Helpmann Award nominee Ainsley Melham is wowing audiences and critics alike in the title role of Disney’s smash hit musical Aladdin, but how does a boy from Bathurst, in country NSW, end up on-stage as a Disney Prince? It’s a question I asked his father, Paul Melham.
Ainsley Melham hadn’t even started walking, when his mother, Gina, suggested her son should take up dance lessons.
“She was a stay-at-home mother and she’d be doing the housework and Ains would be under her feet … She’d have the music going and before he was walking he was standing up, hanging on to the railings where he was caged in, so to speak, and he’d be bopping away to the music! And my wife said, ‘What’s going on here? When he’s walking, we’re gonna put him in dancing lessons’. And of course, being his Dad I wasn’t too happy about that!” laughed Ainsley’s father, Paul Melham.
Paul Melham had been living in Sydney, working in the railyards, but when the workshop closed he found himself out of work and needing to provide for his young family.
“A job came up in the Sydney paper for the Bathurst Correctional Centre, to do with my trade. They had workshops in the prison system and they were after someone in the metal trades to run a metal shop in Bathurst,” Paul said.
“I got the job and the rest is history! I’m still in the job, twenty-six years later. It’s been fantastic!”
Despite Paul’s initial resistance to his young son taking up dancing lessons, his wife enrolled three year old Ainsley into tap dancing classes. There were three dance schools in Bathurst at the time, and, as Paul explains, either by good management or sheer luck, Ainsley was enrolled into classes taught by a former Australian Tap Dance Champion.
“Wendy Lindsey was his private teacher and Wendy’s mother, Gwen, was his group’s teacher. He basically just majored in tap until he got further on. Wendy was an Australian champion in tap. She was as good as you could get. She was fantastic and we were just lucky that she lived in Bathurst,” said Paul.
Ainsley was a natural.
“He just took off! Even the first 12 months. You can imagine – they were only three and four – and they had the end of year concert and they done a group thing to ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’, and after it, everybody that was there just came up and said, ‘You know, he’s just got it. He’s gonna go all the way’. You know, you hear those stories, don’t ya, ‘he’s gonna go all the way’, but we’re just very fortunate he did go all the way,” commented Paul.
Paul quickly became involved with his son’s dancing interest.
“I’d sew all his costumes. I’d go to the op shop and buy things, and alter them down to fit him and jazz it up with sequins and cumberbands! He always looked a million dollars on stage!” beamed Paul, proudly.
Paul also accompanied Ainsley to his Eisteddfod competitions.
“One thing about Eisteddfods – there’s not a lot of fathers there. There’s a swag of mothers, but you can count on a butcher’s hand how many fathers get there. But anyway, we fronted up and all the time Gina just kept getting comments on how lovely he looked, and asked who did his costumes, and in the end I had a couple of mothers wanting me to sew for them, but I wasn’t into that. I was just looking after Ains.”
Living in a country town more focussed on car racing and sport than dance, Paul enrolled Ainsley into soccer. Ainsley played the sport for about seven or eight years before deciding he’d had enough. Paul asked his son if there was any other sport he wanted to play, but Ainsley replied “nothing”.
“I can’t remember him ever saying he didn’t want to dance anymore. He always ran with that,” explained Paul.
A naturally talented boy in country NSW who likes to tap dance, with a father working in the prison seems like an unlikely match.
Paul didn’t talk about his family to the prison inmates at his workplace, but he said news soon got around. Winning Eisteddfods and later scoring a place in the children’s group Hi-5 meant Ainsley Melham was often featured in the local Bathurst newspaper.
The inmates would buy the local paper, notice the stories about Ainsley Melham and ask Paul, “Ainsley Melham from Bathurst, is he related to you Chief?”
Paul would reply, “Well, actually, he’s me son.”
“Oh, wow, how good’s that?” the prison inmates would exclaim.
Paul said they were always full of praise for Ainsley’s success.
It was a little different for Ainsley, although it’s only been recently that he has shared with mum Gina that he used to get “picked on a bit” at school.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” admitted Paul.
Paul takes a lot of responsibility for Ainsley’s love of dancing and musicals.
“I loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, all them old ones, and I’d be watching and he’d sit there and watch them with me.”
Ainsley was accepted into the prestigious Music Theatre Degree at WAAPA and after graduating joined Hi-5. He then landed leading roles in Xanadu (at the Hayes Theatre) and now Aladdin. Ainsley Melham has already achieved huge success in a short time frame, but it’s not simply his on-stage success that impresses his father: it’s also who Ainsley is off-stage.
“He’s met thousands of people after the show, and a real lot of them from Bathurst have gone to see the show, and the feedback from every one of them has been he gives everybody their time. He gives everybody as long as they want. He’s a fantastic bloke – well you spoke to him – it hasn’t gone to his head. He’s just one of us still. He comes here and walks through Bathurst with me, and if someone acknowledges him, he gives them his time. He’s different. I know every father brags about their sons or daughters, but I couldn’t be more proud of him. He’s fantastic,” said Paul.
‘Proud of Your Boy’. It’s the beautiful song that was added to the stage version of Aladdin. I asked Paul what it was like to sit in the audience, as a proud father, and watch his son perform this particular number.
“Don’t bring that up! I’ll start tearing up now if you bring that up!” exclaimed Paul.
“Gina and I have seen the show five times now … and every time that comes on, we’re holding each others’ hands and the hairs on the back of my neck are sticking up! You just feel so, so proud. It’s great to see. He’s putting smiles on so many peoples’ faces. Not only him, it’s the whole show, but yeah, he’s a big part of it. Yeah, it’s fantastic,” explained Paul.
Paul Melham is Ainsley’s biggest fan. This prison worker from Bathurst is incredibly proud of his son, performing on stage eight shows a week, knowing his son is bringing so much good into our troubled world.
Disney’s Aladdin is now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, in Melboure’s East End Theatre District.
For more information and tickets: aladdinthemusical.com.au