By Konrad Marshall

“I’m naturally an optimist – you have to be,” says Michael Cassel. “You couldn’t be a producer if you didn’t believe in stuff turning out well.”Credit:Ben Sklar

It’s after 9pm on Thursday, November 3, 2022, and Michael Cassel is sitting in the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street, New York, New York. The theatrical producer is beaming, too, and no wonder. The Broadway premiere of Almost Famous – a musical based on the beloved coming-of-age rock ‘n’ roll flick from the year 2000 – is entering its finale. He’s sitting with a good mate whose taste he trusts, who turns to Cassel just as the song Fever Dog begins.

“Michael,” the friend whispers, “I think you’ve got a giant hit on your hands.”

Final bows are soon met with standing ovations, and Cassel, 42, permits himself to revel in the launch of his first Broadway show as a lead producer – a significant (and risky) step up from a career so far spent investing in other people’s productions or staging already established shows. This is basically his first big global swing, so he proudly strides on stage to toast the cast and crew, joined by music legend Joni Mitchell as well as his co-producer, former Sony music executive Lia Vollack, and her friend Cameron Crowe (who won an Academy Award for the screenplay of the cult film). Together they link hands and gaze into the applauding audience of 1078 people, soaking up the love.

As the curtain comes down in the theatre, the reviews go up online. That happens here. Critics see previews and post their opinion before opening night crowds have even hit the streets of Manhattan. Exiting through a stage door, Cassel scans his inbox. There’s only one review that counts – The New York Times – and its critique tonight is not kind. It’s an evisceration.

Almost Famous is, according to the NYT’s chief theatre critic Jesse Green, neither glorious nor righteous but “barely even has a form”, missing every chance to be what it could have been, instead becoming “a mystifying muddle, occasionally diverting but never affecting”, with sets and choreography “as flat and futile as an ant farm”. There’s more, but the headline will suffice: “In Almost Famous, the heart of rock’n’roll flatlines.”

“Your head is spinning, and you’re trying to be positive and focused, but in the back of your mind … bloody hell.”

Cassel stares into the glow of his iPhone – “Oh shit …” – and his brain races. “Your head is spinning,” he tells me later, “and you’re trying to be positive and focused, but in the back of your mind … bloody hell.”

Oblivious attendees hail yellow cabs to the after-party, held at a rooftop bar above the lights of the famed theatre district, but Cassel won’t be joining them for hours. Instead he stays with his team of publicists and creatives, war-gaming what to do next. With most bad reviews you can excerpt a single positive line and blow it up on a marquee, but there’s nothing to salvage here.

Cassel wonders aloud whether they could adopt a line from the show itself – “We play for fans, not the critics” – but in reality all he can do is hope that word of mouth is warm, and that NYC tourists – whether from Wisconsin or Wales or Wagga Wagga – will see the title of the show, remember that movie they loved, and spend their Big Apple travel bucks on the stage version. (Spoiler alert: they won’t.)

Almost Famous was Cassel’s big foray onto Broadway as a lead producer – and his first major commercial disappointment. “In a funny way, I think it’s a good thing for Michael,” says one friend.Credit:Michael Cassel Group

Cassel parks his disappointment and flies home the next day, unfolding his business-class bed and popping a melatonin so he can sleep while speeding from Los Angeles to Sydney. He gets back to his wife Camille and their two children, son Vaughn, eight, and daughter Eveleigh (in time for her 12th birthday), then spends a few days on the couch in Sans Souci, in Sydney’s south, before flying to Abu Dhabi for the opening of his production of The Lion King. Basically, he moves on by moving forward – though not without introspection.

Camille notes that her husband always makes a point of going around the dinner table – or boardroom table for that matter – asking for the highlights and lowlights of the day, constantly considering his crescendos and diminuendos. “From such a high, to come crashing down like that,” she ponders. “He’s probably never experienced that before.”

He had help shaking it off, with supportive, fatalistic messages from industry friends – “Welcome to the club, mate” – including his mentor and former boss, James Thane. “In a funny way, I think it’s a good thing for Michael,” says Thane, now employed by Cassel as a senior adviser. “It sounds glib, but you’ve got to have lived through this a couple of times to know what it feels like.”

