I was talking to my friend Rach (Rachael Whitelaw) who is appearing in Dusty at The National and I mentioned that I’d done a show at The National – Festival’s George M!- and for some reason I realised that it was on exactly 30 years ago –May 1980.
Of course I was but a child – it’s a miracle that I remember it at all – but to this day it remains one of my happiest theatrical experiences.
I’d become involved in George because they hadn’t been able to cast the role of George’s second wife, Agnes Nolan. My friend Jean McQuarrie was MD and asked if I’d like to audition. I went along and sang and read and, because the choreographer was unable to be there that night, they asked me if I could tap dance. My lips said “Oh yes, I can tap.” while my mind was going “How the hell am I going to learn to tap in two weeks?” As it happened, it didn’t matter because I wasn’t the only one who was challenged in the tap department so our choreographer, Lorna Osborne, gave us lessons on a Saturday. That must have been where I got hooked because I still take tap classes.
Many of you won’t know about Festival Theatre Company. They burned bright in the 70s and 80s before falling victim to economic constraints. But while they were there they gave us shows that, at the time, no-one else had the guts to produce. La Cage aux Folles, Tenderloin, Barnum, Seesaw, Little Me, Applause were but a few of the shows that Festival produced. Festival also instituted a program of rehearsed readings with some really obscure shows like A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine and one of the worst shows it’s ever been my pleasure to be a part of, Smile, directed by the much loved and missed Tony McShanag.
As far as I know, only Festival and CLOC have produced George M! Why? It might not have the best book ever written but it certainly has some of the best songs including “Give my Regards to Broadway”,” Yankee Doodle Dandy”,” Harrigan” and “Over There”. And it’s enormous fun to do.
But it does require an exceptional leading man. We were lucky to have one in the delightful Bill Evans playing George M Cohan. I have never seen anyone work as hard as Bill did in this role. He wasn’t a trained dancer and maybe that showed, but he was so utterly charming in the role that everyone forgave him that. Bill went on to play all the men in Little Me and to direct Festival’s terrific production of Chicago.
One of the highlights of the show was the costume design by Terry Ryan, realised by Hazel Rodgers. Everyone who saw George M! remembers Bill’s quick change where he walked off stage in a black dinner jacket, pants and shoes and reappeared about 30 seconds later dressed completely in white. Terry Ryan has since enjoyed Australian and International success as a film designer and one of my most treasured possessions is a sketch Terry gave me on closing night of me as Agnes Nolan in my “Yankee Doodle Dandy” costume.
Apparently Norman Camm’s set was terrific too but I can’t vouch for that. It wasn’t finished until the last minute so the cast didn’t actually get to see some of the effects. At the end of the medley in Act 2, a giant US flag lit up behind us and two cannons, topped by eagles, were lowered to point at the audience and discharged. Judging by the reaction of the audience this must have been fantastic. Wish I’d seen it. All I can remember is standing on stage, saluting, and trying to keep a smile on my face while the bombing of Hiroshima was going on behind me.
Reading the program for George is a little sad with so many very talented people no longer with us. Our wonderful costume co-ordinator, Hazel Rodgers, her husband Hugh who played George’s Dad, Doreen Burrows, Pam Pilmore and dear Bill Evans. Others who are still involved in theatre in one way or another include Joanne Gabriel, Karen Greenwood, Gillian Goodall, Jim Murphy, Lesley Abotomey and Sir Bruce McBrien. The production team included David Miller as Director, Jean McQuarrie as MD, Lorna Osborne as Choreographer, with Set Design by Norman Camm, Costume Design by Terry Ryan and Lighting Design by David Murray. And our SM was Rex Callahan.
What started this trip down memory lane was talking about The National. Although the grand old lady might be a little over the hill now, performing there was wonderful. It’s the only “real” theatre most of us will have a chance to perform in. George M! was a bit of a slow starter but by closing night the word had got out that it was terrific, and one of my biggest thrills in theatre was to walk out on stage on closing night to not only a full house but both the aisles packed with people on the steps.
I wish the cast of Dusty the same thrill. And I also hope that in 30 years time they still have the same love and passion for this mad hobby as they have now. I know I do.