When legendary actor Gary Sweet auditioned for Muriel’s Wedding The Musical, he left the audition room less than optimistic.
“I didn’t think it went that well,” he tells Theatre People.
But Sweet was ultimately cast in the role of Muriel’s father and corrupt Porpoise Spit councilman, Bill Heslop – a role made famous on film by another legend of the stage and screen, the late Bill Hunter.
“I felt very honoured to get the part,” he says.
Sweet is well aware that Hunter is a tough act to follow.
“Nobody can replace Hunter; he was a very old mate of mine and a great bloke,” he says. “We made a lot of films together. Depending on his mood, he would either headbutt me or kiss me when he’d see me.
“I can’t in any way try to emulate Hunter. He’s a presence that is difficult to replicate.”
Sweet has chalked up his own mass of impressive credits since beginning his career in the early 1980s as Leslie ‘Magpie’ Madden in The Sullivans. His role (from 1990 – 1996) on ABC drama series Police Rescue made Sweet a house-hold name and saw him receive several major awards. On top of a plethora of TV and film credits, Sweet has appeared on stage in a number of shows, including David Williamson’s The Club and Tony McNamara’s The Recruit for Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as La Cage Aux Folles for The Production Company.
Sweet talks about playing the villainous Heslop.
“He’s slightly irredeemable”, he says. “It’s a difficult part to play because there’s not much about him to like. At first, I think I wanted people to like him, but he’s not [likable] and you’ve just got to go with it. And once you do, once you release that valve, it kind of liberates you, and you can play him for the arsehole that he is!”
Sweet says working on the musical has given him a new appreciation of PJ Hogan’s hit film.
“It wasn’t until I started on this that I appreciated how intricate and funny and dramatic and poignant in parts it is,” he says.
And he has no shortage of praise to offer his colleagues, including award-winning designer Gabriela Tylesova, and composers Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall.
“Her music is beautiful, and his lyrics are jumpy and funny and connective,” Sweet says. “He’s very aware of character and the zeitgeist.
“I think they’re both geniuses, I really do.”
Muriel’s Wedding The Musical reunites Sweet with director Simon Phillips.
“Simon and I go back a long way,” he says. “I haven’t worked with him for probably 25 years.”
And when it comes to the show itself, Sweet’s passion for the work is palpable.
“There are so many things that seem to have colluded to make it an outrageous production,” he says. “Part of that is the casting. I can’t see a weak link in the cast.”
Some of his highest praise is reserved for leading lady, 20-year-old newcomer Maggie McKenna, who makes her professional stage debut in the production.
“I think Maggie is something else,” says Sweet. “She is world class.”
Sweet discusses the continued work on the show that’s occurred since its first preview two weeks ago.
“They’re trying to make it the best it can be, and so it’s constantly being tweaked,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve done two shows the same. We keep tweaking and … remove things that we don’t think are working, so it keeps me on my toes.”
But despite the tweaks, audiences have been springing to their feet right across the previews.
“Last night was an uproar,” Sweet says.
“The response from the preview audiences has been so great [and] the response on social media has been outrageous. One guy said he’s booked another four nights!
“It’s a really great production … It will explode in front of you. I cannot see it being anything less than a smash.”
MURIEL’S WEDDING: THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Playing now until 27 January 2018
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Tickets on sale at www.sydneytheatre.com.au or by phone on (02) 9250 1777