Cassel agrees. Before any of this happened, we’d discussed his charmed life to date. The through line of the bio of the boy wonder of Australian theatre has always been his upward trajectory, a narrative with no nadirs. Until now. “In a way, this is the first proper, public … challenge,” he admits. “It’s like, ‘Righto, here’s your drama!’ ”

Cassel (right) with Almost Famous writer Cameron Crowe.Credit:Ben Sklar

Drama is, of course, the very passion Cassel cultivated as a kid. Wandering through Times Square one morning, he walks me through his childhood in tiny seaside Minnamurra, about two hours south of Sydney, as the eldest of four. Brother Matthew is a truck driver, James a fireman and sister Haley a correctional officer for Wollongong Court. Michael was the precocious, creative one.

He was only seven when he penned a letter to Ray Martin, offering to co-host The Midday Show. He was eight when he wrote to the Neighbours casting agent, hoping to land a part in the soapie. That same year, on a family holiday to Brisbane, he staged a concert in the caravan park – and charged for entry.

“Dear Harry, I am in year 6 at Minnamurra Primary School. Can you give me a job? I want to be a producer.”

Dad was a builder turned public servant, which was handy when you wanted to stage a play in your backyard on milk crates and plywood. Mum was in real estate, and allowed him to raid closets for costumes or repurpose bedside lamps as stage lights. “They would never describe themselves as entrepreneurial,” Cassel says, “but they are. And that’s part of my nature.”

Cassel was 12 when he saw Jesus Christ Superstar. The experience washed over him like magic dust. He took the program home and read it every night, poring over the words of its producer, Harry M. Miller, the fiery showbiz impresario who also managed the likes of Graham Kennedy and Barry Humphries. Miller was who Cassel wanted to be – though perhaps without the stint in prison for fraud – so he reached out, yet again by post: “Dear Harry,” he wrote. “I am in year 6 at Minnamurra Primary School. Can you give me a job? I want to be a producer.”

Miller encouraged him to finish high school first; Cassel began producing anyway. He was 14 when he put on a Carols by Candlelight show in the nearby town of Kiama, which became an annual event drawing thousands. “Mum was sick and nervous for me,” he says. “Trying to make sure I wasn’t being taken advantage of, or that I wasn’t promising something I couldn’t deliver.”

Cassel with Alan Jones and Harry M. Miller in 1997, when Cassel was on year 11 work experience.Credit:Courtesy of Michael Cassel

She needn’t have worried. Cassel was only 15 when another of his formal letters convinced heavyweight broadcaster Alan Jones to host. When they met in person, Jones was shocked by Cassel’s youth, and so engineered a formal introduction to Miller. By the time Cassel turned 18 he was using the principal’s phone to land sponsors and book acts, while doing school holiday work experience with Miller in Kings Cross. He passed his HSC, pulled off an audacious Australia Day concert for 55,000 people in Wollongong, and began working for Miller the following week.

The adjustment was tough. Tears were not uncommon. Cassel remembers Miller screaming at him when the phones went down during an office move. “I got absolutely roasted – he tore strips off me,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t have the personal capacity to deal with it.”

Still, he was a quick study, which was recognised by James Thane, who’d formerly worked for Miller and later Andrew Lloyd Webber in London. When Thane took a position heading up Disney’s new Australian theatrical arm, Cassel became his assistant. An enviable blend of multitasker and perfectionist, he was barely 24 when he took responsibility for The Lion King, staging the mammoth production everywhere from Shanghai to South Africa. “What he can do is hold everything all in his brain at any one time,” says Thane. “It’s a real skill.”

Soon he was living in New York, working for Disney overseeing stage productions all over the world, including everything from Beauty and the Beast to Tarzan, AIDA and The Little Mermaid. Ron Kollen, who developed Disney’s theatrical wing, says Cassel offered not just enthusiasm or emotional intelligence but hardness, too. “I’ve never seen him flare up and be abusive, but when push comes to shove – which it always does – he knew how to pull the plug,” says Kollen. “We fired a lot of people along the way. And Michael had to do a lot of that dirty work.”

Kollen says the end of Cassel’s time at Disney wasn’t acrimonious – he simply wanted to do more than he could within a massive system reliant on prescribed roles. “It’s frustrating for some. Not everyone can be as entrepreneurial as they might want to be,” Kollen says. “You have to bite your tongue and know your place.”

Cassel with mentor James Thane, who praises Cassel’s ability to multitask.Credit:Courtesy of Michael Cassel

Cassel came home, and in 2012, at the age of 32, he hung his own shingle: Michael Cassel Group (MCG). That business initially meant flying to Broadway or London’s West End, finding a strong new show in production, investing early, then negotiating for the rights to produce it in Australia. “You put money in, and you get to go to opening night, but you’re not part of any decision-making,” Cassel says. “You’re there to support an engine that’s already running.”

