Editor's Note: In anticipation of the upcoming Brisbane season of "Annie" I chatted to Australian stage legend Anthony Warlow about being back in Brisbane, the Aussie theatre industry and playing Daddy Warbucks again! – Brent
Are you looking forward to being back in Brisbane? What's different about playing Brisbane to playing other places and what is the Brisbane crowd like from your point of view?
Brisbane is always fabulous to come back to! It's a short season, most of the seasons we do up here tend to be short so we get a really good, thick crowd and I mean that in the nicest possible way. So we get lots of people in because they know they only have a short opportunity to see our shows. They're absolutely fabulous, they really are, they're attentive and they get what the shows are about. Particularly with this one, I performed "Annie" here about twelve years ago and I think it's going to be better because this time the show is even better, that's a big thing for me to say I know, it feel's better, the format is slightly different. I'm not going to give too much away! It's the same set and costumes and the kids are absolutely phenomenal, they've been terrific in every city but this bunch of children are really quite exceptionally talented, we've been working very hard with them all and they've stepped up to the plate really quite admirably so I'm very pleased with that.
What do you think about the Australian theatrical landscape right now? Can you comment on the industry from your point of view?
I think the industry is really healthy at the moment. The Gordon Frost organization has had a number of fingers in musical pies over the past couple of years and indeed is about to launch into more. I'm sure they'll all be successful performances and productions of things like "An Officer and a Gentlemen" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical" is coming down the track. I think there probably was a period when the musical format was a little bit slow, but I think economy drives that and the old adage is that when the economy is low people go to the musicals for escapism. At the same time, I think they've been pretty buoyant over the past few years. And the fact that Australian audiences have embraced new works, for instance the "Dr Zhivago" that we did here last year tells you they're a keen crowd when it comes to seeing shows. It's an extraordinary experience. In my time, unfortunately I don't get a chance to see much work because fortunately I tend to be working, which is a rare thing to be able to say, I know. But from what I hear and the reports I get from audience members, they just need it, they want it and they need to be able to see some live theatre, that is an extraordinary experience and they always come away with something very special. I think particularly with a show like "Annie" which seems simple in its form, but actually has a very strong, universal message and all the audiences we've had in Sydney over the last couple of months have absolutely embraced it.
How do you think theatre continues to evolve in the twenty-first century and what are some of the challenges you think it faces?
I think the challenges really are all to do with technical prowess and I think one has to be careful. I always stick to my guns with comments like this. I think you can have as much pyrotechnics as you want, you can have as much whiz-bangery as you like but unless the performances are solid and true, the performances will suffer. I think when you have good actors, good singers and a great ensemble who work together to make the story the central element of the show, the story will win out always. I think, no doubt down the track there will be, goodness knows, 3D screens that will present sets and things on stage. I don't know what the future will hold in that regard but I wouldn't be surprised if we have to wear goggles to the theatre. But at the end of the day it's about the performances which are active and live, on the night, at that moment, I think that's going to be the saving grace.
You've played many iconic roles. What about Daddy Warbucks do you love playing?
I love Daddy Warbucks! Because he really, as Martin Charnin, who was the original creator and original director for our show twelve years ago he said "if you look at the comics, these characters have no eyes. They have big circles. What we have to do is put the soul into those bodies and as we know the eyes are the windows to the soul". I took that very seriously and the challenge for me therefore is to make a comic character, a drawing come to life with humor and humanity. And this time around I've actually broadened him a lot, he is quite comical, he is quite in the characterization I've given him and I've enjoyed it and audiences have enjoyed it. I think it's a funnier show this time around, but I think the essence of it all is great humanity which saves a show like this, which could be seen as very simple. The story, and we all know what "Annie" is about, the story is about a little girl who has nothing in her life but the will to dream and a man who has everything in his life except someone to share it with. That's a heartwarming scenario to start with, so when you fill that up with great costumes, beautiful sets and wonderful talent on stage I think you've got a winner.
What do you think sees "Annie" enjoy such long-term and iconic appeal?
I think there's something about the universality of the story and what the message is about "Annie". Annie is a tenacious little girl and it's about courage, about a real heart and real love. I think heart is the key to this show, the show is full of heart. And even though there are some rambunctious characters running around on stage, it really hits your heartstrings as much as it does ours on stage. I think that's a big thing, I feel the moments every night on stage no matter who is playing the role of Annie, there's something about the writing, there's something about the structure of the show that for me as a performer, it still touches me and I think that says something when you've been doing it as long as I have and you've been on that stage eight times a week, to have something to hold onto to, that there's going to be a real sense of journey and a sense of heart. I think we achieve it with this production.
You're coming back to the Lyric Theatre, we've just had "Mary Poppins", what can we expect from "Annie"
This is the whole point, I think we're on a roll when it comes to family entertainment. I think that's probably what we need now. We had last year, I was very proudly part of the "Dr Zhivago" team and after "The Phantom of the Opera" those were two stories that were somewhat dark and challenging in themselves. But now, and partly why I wanted to do "Annie" – and when asked about it I said 'Yes, I will', and jumped straight in because it's something of an emotional holiday for me when it comes to the kind of characters I create for stage. At the same time it's that turn around for family entertainment, I believe that "Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang" is coming to Australia as well. So you've got this whole genre of family musicals coming to the country and I think that's a great thing. There may come a time when we get into a darker or more cerebral pattern for musicals but I think that it this time it's about family entertainment.
Do you have any advice for aspiring theatre-makers and performers in Australia? Do you see yourself as a mentor for emerging talents?
Well, it's interesting you mention this and I try not to get on my soapbox about this but I think the one word I keep coming back to, and this is a word that encompasses a whole plethora of ideas for anyone starting out in the industry and the word is: Respect. Knowing the people that have gone before you, respect for the work you are doing and respect for every single person who is in that room whether it be the person who brings in the coffee or the person who is directing the show. That's vital, that's the way I work and I think that its important because it only amalgamates the company and it makes you a strong member of a very strong company. It's the one thing I've always lived by. As far as mentoring goes, there's a couple of wonderful young talents that have come out of this show and if I can give some advice whether it be singing advice or acting advice or ways of just holding yourself in the rehearsal space and on stage. Also too, to be able to engage with public after a show. This is a really important aspect of what we are, sometimes the profile will grow if you are worthy of a profile to grow and it's important to know how to react when you come out of that stage door and people are gushing all over you and wanting autographs and photographs. It's being able to cope with that with grace and that's one of the greatest gifts I think any artist can have. In a big way, people come and see the person for two or maybe three hours on stage, they've paid their money to see that, they really haven't paid for an interaction after the show, by rights. But when that does happen I think it's important if you are around and have interactions with the audiences after the show, it's important to be able to do it with grace. It's a big learning thing, a lot of people don't know how to do that. So if I can help guiding the young ones at an early age, if they continue a career I think they'll have something to hold on to.
What do you see as the future for theatre in Australia?
I think like anything as generations grow we become stronger and more able to do cleverer things. I think there will be a lot of more technical prowess on stage for actors, performers, dancers and singers which is inevitable as we develop as people. But I think the thing I hope we can hold onto is good, old-fashioned storytelling which is thousands of years old. A lot of people forget that, they think about the whiz-bangery that goes on on stage and they forget about the essence of what goes on stage and that is the story. And I'm all for storytelling, it doesn't matter who you are or what you're doing or how silly or clever you are, if the story is being told, that is the job at hand.
Anthony Warlow joins a star studded cast in "Annie" showing at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC from the 7th of April
Tickets, bookings and more information can be found at the QPAC Listing:http://www.qpac.com.au/event/Annie_12.aspx?showTab=Overview