Nancye Hayes is directing the revival of a musical she starred in 40 years ago, writes Fiona Scott-Norman
Plenty of things get announced prematurely: Michelle Leslie's conversion to Islam, Nikki Webster's greatest hits CD, "mission accomplished" in Iraq and, according to Nancye Hayes, the death of musical theatre.
Sharon Millerchip, left, will take on the role made famous locally by Nancye Hayes. "Well, they're always saying it's dead," says Hayes, during a break in rehearsals for Sweet Charity, which she is directing in Melbourne. "Theatre is dead, musical theatre is dead, but I tell you what, it's a magnificent invalid because it's been dying for years and it always seems to recover."
If anyone is in a position to judge, it's the greatly respected Hayes. She was in the original Australian productions of all three of the musicals being revived this year by the Production Company -- Sweet Charity, Little Me and 42nd Street -- and has found that her extensive backlog of experience puts her in demand not just as a director with the Production Company (she directed Judi Connelli in Gypsy in 2000), but also as a director and mentor for drama schools such as the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and National Institute of Dramatic Arts.
"A lot of my shows are coming round again, especially the good musicals, and I get to go and work with kids who are coming from where I came from, which is really wanting to be in musical theatre," says Hayes. "That was always my dream, and to pass on the history and be part of their training, I feel it gives me an ongoing purpose."
It was in 1967 that Hayes made the lead role in Sweet Charity her own. Forty years later she is directing the two-act show with Sharon Millerchip as Charity. She is having to draw on all her years of experience because she only has two weeks of rehearsals to put on what is, essentially, a full-scale production. Such a task usually takes six weeks, and would be near impossible if Hayes weren't so deeply steeped in the original show.
The Production Company's stated intention nine years ago was to keep ticket prices down by presenting concert readings of musicals, with the orchestra on stage and the performers with scripts in hand. The scripts quickly went out the window, and with each successive season the shows have become increasingly professional -- and popular -- despite no increase in the time made available for rehearsals.
This puts unusual pressures and parameters on Hayes and the cast. "It's intense," says the veteran. "There's no room for workshopping or trying out new things with such a short amount of time. It's better to stick with what you know. Everyone's thinking, 'I'm only learning this dance today, and it's Friday, and I'll be performing it on Wednesday'. And it's a big load for Sharon."
Hayes chose Millerchip for the role after directing her in Australia's Leading Ladies at the Brisbane Festival in 2004. One of the songs the younger woman sang in that show was If My Friends Could See Me Now, which is from Sweet Charity. Hayes says she really liked the way it was handled.
Millerchip has an impeccable musical theatre pedigree which ranges from Phantom of the Opera and Chicago to 10 years with the arch musical trio Combo Fiasco. She says that learning Sweet Charity in a fortnight is the biggest challenge of her career so far.
"It's a huge exercise for me in retaining information, because there's so much to learn and such a finite amount of time," says Millerchip. "I made sure I knew my lines as well as I realistically could before we started, but you can't prepare for the choreography and staging, and the choreography is quite full on. It's very particular, you can't fudge it.
"On the plus side, there's no time to panic. I keep waiting for it to kick in, but I think that's part of my process. I don't have the luxury of this time.
"The thing is, these shows have become very popular: there's a lot of kudos in being asked to be in one, and everyone wants the next one to be bigger and better than the last. And, you know, the performer's ego is such that we want to take the opportunity and milk the most out of it as possible. So I want to be as fabulous as I can be, so we all go that extra yard, and that extra yard, and suddenly we've all gone that extra mile. I blame Caroline O'Connor: she did Funny Girl in a week after performing it overseas."
The benefits, though, are clearly huge for those involved. For Millerchip it's the chance to perform a great role, and for Hayes the opportunity to share her legacy. Both consider Sweet Charity has aged very nicely since it burst, somewhat spectacularly, on to the stage in the 1960s. Written by Neil Simon, and originally choreographed and directed by Bob Fosse, Sweet Charity is big, brassy, and sassy. The protagonist, Charity, is a naive young woman who works as a dancer for hire at the Fandango Ballroom in New York. She has a less-than-pristine reputation. Other now-classic songs besides If My Friends Could See Me Now include Big Spender and Rhythm Of Life.
"I still think that basically it's a very good show, and you don't get a lot of good shows written now," says Hayes. "They're mostly sing-through these days, with no script. This one has a great score, and scene after scene of smart, good, funny writing. Besides, they write better songs for bad girls."
The "taxi-dancer" at the heart of Sweet Charity, which was also made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine, is not a prostitute, but not a million miles away from one either.
She has been looking for love in all the wrong places and gets thoroughly exploited by married men. An accident leads to her meeting a decent guy, Oscar, but while she is prepared to put her past behind her, Oscar can't. Millerchip finds that one of the strengths of the show is its emotional complexity.
"The show doesn't deliver the ending you might anticipate in a musical," she says. "It's so ironic: Oscar's after purity and innocence, they're the things he thinks are important, but we know they're not at all.
"It's such a flawed and wrong perspective to judge a woman by. Charity's the girl for him, if he'd just get over himself, but he sabotages this potentially fantastic relationship because of his unrealistic expectations. It makes a very modern point, I think."
Hayes says she considers Sweet Charity, in some ways, to have even more relevance than it used to: "I think that people today, more and more, are looking for the things that elude them in their lives."
The Production Company's version of Sweet Charity might have the same shape as the 1967 original, but it's not a carbon copy. For one thing, the choreography by Ross Coleman is brand new.
Buying the rights to the original script does not include Fosse's moves, and Hayes is very impressed by Coleman's work.
"I feel he's bringing to it what Fosse brought to the original -- great innovation in choreography and style. He's not imposing something he's choreographed in his head, he's creating on the bodies of the dancers he's got, creating something on the spot, which is really exciting to watch."
Also, inevitably, Millerchip's interpretation of Charity is going to be completely different to Hayes's. Millerchip hasn't seen a stage version of Sweet Charity before, so is free to make the role her own. More importantly, as a director, Hayes is giving her the freedom to do it.
"This is going to sound like I'm pissing in her pocket, but Nancye's been perfect for me," says Millerchip. "Not for a single moment have I felt any sense that I'm struggling with her ownership of the role, even though I know Charity is intrinsically linked to who she is as a performer, to her first big role. There's never been a skerrick of ego about her, and I'm so flattered that she asked me to do it."
From Hayes's perspective, directing Sweet Charity has been a process of moving forwards, rather than looking backwards.
"I'm finding that the new production is erasing the memories of the old. I'm looking at it now and thinking what a great show it is, and how lucky I was to be part of it in the beginning. It's important that Sharon creates her own Charity -- she's the pillar of the show and she has to be comfortable."
Hayes enjoys directing -- she has some 10 shows under her belt -- but her heart is still that of a performer: "It's much harder work to direct the whole thing. There's a part of me that definitely prefers to say 'I'll just stand there, and you tell me what to do'."
Sweet Charity runs at The State Theatre at the Victorian Arts Centre from July 18 to 22.