When Phil Goff assumed the mayoralty in 2016, he put the kibosh on a $500,000 branding exercise which had proposed using ‘The Place Desired by Many’ as a slogan for Auckland. An English translation of Tāmaki Makaurau, the phrase was the centrepiece of a rebrand developed by ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development) to tell an ‘Auckland story’ that could be marketed to a global audience. The council-controlled organisation was criticised for wasting ratepayer’s money, and the idea quickly fizzled when Goff and the new Council chose not to back it. While a footnote in our history, the failed branding speaks to the tensions in creating a coherent image of New Zealand’s biggest city which can give residents a feeling of belonging as well as attract tourist dollars. The case also demonstrates the city’s ongoing reticence to properly acknowledge the indigenous people of Tāmaki as central to its identity. Our big little world’s-not-yet-most-liveable Pacific capital Super City of sails has something of an identity crisis: Who are we? What do we value? And what do we have to offer the world?
This Goff-rejected idea has now returned – sort of – in one of the most unlikely of places. Using the more prosaic translation of ‘City of 100 Lovers’ as its title, a new musical comedy has opened at SkyCity aiming to share the Auckland story with locals and visitors through song. It is backed by ATEED’s former CEO, Brett O’Riley, who challenged the tourism industry three years ago to fill the “gap in the market for evening entertainment options in Auckland City.” Certainly the 700 seat SkyCity theatre (a cultural add-on to help seal the deal to get the Skytower and Casino constructed) sits empty for much of the year, but O’Riley’s comments are puzzling considering the council’s own Auckland Live venues are bursting at the curtain seams year-round with high quality local shows and international tours. The obvious strategic question is whether we need something else, or whether we need to better promote what we already have. ATEED want to boost tourism spending from the current $8 billion to $14 billion over the next 7 years, with an emphasis on the ‘night-time economy.’
That’s where City of 100 Lovers comes in. Its unique proposition is that it wants to be a ‘sit down’ show, a permanent fixture in Auckland’s nightlife. It is produced by Jihong Lu of Templar, “a single-family office operation based in Auckland, New Zealand, exclusively focused on our family wealth preservation and capital growth with a global perspective”, new players in the theatrical market. Lu intends for the show to run for at least nine months, and if this proves viable, indefinitely. This is an untried model and it will be fascinating to see how they go – so far 100 Lovers hasn’t made much of a marketing or publicity splash locally (and, awkwardly, the show doesn’t even appear on SkyCity’s website), but I understand the focus is on the tourist market (Tourism minister Kelvin Davis was at the first preview performance). If the backers are successful, it will be a huge win for industry professionals, providing stable employment in a performing arts sector defined by short gigs and uncertainty.
But to achieve this, Templar need to have a product that audiences will love – a ‘must do’ for anyone staying in Auckland. And it needs to be a show that locals feel represents who they are are, so they will be proud to take visitors to see it – a show that they can point to and say that our theatre can compete with the best from anywhere else in the world. This is true, but it is not the case with City of 100 Lovers.
The musical follows Sally (Rebecca Cullinan), a divorced New York food critic, who is sent on assignment to Auckland with only the haziest ideas about the culture and anticipates mediocrity. Her Australian editor Deedee (Bryony Skillington) pitches the trip as a chance to visit the ‘City of 100 Lovers’ (the show ignores the fact that hardly anyone ever actually calls it that) and judge a cooking competition. Sally is struck by the moniker – “Sounds romantic / sounds inviting / how enchanting” she clunkily begins to sing. If it is a city of one hundred lovers, she wonders, “could there be one for me?” (Those really aren’t great odds when you break it down – when is Mayor Goff going to address our city’s dating crisis?) Sally is taken under the wing of Māori tour guide TJ (Kieran Foster), and inevitably falls in love with the city and its people. Meanwhile, her New Yorker ex-husband Donald (yes, Donald, played by Wesley Dowdell), tracks her down in Auckland and decides to ignore our resource consent laws and turn a pristine beach into a hotel and shopping mall (a ‘save paradise, stop the development’ plot has to be one of the most clichéd narratives you can choose). Will Donald build his mall? Will Sally find at least one lover? Will there be a last-minute dash to the airport? You probably already know the answer to these questions.
