Get ready Brisbane! One of Australia’s leading theatre companies, Harvest Rain, is staging a major arena production of the Broadway musical Hairspray at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre in April. And when we say major, we mean world-record-breaking, cast of nearly 900, arena spectacular major!
The Tony Award-winning musical comedy takes us back to 1962 where "pleasantly plump" teen Tracy Turnblad has one dream: to dance on the Corny Collins Show. When her wish is suddenly granted and she becomes miss popular, Tracy embarks on a journey to nab the affection of heartthrob Link Larkin and end segregation on television. As you do!
Directed and choreographed by Callum Mansfield, this production of Hairspray will star Simon Burke as Edna Turnblad, Christine Anu as Motormouth Maybelle, and Wayne Scott Kermond as Wilbur Turnblad. A cast of 30 seasoned professionals and an amateur ensemble of more than 800 local performers will make it the largest production of Hairspray ever staged in the world.
Trying desperately to contain our excitement, we sat down with Christine Anu ahead of rehearsals to find out how she’s finding the “Motormouth within”.
How are rehearsals going?
There’s always a lot going on in the lead-up! Before you get there, you’ve already read the script and got the songs in your body. I’ve been listening to it since I received the exciting news that I would be playing Motormouth Maybelle, so it’s safe to say I was itching to get into it.
The ensemble is pretty huge; how do you feel about working with a cast this size?
I’ve never worked with a cast this size to be perfectly honest. It’s going to be a real buzz; the electricity from all these really excited kids will just be awesome. We’re probably going to be divided into separate areas and groups and probably won’t really see the 900 kids until a couple of days before opening, and we probably won’t get a true sense of exactly what that’s like until we’re actually in the arena.
I understand your daughter, Zipporah, is starring alongside you in the show?
She is! I’m dragging her along and she’s going to be one of the kids. She is 13, turning 14 at the end of the year and she is going to be up there doing her first musical theatre show with her mum. Yay! Someone from my family is in a musical with me!
We know you mostly for your pop performances; what can you tell us about your theatre experience?
My first theatre experience goes back to Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom when I first graduated from dance school back in 1992. Since then I’ve done Little Shop of Horrors, Rent, Sapphires the Musical, I played Bloody Mary in South Pacific with Opera Australia when Kate Ceberano was phased out and now I have this wonderful opportunity to play Motormouth Maybelle. I guess the jobs are few and far between but I’m doing a lot of different things actually, so when wonderful opportunities come along such as Hairspray, I grab them with both hands!
There’s obviously a huge jump between characters like Rent’s Mimi, who you played from 1998 to 1999, to Motormouth Maybelle. What attracts you to a character?
There’s not a great deal of roles out there for me to play, I guess. I'm going up against a lot of other women who would be suited to that particular role. There aren’t a lot of roles for black women, and I went up against a lot of other women for Motormouth Maybelle, so it’s fantastic that I’m able to play her alongside all the women who have done it from music theatre across the West End and Broadway.
The show addresses racial messages that are still important today. Do these resonate with you personally?
Absolutely. I think that musical theatre is a great way to be involved in social commentary of the time. The issue of racism has been very much at the forefront in the media over the last couple of years, especially with the Adam Goodes scenario on the football field. It just goes to show that generation after generation, it will always be one of those sensitive subjects.
The thing is, there's no easy way to talk about it; there will always be two sides to the coin. There will always be people with their own ideas about certain things – about body image, about race, but musical theatre is a way that we can come together and tackle those issues through the enjoyment felt in the realm of entertainment. It’s great to be able to tackle those social issues that we don’t often find easy to talk about.
I think it’s great that we have 900 kids who are in the show and getting involved in talking about it, especially for the young women out there who will be listening to the message of Big, Blonde and Beautiful. It’s not about fat shaming; it’s about being comfortable in your own skin. And it’s fun! It’s making light of what can be very heavy discussions.
Do you try to instil these values in your daughter?
I do. We talk about these things a lot. It’s really hard when you have issues about your own body, to not allow your children to hear the unconscious things that come out of your mouth. It’s about trying to embrace the fact that you're unique, you're an individual, and there's no other imprint like yours and to embrace it. As females, every decade of our lives, we're shape-shifting. It’s very much a mental, emotional and physical thing. I talk about it with my daughter as a very holistic thing: your body is your mind, and your body is everything inside of you – it’s not just what you see in the mirror.
What is it that you love most about Hairspray?
The music! I love the central characters, I love the dancing. I love the moment Seaweed says to Motormouth Maybelle, “Every day is White Day. Why don’t we have Negro Day?” To me, it’s a moment that says they don’t need to be set in their ways… they can break the mould, create difference and celebrate difference. Tracy isn’t a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie doll, Tracy is a talented, outgoing, beautiful, radiant heroine who really wants to make a difference.
Which scene are you most looking forward to performing?
It’s always the character’s big number isn’t it? It takes me back to that moment when Queen Latifah played Motormouth Maybelle in the movie and there’s the protest walking down the street. I Know Where I’ve Been is such a powerful torch song for wanting to rise up above the odds, regardless of whether it’s to do with race, sexuality or anything. I think it’ll be Motormouth’s big moment. I’ve been listening to it since last year and it’s really been that engine that inspires me in my work at the moment.
How do you prepare for different characters?
I start with the music. For me, the message is in the music. I let that trickle out into the things that happen for that character. The songs inform who I am and how I build my character. Something that Motormouth does is she speaks in rhymes, and it’s really about trying to find the Motormouth within me. I mean, you can try to copy all the other Motormouths but I’ve got to be the one that is unique to me. She’s a very bold, very strong, very out-there woman and she takes no prisoners. It’s funny how you start to take on your character a little bit as you get prepared. In different parts of what I’m doing, I can see her creeping into my life every now and raising her head.
Do you have any plans for a new album?
I’ve had plans for a new album since 1994! It’s really about trying to find the time. Because I’m writing with so many different people it’s about trying to make the songs sound like they’re not bits of fragmented collaborations and rather that they sound like an entire album. So yes, still a work in progress. Definitely next year or by the end of this year.
We hear you're on radio now with ABC?
I have started a new contract with ABC Evenings on 702 which is really exciting. I’ve never done radio before, so it will be an interesting challenge. It takes up two days a week, and will go to four days a week when Dom Knight is phased out. The wonderful thing about it is that I am able to fit everything in somewhere. I'm able to work on things like Hairspray and get to be home with my kids and so I’m not a stranger to them.
Catch Christine Anu starring in Hairspray – The Big Fat Arena Spectacular at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre from April 8 to 10 2016. Get tickets here.