Putting musical theatre centre stage
There’s a certain symmetry to the musical journey of Dr Peter Wyllie Johnston. The Australian writer and composer’s love of music was sparked when he saw The Sound Of Music live on stage at the age of five.
This year – as the founding director of the new Australian Centre for Music Theatre Research and Development, based at the University of Melbourne – Dr Johnston arranged a visit to Melbourne by Oscar Hammerstein III to discuss his grandfather’s most famous musical and its lasting legacy.
Wedged between these events has been a life as musical as any Von Trapp picnic. It’s included numerous composition credits and cabaret performances in New York, London, Washington DC, Honolulu and of course, Dr Johnston’s hometown of Melbourne.
Perhaps Dr Johnston was always destined for a life in music; his father nourished him as a child with classical music while his mother catered for his ‘lite music’ needs, including the popular musicals of the day.
He began playing the piano and learning to sing, but when his voice broke at the age of 12 Dr Johnston decided he was perhaps better suited to the ivories.
He produced his first composition (‘A Waltz in E Minor’) at the age of 12 and later wrote the score for the feature film Girl On The Boulevard.
“Where the voice couldn’t go the piano still could, so I started to write tunes,” Dr Johnston remembers of the time.
But the journey wasn’t straightforward. After some soul-searching following a split in his family (“a poor man’s version of Dynasty”), Dr Johnston decided to train as a lawyer.
“I didn’t have enough formal music training for what I wanted to do, so I decided I needed to do something else,” he said.
“But you can never really commit to that career,” Dr Johnston says of the law, “when you really want to be in the other one.”
And so Dr Johnston‘s passion for musical theatre thrived as he embarked on a legal career.
He played piano at night, at times lectured in musical performance (and law) and later secured residencies in some of the world’s most iconic venues, including Hawaii’s Sheraton Surfrider Hotel.
“I guess the compulsion was too strong.”
In the late 1990s Dr Johnston decided to write his own musical, Moses – the Spirit of Freedom.
It was developed over a lengthy period including tryout performances both in Australia, England and the USA, and tells the story of the biblical character Moses from childhood to manhood.
It was this experience that crystallised Dr Johnston’s love of Australian musical theatre – and his desire to see it given due respect in teaching institutions.
“Musical theatre has been badly neglected,” he says.
“And that’s because it falls between ‘serious music’ and ‘serious theatre’, and it’s an extremely unfortunate thing.”
It’s a viewpoint which helps explain Dr Johnston’s desire to join the University of Melbourne and run the new Australian Centre for Music Theatre Research and Development, located within the Faculty of VCA & Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
He hopes the Centre will become Australia’s leading music theatre research institution.
“Melbourne has long been recognised as the music theatre capital of Australia, and the Victorian College of the Arts as the principal training ground for the stars of music theatre,” he said.
“The new centre will be examining the ecology of the music theatre industry in Australia, and consolidating an archive of music theatre history in Australia as an abundant source of material for future development.
“There are many questions to be addressed; including the rich history of local works versus the impact of international productions, the legacy of Indigenous music theatre, and why a few Australian musicals – such as Keating! – worked so well, while many others didn’t.”