Recently, I happened upon an extraordinary video clip. In less than 2 and a half minutes I saw one woman sing like Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline – interspersed with snippets from monologues in as many different accents. Transfixed, I immediately wanted to know more about the incredibly clever and wonderfully talented woman on the screen: Bernadette Robinson. Bernadette Robinson, one of Australia’s most versatile vocalists, is soon to star in her solo show, Songs for Nobodies, at the Sydney Opera House.
Directed by MTC’s current Artistic Director, Simon Phillips, Songs for Nobodies is a 90 minute work of art in which Robinson plays 10 different women – the five famous ‘somebodies’ I mentioned above and five unknown women for whom these fragile singers were sources of strength.Written especially for Robinson by acclaimed Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, the work showcases her extraordinary acting and vocal talents. Her chameleon-esque abilities enable Robinson to transfom into 10 different women throughout the course of the show – adapting her vocal colour, her manner and her accent for each.
“The show is five monologues about complete nobodies – insignificant women in different walk of life and different nationalities — who have each had a brush with a great singing star of the 20 century”, Robinson explains.
“Joanna Murray-Smith has made each story very different, and I play the 10 women. The five ‘nobodies’ and the five ‘somebodies’ along the way.”
Robinson spoke with alacrity as she discussed her background in singing, her journey with this show and the characters she brings to life in what is clearly so much more than your run of the mill ‘tribute’ show.
“I had always been singing as a child, so it was something that came very naturally to me”, she explained, adding that a “knack for imitating” certainly helped her along the way.
“I trained at the VCA (music and voice) classically. I had always had a really good ear for voices and accents”, she said.
Robinson explained that developing this show was slow and calculated, but rewarding in every regard.
“It was a long process – Joanna [Murray-Smith] had a lot of things going on overseas. The rehearsal period was so drawn out, as it had to fit in with Simon’s schedule”, she said.
Simon Phillips, man of the moment, director of Love Never Dies, Priscilla and currently MTC’s head-honcho first saw Robinson perform several years ago. Impressed by her abilities, he immediately knew he wanted to work with her.
“Ever since I sat stunned at a Bernadette Robinson concert not believing my ears, I wanted to create a show for her, something that put her miraculous ability to reincarnate the great singing voices of the past into a rich theatrical context. Her brilliant talent channels not only characters but somehow the spirit of the performer. So I knocked on the obvious door of Joanna Murray– Smith”, said Phillips.
Joanna Murray-Smith, who also wrote the highly successful show Bombshells for Caroline O’Connor, was initially concerned that Robinson was more a singer than an actor. In a show which would eventually become 70% monologue and 30% music, it was important to know that Robinson could hold her own in the acting department.
“Joanna knew about my singing, but hadn’t ever seen me act”, says Robinson, “So she wrote one piece, one monologue for me initially and I learned it and we took it from there.”
Robinson proved that there was never a cause for concern, earning herself a Green Room Award Nomination in 2010 for Best Female Musical Theatre Performer for the show’s run in Melbourne.
“It’s a very simple set, and each character has a very distinctive… well, everything”, Robinson laughs. “They all have their own drink, and physicality”.
One of the ‘nobodies’ tells her story over a cup of tea, another over a scotch, she explains. The dramatic focus is on the monologues:
“It’s so much more about the ‘other’ women”, says Robinson, “and each story is totally different, with a different approach. The English librarian who is rather stitched up and drinks a cup of tea, she tells a story of espionage about Edith Piaf. The New York woman who drinks her scotch… They are all funny in their own way”.
Enamoured by Simon Phillips, Robinson admits that she “loves him to pieces” –
“I’m mad about him.. I think everyone in the world is. The way [he] has directed it has made the whole process so much fun. The show is quite funny – it had lots of laughs, but it is also quite poignant. Most people have a few tears at some point. It’s such a privelege to have this show.” When asked: “Which is your favourite character to perform”, Robinson hesitates, almost as if she might offend her alter egos in choosing a favourite.
“To me, they are all very different. I slip in to each of them easily and every day it’s a different one. Sometimes I come off and think ‘ohh Patsy was nice tonight’… you know? I like them all – they all have something special”.
Very diplomatic! Playing at the Sydney Opera House from August 4, this show is what actor Barry Humphries says should be “the surprise hit of the season.”
If you can’t make it to the Opera House, make sure you catch this show in it’s national tour. From Sydney, the show will continue to Brisbane and Perth, returning to Melbourne in December/January. Songs For Nobodies certainly sounds like a show for everybody: within this 90 minute play you will find comedy, pathos, music, drama — a whole lotta talent, and a whole lotta heart.