Chrissy Amphlett – Our Most Infamous Leading Lady

In January of 1999 I didn’t know who Chrissy Amphlett was.

Chrissy Amphlett's program shot from Blood Brothers. Image courtesy of The Seymour Centre archives
Chrissy Amphlett’s program shot from Blood Brothers. Image courtesy of The Seymour Centre archives

Like almost everyone else I had heard ‘I Touch Myself’ and ‘Pleasure and Pain’ on the radio but I didn’t associate them with anyone. They were just songs from early childhood that I’d sing along to without really knowing what they were about. As for the Divinyls – the band most people think of when they think of Chrissy Amphlett – I honestly didn’t listen to them extensively until a couple of years ago.

And yes, I am ashamed about that.

But for me, Chrissy Amphlett was still a huge star, only from an entirely different world.

You see to get back to that distant January in 1999, I first saw Chrissy when I was taken to the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane to see a musical that was making quite a ruckus on the Australian scene called The Boy From Oz.

I knew who Peter Allen was. The Qantas ads set that snowball into motion. And so there I was in the Lyric enjoying myself thoroughly to the enthusiastic strains of Todd McKenny’s performance, when all of a sudden, a tiny figure in a deep blue jacket and black slacks with Judy Garland hair shimmered on stage and my heart stopped.

What followed was a lesser known Peter Allen song ‘All I Wanted Was the Dream’ (the Act Two showstopper from the ill-fated musical Legs Diamond, which Allen wrote for Broadway in 1988), only sung with such intensity and such heart that by the end I couldn’t applaud loud enough.
The actress playing Judy Garland stopped the show, and she proceeded to stop the show each time she sang that night. There was just something about her! It was as if her presence on that stage made her its owner, and I leaned forward in my seat in the mezzanine, wanting to be closer.

By the end of ‘Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage’ I was crying. In the world of the musical, Judy Garland was dead, too young and too soon and the world was irrevocably changed. For me, out in the audience, I was too busy wondering: who is she?

According to the program, her name was Chrissy Amphlett, and I noted it for future reference, because with a talent and a voice (my God what a voice!) like that she had to do more shows – surely!

Sadly, The Boy From Oz was the last musical Chrissy ever was to perform. Through the two years the original production trooped around Australia, the 2006 arena tour starring Todd McKenny and various national revivals, she performed as Judy Garland to a rapturous audience response.

But Boy From Oz was not Ms Amphlett’s first musical. Though she only ever took to the stage three times in her career, she did so each time in a production that now stands alone as a singular cultural event in the music theatre history of Australia.

My knowledge of Chrissy Amphlett’s career as a whole has thankfully expanded enough now for me to know that this was typical for her. She may not have been the most prolific of artists, but what she did do, she chose wisely and timed it well. The results were legendary.

Chrissy Amphlett’s first musical is a landmark by itself simply because of the nature of the show.
Let My People Come was an infamous off-Broadway musical about sexual liberation. Infamous primarily because most of the cast performed the show naked or next to naked.

The 1979 Australian premiere production (and to my knowledge there has been no revival) was a hit, running for nine months at the Total Theatre in Melbourne and then a further three at the old Bijou Theatre (now converted to an apartment building) in Balmain in Sydney. Chrissy played the role of porn queen Linda the Lips, playing one scene wearing only a corset and curlers in her pubic hair.

In her autobiography Pleasure and Pain, Chrissy remarked: “I never missed a show, not even after I’d had some corns burnt off my feet and could hardly walk. Come wasn’t much, but it was my first regular gig and I made the most of it. I’d never missed a ballet lesson growing up, and now in Come, as I showed up night after night while some co-stars were dropping like flies, I realised that I’d been blessed with a formidable work ethic.”

“And I also learned that I enjoyed shocking audiences. Their stunned faces were proof that I had forced a reaction from them and taken them out of their comfort zone, and as a performer that’s an achievement. After Come I would never again take my clothes off on stage, but it was a crash course in laying myself bare emotionally.”

Twenty year old Chrissy Amphlett cut her teeth on Let My People Come. The musical brought her to Sydney where she began pursuing a career as a rock singer with her trademark ferocity and drive. In 1980, she met her soon to be partner and guitarist Mark McEntee at a concert at the Sydney Opera House, which led to the formation of their band The Divinyls.

