Babirra – a brief history

ON 24 April 1956, an enthusiastic group of people associated with Jordanville Methodist Church staged a variety concert at the church’s Electra Avenue location. The first half included vocal solos and duets and piano items, while the second half was a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. Ticket prices were 5/- for adults and 2/6 for children. Little did they know where their efforts would lead.
The enterprising people behind this concert – Deaconess Ruth McGregor and Les Malseed – had planned to use it as a springboard to form a church choir, but the concert proved to be so popular that it was repeated three months later, and those involved enjoyed it so much that they formed a society to continue their enjoyment. The name “Babirra” – an Aboriginal word meaning “singing” – was adopted, and the Babirra Players was born as “a group with common musical and church interests formed for mutual enjoyment and to aid worthy causes”. The church choir never eventuated.
Each year from 1957 to 1972, the Babirra Players performed a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. They would spend the first half of the year rehearsing and the second half performing at a different venue each weekend. The season was usually 20–24 performances, mostly in church halls in the eastern suburbs, but also in country towns such as Lake Bolac, Bendigo and Wangaratta. Musical accompaniment was a piano, and the sets and lighting were transported to the venues, which provided suppers, often lavish, for the audience and the cast – the Babirra Players developed quite a reputation for their hearty appetites. Whenever possible, surplus funds were donated to charitable causes – by 1966 Babirra had raised more than $25 000 for charity and drawn audiences of more than 50 000.
This activity required an extraordinary commitment from those involved and by the early 1970s was becoming unsustainable, so a decision was made to perform two shows a year at a fixed venue. The initial venue was the Chadstone Shopping Centre auditorium; in 1973 The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance were performed there.
In 1975 the company moved to Monash University’s Alexander Theatre and were able to introduce an orchestra and much more advanced sets and lighting. The first production at “the Alex” was Lehar’s The Merry Widow, the company’s first non-G & S repertoire. After 12 years (and 24 productions), the company relocated to the new Whitehorse Centre (known then as the Nunawading Arts Centre), where it has performed ever since.
Over time, the market for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan diminished and the Babirra Players started alternating G & S shows with other operettas, such as The Gypsy Baron, Orpheus in the Underworld, The Desert Song and Whitehorse Inn. In 1992 the company’s name was changed to Babirra Music Theatre.
By the turn of the century it was clear that the market was changing again, and musicals became an integral part of the Babirra repertoire. In 2003 a full-scale production of Les Miserables was staged to great acclaim.
More recently, the focus has been almost exclusively on musicals as the company has risen to become one of Melbourne’s leading exponents of musical theatre. Many theatregoers have compared Babirra’s shows most favourably to similar professional productions, while appreciating the vastly cheaper prices and the free parking. Last year’s production of The Phantom of the Opera received universal acclaim and gained the prestigious Best Production award at the Lyrebird Awards.
Babirra Music Theatre’s next production, at the Whitehorse Centre from 9 to 17 October, will be The Boy From Oz. The story of the legendary Peter Allen is one that resonates strongly with Australian audiences, and the show presents all of his most famous and beloved songs. Tickets are on sale now, priced from $32 to $40 (bookings: 9262 6555 or www.babirra.org.au).
Next year, Babirra will bring everyone’s favourite nanny, Mary Poppins, to the Whitehorse Centre stage. This wonderful entertainment for the whole family will run from 28 May to 12 June.
Les Malseed, Babirra’s first president and the producer of many of the early shows, is a Life Member and a member of the audience at all shows. His initial idea to form a church choir must seem like a dim and distant memory, and he must surely be reminded of the song, “From Little Things Big Things Grow”.

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