Muriel’s Wedding returns to Sydney

Based on the film by P.J. Hogan. Book by P.J. Hogan, music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, July 4

Muriel Heslop is a bogan, a ratbag, a complete dag. She’s cunning but not terribly bright. The hideous frock she lifts from Target to wear to a wedding speaks volumes about her taste, as does her attendance at that wedding, which joins arch-bitch Tania Delgano and thick pantsman Chook in holy matrimony. Muriel lies, she cheats, she covets fame and when it comes her way she unthinkingly discards the few people who care about her. And, bless her, we absolutely adore her. She’s the underdog of underdogs and must be barracked for. It’s the Australian way. Plus the fact that P.J. Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding is practically a sacred text.

Hogan insisted on writing the book for this musical version himself despite not being an experienced theatre hand and it paid off. He understood that updating the piece gave him access to pure gold; that social media’s ability to create a star who was famous for being famous was pure Muriel. She could be an influencer! Actually, if I’m not mistaken, a brief influencer reference is new to the production, which has been slightly retooled – the show premiered way back in late 2017 and has had a bit of catching up to do with digital trends. It was also substantially recast for its Melbourne season earlier this year and is now back in Sydney.

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Natalie Abbott, centre, as Muriel Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

The nips, tucks and additions are beneficial and include a useful rethinking of Progress, the paean to unbridled property development, and an expanded role for the Swedish fab four ABBA, whose music is Muriel’s guide to life. What good luck that ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson held out on the matter of rights to their songs until Mamma Mia! ran out of steam. Muriel’s Wedding would be unthinkable without them and in the meantime (various people have wanted to do a Muriel musical for more than a decade) social media became all-pervasive. In a brilliant upping-the-ante move, for instance, Muriel’s wedding of convenience to visa-needing star swimmer Alex Shkuratov is live-streamed.

Muriel’s journey starts in her coastal home town of Porpoise Spit, crucible of her formation as a thoroughly flawed human being. It’s here we meet her vile, hair-tossing “friends”, layabout siblings, bullying father and neglected mother, all subject to the most unsparing treatment. Well, all except Muriel’s mother Betty. “I hope this story has a happy ending,” sings Betty poignantly about the potboiler romance she’s reading. We know how it ends for her.

So this is a comedy? Yes and no and finally yes, in that it does end happily for Muriel, her true friend Rhonda, and Brice, the first man to show Muriel true affection. Not all viewers are happy that Muriel gets to go off with a bloke at the end, which didn’t happen in the film, but he’s an underdog too, so yay!. Brice’s Act II self-deprecating song, Never Stick Your Neck Out, sets out his father’s advice for a happy life. Don’t aim high and you’ll never be disappointed. Only an Australian musical would have such a jaunty ode to under-achievement.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s music and lyrics are endlessly enjoyable and repay repeated listening (the original cast recording is available and excellent). There are big, singable, super-tuneful numbers in The BouquetAmazing, Here Comes the Bride, Why Can’t That be Me and True Friend and then there are the fabulously wicked satires on Heslop family life (Meet the Heslops) and the Porpoise Spit airheads Muriel so wants to be like (Can’t Hang and Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked – both just brilliant). As for My Mother (Eulogy), you have no heart if the tears don’t start pricking the backs of your eyes. Muriel comes to wisdom the hard way.

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Stefanie Jones and Natalie Abbott in Muriel’s Wedding. Photo: Jeff Busby

Every song hits its mark and, just as wondrously, sits entirely comfortably alongside ABBA. The small band under music director Daniel Puckey performs wonders.

Just one quibble: in Sydney, a rollicking celebration of the city’s elastic approach to moral and social standards, one lyric has it that you’re accepted whether “black or yellow or beige or brown”. This isn’t the songwriters’ fault, but the song would have more authority if there were more people of colour on stage singing it.

Under Simon Phillips’s buoyant direction Muriel’s Wedding expertly negotiates the mix of satire and pathos. Even at its most gaudy the show never lets you forget it has a heart, even if on opening night in Sydney the heart was a little obscured as some in the cast worked just that bit too hard. The margin of error in a piece such as this is minute.

