Date posted: 26/04/2017 3 min read

Former PwC partner on the business of musical theatre

Bernie Eastman CA's passion for staging musical theatre and opera should strike a chord for everyone in business – whether they have an ear for music or not.

In brief

  • Persistence, deal-making, resilience and coping with setbacks and failure drives the founder of Eastman Theatre Productions.
  • Staging a musical production in Perth requires an investment of approximately A$1.5m.
  • Those who own the copyright in the musical theatre world are the most powerful.

By Tony Malkovic.

Bernie Eastman CA should have seen it coming. Producing an original opera about the 16th Century seer Nostradamus was always going to be tricky – and time-consuming.

So far, it’s taken him more than 23 years. But the behind-the-scenes drama involving Eastman and his musical theatre company is a story that has lessons for anyone in business or entrepreneurship.

It’s about having the passion to drive a complicated personal project and coming to grips with the necessary career skills of persistence, deal-making, coping with setbacks – and resilience.

Eastman is a Perth-based CA and former tax partner at PwC who went on to found the Motorcharge vehicle credit card company and later sold it when it was turning over some A$350m a year.

He comes from a musical family, learnt piano and violin as a boy, performed in an orchestra, and still regularly plays his 200-year-old German violin. Combining his passion for music and business skills is a logical progression for him.

“In the world of music theatre or opera, the most powerful people are those who own the copyright.”
Bernie Eastman CA, founder, Eastman Theatre Productions.

“I finally put the two together that there was money to be made out of music,” he says. “One of the greatest forms of income, I believe, is royalties and one of the nicest royalty streams is music.”

In the 1990s, his love of music theatre and opera led him to found Eastman Theatre Productions devoted to creating new musical theatre and opera productions.

Since then, the company, which includes members of his family, has developed three musical productions which he wants to premiere in Australia, London’s West End and New York’s Broadway.

As well as Nostradamus, there’s The Last Maharajah, a costume drama set in Victorian England about the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond and attempts to get it back from Queen Victoria; and there’s also a musical farce, All Above Board.But musical productions don’t come cheap. Eastman is still looking for a backer, one with deep pockets.

“If you wanted to put on All Above Board in Perth, you’d probably need about A$1.5m,” he says.

“Staging The Last Maharajah in London, probably A$4-5m. Nostradamus exists in three formats: as a musical you’d probably need about A$12m. As a staged concert (without full costumes and sets), which is my preferred format, probably about A$1m and as a full-on opera in London, probably about A$12m."

Intellectual property and deal-making

Eastman says his skills as a CA have helped him shape his approach to creating musicals and zero in on the key issues of deal-making and intellectual property.

“In the world of music theatre or opera, the most powerful people are those who own the copyright,” he explains.“So what I’ve carefully put together is that the writer of the music and the writer of the words and lyrics each retain the copyright in what they’ve written and nobody wants to take it off them. Independently, they’ve licensed me to promote the show.”

That’s a plus for several reasons. Securing international copyright deals can be complicated at the best of times. When multiple parties are involved it can be a nightmare. For instance, it’s not uncommon for composers’ copyright to be bequeathed to their children or multiple other parties after their death.

“There’s one very famous musical where, to put it on, I think you need the approval of 80 separate copyright owners. It’s very rarely put on,” Eastman explains.

Likewise, he and his team have put a lot of effort into developing the scripts, lyrics and music, and conducting audience research. They believe there’s a constant demand internationally for tuneful musicals and light operas.

“With Nostradamus, we wanted a name that everyone could relate to instantly,” he explains.

“His is one of the most famous names in the world, and his book of quatrains and prophecies is the second most published book after the Bible. It hasn’t been out of print for more than 400 years.”

The story’s still a ripper. It tells how Nostradamus, a struggling 16th century French physician and alchemist hears strange voices warning him how King Henry II will die.

His predictions make him a court celebrity and his book of prophecies has fascinated people for centuries with its dire warnings of mayhem, war and murder.

Rave reviews

Nostradamus has been presented in piano presentations in Vienna and Paris, a workshop in Melbourne, and a public concert in Perth.

The Perth concert featured the WA Symphony Orchestra, the WA Opera and a 78-voice chorus which played to an enthusiastic full house.

The wider response here and abroad has been positive, even overwhelming.

For instance, Walter van Nieuwkuyk, who produced the Melbourne workshop, is a big fan.

“Nostradamus needs to be produced. It has the potential of being placed amongst the ‘greats’ of music theatre, as we know it today,” says van Nieuwkuyk .

That’s nice praise, coming from the man who was also the executive producer of Annie The Musical, which featured some of Australia’s top stars and toured nationally in 2012.

Eastman’s found another advantage to being a CA.“The thing about being a chartered accountant is that it’s opened more doors than you’d believe possible,” he says.

“While you can’t expect favours from anybody, and I certainly don’t, getting to see people has been much easier rather than saying ‘I’m a nobody from nowhere, would you like to talk to me?’.”

But getting through a door is one thing, getting someone to sign a big cheque is another. Just as important is the timing.

“We’ve been very close a number of times,” says Eastman.The Vienna piano presentation of Nostradamus led to plans for the French record label Erato to make a recording featuring Jose Carreras. But Eastman says the plan fell through when Erato was absorbed back into its parent company, Warner Music International.

Shortly after, Thomas Z Shepard, a 12-time Grammy winner and former vice-president of RCA and MCA record companies, became interested in the show.

But his plan to stage a version of it with the Boston Pops Orchestra was cancelled.

Eastman’s vision might seem quixotic, but his philosophy is about pursuing your dream and not fearing failure.

A second concert featuring the New York Pops Orchestra playing Nostradamus at Carnegie Hall also fell through, this time due to the death of the orchestra’s founder and artistic director.

And in another instance, plans for an Irish producer to stage All Above Board in the UK were scrapped when money dried up in the wake of the GFC.

Eastman and his team have put in a lot of their own money and many thousands of hours into pursuing their dream.


Although a deal is elusive, Eastman is unfazed.

“There’s a famous saying of Winston Churchill where he apparently said something like ‘Success is going from disaster to another with equal enthusiasm’,” he says. “If the next encounter with one of these shows or a producer is a disaster, I’ll move on and eventually, I’ll succeed.”

He could also take heart from the words of Julie Andrews – who knows a thing or two about successful musicals – who once said: “Perseverance is failing 19 times, and succeeding the 20th.”

For Eastman, the knockbacks so far are all part of the business of show business and besides, they’re only temporary.

“I don’t see it as failure,” says Eastman, “I believe I’m allowed to ask someone if they’d like to produce it or put money into it and they’re perfectly entitled to say ‘no, thank you’.

“As long as that continues, that’s fine, one will say ‘yes’ or probably more likely we will find someone who will tip a lot of money into one of these shows and make it work.”

With a bit of luck, all the stars will soon align for Nostradamus and the curtain will rise on it and the other shows.

Eastman’s vision might seem quixotic, but his philosophy is about pursuing your dream and not fearing failure.

“If you feel you might like to try something musical, give it a go. If you later decide you don’t want to continue that itch would have been scratched. No harm done,” is how he once put it.

“I think a lot of people don’t try because they fear failure.”So has it all been worth the 23-year wait?“Yes, I’d do it all again. Roll on the next 23,” he says with a smile.In other words, the show must go on.

Tony Malkovic is an award-winning freelance journalist.

This article first appeared in the April/May issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.