial success.

But then I got hold of very successful commercial properties such as Back to the Eighties, which you had mentioned. I've got a seventies musical Disco Inferno. I've got a nineties musical Pop Star. I’ve got an Australian jukebox musical Great Australian Rock Musical. All of which, of course, are centred around pop songs with a reasonable narrative, or credible narrative to string it together and they're very popular on the high school circuit. Now the thing about them is that they are great in getting children, students involved in music theatre, who perhaps need a bit of convincing to get involved because they're immediately familiar with songs and that gets them in. So, you know, sometimes you can't do the very sophisticated Broadway musical but with the jukebox musical, parents love it, the kids love it and there's a story involved. So that really works. About five years ago, I got really lucky. I got the ultimate jukebox musical, which, of course, is We Will Rock You by Queen. That was very hard for getting the rights. But I eventually got the contract. And guess what? Brian May signed the contract.

Jackie – Oh, wow.

David – So that was the best autograph you can imagine.

Jackie – I was going to ask did you know Brian May or were you actually able to meet Brian May?

David – I did meet him once for about one minute. And if you look on my Facebook page, you'll see my 30 second meeting with Brian May. I met him 20 minutes before a rock concert and my brother filmed it.

But now look, being a journalist, you're good at finding out things and you’re persistent. So, you've just got to knock on doors and get the rights. It's very difficult to get the very huge properties because essentially publishing houses in United States offer now millions of dollars for the uber blockbusters. So, as an independent music publisher you're locked out of that. So, you've really got to be cunning and also develop Australian works, develop Australian shows. The biggest break through of my career was getting the rights to The boy from Oz. I met the producers of the show in 1998, kept in touch and then 10 years later, got the amateur rights. So, you know, that was a big coup.

I also like publishing full book musicals. I've got Ladies in Black, which was a commercial success here and has been performed by a lot of amateur theatres. High schools love it, too, because it’s got so many strong female leads and the central character is a young woman who wants to not get married and meet Mr Right, but she wants to go to university. So that's a wonderful Australian piece of literature with great songs by Tim Finn the rock legend.

Jackie – It's a fantastic musical. I really love Ladies in Black as well.

David – Yes, I am very proud to have published that. You know, as I said, I became a bit like a collector of musicals. People collect stamps, I collected musicals. So, I've got a lot of really authentic Australian musicals. I've just published The Magic Pudding, which is for a cast of 13 and one puppet. So that was staged at The Marian Street Children's Theatre and I made that available across Australia with the beautifully published orchestrations. I have had Snugglpot and Cuddlepie the Musical for many years by Peter Combe. That's been done in Newcastle, in your neck of the woods, and I've got lots of junior musicals of traditional titles like, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Star Wars Musical Parody, it's got pool noodles instead of the laser, sort of, swords. So, I've sort of collected quite a strong portfolio of musicals, and they've got a lot of resources associated with them.

You've got to invest in these shows to have the resources that schools and amateur theatres expect. Very good published orchestrations and also, if it's appropriate, rehearsal assistance materials such as CD backing tracks and other tools like that because the major publishing houses, you know, in New York and London they do a terrific job at providing good resources to go with their musicals. And, of course, you got to compete with that. And we would like Australian product to be just as easy to perform as the best of Broadway.

Jackie – Absolutely. So, you've sort of touched on how you got there a little bit. You've got a Bachelor of Arts degree with Communications, and so obviously finished school as well. And you've touched on being a journalist. And how being a journalist makes you a little bit savvier. What, in terms of schooling, do you think got you inspired to be a theatre agent? You talked a little bit about being in musicals, was that in primary school or high school?

David – In primary school I was the mayor of Munchkin Village in The Wizard of Oz. I was Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And then I was Joseph. And then I did some high school musicals, although we weren't huge at my school in high school musicals. I was involved with the gang show, so that was sort of very good. That, of course, is the Scout Movement Performing Arts, which had sort of vaudeville and sketches and big songs and dance routines. And then I took singing lessons. I played the violin at school, but I mean, I gave that up and took up singing more seriously. I had a few very small roles in movies, like microscopic special extra, you know. So, I was in the miniseries Body Line. I had one line in that, I was the paper boy: “Latest edition Bradman to miss the first test.” Terrific! Anyway, so that's where, I guess, I caught the theatre bug.

But I was also interested in being a journalist and a writer, and when I was in primary school, I set up a newspaper the Epping West Monthly. So, I was always interested in both. And of course, trying be make a living out of being an actor is like winning the lottery to a certain extent. You’ve got to be wildly talented and have particular aspects about you which appeal to the market whether it be looking terrific or looking unusual, whatever it is that you know. So, you need that combination and I very quickly realized I was a good amateur actor. So, I kept that as a hobby.

