In conversation with Nancye Hayes, star of Follies In Concert
On May 24 and 25, some of Australia’s most well-loved musical theatre performers will gather for a production of follies In Concert, at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Directed by Tyran Parke and produced by Adrian Storey for Storeyboard Entertainment, the Melbourne-only event will inject Melbourne with a star-studded surge of Sondheim.
For 3 performances only, the cast list features Phillip Quast, Lisa McCune, Nancye Hayes, Bert and Patti Newton, David Hobson, Anne Wood, Debra Byrne, Cheryl Barker and David Rogers Smith.
Combined, these performers have approximately 9000 years of experience (the maths is accurate, I assure you!) treading boards to the delight of our island nation.
The story of follies features a reunion of performers in an old run-down theatre. It is a story set in-betweens. Set between two wars, these revue performers exist between the margins of Radio and Television, and this reunion has them all with one foot in the past, and one in the future.
When it debuted in 1971, it divided critics. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning 7, and yet its original production failed to capture audiences and lost all of its initial investment. Since then, happily, it has enjoyed broad international acclaim and is a favourite for audiences who enjoy reminiscing.
One of those people (who enjoys reminiscing) is Australian icon of the stage, Nancye Hayes. Chris Fung was lucky enough to ask her a few questions about follies, Sondheim and her own escapades on the stage over the years.
CF: Nancye, can you tell me about what follies means to you? This will be your fourth time playing the show.
NH: The first time I did follies was in 1993 with Tony Sheldon [director] and nobody could believe we were given the opportunity to do this extraordinary show. They’re all chorus girls, which is where I started myself, all coming together all remembering their days in the chorus.
I remember that night – it was one performance only – and the excitement of wanting to get it right, just one chance to get it right. You couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money, and people were scalping tickets and it was just full of excitement and it didn’t disappoint anybody. It really was the most wonderful night.
And I can remember just standing on the side when the orchestra struck up that beautiful first theme and the swell of the music and the girls came out, the showgirls, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck RISE like this electricity went through me, and I felt I’m so lucky to be part of it. And I’ve always loved follies for that reason, it still does the same thing to me.
CF: The last time I saw you live was in Harvest Rain’s production of Pirates of Penzance with , and I’ve wanted to ask you this ever since I saw you have so much fun in that, how do you decide a show is for you? Do you feel as excited when you get a contract these days as the first time you won a professional contract?
NH: Yes! I love to be working and love to be asked to be involved in new productions. I had never done Gilbert and Sullivan, so I was excited to do that I was a little daunted by it because I’d never thought of myself in that Gilbert and Sullivan vein, because it usually belongs to Opera companies, and they are roles generally for a singer.
I thought, at my age playing Ruth, that I was a bit of a Cougar, so really I had to find an endearing thing between her and Frederick, so she didn’t see herself the way that she was, an older woman. I mean, that’s basically the idea of the show, but there was a great deal of age difference between us.
CF: Does that matter to you in terms of finding ways that you can play with one another, having that age difference?
NH: No, not at all. I think that the more the relationship you have with the person you are playing oppposite, that feeds the fun of it, which just opens up all these other possibilities.
CF: And is that how you decide to do a show? You look for something that makes YOU laugh and then you do it?
NH: Indeed! I read a script and I’ll start to laugh at what I’m reading, or I listen to a musical and it brings a smile to my face and I’ll know that I want to be a part of it. I mean that’s what I do, I’m always enormously moved by wonderful vocal roles, but I know that they’re not my genre. I mean I started as a dancer then became an actor through comedy roles, and not that I haven’t done straight roles, I have – but I think my greatest joy is to hear an audience laugh.
CF: Did it take you a long time to figure that out?
NH: I knew from when I was about three. I did my first dancing school Concert, and the audience laughed at all of us little children going the wrong way, and doing our best, and not being very good dancers, but I think that laughter and applause are addictive even at that age.
CF: What do you suppose are the differences for young people coming up through musical theatre now, as opposed to when you were first establishing your own career?
NH: It’s very hard to know. Certainly the training of the younger people is much stronger than in my day. I mean, I didn’t have the opportunity to go to WAAPA or VCA or the other places, because they didn’t exist.
My training ground was the great theatrical company JC Williamson, and I joined them at 18 in the chorus of My Fair Lady, and I went on for several years, only having one break for all those years, until I did Sweet Charity which was a huge break for someone as young as I was, but because I was a part of that establishment for so long I was on the spot, and it HAD to be a dancer to play Charity, and there I was. I had taken over the lead in How to Succeed when the American girl went back, I had done a lead in Boys from Syracuse and then Sweet Charity came along, and because of the great success that Jill Perryman had had with Funny Girl and years earlier that the Australian company had had with Pyjama Game, they took the risk. And they took the risk not only with me, but with a lot of other dancers, that I had been working with for all those years. Those dancers stepped up to play supporting roles with me, and so it was a very big break for all of us, I must say.
And of course then, I’ve worked very constantly I must say, but I’ve had to diversify , I’ve had to choreograph, or I’ve had to direct or do some teaching at places like NIDA or WAAPA, because to sustain a career, which now is 55 years long, you have to be able to adapt, you have to be able to roll with the punches and find a way when you get to a certain age. I mean I’ve now moved onto the lovely Mrs. Higgenses, Madame Armfelds and the Maid in Beyond Desire, to that area, so it’s just keeping yourself going so that something comes up that you’re right for and that you’re the right age for.
CF: On to Sondheim, can you tell me about the first time you came across his work? Do you remember how it made you feel?
NH: The first one I think was Company, no actually the first one I saw was A Little Night Music done by JC Williamson in 1974 just before they finished, and I thought it was so beautiful. In New York, I’ve only seen two Sondheim shows, one being Pacific Overtures written for the bicentennial year which was absolutely amazing, and I was so thrilled I got to see that in its original season, and the other one was Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, and it was an unforgettable.. you know.. the memory of that is so strong still in my mind, sitting in that theatre and that whistle going, and this extraordinary show happening and this wonderful woman, and her great comedy and the singing, and the sweeping music and the pace of it, the look of it.. the WHOLE THING, right up until that wonderful exit where she slammed that door behind her, and I was in New York, so I was up all night waiting for that moment when I could ring someone in Australia and say “I’ve just seen something EXTRAORDINARY”.
Melbourne Recital Centre
Southbank Boulevard, Southbank, Melbourne
May 24 – 25, 2016
TICKETS ON SALE NOW
Tickets from $89.90 – $159.90
Tel: 03 9699 3333