Eighteen years later, following the rise of the Divinyls and a string of hit albums in Australia, Amphlett was approached by producer Wilton Morley with a proposition. A Divinyls fan, Morley wanted Amphlett to play the coveted lead role of Mrs Johnstone in the Australian premiere of the hit West End musical Blood Brothers.

Joining her in the cast were two young actors named Peter Cousens and Russell Crowe.

Initially Amphlett said no, believing it was too great a risk. However, after being flown first class to London to meet Willy Russell (the man who penned the musical) and Danny Hiller (the director), she decided to do the show – specifically while crossing the Atlantic on a Concorde, as you did in 1988 when you had a hit rock band!

Casting Chrissy in Blood Brothers caused a stir within the music theatre community. She was a rock’n’roll performer with almost no theatre background to speak of who had scooped a sizeable pool of very willing actresses for the part of a lifetime.

The cast reportedly looked down on her from day one, and Chrissy herself caused further gossip and rumour when she scored a pay cheque ten times the size of her costars and a private dressing room (with a private phone line) while the ensemble were left to share.

In Pleasure and Pain, Blood Brothers director Danny Hiller spoke of the atmosphere during rehearsals: “Chrissy had no safety net. The musicians were strangers, the songs were unlike anything she’d sung before, she had to speak convincing Lillipuddlian. This was a huge ask. Leaving rock to tread the boards was a career risk. She was a brave girl, and a professional, always at me to help her: ‘Tell me how you want me to do it!’ Like a sponge.”

“Gradually she came to feel comfortable and began to participate. After a few days she sang her first song and the entire cast sat their with their mouths open. The power of that voice…”

The production only lasted three months. It opened in August of 1988 at the Seymour Centre in Sydney and received rave reviews – mostly about Chrissy.

Her performance as Mrs Johnstone, by all accounts, was electrifying. But backstage the atmosphere was tense.

“I learned to channel my defiance at my co-stars’ resentment into Mrs Johnstone, who was beset by similarly mean-spirited people and an unfair social system in her sorry life. On opening night, I was quivering with nervousness. The last thing I needed was when one actor looked down his nose at me and in an upper-crust accent sneered, ‘Well, this is not rock’n’roll now. How does it feel to be in the theatre?'”

“But I used the outrage I felt at his snide remark in my performance. Mrs Johnstone’s jaw set more firmly and her anger at her plight bubbled. ‘Thank you very much, mate,’ I thought. ‘I’ll have that!'”

“My total immersion in my role and singing those gorgeous Willy Russell songs got me through.”

[pull_left]Blood Brothers was a special time for me. It gave me confidence that I could do more than sing in a band. That I would survive if the Divinyls broke up[/pull_left]

But this divide in the cast was not the only problem backstage. A young over-confident Russell Crowe stood on a lot of toes – Chrissy’s included.

“He kept giving me demo tapes he’d made. He asked me what I thought of his singing and I told him I didn’t think he’d found his voice yet and to keep trying.”

Eventually Crowe was dismissed after starting a fight backstage where he broke co-star Peter Cousens’ nose.

Despite all this scandal, the production closed early and failed to tour as the production company ran out of money. Though Chrissy felt the cast blamed her – thanks to her inflated salary – she left the show viewing it as a positive experience.

Blood Brothers was a special time for me. It gave me confidence that I could do more than sing in a band. That I would survive if the Divinyls broke up.”

After the show, the Divinyls went on tour in the United States. In 1990 they recorded their most successful album to date Divinyls, which included the hit single “I Touch Myself”. But while this was Chrissy’s peak on the charts as a rock’n’roll performer, so far as the theatre was concerned she was yet to stage her coup de gras.

This, of course, brings us back to that tiny figure playing Judy Garland who entranced me so much in 1999. The Boy From Oz opened at Her Majesty’s theatre in Sydney (remember The Maj? With that vertigo-inducing dress circle?) on February 24, 1998. It then embarked on a national tour to rave reviews and standing ovations. It remains one of the most successful musicals to be created in Australia, and was the first to transfer to a theatre on Broadway.