Jackie – Sure, when you were in school, were you involved in any of the creative arts programs or were there any creative arts programs within your school? Sounds like more so primary school than the high school.

David – We put on a couple of musicals in high school. I was in the in the school band and played the violin. I must confess that I once broke the legs to two legs of a music teacher.

Jackie – You need to tell that story.

David – Well, what happened is that my father has a violin, which was made in 1770. So, I had to leave it in the staff room and the music teacher sadly tripped on it and broke both her legs. Very sad story. She was off for six months. I saw her when she came back, and I very sheepishly apologised. So, there we go, but I should I shouldn't be flippant about it. It was very nasty accident, but I mean, we had a good arts program at my school. It was a public school, but we did have a school hall but didn't have terrific theatre facilities. So, we weren't blessed in that. And we didn't particularly have a teacher who was passionate enough to want to put on a very ambitious musical each year because it is big. You know, the teachers generally don't get paid for that extra work they do to put on the show, so they've got to be passionate about it and the general trend is for schools to perhaps usually do a musical once every two years. That's more common unless they're really gung ho and they just blitz it. But generally speaking, traditional schools will do a musical one year, and then the second year to recover.

Jackie – Absolutely. And I think sometimes we need that recovery time as well. In terms of your connections with school, what are some things that you've seen work really well for preparing students for pursuing their talents within a music theatre industry?

David – Well, I think the thing is that teachers should explain to students is that this is a really exciting industry to be involved in. But there are more jobs than just being on stage and that they really should be a whole school experience to see how a lot of different departments of school could be involved. So, look at a musical like Reg Livermore's Ned Kelly. I went and saw a production of it in Sydney's western suburbs, and it was terrific. The woodwork department and the metal work helped build the set, and then they had little models of it, and then there was a history aspect to it and the school projects. And then, you know, then you get the business subjects. And what can you do? Who wants to run the business side? Who wants to do the marketing? And who wants to do the social media right? You know, who's interested in lighting? Who loves wardrobe, making costumes, who's passionate about that? So, I think what really needs to happen is that schools need to try and dip into every department. To have a supporting principal who is passionate about it and wants to put on huge production and involve all the different departments and getting kids interested and, you know, familiar with the theatre. So, I think the whole of school experience is the way to go. And, of course, picking the right show. That is, you know, doable. Do I have the cast? Do I have someone who can sing the lead of Galileo in We Will Rock You, who can do Bohemian Rhapsody at the end of a 1.5 hour show. If you don't then don't touch it, you know, find something easier. Now what show can I pick that, you know, has got a good spread of principles, or do I have some amazing talent this year? And if so, then I use the talent as the lead then go on to select the show. So, there are some sort of ideas to making it a success.

Jackie – Obviously, your company, David Spicer Productions, looks after a lot of shows that are suitable for schools. What kind of help are you able to give schools in terms of getting a show up?

David – Well, we can't put the show on right. Essentially, I try to provide good rehearsal tools. So, a lot of my big musicals have terrific backing tracks, and in some cases they can be used as the band, although not usually. But for instance, some of the backing tracks are of the live band, and so that's a terrific tool. Of course, it's never as good as having an adept pianist who can repetiteur, who can sort of teach the parts slowly and then ride with the singers as they sort of, you know, get more competent. But it is an important tool. And also, look some of the other competitors they do have excellent tools as well, which allow people to change the key of certain songs, which is a useful device. Essentially, you know, we provide the foundation, which is script and music. And you know, if there's anything wrong with the parts, we hear about it very quickly, of course.

Jackie – So finally, what would your advice be to a school teacher or a bunch of school teachers in a school who are really interested in putting on musical? What would you say are the steps that they need to tick off before contacting someone like yourself and paying the rights for show because obviously paying for the rights could be expensive. What are some of the steps that some of the teachers who are listening could take?

David – Well, I think you need to try to get the whole production team together beforehand, because you can't really put on a whole musical yourself. You've got to have a whole production committee, and, if you can, reach out to the parents as well. Is there anybody out there that wants to help build the set? Is there anybody else who wants to be in charge of marketing? You know. So, I think assembling as many partnerships within the school and also within the local community as possible to make it easy. I mean, you know, when I put on my first musical I remember my grandma sewing my little dwarf sneezy dwarf costume.

Jackie – My grandma used to make the slices.

David – Oh, that's right. So, every everyone needs to help. I think assembling the production team, choosing a show that is suitable for the talent you've got and, of course, you got to get the kids excited. They've got to, you know, want to do it. I mean, of course, you can't expect 15 year olds to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the Broadway Cannon. That's why I think my jukebox musicals are very good for perhaps trying to attract students who, you know, aren't necessarily all that music theatre. But say “oh yeah, I wouldn't mind doing a show with eighties music or nineties music or Queen.” Once you've got a tradition in the school of doing a musical, then you can perhaps try something more ambitious.