While the promoters say this show was three years in the making, radio host and writer Justin Brown was only approached in August 2017 to write an original story concept for the show. Brown didn’t write the show’s script, however – that duty went to Broadway’s Peter Kellogg, a Tony nominee (!) for Anna Karenina. He’s just one of a number of surprising creatives assembled for the show. Another New Yorker Tony Stimac directs, while Vincent Ward, who has played a huge role in representing Aotearoa cinematically in films such as Vigil and Rain of the Children, is the porous ‘creative director’. The composer and musical director is APRA Silver Scrolls winner Tom McLeod, the costume designer is esteemed Chinese creative Ding Ding, Okareka Dance Company’s Taioroa Royal choreographs, and Paora Sharples and Waihoroi Shortland (the latter of whom also appears in the show as a ‘wise old man’) are the cultural advisers. Despite this strong team, City of 100 Lovers is an artistically bland production. The show’s producers and some of the local creatives are new to Musical Theatre, and while the New York writer and director are incredibly experienced in this form, they are new to New Zealand culture. The result? A chimera of 100 errors.
Despite the $8 million budget (a trifle for Broadway shows but eye-watering in the NZ context), the production values are underwhelming. Lights go up in the first scene to reveal limp-hanging pieces of fabric displaying washed out projections of a New York cityscape. Where an alternative version of this show might begin with a high energy company opening number, depicting the bustle of NYC hustle (to contrast with laidback NZ), we get a staid scene of Sally accepting the assignment, and a subdued ‘I want’ song. There is some promising visual inventiveness when the set moves away and the character is suspended in the air for her long-haul flight, while dancers in sheep costumes perform a ballet below (the show’s first sheep joke inevitably arrives within the first two minutes). And as for the closing number, set on a bare stage with a costume parade of everything we’ve seen before – well, that’s spectacle-lite too.
Cinematic projections on the stage’s back screen do the majority of the production’s aesthetic work, revealing Ward’s elegant artistic eye. It seems that most of the show’s spectacle, however, was kept dry in order to create an underwater spectacular when TJ takes Sally scuba diving. There’s a definite ‘wow’ moment when we first go under the sea, but the same fish and turtle puppets keep swimming past the stage. Finally Sally and TJ ‘swim’ in from above the stage and are lowered to the bottom. They keep swimming. Eventually, Sally is attacked by an eel and TJ gets to perform his gender role and play hero. It’s an interminable sequence with little pay off that sinks any narrative drive.
What is most astounding about that $8 million sum is that the producers did not reserve a budget line for a dramaturg. A dramaturg can aid writers and creatives in defining what the story is that they are telling, consider how moments might resonate with different audiences, and help develop the strongest narrative structure. They really needed one. Stopping the plot to create an underwater stage spectacle (which is literally something out of a Victorian era stage show) is symptomatic of the fatal narrative issues in the show. Take the New Zealand showcase scenes, where there is little plot progression in the first half. Early scenes play like a marketing video, something that might be screened to international visitors as their Air New Zealand flight comes into land. For example, TJ takes Sally to our “national church” – Eden Park – where, due to the NZRU’s strict licensing lockdown, she’s treated to a haka performed by the logo-less world champion ‘Women in Black’. It comes across as rather soulless patriotic pageantry.
Nor does City of 100 Lovers know how to build its romantic storyline. It mostly relies on the characters woodenly declaring their positions rather than the developments being properly seeded through the narrative. Sally says to TJ, “you are so smart and gifted!” He says he’s never met anyone so forthright (really?), but beyond proximity and plot necessity, we are never given much of a reason to invest in their incoherent romantic arc. While Rebecca Cullinan is yet to spark in the rather thanklessly written role of Sally, Kieran Foster as TJ has charm and a wily humour. Paired together, the romance has no friction. Donald is never a credible threat, although it’s enjoyable watching Wesley Dowdell emphasise the character’s ‘Type A’ reprehensibility.