The title role’s originator in Sydney was newcomer Maggie McKenna and her successor Natalie Abbott made her professional debut as Muriel in Melbourne. Abbott, like McKenna, is a delightful presence on stage and sings wonderfully. There is more for her to find in Muriel but her journey from insecurity to acceptance was touching. Stefanie Jones settled into a very fine, tough-outside-sensitive-inside performance as Rhonda while Pippa Grandison’s reading of Betty deepened as the show progressed. The highly experienced David James was note-perfect from the start as Bill Heslop and another newcomer, Jarrod Griffiths, a suitably sweet and nerdy Brice.

Muriel’s Wedding has a limited run in Sydney before transferring to Brisbane in September.

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David James, centre, as Bill Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of the Muriel’s Wedding premiere in Sydney appeared in The Australian on November 20, 2017

Who doesn’t have a little of Muriel Heslop in them: the self-doubt, the hurt, the longing to be noticed and admired, the few extra kilos, the regrettable tendency to lie and steal? Well, perhaps that last quality isn’t universal but Muriel’s many flaws are what made her so relatable and so lovable when PJ Hogan brought her to the screen in 1994. Je suis Muriel.

The passing years haven’t dulled Muriel’s impact one little bit. On the contrary, the misfit from Porpoise Spit shines ever more brightly, and how. Under the ebullient guidance of director Simon Phillips, Muriel’s Wedding arrives on the musical stage with raucous, ribald, uninhibited energy and an unshakeable belief in the concept that more is more, particularly in the show’s manic first half.

The phrase “too much” has no absolutely meaning here. Gabriela Tylesova’s designs flood the stage and the eye with colours seen nowhere in nature, Andrew Hallsworth’s scintillating choreography is rarely out of sixth gear and Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s new songs – every one a keeper; extraordinary – just don’t stop coming. Neither do the fellatio jokes. Just so you know.

Hogan had dibs on writing the musical’s book and has delivered a faithful but updated version of his film. Muriel (Maggie McKenna) has no job, no friends, a dysfunctional family and a rich fantasy life fuelled by the songs of ABBA. Borne on the breeze of her mother’s misappropriated credit card, 21st-century Muriel – or Mariel, as she restyles herself – heads for Sydney and radical reinvention.

Her goal is marriage and famous-for-being-famous Kardashian-like celebrity. She wants to be a hashtag and in the show’s darker second half she gets her wish. And then she gets wisdom.

Making her professional stage debut, McKenna doesn’t quite access the deep well of sadness at Muriel’s core but her goofy eagerness is endearing and she is entrancing when it comes to the wonderful songs that illuminate Muriel’s inner life (young music director Isaac Hayward did the splendid orchestrations and arrangements).

Why Can’t That Be Me and My Mother are wrenching. Amazing and A True Friend, sung with the superlative Rhonda of Madeleine Jones, bring tears to the eyes just thinking about them. The celebration of female friendship is intoxicating.

Phillips deftly negotiates the big shifts from Aussie kitsch on steroids to genuine emotion, aided by an exceptionally well-chosen cast. The broad humour doesn’t hit its mark in every instance and there are a couple of scenes that are too long but there is no denying the skill with which each laugh is pursued.

Christie Whelan Browne, playing the ghastly – but married! – Tania gives a masterclass in physical comedy and timing. Tania’s girl-group song with her bitchy acolytes, Can’t Hang, is pure delight. Helen Dallimore is a hoot as Deidre Chambers, the woman unaccountably attracted to Muriel’s father Bill (blustery Gary Sweet). Ben Bennett is sweetness itself as Muriel’s would-be boyfriend while Stephen Madsen oozes sex appeal as the man she marries.

The outlier and linchpin of the piece is Muriel’s neglected mother Betty, given heartbreakingly quiet dignity by Justine Clarke. There are no jokes for her, just a beautifully written scene that edges into the magical and the surreal with a little help from ABBA.

