Rhonda Burchmore: Putting the Woman in Show-Girl
Returning to the Melbourne stage with Cry Me a River, an intimate look at the life of stage and screen beauty Julie London, the equally vivacious (and iconic) Rhonda Burchmore allowed Aaron Ware to pick her brain on all things London, Broadway, and the state of the Arts in 2012.
Aaron Ware: I’ll start with the generic question; what can our readers expect from Cry Me a River?
Rhonda Burchmore: Well, it’s a story that they probably haven’t heard before… you usually get your Judy or your Piaf or your Dusty… those Girls’ stories are done far more often, Julie’s never been done… I used to be a huge fan, still am, of her music since I was about 12. Down at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, David Campbell came to me and said “We love you but we want you in a different scenario to what people are used to” you know, the kind of leggy show-girl that drives me nuts. But that’s ok, so I said how about we develop a piece on Julie London? So there began the story, we researched her… wrote the original treatment, we got Gary Young, who is a wonderful writer and director, on board to direct it. We did sell-out business down there then went to Brissy.
The thing about the piece itself is that the music really vocally sits perfectly where I’m singing now… I think as you get older… I love; I’ve always loved that Jazz and Blues… I’ve got the chance to sing the great American songbook, but also as an actress to tell her story. All the songs are placed specifically. It’s been re-developed for the Comedy Theatre here, bigger and better.
The Adelaide Cabaret Festival is a wonderful platform to see where shows go; it’s gone from a 70 minute one act, to now two-halves. We start off in a Jazz club with a 6-piece kind-of-cool Jazz sound then the second half develops into Big-Band. So it’s all very glamorous.
These days that Big-Band sound is very rare. Everything’s so programmed and synthetic because of costs and all that stuff. To be given the chance to sing these songs is a joy.
AW: Even Michael Buble seems to have moved wholly into Pop.
RB: Yes, it’s one of those things that is “what’s old is new again”. In terms of, especially Michael, the song ‘Cry Me a River’, was actually written for Julie London, and everyone’s covered it from Buble to even Tina Arena. it was probably London’s biggest selling single and is still around; people are still downloading it today, so that’s great.
AW: Speaking of her music, she recorded 32 albums. By today’s standard that seems impossible. As a co-writer, how do you sift through 32 albums of music without stepping on that rich legacy of music?
RB: You have to put your performer’s hat on, your Cabaret artist hat, and work out what songs flow best in the show. You can’t whack five ballads in a row. Because her music is so easy to listen to, there was a slight fear that if the music was in the wrong order it might be a bit of a snooze fest. The songs are placed against her life story so they’re not just 33 songs I’m going to sing in any order, they’re matched to what was happening in her life, whether a break-up or alcoholism
AW: A true musical.
RB: Yes! A true musical, absolutely, and that’s been very carefully thought-out to put them in this order, especially for the value to the audience member so it’s spotted with, and not ballad heavy.
AW: And have you made sure to do ‘What’ll I Do’, the theme from the old British comedy ‘Birds of a Feather’?
RB: No (laughs) no, no, we do something from… she went into Emergency, the TV show. You’re probably far too young to remember but even though she did 32 albums, a lot of her Television audience that she won in 1972 (in Emergency) had no idea she was one of America’s most acclaimed singers.
AW: And a sex bomb.
RB: Absolutely! She had all those glorious record covers and I love that her record covers would often take longer to shoot than the albums took to record… and some of them were borderline - quite erotic for the times.
AW: She was married twice, only twice- also seems impossible by today’s celebrity standard, but the second lasted for over 40 years. Can her success in marriage be attributed to her retirement from the industry?
RB: What whacked her out of it, and we tell the story; because she was so popular in the 50s and 60s, and when Rock ‘n Roll came along, it was sort of the death of Julie London. She tried to… There was an album there and she did ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’ and tried to get down and dirty with the Rock and Rollers, but it was just one of those things, you know, Rolling Stones, the Beatles…
AW: Perhaps the attitude that “Women can’t Rock ‘n Roll”
RB: (laughs) Yes, it sort of wiped her out. She made her last recording in, I think in the 80s, but not many people got to hear it because she wasn’t hip. Bobby Troupp, her second husband, was a song-writer and producer. He wrote Route 66 and others. She was really happy living with him until he died in 1999, and she went not long after him.
She always said, you look at the photos of her and she’d think she wasn’t the glamorous one, Marilyn Monroe was. But you look at those photos and think “Come on, Girl, what are you thinking?” But yeah, it was kind of interesting that people either know her as Nurse Dixie McCall [from Emergency] or from her recordings, but very few knew that they were one and the same. That was crazy and I’m pretty sure we get that across in the story too.
