By Laura Money
Lisa McCune is one of Australia’s most popular and successful screen and theatre actors, earning an impressive collection of awards celebrating her performances, including four Gold Logies for Most Popular Personality on Australian television.
Among her many musical acting credits, McCune has starred in The King And I, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Urinetown, The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee, Guys And Dolls and, of course, South Pacific.
McCune will be back in her hometown of Perth to perform in From Broadway To La Scala – an evening of music from operas and musicals alongside David Hobson, Greta Bradman and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
We caught up with her in the lead up to the show at Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 9 December 2017.
This is the second time you and the crew have staged From Broadway To La Scala – how did it come about in the first place?
Well, I was doing South Pacific at the time, so I knew Teddy, I’d met David once before and I’d never met Greta – so I’m not exactly sure how it all came together but I think it was a hit!
Were you expecting it to be as well received as it was?
Oh, it was pretty overwhelming actually! I think, surprisingly not a lot of this kind of work is done – most orchestras have a program and stick to their annual program, but really I don’t know that it’s done a lot, even in commercial shows. I think they do it a lot overseas.
It’s been really enjoyable and I think the audiences have really liked it. It’s a great mix – I don’t do the opera but the other guys also do musical theatre, so it’s really nice that they have the ability to go back and forth which is great. Especially David Hobson, he crosses genres incredibly well, I think.
So, what’s it like performing in a concert format rather than a full musical? Is there an explanation about each song, how is the flow?
Yes, we talk about the songs, I think most people would have heard all of the tunes before, I mean there might be one or two that we’re doing this time that are a bit unique in the theatre songbook, but most of them, people know. And the opera ones – people love the opera ones, they’re like the greatest hits really, very well known.
I think the material is very musical in that regard, it’s so hard to choose the music you’re going to perform, so fortunately Vanessa Scammell our music director and Tyran Parke our director, got together and did it for us, to balance the show. It’s a mixed repertoire.
Yes, you’re right about the ‘greatest hits’ idea because it’s what people have come to see. It’s something that, as you mention is different in Australia, it’s like playing a CD of songs from musicals and opera.
And I tell you what, that is the hardest part, when you sit down with a pen and piece of paper and ask – what should we include in the concert? It’s so hard because there’s so much good material, there are so many different great combinations. For me, I love what I do as each of the characters, I keep coming back to the question before and I think you kind of justify it in the song and explain it a little bit first but you don’t need to overly explain it – just put it into context for the character.
You have a wonderful resume of musicals under your belt, from classics like The Sound of Music to contemporary works like Urinetown, what is it about musicals that is so compelling to you?
I once heard someone say, when talking about theatre – a character will break into song because they can’t utter the words anymore – and that always made sense. I loved the fact that these characters explode into song – and that’s to me what won me over – they just can’t utter it anymore in words.
I think Shakespeare’s language becomes very beautiful when the characters get going, when they get a rhythm going, and that’s similar to musical theatre, I think, there’s a great joy in getting lost in a character and going on a journey onstage with a couple of songs and dance routines thrown in!
Absolutley! Did you always want to sing and act? Did you study musical theatre at WAAPA or was that not one of the components?
I did do musical theatre, I think for me it was my love of – I used to play netball on a Saturday, and then race home because in the afternoon (I think it was channel 9 or 7, I can’t remember which one) they had movies on. I’d come home from doing sport and just go and watch movies – a lot of movie musicals, and then of course Grease came out and all of the Lloyd-Webber musicals, and Les Miserables.
I remember seeing Les Mis in Sydney when I was visiting my grandmother, and I remember sitting in the theatre and just feeling so overwhelmed and in awe of it. I just knew I wanted to do that – it was incredible, and I remember thinking – that’s what I want to do in life. I’m constantly searching for that for my children – that lightbulb moment for them because it really was a lightbulb moment for me.
Then I just – I mean, I’d already been doing dancing classes but I really started taking it seriously and I found a glorious singing teacher in WA, Gloria Wilson who was just so inspirational and integral in the beginning of my career. She was such a fine teacher and a fine woman, and I think that she is largely responsible for me going along with my passion – she turned it into a reality, really.
I love how you want your children to find that spark! Would it concern you if they were to follow in your theatrical footsteps?
No, but it’s interesting because I don’t encourage it at all! I think that they need to find it themselves because if they want to grow that they really have to want it for themselves. They have to find what they love about it and if they’re passionate enough, then I’ll support them in whatever they want to be.
Ok, you’ve been involved in television and movies and straight theatre as opposed to musicals, but did you ever have anything to do with opera? Did you ever watch opera and enjoy it?
Well, my singing teacher, Gloria has a daughter, Lisa who is fortunately in WA and teaches now, they taught a lot of lighter works – that I used to sing, probably very badly! I kind of got an appreciation of opera and over the years I’ve heard more and when I did South Pacific, Bartlett Sher who was the director, had worked with the Metropolitan Opera, and he’d talk about all the incredible singers – so I’d go home and Google them and listen to them sing.
Having that exposure for today’s performers, to be able to see what’s going on in the world is awesome because I sat there and listened to it and was like – wow! I mean, I knew I’d love it but funnily enough the storylines in operas aren’t too dissimilar to musical theatre. There are the same kind of themes of love and betrayal, you know they’re all still the same story but musically they’re different.
Yes, I consider opera to be the extreme end of musical theatre.
