Chatting with Monica Swayne from Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on The Roof is currently playing at The Capitol Theatre. Anthony Warlow stars in this brand new production, with a stellar cast including Sigrid Thornton, Mark Mitchell and LIOR.

Monica Swayne.
Monica Swayne.

During the run in Sydney, Bec Caton will be chatting with some of the cast members to see what the experience has been like so far and what they’re looking forward to for their time in Sydney (catch her interviews with LIOR here and Blake Bowden here).

Monica Swayne, a 2014 Rob Guest Endowment Finalist, has frequented the Australian musical theatre scene in shows such as Wicked and Mary Poppins, and is now starring as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof. We chatted with Monica about bonding with her onstage sisters, singing with Anthony Warlow and what makes Fiddler so special.

When did you first discover Fiddler? Did you watch the movie as a child?

I actually was never exposed to Fiddler as a child. I never watched it because it wasn’t a dancing show. I’d heard of it, but I never watched it or listened to the soundtrack. I knew some songs but when the brief came out and I was suggested to audition for it, I didn’t really know what it was about. During the rehearsal period was the first time I was really exposed to it.

As Hodel, you spend a lot of time with your on stage sisters, particularly Teagan Wouters and Jessica Vickers, what have you enjoyed about that? How did you guys go about creating that sisterly bond?

It’s good fun. I did my first show with Teagan – I haven’t worked with her for 6 years since, but we sort of had a previous friendship. And it’s easy for us because our characters are the mature ones of the five so it was just natural.

Monica Swayne (far right) as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Jeff Busby.
Monica Swayne (far right) as Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Jeff Busby.

I had never met Jess before, but she’s a very fun and vivacious and vivid person as it is. So just reacting to anything that she has is a delight every show. The rehearsal period started as Teagan and I being quite close but over the show Jess and I have gotten a lot closer just because of how the show is written, and we get lots of time together. It’s good fun having two different energies to bounce off.

You also have some very touching moments with Anthony Warlow. What’s it like working with him?

The first musical I ever saw was Anthony Warlow in Phantom Of the Opera. At first it was quite intimidating because I didn’t grow up as a singer, I grew up as a dancer. There’s a scene in the show where I just sing at him and we laugh about that all the time because he just needs to sit and listen to me sing no matter how good or crap it is that night.

I also don’t get to see him a lot because of the intensity of his role and the stage time of his role. The 20 seconds I do get with him side stage, when I’m meant to be focusing on leaving Anatevka, he’s very fun and makes me laugh and then I need to refocus as we walk on stage. It’s a dream come true, as corny as that sounds. And if I’m going to be working with people of that calibre, I want to work that hard. He makes me work harder because he’s so inspirational.

You also spend a lot of time working with Blake Bowden. What’s it like working with him?

It’s atrocious! No, it’s great! We worked together on West Side Story when we were very young; I like to say it was back in the day when I couldn’t sing. I ended up covering Maria, I don’t even know why, and he was a Tony cover and we got to rehearse together occasionally. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, his voice!’

And it’s so wonderful to work with him. When we first found out we were working together, we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other for 5 years, and the day the announcement came out I walked into this random coffee shop and he was there with his children. And I was like ‘Hello!’ It was so weird.

It’s so lovely working with him we’ve got such a great chemistry and such a great friendship. We just fire off each other, and he’s a very responsive actor. Our scenes don’t change every day but the energy and the fire of them change everyday and it’s always interesting with him. He’s a brilliant actor and he’s an okay singer, but he needs to work at it a bit more [laughs].

He shared one funny moment from the Melbourne season. Do you have any other funny stories from rehearsal or onstage mishaps to share?

That was so unprofessional! And it was in the middle of Anthony’s monologue! Corpsing was bad. We now don’t look at each other. Especially because if we look at each other, and someone in the audience opens up a packets of biscuits, I lose it and he laughs so we can’t look at each other.

Generally, I’m boring, I focus and don’t stuff up!

Anthony’s had some really good mishaps. Because he’s got so many reprises that are the same but with different lyrics, so sometimes he’ll sing the wrong lyric then fix it halfway through and it won’t make sense. Or he’ll say ‘Totel and Mzeitel’, instead of ‘Motel and Tzeitel’, or he’ll come in and say ‘Good children, Sabbath’. Just some little dialogue twists from him keep me on my toes.

You have one of the most touching moments in the show with ‘Far From the Home I Love.’ What acting challenges have you found in that song? What do you find rewarding about it?

There’s a couple of challenging things. It’s physically challenging because of how I sit, and some days it’s quite challenging because you get a bit tight and I kind of have to be constantly alert to how I’m breathing and how I’m sitting, just so that when I’m tired I don’t collapse and have no support. You can also get engrossed in the scene and I forget it’s not real life and I just have to sing a song. So physically sometimes that can be a bit challenging.

And this is going to sound really corny, I’m a very corny person. There are some times when I finish the song and I get quite emotional, because never in my wildest dreams if you asked anyone in my life about 10 years ago, there was no way that they would say I would be sitting on stage with Anthony Warlow, singing a song at him, and get such wonderful feedback and reviews about it. Never in my life have I thought that I would become a singer. So that’s a big thing for me. I’ve worked really hard it and sometimes I finish the song and I’m just like ‘never in my wildest dreams’!

Recently you’ve been in Wicked and some other more contemporary shows. Do you have any other classic shows, like Fiddler, on your bucket list?

I’m silly enough not to audition for My Fair Lady. I’d love to play Eliza! That’s a movie musical I grew up on. I’d love to play Christine in Phantom. And I know it’s not classical but it’s Edwardian but I love Mary Poppins, I’ve done that show before and I would do it again in a heartbeat. And Les Mis! Those classic, English shows are what I suit and what I like.

What’s your favourite moment in the show?

It’s when Anthony sings the word ‘advise them’ in ‘Rich Man’. It’s like my favourite moment in the show and I listen to it every night!

What was a highlight from the Melbourne run?

A highlight of the show would be creating my own character in a very safe environment with Roger [Hodgman, director]. I feel very lucky to have been given the script, and read the script and create [Hodel]. Rather than have someone say stick your foot out to the left, put your hand up and smile. It’s very rewarding to have a creative licence with the character. And I feel very fortunate and very grateful for that.

What are you excited for about the run in Sydney?

I’m just excited to keep bringing this show to audiences. It’s a brilliant show and not necessarily go out with a bang because we’re modest [laughs]. But just keep doing what we’re doing and give it to the audiences. And I hope they enjoy it as much as Melbourne did. Because it’s very special this one, it’s a very special Australian creation.

This musical is over 50 years old. Why do you think it’s important to keep telling these stories and what do you think this show has to offer that keeps bringing audiences back?

I think it’s the story, it’s quite relevant, I mean only yesterday we were sitting in the wedding scene and Blake was giving his speech about he should marry whoever he wants and I turned to Jess and I was like ‘It’s marriage equality!’ And they all think ‘He’s a radical, this is insane, how dare you go against tradition’, and that’s what’s happening today. It brings people in because of the relevance of the story.

And also the score is so beautiful. It’s written so well. It’s such an enjoyable experience to listen to. The simplicity of it is quite enjoyable. And it’s such a simple show that the story and the lyrics and the dialogue and the actors are the forefront of what happens. It’s purely someone standing on stage telling a story, and I think that’s very special because it happens very rarely these days.

Fiddler On The Roof is playing at the Capitol Theatre until the 8 May. Book tickets at Ticketmaster.

Bec Caton

Bec has a diploma in musical theatre and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She is a freelance theatre writer in Sydney.

Bec Caton

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