Bryony Skillington’s Deedee is the comic high point of the production. Skillington delivers a subversive performance, leaning into the ridiculousness of the concept – her character arrives in Auckland thirsty for TJ, and her featured song, ‘What’s Wrong with a Fling?’, brings the house down.
Redeemably, Tom McLeod has created a catchy musical theatre score which is likely to appeal to audiences. ‘We Don’t Like to Boast’, which introduces Sally to New Zealand, is a witty celebration of Aotearoa culture, premised around the kiwi humble-brag. Royal’s choreography, (performed by some of NZ’s top contemporary dancers) really shines, although the culturally chameleonic roles played by the ensemble during the number might raise some eyebrows.
Behind the scenes, the show appears to have a strong commitment to Tikanga Māori through the influence of Sharples and Shortland. Te Reo is admirably showcased throughout the show (although the line by line English translation of a performance of Pōkarekare ana overwhelms the Reo). A late plot point, however, undermines the respectful inclusion of Te Ao Māori. [Spoiler Alert – Highlight to Read] In order to see off Donald, TJ calls up the ‘Women in Black’ to help. They perform a spirited haka before physically assaulting Donald and ripping off his clothes – a clunker in terms of both cultural and gender politics. [/Spoiler Alert] It is also curious that despite the show’s potential appeal to tourists from Asia (especially during the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism), 100 Lovers perpetuates under-representation of Asian performers on NZ’s stage – although a Chinese chef is one of the four contestants competing in the Waiheke island cook off, he literally remains in the background, never getting a solo despite the promise that we’ll be introduced to each contestant.
The most glaring missed opportunity is that the show doesn’t really engage with the historical resonance of its own title. International (and a fair few local) audience members will come away from the show ignorant that Tāmaki Makaurau’s ‘City of 100 lovers’ does not refer to literal lovers, but to how desired the land was and the many battles fought over it among iwi. These are stories that could have been shared with a wide audience.
City of 100 Lovers is surely not for Aucklanders, because every flat note rings so falsely. There is a fleeting moment of self-awareness when Sally expresses that not everyone is naïve enough to buy into the “paradise hype”, but there is never a counter offered to offset the glowing tourist brochure depiction of the city. That’s not the ‘Auckland story’ they want to tell, of course, especially not one at SkyCity. But perhaps it should be. A nuanced show would acknowledge that we’re not all great all the time – that the city is facing big social and infrastructure challenges, and our country has a high level of income inequality. There is also some potential for colonial commentary in the Donald storyline – his surveying of the beach recalls the Foreshore/Seabed controversy. And there’s something in there too about the sensationalised panic around foreigner buyers (of course, when Donald’s namesake visited here in the 90s, he was touting a casino development in partnership with Ngāti Whātua). As it is, audiences are presented with a plastic Tiki culture, a utopic fantasy of social harmony in which the Black Ferns (sorry, ‘Women in Black’) actually receive the level of national support that they deserve.
If City of 100 Lovers is for tourists, then – like Sally – they are being sold a lie. It is tourist bait, the theatrical equivalent of the hop on and off Auckland Explorer Bus, that potentially underestimates the taste and intelligence of those spending tourist dollars.
There might be potential in the 100 Lovers concept, but it is very clear that the show has been prematurely rushed to production, with the show debuting within one year of the story treatment being commissioned. In New York it is the norm for musicals to spend years in development, and it an ongoing problem here in Auckland that we don’t have that financial luxury. But not investing in development time for 100 Lovers makes the goal of playing indefinitely all the more difficult to achieve, because that relies on enthusiastic audience word of mouth. In committing to a long season, perhaps the creatives will have an opportunity to further hone the show’s dramaturgy.
Unfortunately, in seeking to promote New Zealand culture and creativity to the world, City of 100 Lovers instead ends up reinforcing negative perceptions of our own mediocrity.
City of 100 Lovers is playing now at SkyCity Theatre.