One of the biggest names in Australian Musical Theatre, Simon Gleeson, sits across the table from me. It is quite surreal having a conversation with him as an old friend would, when merely weeks earlier I had seen him in not one, but two different large-scale productions. The sheer versatility within him is remarkable, yet all of the performing was put aside for our discussion. We talk and laugh, his presence captivating. Every minute of our interview was both fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, with us both losing total track of time and running massively over due to enthralling conversation. He is set to perform next week at Morning Melodies, Arts Centre Melbourne’s monthly concert series showcasing Australian talent, held at Hamer Hall.
Simon has had the privilege of playing some of the most iconic and recognisable roles in musical theatre including The Russian/Anatoly Karpov in Chess, Curly in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Raoul in the Australian Premiere production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Love Never Dies. His most notable performance was Jean Valjean in Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Les Miserables. “Valjean was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done,” he commented. “I wasn’t even going to audition but my wife reminded me how much I love the show and said I should just throw my hat in the ring. I kept thinking ‘Les Mis is just so hard…’ So when I was cast, I spent almost every day for 4 or 5 months before it singing the show every day. So even though I was doing a play at the time, it was mainly about getting the confidence.
Simon’s performance won him a Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical, and he was able to tour nationally and internationally in the role, including a year-long run on London’s West End. “I never went out, I never did anything for 3 years. I mean, I don’t have that sort of personality anyway, so I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything. I don’t know anyone who finds it easy, I’ve not met a Valjean who’s found the role easy. Especially if you choose to act it. Because if you just want to sing it, that’s one thing. But to immerse yourself physically into the character, that’s challenging. If you want to attack the story the sound suffers a bit, but the audience care more – although it’s much harder to do that 8 shows a week.”
Despite having played a variety of roles across both plays and musical theatre, Simon’s choice of favourite role was definitely a surprise. “I did a show here [Arts Centre Melbourne] called Curtains and it was so stupid… I loved it. I had the best time. Usually I do when I work with The Production Company, every time i’ve worked there I’ve loved it. I think that show in particular, it wasn’t just the fact that it was so stupid, but that no-one knew it… there was no expectation. Of course I love Valjean for different reasons. And I loved Chess. There’s really no one role that I think was quintessential. But Curtains… it was joy doing it.”
Simon’s album Elements is the basis for his upcoming Morning Melodies performance, where he hopes to showcase a selection of covers from his album as well as a few additional tracks. Recorded in 2015, the album is filled with some of his favourite songs from both musical theatre and mainstream music. “We recorded it in Perth during Les Mis, and the intention was always that it was going to be live. Singing for me… well, I feel silly behind a mic in a recording studio. It was alway about doing it on stage. And because we always had that intention to pair it back, the album was pretty much piano cello and myself.”
Having recently finished a stunning run of Oklahoma! with The Production Company and immediately moving into a sell-out season of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband , Simon has definitely learned the different limitations of performance. When asking him about the main differences between plays and musicals, it was clear that the question was not as black-and-white as I had initially thought.
“Plays have their own challenges. We had a lot of people in An Ideal Husband who are ‘musical theatre’ people, and we were all surprised how draining it was. It has a much more cerebral feel, but still very theatrical. You can’t drop the ball in any play, really, but they’re very different. They have their own challenges. Oklahoma! was really easy, an absolute joy. I didn’t know the show at all and I was kind of concerned… it’s what, over a hundred and seventy years old? And you think ‘Oh man, this is… it’s just going to be a dinosaur.’ I had my own concerns about how the audience was going to react to it, hoping they wouldn’t leave simply thinking it was a show of pretty songs. But it did really well, and it’s one of those joyous moments that made me think ‘This is why I wanted to do this in the first place.
I prepare [for both] in the same way, but the energy required is so different. There was this time in London where I was doing a play, a TV series and a musical all at the same time. The musical required insane amounts of energy, even though I was only doing it once a week. I get frustrated at ignorant opinion generally propelled by those who have never done a musical that they’re frivolous and silly… anyone who’s done one knows what they require. I mean, that’s part of the joy! The energy! Especially if you’re going at your limit, and these days they are quite often written for that. Doing that 8 times a week is very difficult. To sustain sound at stupid pitches while dancing!”
As a theatre student myself, I asked Simon if there were any recommendations he would give to aspiring performers, both in musical theatre and just in the performing arts industry as a whole.
“I wish I had solid advice,” he chuckled, “But I would say this – everyone needs different things. So much of it is our individual personalities, our insecurities. It’s not a hard job, I mean it’s not surgery! We’re not building fences in the Nullarbor! But it’s hard work to keep believing that you have something to offer, that you deserve to be listened to and that you deserve to be standing on stage. It took me many, many professional shows to even write ‘actor’ on forms without feeling like a fraud. For young performers, our whole job is to get out of the way of ourselves. We put so much stuff in front of our work – and how do you monitor your own confidence and belief? Because the job is not seen as ‘legitimate’ in this country by a vast majority. Especially if you are young, hearing from parents and teachers that it isn’t a legitimate pathway will just start you on the back foot. Combined with your confidence to stand up and deliver something, the guts to get up and have a crack. That’s really hard. Obviously training helps, for one you get the skills but you also get the confidence and can gauge where you stand. But mostly, it’s a belief from inside yourself.”
Simon performs at Morning Melodies on Monday September 10th at Arts Centre Melbourne, for two shows only (11am and 1:30pm). Tickets are on sale at the Arts Centre Melbourne website.