But he also sought older, established shows to stage for limited local runs. The latter led to the first big break for his nascent company, in the form of billionaire theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh – the man behind Cats, Oliver! and Phantom of the Opera. Mackintosh was on holiday with Thane and complaining about the producers managing his shows in Australia. Thane suggested Cassel. The pair had an hour-long meeting that became a full day together, and MCG won the right to stage a local revival of Les Misérables.

“We fired a lot of people along the way. And Michael had to do a lot of that dirty work.”

Off and running, Cassel still needed cash, and found asking for it awkward. Big commercial theatre shows can cost anywhere from $5 million to $15 million to stage, and it’s estimated seven out of 10 (perhaps more) fail to recoup their costs, meaning investors are often an eclectic bunch of punters – rogues and restaurateurs and racehorse owners. Cassel doesn’t characterise his backers this way, describing them as a core group of about a dozen people who each contribute on average $500,000 to any given show, based on hard data as much as personal taste. “They have to believe in the show, and they have to believe in the conservative commercial estimates,” he says. “It’s not The Producers.”

Setting up shop, he did things a little differently, too. Jason Marriner, chief executive of Marriner Group, the family company behind Melbourne’s Princess, Regent, Comedy and Forum theatres, says Cassel ignored the traditional model, whereby producers tend to outsource marketing and PR to specialist firms. “Instead he built this incredible team in-house,” says Marriner. “He has this full suite of comprehensive, complementary services.”

He hired staff for finance and elements of ticketing, too, meaning his operation is far from lean – and could have crippled him during the pandemic. Cassel was one of the first Australians to test positive for the coronavirus – the 103rd person in NSW, in fact. (Remember when news broke that actor Tom Hanks and his wife, the singer Rita Wilson, had COVID-19? Cassel was with them that day, presenting a concert for Wilson at the Sydney Opera House.) His company had a staff of 30 then (40 now), many of whom had to go part-time, but was saved by a mixture of good fortune and good forethought.

The good luck? When JobKeeper came in, all employees working on the five-hour, two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were eligible, the blockbuster show having been up for more than 12 months.

The good planning? A much earlier decision to plough profits back into the business, to cushion unforeseen calamities. “I knew that one day the company was going to have a show that was a disaster,” Cassel says, “and I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t pull us down.” (His tour of The Lion King had been slated to open in Wuhan, of all places, and cash reserves helped him survive that cancellation, including affording an ex gratia payment to the 105 people involved in the production.)

He used the downtime for self-examination, turning to life coach Ben Crowe, who espoused his favourite mantras – “Your greatest growth comes from your darkest times” – while together they wondered how it would all end.

“Honestly, he got me through COVID,” says Crowe, laughing. “I work in the entertainment industry, but he’s so energetic, he just opened my eyes to the power of dreaming big, tapping into imagination.”

Cassel was fortunate that the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had been playing for 12 months in Melbourne when the pandemic began, as it meant staff were eligible for JobKeeper.

Cassel was used to dealing with state governments, which regularly put money into big musicals, but the pandemic saw him sounding out federal ministers and “advocating for the ecosystem” – sending politicians out to his costume workshops in Leichhardt, so they might understand how far the tendrils of the industry creep.

He kept grinding, too. Cassel had won the highly competitive race to produce Hamilton in Australia, and spent much of early 2020 using Zoom to do casting reviews with the show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda. Tickets went on sale in September 2020, before Sydney’s theatres had even reopened. “I’m naturally an optimist – you have to be,” he says. “You couldn’t be a producer if you didn’t believe in stuff turning out well.”

Cassel had been itching to expand, including creating his own shows, since about 2018 and knew he needed a partner with deep pockets to do so. He recalled the advice of former Disney boss Michael Eisner, who’d told him to ignore early nibbles from smaller private equity partners and wait until a true whale came along.

“We were doing great things, but I didn’t want to be doing the same great thing in five years’ time, or 20 years’ time. It’s go big or go home.”

Thus, after reading in The Hollywood Reporter about an American investment banker named Lisbeth R. Barron – “the queen of deals”, specialising in the live entertainment sector – he wrote her a letter (naturally). They met in New York, did their due diligence and in 2019, he stood in her Fifth Avenue boardroom assessing seven offers she’d pulled together from entities interested in investing in MCG, everything from a top global music company to a Chinese multinational.