Chrissy did not reprise her role as Judy Garland, even though by 2003 she was herself living in New York. Isabel Keating played the role to rapturous reviews. Indeed, Keating’s portrayal of the legendary Judy sounded more like Judy and looked more like Judy. Listening to the Broadway cast recording I drank in her bravura voice and gloried in every Garland mannerism as only one who has listened to the Judy at Carnegie Hall album as many thousands of times as I have can!

Even so, as fabulous as Isalbel Keating’s performance as Judy Garland was, pull out your Australian cast recording of The Boy From Oz (which is not on iTunes strangely) and listen to Chrissy sing ‘All I Wanted Was the Dream’. And also maybe the ironic “(I’ve Been) Taught by Experts”.

The magic of Amphlett’s portrayal of Judy Garland did not come from vocal mimicry, but from the aching sense of self she brought to the part. To my eyes she got Garland somehow, in a way that no other actress is yet to grasp. The irony, the bitterness, the self-awareness and innate understanding that comes from a life spent on concert stages, a slave to addictions that are destroying your body, and the knowledge that there’s little you can do but get on with it…

After her death on Monday, April 22, Molly Meldrum spoke to about Amphlett, with whom he was close friends.

The magic of Amphlett’s portrayal of Judy Garland did not come from vocal mimicry, but from the aching sense of self she brought to the part “I remember once I said to her ‘Chrissy, you had this amazing persona with the Divinyls, you use to frighten the hell out of me. How can you go from that to playing Judy Garland in The Boy From Oz?’ And she said ‘They’re both the same character Molly’.”

Prior to The Boy From Oz, Amphlett’s life had begun to spiral. She had broken up with long-term partner and fellow band member Mark McEntee. The demise of the Divinyls followed. Their final album, Underworld, while well received in Australia, was poorly promoted and did not perform as well as expected. In 1996 Amphlett had a breakdown and was forced to seek treatment for alcoholism. Furthermore she was in a great deal of debt.

Cast in The Boy From Oz as a result of her memorable performance in Blood Brothers, she threw herself into the project, determined to remain sober and pay off her debts. Throughout the project she kept up the calm facade that life was far more bountiful than the reality.

Throughout the production she maintained her devoted work ethic, missing only two performances so that she could marry her partner Charley Drayton in Queensland on July 27, 1999.

“The key to this part, I decided, was not to try to be a mirror-image impersonation of Judy, but to deliver a finely nuanced performance. I turned up for my first rehearsal at the Betty Pounder Studios at the back of Her Majesty’s Theatre. There was no one there to hold my hand. Running the show was my nemesis, director Gale Edwards.””Gale is a perfectionist and a hard task-master and she drove all her actors relentlessly. Her demands were exhausting. I kept my head down and worked my butt off.”

On opening night: “I was a nervous wreck when, as a tipsy Judy Garland, I staggered on in front of packed house in the first act. I comforted myself with the knowledge that Judy would have been feeling just the same way. At the show’s end, I received an ovation like rolling thunder. I shook and my eyes glistened as the yelling and clapping resounded around the vast theatre.””Gale Edwards said, ‘You’ll never know how good you were tonight,’ and from her that was high praise indeed.”

While playing Judy Garland in the original Australian tour of The Boy From Oz, Chrissy Amphlett was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. In 2010 she also announced that she had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer. The MS made it impossible for her cancer to be treated with chemotherapy. Though Amphlett claimed to be winning her fight in 2011, it was this disease that sadly took her from us just two years on at age 53.

To most, Chrissy Amphlett was a goddess of rock, known more for her wild school girl persona and overt sexuality on the concert stage. She wrote some incredible songs with fellow Divinyl Mark McEntee and redefined the Aussie rock scene. She performed with a fire and defiance that continues to win her supporters to this day.

In the eyes of the mainstream crowd she is probably somewhere on high jamming with the best of them… But in my mind, all I can see is little Judy Garland, harmonising with her through ‘All I Wanted Was the Dream’, sharing a smile, because they’ve both been there. They understand.

All that’s left now, is that we love Chrissy for sharing her gifts with us and keep her memory strong. She was not by far our most prolific leading lady. May she remain one of our most infamous.

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