Waiting by the red carpet for my date to arrive (old mate Emma), I begin to realise the ushers really will shut the doors on us. The event is being broadcast live on the Ovation channel, leaving little leeway for stragglers.
The evening hasn’t even started yet and already it feels like a genuine, bona fide Awards Night. Emma materialises and we flounce inside, past cameras and actors, harlots and hangers-on.
The Helpmann Awards began only four years ago, an attempt to create a national awards night honouring performances across the boards: opera, dance, theatre, classical music and concert presentations.
In this brief time the event has already copped it for its voting system, its perceived Melbourne bias and the inclusion of international nominees.
Bunkered in at the Lyric Theatre none of this seemed to matter. Director Dennis Watkins explained how the broadcast would work and that a stage manager with a Madonna-mike would tell us when to clap.
So did it compare to the Tonys (or at least, the broadcast of the Tonys?) Can we do an awards show without the cultural cringe? Let’s consult the checklist.
1 A great host. Simon Burke not only sang a parody of the four big musicals nominated, he managed to introduce presenters in song as well. Bringing on Amanda Muggleton, Burke sang (to the tune of On The Inside): She used to be in Prisoner/Got fingered by the Freak. Tick!
2 Show-stopping numbers. Excerpts from We Will Rock You, The Lion King, The Producers and even a dance bit from Saturday Night Fever were top class, proving again that in the world of great big, fuck-off musicals, Australia has nothing to be ashamed of. Tick!
3 Gay content. It’s much more a Tony tradition than an Oscar standard, but as a performing arts shivoo the Helpmanns should have been pretty in pink -“ and there was one striking moment. It came from John Farnham, believe it or not, while accepting a James Cassius award for lifetime achievement. In praising Glenn Wheatley, Farnham explained he had to sack his previous manager because he developed a crush more than John Howard would think was acceptable. The crowd tittered awkwardly, until Burke arrived to take the pressure down, announcing how terrific it was John Farnham had endorsed gay marriage. Tick!
4 Frocks. A disappointment. There was so much black it was like attending a really happy wake. Cross!
5 Dodgy decisions. Tick! Although it was great to see Emma Matthews honoured for Lulu, giving an award to Maggie Smith for Talking Heads over Judy Davis for Victory seems absurd. Still, if we want to be considered a grown-up in the world of theatre we’ll have to drop the parochial. Imagine if the Yanks decided The Boy From Oz was ineligible for a Tony because it was too Australian.
Which brings us to Hugh Jackman, who materialised via satellite to give The Lion King the Bobby for Best Musical: an international finish to a beautifully national show.
The Helpmanns are Australia’s answer to the Tonys: they’re as problematic and as silly. But the evening proved they’re also worth having, because we have more than enough talent and originality to pat ourselves on the back once a year. Tick!
The full list of Helpmann Awards 2004 winners is online at www.helpmannawards.com.au. The show is being repeated throughout August on Ovation Channel.