Barron arranged them in a grid that detailed their every esoteric strength and weakness, from governance to cultural fit, all projected above the end of a 12-metre-long table overlooking Central Park. “We had this long stick, a pointer, so Michael could walk to the front of the room and dissect everything,” she says. “What was intriguing to me was that Michael knew instinctively how he felt – immediately – when faced with a complicated grid. He knew exactly where he wanted to go.”

In 2020, Cassel won the rights to bring Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, to Australia.

Cassel shook hands on a deal in January 2020, formalised six months later, to sell a controlling interest in his company – 51 per cent – to Silver Lake, a $US43 billion Silicon Valley private equity fund that had recently turned its gaze to media and live entertainment, investing in the Ambassador Theatre Group (which owns 58 theatres around the world), talent management company Endeavour and TEG, the ticketing giant based in Australia.

It wasn’t an easy decision. “I felt like, if I really wanted to grow the company to where it needs to be, I needed that financial backing,” Cassel says. “We were doing great things, but I didn’t want to be doing the same great thing in five years’ time, or 20 years’ time. It’s go big or go home.” His newfound financial reserves give him the ability to create new shows but also the potential to address a major industry obstacle in Australia: the shortage of theatres in Sydney, the country’s biggest city with the largest tourist haul – and thus the biggest potential market for live shows.

But first, a quick history lesson. When the urban-renewal wrecking ball swung through Australia’s major cities from the 1950s onwards, Melbourne was fortunate to retain four of its grand theatres – the Regent, Comedy, Princess and Her Majesty’s. Sydney was not so lucky – its theatres around Haymarket disappeared due to the ease of demolition. The city now really only has two capable of staging blockbuster shows: the Capitol Theatre and Sydney Lyric.

This scarcity makes scheduling big Australian tours a nightmare. A massive hit like Hamilton can (and did) play for a year each in both Sydney and Melbourne, but the general rule is that most touring shows last a few months in each city, and have to play the entire east coast to make a profit. Theatre logjams can make moving seamlessly from one city to another exceedingly difficult. Cassel has just opened the jukebox musical & Juliet in Melbourne, for instance, yet once it’s done it’ll go offshore because Sydney’s theatres are full. Similarly, he wants to bring the Michael Jackson bio-hit MJ: The Musical to Australia, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to find a vacant stage in Sydney to make a national tour work until 2025.

Countless reports have identified the lack of Sydney theatres as a glaring gap in Australia’s events infrastructure, but construction of a building that becomes an empty CBD shopfront for 21 hours per day is a hard sell for developers. “If you were looking through a financial lens, no one would set out to build a theatre,” says Jason Marriner. “It’s the kind of infrastructure that needs to have a government imprimatur.”

Broadway darling &Juliet, which opened in Melbourne in March to rave reviews.Credit:Eddie Jim

And so we end up where we are now, with endless debate over the capacity and type of theatres required in Sydney. Smaller theatres are just as desperately needed for rehearsal and development spaces, for instance, while various grand solutions are floated in public, including everything from the NSW government eyeing off old picture palaces for refurbishment, to a proposal from Grimshaw Architects for a vast cultural precinct to be created in Woolloomooloo.

The solution with the most momentum is the plan for a 1550-seat Broadway-style theatre and another 1000-seat venue inside The Star casino complex, to be funded by Foundation Theatres (which also owns the 2094-seat Capitol and the 2000-seat Lyric). Planning approval was granted in February with a view to delivering the project by late 2025. “It’s a watershed moment for us,” says Foundation chief executive Graeme Kearns. “We’re off and running with the next stage.”

For his part, a somewhat sceptical Cassel says that until those new theatres become a “certainty”, the bottleneck will remain. Oh, and he would prefer that two of Sydney’s biggest commercial theatres weren’t located within a gaming venue. “If having a theatre in a casino is all that is possible,” he says, “then it seems we aren’t aiming high enough.” (“Not for nothing,” Kearns responds, “it’s worth noting that there’s a casino next to practically every theatre in the West End.” )

“If having a theatre in a casino is all that is possible, then it seems we aren’t aiming high enough.”

With the backing of Silver Lake, Cassel may yet offer his own alternative. “We can sit on the sideline and throw stones, or we can try to fix it,” he says. “I don’t want to be a theatre owner, but I will be a theatre owner if no one else is stepping up.”

It’s this kind of go-it-alone ambition that doesn’t endear Cassel to everyone in the industry. He has his detractors – those who say he’s arrogant, burns people and forgets those who’ve helped him. Others view him as a “Flash Harry” who runs his own race, wants to be known for moving the dial, and perhaps just isn’t as collegiate as some of his peers.