AW: And what was your personal favourite of her songs?
RB: Obviously the title song, but I also love Fly Me to the Moon, Blue Moon, Black Coffee - she does a killer version of Black Coffee. What I really love about her music is that it’s really easy on the ear to listen to… Nice for the background - you can hear it in a café or somewhere - it’s very much the Great American Songbook.
AW:I’m guessing ‘Cry Me a River’ is your nightly “Goosebumps” song?
RB: Yeah, it’s one of those songs - it’s the ultimate song. When you look at the lyric; she was in love, he did her wrong, now she’s going to get even. It’s one of those “all in the one” songs; it’s a simple song but it’s a great one to sing… and with a bit of a sting in the end of it… Perfect…So it’s the title song of the show.
AW: It’s also one of the most well known.
RB: Well that’s it, I think a lot of people can relate to it too, and that’s the thing we try to do with the book. As I say, it’s a real life story peppered with these wonderful songs. Hopefully you go away having learned a lot more about her and (hopefully) had a nice music fest.
There are so many people out there who hear “Julie London” and go “No it’s not!” but then they hear the voice and they realize. She’s fairly mysterious; nobody knows much about her. That’s why this is a great avenue to get them [these songs] out there.
If you look at her record sales, she was huge in Asia. Who knows how the show will go, but afterwards we hope to tour - Sydney Opera House and hopefully Asia.
AW: Looking at your past career, you did Easter Parade and Into the Woods on Broadway. You’ve done Sondheim on Broadway, I’m sure you realize now how desireable this is to so many people. Did you realize at the time?
RB: Well, you do, and it’s like working with Mickey Rooney and Anne Miller or Anthony Newley in my 20s. You sort of pinch yourself now and think, “Oh my god, I had that experience!” Standing opposite these people and they’re holding my hand. It’s all history now but I’ve been so lucky and blessed to have had many opportunities. I worked hard for it - it didn’t just happen - but I’m very lucky to have had those breaks and “still be here”, as the song says.
AW: There’s been a lot of World Premieres, or “tamperings of” in Australia recently, Moonshadow, An Officer and a Gentleman, Zhivago… Do you think it’s about time we had a proper theatre district in Melbourne or Sydney? Five to ten theatres, close to each other. Is there a market for that in Australia?
RB: The product’s there to put in them, definitely. When someone sees a great show they think “I’ve got to see another one, and another one”. We have in Exhibition Street, the Comedy Theatre and Her Majesty’s, around the corner the Princess, and they were always alive with shows. Now they’re dark for huge periods at a time.
AW: It’s depressing.
RB:It’s really, really depressing. I grew up with my sister as a dancer, used to be a JC Williamson girl, and she used to audition for show after show. Now they’re… I’m one of the lucky ones, I can create work and have my fingers in so many pies, but there’s so many people - all those kids from An Officer and a Gentlemen - they thought they were going to be in work until next April. They worked for 3 months, not even, now they’re out of work for 9. It’s really quite depressing, the theatre scene. There’s such an abundance of it, a huge splash and then there’s nothing… maybe if we had a proper theatre district and people supporting. We don’t have the same kind of star system here as in the United States. We don’t really look after, nurture, the stars like they do in the States and that’s a problem.
AW: The talent is there, the casts are there carrying shows for long periods (Wicked, Poppins etc We have the talent, just not doing anything with it.
RB: Absolutely, I co-hosted Twisted Broadway recently and I knew quite a lot of them from things like Mamma Mia. I look at these kids, and they’ve got so much talent, but it’s sad for them out there. Where do they go?
AW: Exactly - reality TV.
RB: Exactly, but that’s another story (laughs).
AW: Mentioning TV. You were a part of the final Spicks and Specks. How was it to a part of such an emotionally charged finale?
RB: This is a fun fact. This is my 15th TV series-finale that I’ve been on; Hey Hey, Bert, and I’m singing Cry Me a River on The Circle this week.
AW: They just want to go out with a bang, is all.
RB: (laughs) Yes!
AW: Final question, I know you’re a footy fan, Go Bombers. Any chance we can see you singing the National Anthem at the Grand Final at some stage?
RB: (laughs) I think it is your mission to plant the seed, young man!
AW: Yeah, how did you know? (AW is embarrassed). Why not put it out there in the universe.
RB :I would be there with bells on… Don’t pay me a cent; I will be there rain, hail or shine, singing that bloody anthem. I’m ready! I don’t care what team is playing, I tell you, I would be there in a heart-beat.
AW: So would I.
Rhonda Burchmore in Cry Me a River: the World of Julie London
5 Shows ONLY
August 16 – 19
Comedy Theatre, Melbourne