Amanda Harrison on Cyrens and life as a leading lady of Aussie theatre
Amanda Harrison is beloved by audiences for her massive contribution to the Australian theatre industry throughout her career, originating some of our most challenging female roles in leading musical theatre productions. She has earned her leading lady status, but over recent years has been seen embracing more concert and cabaret style performances, moving away from major touring musicals.
I had the opportunity to interview Harrison about her upcoming cabaret, Cyrens: the Swinging Songbook of Cy Coleman (opening this evening in Adelaide and then travelling to Melbourne), and she shared her thoughts on everything from the difficulties she has faced as a woman whose age is not reflected in musical theatre narratives, to Australia’s current toxic culture of low theatre attendance amongst arts professionals. She joked that a disclaimed should be added to our conversation, alerting readers to the fact that the intention behind her words is openness and honesty, not for people to feel disheartened by her experiences. Read on for some refreshingly truthful observations about the Australian arts industry from someone who has experienced the good and the bad firsthand!
You recently shared a concert experience with your fellow Wicked witches, and now you’re working on Cyrens with Chelsea Gibb and Melissa Langton. Do you find anything particularly special about sharing the billing of a performance with a female cast?
I’m just interested in performing with my friends. It just so happens that Melissa and Chelsea are both really great friends of mine… Cy Coleman wrote some fantastic musicals that starred women and featured women, and his jazz songs have been recorded by amazing artists like Barbara Streisand and Peggy Lee and so on, so the music lends itself to the female voice as well. We’re so excited to be singing together, we sound fantastic together, it’s going to be really exciting to work with them as friends and as musical theatre leading ladies.
Do you think producers are starting to see the value in mounting shows with female casts?
I don’t think producers really think about that to be honest… I wish they would, but I don’t think that’s in the back of their mind. I think producers are thinking of the bottom line, particularly in the Australian industry. They’re thinking, “are we going to make our dollars back?” They’ll go with the shows that are making money overseas and doing well over there rather than thinking about who they can cast locally, and who they can give a boost in this country.
It’s wonderful when a show comes along with a female lead. They’re bringing Mamma Mia! back again and the two leading roles in that are women… It’s exciting when that happens and the publicity revolves around the women in the company. I think that’s really great for the industry, I mean, christ, dancing schools and amateur theatre… It’s the little girls more than the boys who are pumped about singing and dancing, and yet, there’s really not that much product for us girls, when it comes down to it.
Why are you bringing Cy Coleman’s music to audiences in the form of Cyrens?
I just remember when I started out in the industry, Cy Coleman’s City of Angels was one of the first CD’s I got in my collection of musicals. I played it endlessly and it was just something that I thought was genius, the songs really hit home to me and I enjoyed singing them and listening to them. I thought I would never see the show, nobody would bring it Australia, and I didn’t know why. The first time anyone professionally produced it was Life Like Company last year, and I got to be in it! There was a serendipity in loving that music and hoping that one day I would be in the show, and eventually that opportunity came around… Melissa and I were both in that production, at Cyrens we believe it’s Cy Coleman’s turn to be the centre of attention. His work deserves it.
You’ve done a fair few cabaret and concert style performances recently, what is it that draws you to the art form?
The lack of any other mainstream musicals casting me in their productions! To be honest, if I wasn’t involved in these kinds of things, I would be sidelined. Literally everything I’ve gone for in the last five years has been cast with somebody who is ten years my junior.
I’m kind of in an odd age at the moment for mainstream musicals, I’ve just not had any luck because I’m in that “leading lady” box as well, I guess… People strive to get there, they really want it, then you [reach leading lady status] and you come to a certain age. There’s only so much that I’m right for, and when that thing comes along and I don’t get it (which is fair enough), I have to wait for a couple more years for the next thing I’m completely right for. It’s been a bit slow recently, so if I wasn’t involved in cabaret and writing my own cabaret show or being in the concerts and taking advantage of [the career I’ve built in the past], then I wouldn’t work. You have to get out there and do your own stuff – it’s just what I’ve had to do.
I hate to say it, but I think the problem is cultural. I don’t think there’s anything anyone specific can do to help. I’d love for people to bring out shows that are about women in their forties or that showcase women in this age bracket… People certainly aren’t coming to see shows in the numbers that they were ten or fifteen years ago (that’s evidenced in the fact that even big shows like Matilda will only sit in a theatre for six months at a time). I definitely think it’s cultural and you’re gonna have to speak to somebody else to figure out the answer to that problem.
I know it’s hard to compare, but are there aspects of cabaret or concert performance that you prefer over musical theatre, or vice versa?
I love the immediacy and intimacy of being in front of an audience that you can see and touch, I love that cabaret is immediate and that people can respond… Particularly for concerts, you get to feel like a proper star. It’s amazing to sing in places like the Sydney Opera House, and wear amazing frocks, sing in front of an orchestra… It feels like the culmination of my 25 years in the business actually means something to people who are coming along to see the performances. It’s really fulfilling as an artist.
What feedback do you need to consider this show a success?
People coming along. I was just speaking with my friends about people actually going to see things… I think that’s a show of success, even if a show isn’t that well received, if people actually spend their money to come and see it. It’s just so hard to get people to come and see shows these days, you find people in the industry are really supportive on Facebook and over social media platforms, saying they can’t wait to see the show, but a lot of the time they’re just not coming. I guess a show of success would be if people came to see it rather than just saying they want to come and see it.
I did my cabaret show at the Butterfly Club a few years ago, I did five nights in a row, and audience turnout was really disappointing… I was thinking, “oh my god, maybe people don’t remember that I was in Wicked, do they remember who I am?” […] You just wonder “what’s wrong with me?” and you have to turn that back onto the culture of people saying they want to be there but they don’t show up. It has to do with finances, with people in the industry not earning all that much money and having to subsidise their creative careers with other jobs… It comes down to the culture of this country and how people view the arts.
I still do love performing and that’s why I keep going, I try to be involved in things and I keep those creative fires burning. I’m still not ready to let go of it, although a lot of things in my life are telling me to. It’s one of those things that really is a push and pull, particularly during this phase and at this age. I don’t want to deter people from their dreams, but there is a reality to that scenario as well.