Despite what television producers like to think, musicals aren’t automatically funny. The joke with Australian Epic is meant to be that hey, we’re making big musicals out of small stories. It’s not a bad joke – but going by the first episode, it’s not good enough.
When it was first announced, Australian Epic was called Stories From Oz. Presumably that’s because the concept was a straight lift from the series Stories From Norway, which aired on SBS here a few years ago. Since then, it looks like the ABC realised they didn’t need to pay royalities for the “musical documentary” concept. Hey presto, new title (and no mention of the original).
We bring it up here not (just) because we’re shitty people, but because the original version works as a comedy in ways this does not. For one, it was the product of a pre-established musical comedy team. Think Norway’s version of Flight of the Conchords, or Hamish & Andy but with guitars. Aunty Donna! Yeah, let’s go with them.
It’s not hard to see how that version would be funny. And the local version is put together by a duo of sorts – The Chaser’s Andrew Hansen and Chris Taylor. But they’re not exactly renowned for their hilarious point of view. Hansen is an extremely talented songwriter, but he turns topical issues into satirical songs rather than just making up crap for the sake of a laugh.
So instead of an established double act messing about, we get a slightly more polished ensemble who bring pretty much nothing pre-existing to the table as far as comedy goes. The joke is that they’re going all in with a big musical about a small subject. Once you get past that, what’s left is a collection of musical sketches that are impressive more for their production values and musical virtuosity than their jokes.
Another strength of the Norwegian version was that it wasn’t afraid to go a little off-book with its adaptation of events for a laugh. While it also featured interviews with people actually involved, the songs often put a weird spin on events. They’d happily go surreal or over-the-top if that’s where the laughs were.
It’s hard to say exactly why the local version doesn’t do this. The first episode is looking at the story of ice skater Steven Bradbury. You know, the guy who won Olympic gold when everyone in front of him fell over. You’d think that’d be prime material for a bit of piss-farting around, but the actual episode? Surprisingly reverential.
The only explanation that comes to hand is that having the co-operation of the the real Bradbury (and his coach, and his parents) left Hansen and Taylor feeling that cheap shots were off the table. In a traditional comedy musical, they could go big and silly with Bradbury’s character. But because this has real interviews with the real people, it’s constantly pulled back to reality.
And each song has to stand on its own. We get the real story, then a song, then it’s back to the real story. They don’t build on each other, or even have much in the way of running jokes. Which is weird, because the whole point of the Bradbury story is that it builds up to a punchline: he won gold because everyone in front of him fell over.
Constantly resetting back to reality limits where the show can go, even if the individual songs are pretty good. Everyone involved is treated with respect, which is what you want in a documentary but a bit of a laugh-killer in a comedy. And the choice of what to turn into a song doesn’t really provide much in the way of insight.
Of course there’s a song on the decision to hang back in the big race. But why is there a full musical number about him needing to get a second medical opinion about a career-ending injury? The whole point of musical numbers is to get at things that lie underneath the surface of the story. Here the songs mostly just illustrate things the documentary side has already explained.
We’re told that Bradbury realised he couldn’t out skate the pack. He knew all too well that people fall over a lot in ice skating, so his best path to victory was to hang back. So his win wasn’t an accident after all! And then there’s a lengthy song that tells us again what we just heard, only in musical form. Good thing it was hilarious oh wait.
But going over old ground is built into this concept. Creating a musical around the joke that anyone would make a musical about recent Australian history isn’t new (see: Keating!). And quasi-comedy docutakes on recent events is… *waves hand in general direction of The Betoota Advocate Presents*.
What Australian Epic ends up being is a show for a): people who really like musical theatre, b): people who really like Australian Story, and c): people who tuned in really hoping to get some comedy.