Maintaining The Passion

Maintaining The Passion

With Sondheim’s Passion opening in Melbourne next week, Coral Drouyn talks to the very special John O’May.

Some memories of moments in the theatre stay indelibly printed on the walls of our minds forever. For me, one such memory goes back forty years. A stunningly handsome young man immaculately dressed in a 1920s dinner suit and patent dress shoes, his blonde hair slicked down in twenties style, sat cross legged in a tall wicker peacock chair, lit by a spot, and sang in beautiful lyrical tones

Gone is the romance that was so divine

Tis broken and cannot be mended

You must go your way, and I must go mine

But now that our love dreams have ended…….

I had never before heard the verse to Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I do?” and I was mesmerised. The show was The Twenties and All That Jazz and the young man was John O’May, who starred alongside John Diedrich and Caroline Gilmer with the amazing Michael Tyack as Musical Director.

Now John O’May is preparing to open, in a little over a week, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion – a multi award winning musical that is seldom performed anywhere. John plays Doctor Tambourri (oddly enough a non-singing role) and is surrounded by a breath-taking all-star cast including Silvie Paladino, Kane Alexander, Theresa Borg, Troy Sussman, Jolyon James, Mark Dickinson, Cameron MacDonald, Glaston Toft, and Tod Strike.

It is the first production launching new music theatre company Life Like Company, and this show is unique in the themes it explores and the nature of the music.

John is no stranger to Sondheim, in fact he possibly holds the record for the most lead roles in Sondheim shows in Australia. He won the Green Room Award for Best Lead actor in A Little Night Music, was the original Bobby in Company, then added Into The Woods, Follies, Assassins and now Passion. While most people would be thrilled to star in ONE Sondheim show, John has six of them under his belt. 

That would be impressive enough even if you didn’t add his other body of work, starting with John the Baptist in Godspell in 1973 through to his latest foray into drama alongside David Suchet in The Last Confession. In more than forty years John O’May is that rarest of creatures – an actor who has never been out of work, never had to take another job. “The great Hayes Gordon said many years ago that you have to decide early on whether you want to be a star or a working actor, and then make that your path,” John says. “I chose the latter, and I’ve always worked. And although more than half my roles have been starring roles, if I’d held out for being “The Star” – whatever that is – I may have only worked for half the time. If it’s a good role, if it’s something I can get into alongside people whose work I respect, then I’m happy. Sure, I have done a couple of stinkers  but hopefully I wasn’t responsible for the smell.”

For a school teacher from Baltimore who threw in his job because he didn’t want to wear a tie, bought a round the world ticket and then fell in love with Australia, it has been an amazing life. John has had a movie career, a television acting career, a dramatic acting career, but his first love is musical theatre – everything from Mamma Mia! to The Phantom of the Opera – with a few forays into revivals of the classic musical comedies of the 40s and 50s.

“There’s a reason they were called musical comedies,” he says. “Particularly in the years leading up to the war and immediately afterwards. People just wanted to forget their troubles and laugh….tap their feet to the music. Rodgers and Hammerstein changed all that with Oklahoma!, because all of a sudden it wasn’t just about the music – there was a story, and people you cared about, and the music grew from that.”

I tell him that Stephen Schwartz says that the book of a musical is now the most important element and he quickly agrees. “Of course it is…without it all you have is a bunch of songs; you may as well just do a concert. That’s why Sondheim is so clever. He has such a brilliant collaborator in James Lapine, who gets nowhere near the credit that his partner does.”

So what is it about Sondheim that makes people into acolytes, worshippers even? Performers always say that his shows are so hard, exhausting, and yet everyone wants to be in one. Critics love him, but he is an acquired taste to audiences. He’s not the most popular composer/lyricist; he hasn’t had the longest running shows; he’s not even the most famous.

“Aaah, but he IS the most intelligent,” John responds. “There are some truly great composers – lyricists, couples or singular, but there is only ONE Sondheim. People say he’s intellectual, but what’s wrong with that?”

I counter that he is also emotional, or he couldn’t have written a song like ‘Being Alive’ and John agrees. “Exactly, he is everything, he understands life, and he doesn’t trivialise it; that’s why seeing a Sondheim show – and being in one - is intense but so rewarding. Not everyone wants to delve that deeply, and there are all sorts of shows for all kinds of audiences. Sondheim never just washes over you…he makes you connect, engage.”

I suggest that some people want everything to be simple….slapped on a plate for them, and Sondheim doesn’t put it on a plate. John laughs delightedly. “Put it on a plate? Sondheim doesn’t even put it on the TABLE. You’ll probably have to crawl UNDER the table….but what a fabulous feast when you do.”

And what a charming man. O’May is one reason we love Musical Theatre …but Sondheim is at the top of that list.

Passion plays at Arts Centre Melbourne for just 4 nights…November 5 - 8, 2014 inclusive.

Read more about Passion

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