Muriel’s Wedding, if you’ll forgive me, deserved its ecstatic reception.

On the town

Hayes Theatre Co, May 7

IN February 2012 The New York Times published a short article about Dogfight, which would have its Off-Broadway premiere six months later at Second Stage Theater. This is how Patrick Healy’s report ended: “… Lincoln Center Theater originally commissioned and developed the musical but passed on producing it because the show became too large in scale for the space intended.” One has to assume the production was slated for one of Lincoln Center’s smallest performance halls, either the one seating 300 or the other with 130 seats, rather than the Vivian Beaumont, which has nearly 1100 seats.

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats, proves, however, that small is perfect for Dogfight. Neil Gooding’s production doesn’t go soft on the macho posturing that kick starts and punctuates the action but neither is it exalted and glorified – always a possibility if there’s a big cast, lots of room for exuberant choreography and plenty of budget. It’s easy to glamorise bad behaviour if you put enough resources behind it.

Rowan Witt, Luigi Lucent and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Set in 1963, Dogfight takes its name from a deeply unsavoury challenge played by the military: put in some money in the pot, find an unattractive woman to take to a party, see whose date is judged the ugliest, and bingo! We have a winner. (The musical is based on the 1991 film of the same name.) The heedless cruelty and blood-chilling contempt for women are breathtaking.

But not only did their fathers bring these young men up this way, they’re also embedded in a ferociously masculine and controlling culture. The men in Dogfight are Marines, poised to go a country they’ve barely heard of and couldn’t find on a map. That would be Vietnam. They think they’ll be back soon after an easy tour of duty; we know they won’t. You would have to be made of stone not to feel some sympathy for these emotionally stunted boys as well as despair at their callousness.

Then one of the lads, Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) meets Rose (Hilary Cole), folk guitar-playing waitress and the show’s moral centre. Eddie is, like all these men, a persuasive bullshitter, particularly attractive to a young woman who doesn’t get out much. He knows how to reel her in, and why not? She is an honest, truthful person who pays Eddie the honour of believing what he says. Well, she doesn’t believe the crap he spouts about music but the rest sounds persuasive. The love story that emerges tentatively, thanks to Rose’s goodness and guts, is gentle and kind even as Lucente and Cole spark satisfyingly off one another. The little-bit-shy, little-bit-sexy bedroom scene is a delight.

Dogfight’s 1960s-style pop, rock and folk score (music and lyrics are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) colours and anchors the landscape just as it should. The music lets you know where you are, with whom and why, a state not always achieved in the music-theatre field, even though you would think it’s non-negotiable.

Director Gooding has gathered a terrific ensemble, including Toby Francis and Rowan Witt as Eddie’s closest mates. Witt’s lightning transformation from likeable nerd to momentarily violent aggressor is one of the musical’s most sobering and lasting images, Johanna Allen gives hooker Marcy a ballsy combination of pragmatism and anger, and Mark Simpson does wonders of differentiation with seven small roles. In do-it-yourself style everyone efficiently moves simple pieces of furniture around in James Browne and Georgia Hopkins’s fluid versatile set that quickly establishes a scene and equally quickly changes it.

The evening isn’t without a few niggles. One simply has to understand that Cole has been cast for her voice (splendid) and acting ability (ditto) and not for any lack of personal attraction. The daggy attire (costumes by Elizabeth Franklin) helps only very slightly. In fact, Cole looks rather sweet in her ruffled party frock. As usual, the sound quality at the Hayes can be less than optimal at times but the small band under the charge of Isaac Hayward does a feisty job. And finally, Peter Duchan’s book brings Dogfight to a surprisingly abrupt end, which robs the heart-tugging resolution of some of its effect. Still, while it gives audiences the hopeful ending most people crave, you can’t accuse Dogfight of easy sentimentality. Better this way than the syrupy song others might have thought appropriate at this point.

