SIMON BURKE KEEPS ON KISSING.
In big demand in the West End and in North America, Australian singer and actor Simon Burke has hit a purple patch playing leads in The Sound of Music and La Cage Aux Folles. He spoke with Peter Pinne about his career, on stage kissing and his newly released album.
Q. You’ve recently appeared in the West End production of La Cage Aux Folles. How did that happen?
I'd auditioned for (director) Terry Johnson about a year ago when the show first came into the West End but it didn't go anywhere. Then out of the blue I was offered to go into the same production with John Barrowman back in July. It emerged that last time I was too young for the Albins they were looking at - let me tell you that's a nice one to hear these days!
Q. What’s it like playing in one of the iconic gay musicals?
For me it's first and foremost one of the iconic Broadway musicals of all time - note and word and heart and joke perfect - an absolute masterpiece. So playing Georges was like a dream come true for me. It's like every good and bad show I've ever done in my life has prepared me for all the stuff Georges has to do - direct address to the audience, heartbreaking love songs, silly songs, high drama, high farce and a bit of dancing thrown in. That said, it's also the first Broadway musical where the two leading men are in a committed, solid, loving relationship and its place in gay culture can never be underestimated.
Q. Is the show still relevant today?
Absolutely - it's a morality piece - oddly perhaps one of the most moral Broadway musicals ever conceived. The themes of the piece are all in the song titles: Masculinity, The Best of Times and I Am What I Am. John and I both gave curtain speeches on our last night and I talked about how not so long ago when the show had its West End premiere the ghastly Mary Whitehouse actually said that if you went to the London Palladium you would catch AIDS from the seats - and spool forward 25 years later to our weekday matinees where 800 elderly ladies would be screaming and cheering as two gay actors playing two gay characters end the show with a great big PASH. (We did have a pretty big pash actually!)
Q. You’ve just released your first CD. What’s the story behind that?
It's been in the to-do box for many years now. I don't know why I never got around to it before - I think I was kind of shy about it or something. But my musical director Daniel Edmonds saw a 10-day window when I was offered the role and convinced me to fly back to Sydney and do it in record time. I'm so glad I did, as I'm really proud of it and really chuffed that it's been doing so well.
Q. The song selection seems to be something from every show you have ever been in. Was this the concept?
I think your first album needs to be a kind of calling card, and although the song list is pretty varied it does sum my career up pretty well. It was also a stroke of very good luck that we put Edelweiss on the album, as I of course had no idea I'd be about to be doing the Captain ever again.
Q. The last two years have been incredibly successful for you in the West End, but these are not your only West End performances. Tell us about the others?
In between Sound Of Music and La Cage I had the great honour of appearing in Andrew Bovell's extraordinary play When the Rain Stops Falling at the Almeida. I also co-produced and hosted an amazingly successful concert at the Palace Theatre in the West End for the Australian Bushfire and Flood Relief. It was one of those nights where everything just works perfectly. The generosity of performers to just turn up and do these things never ceases to amaze me - not to mention the audiences. We raised over £30 000 in one night. And I made my Carnegie Hall debut in January this year when I hosted and performed in Australia Plays Broadway on the night of Obama's inauguration, which was beyond thrilling.
Q. What is your favourite musical theatre role?
I've just finished Georges so I'm still a little bit in love with him
Q. What is your favourite song?
That's almost impossible to answer but as I'm writing this on the long flight from London to Toronto I'd have to say Peter Allen's Planes.
Q. What is the role you dream of playing?
Way before I was ever involved with this production of La Cage, in fact back in my twenties I had this dream of doing La Cage and alternating the roles of Albin and Georges every night - that's still probably top of my list
Q. Before La Cage you played the Captain in The Sound of Music - how did that go?
I did a year in the show - 6 months with Connie Fisher and then 6 months with the lovely Summer Strallen. Not to mention the 57 von Trapp kids I worked with (ie 9 groups of 6 little ones plus Liesl and her two understudies!). I remember Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the movie) saying to me when I was offered the role - "you're in a family now that will be with you for the rest of your life" - and it's absolutely true. Most of the kids and their parents are friends on Facebook and I keep up with all of them. Many of them came with their folks to see La Cage, which I guess would have made for a few frank discussions on the tube on the way home! But having been a child performer I recognised myself in so many of those kids and know how incredibly important that first show is in your life.
I'm now en route as we speak to Toronto to do the Captain again in Jeremy's beautiful production for the last 5 weeks of its run at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Again out of the blue - 3 days rehearsal and I'm on (haven't done it for 16 months!) but it will be thrilling to revisit it
Q. What was it like working with Connie Fisher (as Maria)?
Absolute and total bliss. I don't think in all the years I have been doing this that I have ever connected with a leading lady in the way that I connected with Con. She floored me every single night with her flawless voice, her pure of heart Maria, her sense of the ridiculous and her absolute commitment to the moment. I really fell deeply in love with her. Also, out of well over 1000 stage kisses that I've had over the years hers would have to be the top 100!
Q. When are you coming home?
I've been back and forth quite a bit but I think I'll come back and do something substantial in 2010. You never know what's around the corner though as the past couple of years have really taught me!
Photo: John Barrowman and Simon Burke in La Cage aux Folles