Cassel is “so energetic”, says mindset coach Ben Crowe, “he just opened my eyes to the power of dreaming big, tapping into imagination.”Credit:Ben Sklar

He might stand at arm’s length from some of his competitors but Cassel is adept at cultivating relationships in government, society and the media – hosting regular parties and lunches, flying journalists overseas to see shows (including Good Weekend to New York for this story) and securing the likes of Leigh Sales to interview Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda on stage in Brisbane recently, an interview that will feature on the ABC on March 18.

Perhaps it’s just competitive rivalry in a small and cut-throat industry; he’s certainly come further, faster than many of his peers, securing a swag of the most keenly sought-after shows – Hamilton and Harry Potter being prime examples – as well as plenty of press coverage. That’s bound to rankle some.

“Jealousy would be a factor, but if there were a dinner party with commercial theatre producers sitting around talking about the world, he’s not at it,” says one industry insider. “He would see himself as separate or distinct from that group.”

If work sounds a little like a political and logistical juggle for Cassel, he makes it work at home. He and Camille went to high school together, organised those carols events together as teenagers, moved to Sydney together for his job with Harry M. Miller, and got married when they were 27.

She worked in events for Disney and is now a full-time mum. Her husband’s focus is relentless enough for two, but he knows how to take care of himself.

He uses a standing desk at his office in Potts Point (after reading an article that said it adds four years to your life). He’s a clean eater (because any gluten or dairy can mess him up for days). He’s been known to intentionally nod off for five minutes at a time (an afternoon indulgence dubbed “opportunistic nap time”). He loves a party but doesn’t really drink at home, and at work functions has been known to nurse a glass of apple juice all evening, pretending it’s champagne. On nights at home, bedtime is strictly 10pm, and lights-out is automated. He rises at 5.30am for meditation, then yoga or weights. “He’s very neat,” Camille adds, gesturing to the spotless table in the MCG boardroom where we’re chatting. “If I were to leave this glass of water for later, it would be gone before I had a chance to come back for a sip.”

When he’s away, they FaceTime every day. He spent two months in New York last year preparing for Almost Famous, meaning he missed Camille’s birthday for the first time since high school. He prepped before he left, wrapping presents and arranging for 42 balloons to be delivered to the house. The family came to visit in Manhattan, too – a typical tourist brood doing the Staten Island Ferry and the High Line.

Cassel with children Eveleigh and Vaughn, and wife Camille. Cassel will never fully “switch off”, even on family holidays, Camille says. “He is always on.”Credit:Getty Images

They take the same three weeks off every winter and only once – a few years ago in Mo’orea, French Polynesia – did Cassel make the mistake of turning off his phone. “The aftermath of that was breakdown material. There was just too much,” says Camille. “Things got compounded because they weren’t addressed straight away. So he will never fully switch off after that. He is always on.”

It was on one such flop-and-drop holiday that he launched the talent management side of his business. It was June 2013, and Julia Gillard had just been ousted as prime minister. He felt as though her future was going to be greater than her time in parliament. “I drafted a letter, on the beach, and sent it straight to Julia.”

“It’s all a bit random, and in any other market it wouldn’t make sense, but it’s fun. I like crafting a deal.”

Gillard didn’t need Cassel at the time, having just done a book deal, but she eventually signed on as his first client, relieved to hear that his plan was the
opposite of pitching her everywhere at everything. He produced a slightly cheesy but nevertheless popular stage show with her that was more theatrical than the average writers’ festival appearance, but the majority of the talent management job when it comes to Gillard is saying no to stuff. He soon signed 60 Minutes presenter Liz Hayes, too, as well as British running royalty Sebastian Coe, along with a handful of other TV personalities. “It’s all a bit random, and in any other market it wouldn’t make sense, but it’s fun,” he says, shrugging. “I like crafting a deal.”

On January 8, 2023, 66 days after it opened, Almost Famous closed. Michael Cassel knows the critics didn’t kill it. Countless blockbusters have survived an initial public panning, from Les Misérables to Wicked. Audiences vote with their feet, and within a month the box-office receipts had dropped from the minimum $US800,000 a week they needed for profitability, to an unsustainable $US575,000 – grosses that are printed every week in Variety.

“Everything’s exposed. Everybody knows. You can’t pack up quietly and leave,” Cassel says. “The part of you that loves what you’ve created thinks, ‘If we can just get a bit further on, maybe it’ll find its way and business will bounce back,’ but you need to divorce yourself from that.”