Yeah, I mean I think that the skill-set level in opera is extraordinary. I see the preparation and just what goes on with the singers I’m working with now and it’s huge. It’s kind of like being a doctor but going on to be a specialist – they really devote their lives to it and it’s huge learning opera. I said to Greta the other day – how long do you give yourself to learn a new opera? And she said: I like a year. Obviously that’s not working full time but just to work for a couple of months, let it settle to come back to it every few months. It’s a total immersion and it’s like being an elite athlete, I have the utmost respect for them.
I guess the skill-set for a musical theatre performer is a lot of hard work as well. Not just vocally but all the other things that go with it – you need to learn to dance and really understand the story because there’s a lot of dialogue. You need to have your acting chops up too! They do require very different things but that’s why it’s lovely working with these guys and the symphony orchestra – it gives me a great insight and great respect for what they do.
So how do you approach this concert, differently? Obviously you’re coming at it from a musical theatre background, but you’re learning from the operatic perspective – are they learning from you as well?
Well, I might be able to teach them a ‘step ball-change’ or a bit of a ‘jazz walk!’ But, no, they’re great and I remember David saying to me last time – try to do that bow slightly differently because it changes the quality of your voice. Things like that are invaluable and I’m the kind of person who is very collaborative so I love that constant learning. But that goes on in any room, I did a production of Follies In Concert last year and Nancye Hayes was in the room and that’s a masterclass just standing in the rehearsal room with her. And Phillip Quast, Debra Byrne – you learn from every performer, it doesn’t matter the level of experience, they all bring something unique to the room. You never stop learning.
You guys seem to have a pretty good relationship and camaraderie going into the show, what’s it like in the rehearsal room? Do you mess around and then get down to business?
Look, it starts to get very hilarious around five o’clock when everyone’s getting a bit tired. It kind of gets overly creative, if you know what I mean! We do things that could never possibly get up onto the stage! We do really have a good time, you know, it’s that thing in a room full of performers when the ego is not there and you’re all focused on producing a good show for the audience. And that’s what I think Andrew McKinnon and Phil Barthols manage to do with the show, bring really lovely people in the room and we’re putting on a bit of a show!
And how much of an impact do the producers have in the room?
Well, we haven’t got the producers in the room as such – we’ve got the director and musical director so we’re really doing the nuts and bolts work. The presentation of the piece is where their expertise comes in and trying to make sure the program is going to suit an audience that they understand it as well. I’ve been lucky, I’ve had wonderful producers to work for. Phil was actually one of the producers who went through WAAPA at the same time as me. It’s great to have a local producer on board, which is really exciting.
Obviously the show has had quite a few changes since 2015, what new material are you most looking forward to performing?
In the last year, we’ve seen the musical Beautiful come, so last time David and I did a piece called “Falling” from the musical Once and so we wanted to take people to musical theatre that is new. And Beautiful has now put Carole King into the theatre landscape, so we’re doing one of the songs from Beautiful which is really lovely, and David plays guitar for it.
So it’s a really eclectic mix, and I’m really enjoying that because I’m one of the few people in the world who didn’t really know James Taylor and Carole King that well. So, I had this kind of epiphany and I was doing all my work learning the song and I started looking into James Taylor and researching his life and his work, it’s awesome when you’ve got resources like that – you find a whole new genre of music that you’d never really heard of.
So, would you ever branch out into a music concert that doesn’t involve musicals? You know, just popular music like Carole King or others?
I think if someone went and did a concert with people doing all of Carole King’s songs and it was the right bunch of people and I felt it was the right thing to do, yeah I’d absolutely love to! It would be good fun, yeah.
When you sing each piece, obviously they’re stand alone – do you find that you act the piece as well?
Look, some people obviously don’t but for me, I need to find something in it that links to the words. I mean, the Carole King that we’re doing is kind of a love song, so yeah you do – you use elements of yourself, obviously your own though processes. I’m doing “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys And Dolls and I use Lisa McCune’s thinking to put the character of Adelaide on stage to tell her story, so yes I do find it really handy. I mean, it’s much easier to do that with some of the songs, but I think that to me it’s really important.
Do you have a song that you could just perform over and over if you had to, like your ‘desert island song’?
Oh, I love that, a desert island song! Um, I’ve done so many. I love Stephen Sondheim musicals, and I don’t know. I love music too much to even answer that question, it’s too hard! If I was allowed to take one CD, I’d probably take Into The Woods. It’s wonderful!
Do you sing anything from Into The Woods in this concert?
No, I don’t in this one. I’ve done “Steps of the Palace” before, I actually played Cinderella many years ago – gorgeous show, gorgeous role and just so much fun.
From Broadway to La Scala is a national tour, so what’s it like playing back in Perth at the Perth Concert Hall and being home?
Oh, it’s awesome! I used to work as an usher at Perth Concert Hall and so that’s really cool in itself, just to stand on the concert hall stage – it’s a really beautiful theatre. When the seats are full, I love it, I think it’s a great theatre. I’m looking forward to coming home, unfortunately I’m not going to be there for very long, I’ll probably fit breakfast in with my Dad or something.
But my daughter is finishing primary school on the Friday before the Saturday show, so the producers have been very kind and are letting me pick her up from school before I jump on a plane. It’s a life moment that you kind of can’t miss and then I’ll fly back early Sunday morning, so I literally finish the show and have to jump on a plane to get back to Melbourne for a dance concert for my daughter. Mummy duty calls and I need to come home and spend more time with them – but I love coming back to Perth and hopefully there’ll be a few more jobs that bring me back to Perth soon.
FROM BROADWAY TO LA SCALA plays at Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 9th December, 7:30pm at PERTH CONCERT HALL.