When in New York recently I saw the rollicking revival of the 1944 musical On the Town, which follows the fortunes over one night of three sailors on leave. In the morning they are shipping out to war but in the meantime they want to find a girl. The echoes in Dogfight are strong: a trio of young men with animal high spirits, a deep friendship, a thing for the ladies and the spectre of imminent departure to war. Dogfight is set just shy of 20 years later than On the Town but the gulf is enormous in its depiction of how certain men feel about women. The innocent hijinks of On the Town seemed a very, very long way away.

Until May 31 at Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney.

Go Your Own Way, the Story of Christine McVie

Slide Lounge, June 27.

TOMORROW – June 29 – Fleetwood Mac will be performing in Spokane, Washington, as part of its 2013 Live tour, a huge international event lasting eight months. Singer-songwriter Christine McVie won’t be there, just as she won’t be in Australia when the band spends the best part of a month here from November 10. It’s been 15 years since she stood on a stage with Fleetwood Mac and since then she’s done a little solo work and, apparently, been enjoying the quiet life in England. People call her reclusive.

Catherine Alcorn in Go Your Own Way. Photo: Jo-Anna Robinson

Catherine Alcorn in Go Your Own Way. Photo: Jo-Anna Robinson

Late last year her former bandmate Lindsay Buckingham told CBS: “She ended up getting a divorce, she moved back to England, she quit the band, she sold her publishing. She didn’t have to burn as many bridges as she did. Everyone sometimes wonders whether or not there might have been more of a middle ground for her to strike – not necessarily in terms of her staying in Fleetwood Mac.

“But she just wanted to reinvent herself. She seems to want to lead the antithesis of the life she led before. I don’t pretend to understand such a radical change – but it was obviously something she needed.”

And from Stevie Nicks, this to Rolling Stone on the subject of a potential reunion: “There’s no more a chance of that happening than an asteroid hitting the earth. She is done. You know when you look in somebody’s face and you can just tell? She doesn’t want to do it any more.”

Hunt around, and you won’t find much of McVie talking about this or anything else. Which means Catherine Alcorn has set herself a challenge in Go Your Own Way. The full subtitle gives a hint: The story of Christine McVie, the other woman in Fleetwood Mac. Yep. She’s the one who wasn’t Stevie Nicks.

Go Your Own Way is therefore in many ways beset by negatives. McVie not doing this or that; not making herself visible for the past 15 years; and when she was in Fleetwood Mac, not being the mesmerising, extravagant, emotional, shawl-trailing show-woman that is Nicks. Oh, and she failed to respond to Alcorn’s approaches about the show. I gather there was a big silence there.

So writer Diana Simmonds, who was brought very late in to the project, was on a hiding to nothing I reckon. This is not a narrative overflowing with juicy personal detail. As Fleetwood Mac fans will know, the band members had tumultuous personal relationships and these are duly recounted. But the show is presented as McVie looking back on her life, which means there’s a certain decorum to the telling. There’s a swear word or two, sure, but Alcorn can’t play McVie as a rock’n’roll tearaway. She’s not. She’s a talented, private woman recalling another life. Near the end of the show, back-up singer Tamika Stanton has a short but strong moment as Stevie Nicks, which suggests that it’s worth exploring the flavour boost the narrative could get if McVie were seen more through the lens of others.

If the connective tissue of Go Your Own Way is generally low-key, there are three other elements to get the temperature rising: McVie songs, a tight and terrific band under the direction of the extremely young, extremely impressive Isaac Hayward, and Alcorn’s exceptional performance of the music. I was never a great fan of McVie’s voice, which had blues style but a reedy quality that could tend to astringency. Alcorn has a completely different sound. It is full-bodied, warm and flexible, and Alcorn works melody, phrasing and dynamics to suit those qualities. She personalises McVie’s songs with surges of voluptuous power and ethereal floated notes and has impeccable intonation too – quite the package really.

The song list is a knockout, particularly for listeners of a certain age. Everything you’d expect to hear is there and rocking with the participation of terrific Tamika Stanton, Marty Hailey on guitar, Nick Cecire on drums and MD Hayward on keyboard and backing vocals: The Chain, You Make Loving Fun, Little Lies, Songbird, Everywhere, Oh Daddy, Don’t Stop and, of course, Go Your Own Way. All there. The primitive, relentless beat of Tusk provides a clever frame for stories of band success and excess. It’s the highpoint of the show as a piece of theatre.