The expense. The great expense, is not in the copyright. The great experience is usually in the tech. You know, you just got to think how many radio mics do we need? How much to spend on professional technicians? And that's where it becomes more expensive. I mean, the copyright's usually a fixed fee and you pay a share of box office and so the more successful was the school is, the more you pay. But you know those mountainous technical costs, that's where you need to be very careful.

Jackie – Yeah, and I love how you have suggested trying to be collaborative. Be smart about it. I really loved the idea of bringing in woodwork, bringing in the sewing people, bringing in Vis Art to paint the sets and things like that. I think if you make it like a whole school project or a project across lots of different departments, obviously all of the funds are not coming out of the Creative Arts department, and also we can maybe have a whole school budget going towards it as well - because obviously it's not cheap, but it's expensive to put on a show, but I mean, the show's can make some money as well.

David – Well, that's what I get this sort of feedback from, you know, we've only got a small budget for putting on a show us. And I'm saying, “Well, hang on, you do sell tickets, so you actually do recoup some of the cost or all of the cost.” But as I said, I think as much as possible integrating it into the school fabric, you know, and getting as many kids involved across the curriculum, you know, particularly in middle high school before you’re very, you know, strictly attached to HSC syllabus. But from getting middle high school really heavily involved. Uh, you know, it is a lot of fun.

Jackie – And the idea of also filling out all of those theatre jobs so we can make ourselves a little theatre agent if we need to.

David – That's right. Absolutely.

Jackie – Yeah, we can build all sorts of careers, and you're right, there's more careers than just the people who are on the stage. There are lots of other people.

I'm just thinking we haven't really touched on Stage Whispers at all, which you've obviously managed since 2008. Do you want to just quickly give a little bit of information about what Stage Whispers is about?

David – Well, Stage Whispers is the National Performing Arts magazine, we're print and we're online. We cover the industry vertically. We cover elite professional theatre. We cover community theatre and we also cover school theatre. Whereas, you know, other media tend to only be horizontal. And we have lots of resources, we have we put out free soft magazines, we have something called Spark, which is a school performing arts resource kit, which comes at the beginning of the year, which lists what shows are on the tour to schools as well as resources for putting on a show, costumes, sound lighting, copyrights. It's called Spark. And we also have a fantastic free training publication which lists all the performing arts courses around Australia as well as all of the different in different disciplines and features and listings, and that comes out every year. Our free Guide Stagewhispers.com.au/training and we've got a new publication, which is called Let's Put on a Show, which is also guide to stage resources in the different disciplines. So, we've got plenty of content on our website. It's a quite a monstrous website when you think of all the content on it. We also, of course, do reviews and news, but it's a resource for people that are theatre doers and theatre goers, they're often the same.

Jackie – They are often the same. I wasn't aware of the resource. I think that would be a fantastic thing for teachers to be able to tap into and the putting on a show resource.

David – Well, they're compilations of our print magazine.

Jackie – Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for your time today, David. I want to finish with a final fast. Five questions for you. So, here's the first one. What high school did you go to?

David – Carlingford High School, Sydney's Northwest.

Jackie – What was your favourite subject in school and why?

David – I think it has to be English. I did like English. I'd like reading novels and analysing them.

Jackie – A favourite teacher and why?

David – There was a math teacher called Mr Merry that used to make me laugh. There was my English teacher, Lynne Archer. She was excellent English teacher.

Jackie – Okay, what is your favourite school memory?

David – I can remember the moment my HSC finished. That was good.

Jackie – And the last question, final piece of advice to our creative arts teachers.

David – Stick at it. It's worth it. It will be a treasured memory of being at school of being in the school musical. It's worth the overtime that you don't get paid for on. Keep going. Keep up the good work.

Jackie – Thank you, David. Thank you for spending the time with me today to have a bit of a chat about putting on a musical in schools and obviously give us some information on how you can help with that with your David Spicer Productions and some of the shows that you've got. I personally really love some of the shows that you have, and I know putting on musicals is something that the students really, really love.

David – Absolutely, thank you for inviting me on the show.

Jackie – The musicals discussed throughout this episode are suggestions only and imply no endorsement by the New South Wales Department of Education of any writer, composer or publisher. Repertoire intended to be staged at school for public audience should be considered and respectful of the local community's values and beliefs. We hope you're enjoying the creative cast industry chats linking our curriculum to the industry. Next week, tune in to hear music theatre legend Michael Cormick talk about his career and how it all began with the school talent quest. The theme music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton, and audio production by Jason King.

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