MCG will take a hit, yet not solely. The show had been in train since 2016, and Cassel didn’t come on board until 2021. He shares the rights with his co-lead producer Lia Vollack – a former roadie and sound engineer, later president of Sony Entertainment – and so they share the loss, too. “But the loss will be millions,” Cassel says, nodding. “Millions and millions of dollars.”

At the opening night of Almost Famous. Cassel knew that box-office figures – the show’s success – would be public. “Everything’s exposed,” he says. “Everyone knows.”Credit:Ben Sklar

It’s been hard. But it won’t curtail his next moves. “If you let yourself get all shy and heartbroken, you’re not going to be able to dust yourself off and go again.”

It’s not necessarily the end for that title, either. The show stayed open long enough to meet its contractual vesting period, which means the producers now control the copyright for the show. (If it had closed after just a few weeks, the writers of the book, score and lyrics would have walked away with their rights.) They have options.

Cassel was an investor in the 2018 production of Pretty Woman, for instance, which wasn’t well received on Broadway but was retooled and then played to sold-out shows on the West End in London and in Hamburg, to the point that Cassel is beginning to recoup his investment.

This is not uncommon. The Little Mermaid failed to wow New York, closing there in 2009, but has since been to the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, Denmark, Belgium, Brazil and Finland – as well as playing 10 straight years in Japan. “But can we resurrect it?” Cassel asks of Almost Famous. “Should we? I don’t think it’s something you can rush.”

They could mitigate the loss by licensing the title to schools or amateur theatre groups, or other professional producers. But he suspects the best first option may be a US tour, where title recognition might generate sales in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, and local performing-arts centres could absorb some of the financial exposure.

In the meantime, he has a business to run. A juggernaut revival of Mary Poppins and the Broadway darling & Juliet are both playing in Melbourne, while Hamilton has just moved to Brisbane. Cassel is navigating what to do next with the one-woman play The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he took to Melbourne after its smash-hit Sydney Theatre Company seasons. He expects to take it to London next.

Cassel’s recent hit Mary Poppins, left, and the one-woman hit play The Picture of Dorian Gray, produced by the Sydney Theatre Company which Cassel is now touring.Credit:Wayne Taylor; Daniel Boud

He also has new shows to develop, fielding pitches from writers and keeping an eye on the public-domain titles soon emerging. Creating IP is now the main game for Cassel, and his hopes are with You’re the Voice, based on the songs of John Farnham. Cassel met with Farnham’s manager, the late Glenn Wheatley, in 2015, and was told Farnham would never want his life story on stage.

Cassel had no interest in that, either. “We put the concept out to a number of writers, and we got a range of ideas,” he says. “One was called Sadie, the Cleaning Lady, and I was like, ‘We’re not doing that musical.’ ”

There’s a fine line to walk with these songs, between honouring the legacy of a national icon and presenting his music to a wider world utterly unfamiliar with Two Strong Hearts or A Touch of Paradise. The music also has to swim on stage, adapting to format and story, otherwise the audience might as well stay home and play Age of Reason on the stereo.

The winning idea came from respected theatre, film and TV writer Tommy Murphy – Holding the Man, Significant Others, The Twelve – who penned what looks like an epic, sweeping saga, quintessentially Australian but with potential global appeal. Good Weekend attends a late summer reading with actors and musicians in a South Melbourne dance studio. This early glimpse into how it might unfold suggests a show filled with humour and pathos, bawdy scenes and soaring ballads.

“Because if we mess it up, then we’ve got a big problem. But if we get this right? It’ll live forever.”

Later, the creative team will converge and compare notes. Highs? Lows? What felt superfluous? What felt thin? “Is it too long? Is this terrible? Do we go forward – or back to the beginning?” Cassel asks. “You need to be really honest with yourself. But the good thing is we’re not walking away from here going, ‘That was a dud idea.’ ”

Act I and Act II sat well together, with key changes and octave raises that would make Whispering Jack proud. Cassel sits in the sunshine on a balcony, happy with what he just heard, but how long it takes to hit the stage is a question he cannot answer. If they had everything right – “We don’t” – it could be fast-tracked in a year. But it could just as easily take three years, or seven. And that’s fine.

The pressure of industry expectation and quarterly financial statements rests with Cassel, but that has to be a separate concern. He only gets one chance to do this properly, so it needs to evolve naturally. “Because if we mess it up, then we’ve got a big problem,” he says, pausing. “But if we get this right? It’ll live forever.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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