I recently had a long conversation with Alcorn in which we talked about the difficulties cabaret faces in Australia (to read it go to the People & Ideas category in the listing of posts on my home page). There are so few extended opportunities to hone a show. For instance, Alcorn premiered Go Your Own Way at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and is at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival with it tonight, having also performed there last night. That’s it for now, and it’s just one and two-night stands. True, Alcorn’s earlier show The Divine Miss Bette will be seen at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre from July 23-28 and had a Perth season earlier in the year, but this is hard graft for small handfuls of performances. I salute Alcorn’s tenacity as well as her talent.

Footnote: Although McVie has steadfastly declined to appear with Fleetwood Mac over the past decade and a half, she may be weakening. There are three Mac concerts at London’s O2 Arena in September and McVie told a UK publication, Metro, the following: “If they wanted me to, I might pop back on stage when they’re in London just to do a little duet or something like that.” I suspect the band might just want such a thing. Now that would make an uplifting new ending for Go Your Own Way.

Go Your Own Way, tonight (June 28), The Butterfly Club, Melbourne Cabaret Festival.

Disclosure: Diana Simmonds and I are both members of the judging panel for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Catherine Alcorn and the art of cabaret

This is the second in an occasional series of in-depth conversations with people in the arts

CABARET is Kurt Weill and it’s the Moulin Rouge, it’s Barbara Cook at Café Carlyle, it’s the glamorous Ute Lemper, it’s the kamikaze stylings of Meow Meow and it’s Michael Feinstein at the piano singing from the great American songbook.

Cabaret is a dimly lit, insufficiently ventilated room crammed with too many people drunk on cheap wine and it’s a grand salon featuring a grande dame with a nifty backing band and a hefty minimum. It’s a chanteuse in a corner and it’s lines and lines of scantily clad dancers. It’s German, it’s French, it’s American, it can be anywhere and can be pretty much anything. It’s life, old chum.

The names coming to this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival illustrate nicely just how widely cabaret’s welcoming arms extend. The international contingent is headed by stars of Wicked on Broadway Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, one opening the festival and the other closing it. Former teen movie star Molly Ringwald (yes, she’s an accomplished jazz singer) will be there, as will American composer Adam Guettel, who happens to be the grandson of Richard Rodgers. The home team includes Paul Capsis, Phil Scott, Robyn Archer, Eddie Perfect with a new production of Shane Warne the Musical, Bernadette Robinson and the incomparable Meow Meow.

The festival’s artistic director Kate Ceberano has given herself a slot on the program too, teaming up with bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes of opera fame. This unlikely pair met and bonded when cast in Opera Australia’s South Pacific last year. They’ve astutely called their show called Meet Me in the Middle.

And also on the bill is Catherine Alcorn, a Sydneysider whose career is kind of just beginning but has been in the making for nearly three decades. She has wanted this moment so very badly, and for a long, long time.

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Her story is an inspiring one. On the personal level it’s a snapshot of what it can take to get traction as a performer. There’s also a bigger picture. Alcorn is creative director for a venue, Slide Lounge, which is one of the few places in Sydney where cabaret has a regular foothold. Alcorn – intense, voluble, insanely determined, warm and spirited – is particularly well placed, then, to discuss the joys and pitfalls of this unruly art form.

Alcorn’s new show is called Go Your Own Way and is inspired by the life and work of former Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie. After Adelaide Go Your Own Way will be seen at other festivals and, well, wherever Alcorn can get it seen.

In April Alcorn and I talked about what goes into making a career in cabaret.  It started, really, when she was 2 ½; she is now 31. This is an edited version of our conversation, which took place at Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, one afternoon.

The beginning:

MUM told me that I could always sing in tune. I used to watch The Wizard of Oz back to back. As soon as it finished I used to say, Mummy, more Wiz, more Wiz. I was 2½. She said I could sing along with all the words and I would sing in tune. At children’s birthday parties my parents would video kids in a circle singing. When it came to me, I would compose my own song. Butterflies Fly in the Springtime – that was for my 4th birthday party. I’ve still got it on tape.

It was just always there; always something I did and something I loved doing. [Schoolteacher] Mum was the choirmaster at school so it did come from my mother’s side. I know that my father can’t sing a note. He loves music, he’ll sing along, but he’s not musically adept.

I went to PLC [Pymble Ladies College] until I was in Year 5. Their productions are bigger than Ben-Hur.  I always had one of the leads because I was a good singer, always in the choir at school, took piano since I was five. I wish I had continued. I can still read music very well, but… I learned piano for about eight years but I don’t think the drive was really there. I was a really good swimmer, good at sport. I represented NSW in butterfly in trials. But I didn’t want it enough.

[After attending two other schools Alcorn completed her schooling at Barker College.] I wasn’t a problem child, but the feeling of the environment was very important to me. I was bullied at school a lot. Probably because I was loud. Or confident. I was always a very happy person, but sensitive. I think people can take advantage of that.

I’ve never shied away from having to lead. If we were ever put in group situations at school or at camp I would naturally want to instigate what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. That was always part of my personality.

I did Voice for my school certificate. When I went to Barker I chose Voice as my instrument for the HSC. That’s when I had to begin to train properly and I took up tuition under Dallas Watts, who I still train with today. It was classical training and we used to sing arias and musical theatre. I studied jazz vocally at Barker under another teacher. I was also doing guitar lesson intermittently. That helped with the jazz. Not so much pop. Pop was never a genre of mine; it was more musical-theatre based.

Then I went to Charles Sturt University [in Wagga Wagga]. It was a straight acting course, acting for the screen and stage, but they did have a voice component. It was just a shit-fight those three years. We went through so many changes of teacher.

A friend did some work in the Leagues club in Wagga Wagga, and encouraged Alcorn to sing there with her.

[LOCAL producer] Don Hillam saw us and said, I can make some money out of you girls. That was when I was 19. We called ourselves Double Platinum and for the next four years when I was in Wagga I did three or four gigs a week. It was great. From those gigs I ended up getting gigs with Don’s writing partner Peter Cox, who put on cabaret and dinner theatre shows around town, and that’s where I learned everything that I know. It wasn’t at uni. I rarely went to voice class after that.

I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t turn up for class but I was working with professionals … and I wanted to be where I felt good, and I felt good with those people. I played with incredible musicians who are some of Australia’s best talent, all of this in Wagga. They’re lifelong friends who see a future in the younger generations and love it and nurture them.

I did a dip. ed after my acting degree. I finished, I passed. [Laughs.] I was terribly frustrated. I never had an agent straight out of uni. We did all those showcases but I was never picked up by anyone. I just tried to engage myself in as much music as I could.

Like many young Australians, Alcorn headed for Europe soon after finishing university. She was away for four years, returning to Sydney in 2007. She taught music for a time in primary schools and then took a personal assistant position with Channel 9, working on Wide World of Sports.

I DID not know how to get where I wanted to be. I thought, if I’m around television people, who knows when I might end up on the other side of the camera. As it turns out I’m a lovely bubbly person but I’m a rubbish PA. [Big laugh.]

I had a good time. I was 27 and 28. I ended up segment producing but it got to the point where I was so internally frustrated that I was going to burst unless something big happened. That something big was quitting; saving up six months’ salary so that I could quit, produce a show and start performing.

In 2009 – I’d never been to Slide before – Peter Cox was here seeing a show he had written. I came and saw it, raced up to Coxy after the show, and said please write me something. And he said, of course, but what do you want? I said, well, people are always telling me I look like Kate Ceberano and he said, sweetheart, she’s still active. And the next thing I said was Bette [Midler]. And a few weeks later he had the script [for The Divine Miss Bette].

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

We opened it in Wagga for a Christmas season in 2009. In November 2010 I opened Bette here in Sydney. It was going to be a one-off. All of my friends in Sydney who hadn’t got to Wagga wanted to see it, so I did it at Slide and it was packed to the brimful. We had 120 people downstairs and 45 upstairs. It was like everyone I knew. It was incredible.

We ended up doing a monthly show here all of 2011 which is incredible for a cabaret show. It was calculated in a sense that I wanted Bette to relaunch me – well, it wasn’t a relaunch [laughing]; to launch me – as an artist. So I picked a character that people loved, a character that I knew was going to be impactful, which she is; the music is incredible, it spans 100 different genres – musical theatre, rock, jazz, torch songs. I was just so relieved. I’ve never felt more relief. We ended up performing shows to the middle of 2012.

Freelancing is a really risky think to do, but the harder you work the more you work. You always have [to think], where’s my next pay cheque going to come from, but that’s the sacrifice you need to make if you’re moving towards a goal.

The networking and risk-taking started to pay off.

BEFORE we did the show in Wagga I was working with a friend in my building who’s a cellist, and I was talking about the show. It was still in production. And he said, well the bloke who discovered [Midler] lives just around the corner. So I contacted Steve [Ostrow, who opened New York’s Continental Baths in 1968]. I said I know you’re a teacher, I want to get training again in preparation for the show.

He said, what kind of a show is it? I said it’s a Bette Midler show. He said [Alcorn puts on an American accent], “Oh, I remember Bette. I used to pay her 25 bucks a night to sing in my club. Now she’s making 100 million. Come around and I’ll tell you all about it.” We struck up a really great friendship, but it was a slow build until he saw I was really invested in my career and started to take a bit more interest in what I was doing. He separated from his wife after the Continental Baths closed and moved out here to work with the opera company. And he’s stayed ever since. He’s 80. Still teaches.

The Divine Miss Bette also got Alcorn a manager.

I’D never had an agent; never had a manager. I really don’t fit a specific mould at all. But I’ve always believed in my talent. Michael [Montgomery, of Warehouse 16] said, I have not seen talent like you in a very long time and I would love to talk. And I just felt this excitement come up through my body. And after about five minutes he said, can I represent you. I just said, yes. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps I should have. But my god, the relief. The show had done what I wanted it to do. Plus taken me around the country and to New Zealand.

It was a start – but I worked so hard. Those months I took off work I was learning how to build a website, building a website, making posters, all of those things. I did it all myself. That’s fine, I am proud of myself, but it was a huge amount of work. But I didn’t have any funding to do it any other way.

[Producer] Neil Gooding came to see the show too. It was very contrived. I emailed Neil and introduced myself. I saw he was auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Parramatta Riverside Theatre so I went to audition for that, and at my audition I invited him to the first show of Bette so he would come and see it and so then I would have a producer want to pick it up to help me. Because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the performance.

Before I could make it up to the dressing room after the first show in November 2010 I had a text message from Neil saying, I’d love to produce it any time you want. It just worked. It all fell into place. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Because the show was selling so well on a repeat basis I suppose Slide wanted to bring that energy and knowledge in to help their other shows. I came on as marketing manager in June 2011. Then six months later I stepped up as creative director.

So, despite having secured a manager and with a producer interested in her show, Alcorn took a desk job.

IT’S a really hard balance. [Groans.] There’s limited work in Australia. I have to survive, and I’d prefer to be surviving by working with other artists and producing shows, and being able to perform as well and do things like cabaret festivals, rather than working as a receptionist somewhere else. I’m current, being here. Not everyone gets a drop-in from Phil Scott on a Tuesday on his way to lunch.

More often than not it is a daily struggle for me balancing one or the other but my boss supports me in everything I do. He lets all of us here at Slide play with new ideas, try things out. He’s an incredible guy. I just wish, I just wish it was easier to fill a room night after night after night after night.

Would Alcorn give up the Slide job for full-time entertaining?

I THINK about it a lot. Is it pulling my focus? Is it keeping me in a holding yard? I would say probably yes. It’s really hard. It’s so hard. Sydney hasn’t grown up with a cabaret culture. The closest I came to going to cabaret shows was at the Basement and they were live music shows. It’s a cabaret setting, where you’re right there at tables like a jazz club, but seriously that is the only venue in Sydney that I remember growing up going to that resembled a cabaret feeling for me. That’s part of the problem. It’s never been part of Sydney’s culture. Strangely.

We’ve got a lot of international people calling us [at Slide] the cabaret venue to go to in Sydney and I think that’s because none of us here stop talking about it. You’ve got to blow your own trumpet.

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie

I WAS on a plane somewhere between Santiago and Lima – my brother got married to a Colombian girl so we were over there – and I was listening to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits. I remember seeing Fleetwood Mac when they toured a few years ago, and I remember thinking, it’s a shame that other woman isn’t here because I loved her stuff. I remember thinking that, and then I forgot about it.

But then I was listening to that song As Long as You Follow that she wrote. I was thinking, I’ve been doing Bette for so long. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I was [thinking], I want to play another rock chick. I was thinking, maybe Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, or something like that – who would be great as well – and then I thought, my god, Christine, the woman I’m listening to. Who was a completely confusing character. She’s now a recluse living in Kent who just walks her dogs; who decided this was not the life she wanted. How could you not want this life. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star forever!

A pitch to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was accepted.

SO I emailed [writer and actor] James Millar, who was then living in London, to ask are you interested in writing this show? My motto is, if you don’t ask you don’t get. We’re not besties or anything, but I knew him enough professionally to ask the question. And then my first choice of music director was Isaac Hayward, because he and I work together on everything, and as far as I’m concerned it’s such an important relationship with Isaac. He’s my musical soul mate. He may be only 21 but I’ll say something and he’ll just get it.

Then I asked Jason Langley if he would direct it. [Actress] Belinda Wollaston asked me if I’d ever been directed by Jason and I said no. And she said I had to be, he’s brilliant, and that stuck in my mind. He’s just a beautiful man.

I’m funding it. I’m producing it. That’s actually not true. Adelaide have commissioned it, and the fee that we have negotiated will fund the creation of the show, which is incredible. They invited me over to do the publicity week and the launch of the program with Eddie Perfect and Kate [Ceberano] and Paul Capsis and another local artist, an Adelaide girl. Out of everyone they could have chosen they asked me, and I was so grateful and thrilled and just lapped up being able to be the talent for one week instead of being the producer and organising everything. I’m so grateful. It’s the biggest cabaret festival in the world and I couldn’t be more honoured.

After Adelaide, everywhere else I take it, [including the] Melbourne Cabaret Festival, that will be at my own risk. Anything I do after Adelaide, which is only two shows, it will be self-funded and produced. That’s what you’ve got to do.

Does Christine McVie know about the show?

WE’VE tried to contact her, but I don’t think so. We’ve tried contacting Stevie Nicks’s management, because James [Millar] wanted to interview her. There’s only so much about Christine out there. We tried to contact Ken Caillat, who produced [the Fleetwood Mac hit record] Rumours and who wrote the book Making Rumours, but we never heard back from any of them. After we open the show it might be a different story, but you never know. We tried.

What is cabaret?

IN one word, intimacy. It’s about being right there with the artist and up close. Because cabaret has developed in so many different ways it’s not just about show tunes, it is seeing your favourite artist or an artist up close and personal. That’s the only real way I have come to know cabaret.  As a cabaret artist I get to say anything on stage I want to. I’m used to seeing reactions straight away and being able to feed off that. That’s what I love about an audience.

It’s the stories. Cabaret is a story. People love that and I maintain that Sydney loves cabaret. They just don’t know it yet.

 Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie, “The Other Woman” in Fleetwood Mac, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 15, 4pm and 10pm. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 26.  Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 27 & 28.

Alcorn performs The Divine Miss Bette at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre, July 23-28

Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 7-22.

Slide Cabaret Festival, June 21-July 4.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 26-July 7.