LOSING YOUR MIND
Paul Andrew speaks to young actor Christy Sullivan and stage Veteran Nancye Hayes about the changing roles for women in musical theatre.
Characterised by a hard-hitting narrative about a next-door modern family living with mental illness set to a slew of infectious song and dance routines, Next to Normal is another issue-based musical in a long line of social comment musicals. Gritty inconvenient truth style musicals are a popular genre today, a genre which continues to floor the critics, particularly critics quick to pronounce musical theatre dead.
Last year this show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one of only eight musicals to have earned the commendation. The last being Rent in 1996, a production about a community of artists living in the spectre of HIV AIDS at the height of the pandemic. Next to Normal won the judges over for it's rock'n'roll take on the ways in which mental illness can make an impact on an average family, how it can affect intimate relationships and how a person's well-being can be compromised in the name of so-called ethical psychiatry and psychopharmacology.
Actor Christy Sullivan plays Natalie Goodman the daughter of one very troubled mother - Diana “Di” Goodman (Kate Kendall). Throughout the story, Di's medical condition worsens, it affects the matriach's perception of reality and threatens the well-being of those closest to her. “On the outside they're a typical American family," explains Sullivan, "but the mother is suffering from Bi- Polar, a mood disorder of extreme ups and downs, a mother who is also completely obsessed with her son, while the father puts all his energy into getting his wife better- and then”, Sullivan pausing now to transform her natural smile into the anxious pout of her stage character," and then, there's the daughter, Nat; forgotten child, craving attention and love.“
Of her character Natalie, Sullivan observes: “She's a typical teenager living in the shadow of her older brother, yet not afraid to push the boundaries of her relationship with her parents while capably dealing with the pressures of keeping up with school, piano, first love, sibling rivalry, parents who don't understand her or even notice her at times and the ways to escape all of that. Her route of escape leaves her life in even more of a mess.”
Sullivan expresses utter admiration for the play’s writer New York -based Brian Yorkey, who penned a ten-minute version of the play at a writing performance workshop in 2008 titled Feeling Electric. The actor relays the well known anecdote about how Yorkey was at that time mindful of just how jaded some musical theatre audiences have become and how other audiences provide an antidote of sort, people who manage to see the best in everything, no matter how grim a situation or narrative. Sullivan adds, “He [Yorkey] was inspired by the shock therapy or electro-convulsive therapy. He portrays a family living with difficulties, a family who are 'next to normal'.”
“Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are incredible writers – Yorkey of lyrics and book and Kitt of music. The music weaves so perfectly through each scene, setting the tone and then driving directly into the action. The show is almost entirely sung through from beginning to end and the amazing band never really gets a break. What challenges me the most with this show is bringing together the different formal elements -song, music, emotion, movement-and making them truthful.”
This role marks Sullivan's debut at MTC, a complex role for a young actor, and one she is "very excited" about. “Musicals today have become more than just a few show tunes strung together with a loose plot line to make the audience feel good. The subject matter of musicals has become much darker and so have the roles - male and female included, especially the female roles. “
One of the play's key plot lines is "schoolgirls on drugs", the young actor admits that this is pretty heavy material in itself, and notes," that women characters in musicals like this are so much richer and more complex than ever before and their issues are not trivial, they are very, very valid. In the last century attitudes towards women have changed so the theatre has reflected that."
Sullivan hums a few bars, “This is a solo I sing, it sums up my character best, it's called Superboy and The Invisible Girl- there's a great lyric, " He's a hero, a lover, a prince, she's not there...."
Sullivan cites Australian actors and directors, Pamela Rabe, Robyn Nevin and the iconic veteran of stage and screen Nancye Hayes as guiding lights, women who have become mentors for young actors like herself wanting to portray complex female characters, women who are adaptive, empowered and funny in equal measure.
Sullivan appears well-informed about Nancye Haye's long-standing stage career, and a not too dissimilar early stage role as a troubled young woman named Charity in the 1966 Australian production of the stage musical Sweet Charity.
The young actor is “stoked “to hear about Haye's role in Turns set to open in Melbourne in June: "Nancye Hayes is awesome, an all-round performer.”
Nancye Hayes, is currently touring Turns around the country in the much anticipated new work penned by long time friend, peer and collaborator, Reg "Betty Blockbuster" Livermore. Turns is described as a musical theatre “reflection on family, pantomime, friendship and identity". While the work is more satiric and fantastical in feel, like Next to Normal, Turns is also something of a conflicted mother-child story, with occasional mood swing - turn- themes; or as Hayes herself so vividly describes it:“ yes, there is definitely a theme about loosing one’s marbles.”
Hayes is no stranger to complex and nuanced female roles. At age 16 Hayes was a chorus girl in My Fair Lady with JC Williamsons Theatre and later, her leading lady role as Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity - “a tattooed dancer at the Fandango Ballroom in New York City who mixes with the wrong type of fella “ garnered her widespread acclaim.It was this role which unfolded into a lifetime of memorable performances including Cabaret. Since this time Hayes has earned a series of industry and community service accolades including an OBE in 1981 and in 2004 a Green Room Lifetime Achievement Award.
“The thing I adored most about that wonderful woman Charity was doing the number I’m a Brass Band, Hayes singing softly now remembering, '...All kinds of music pouring out of me, Somebody loves me at last, Now I'm a brass band, I'm a harpsichord, I'm a clarinet, I'm the Philadelphia orchestra, I'm the modern jazz quartet...', the quality I most adored about her character was her astounding resilience.”
Hayes agrees with her young protégé Sullivan; “True, times have changed, musical’s have changed, women’s roles have changed too, and more and more people are going along to musical theatre again. There was a time where audiences backed away, but the younger generations are now embracing musical theatre, that’s great. “
Next to Normal
Starring: Reg Livermore & Nancye Hayes
Written by Reg Livermore; Directed by Tom Healey
Two Icons of the Australian theatre, take to the boards in the Melbourne premiere of TURNS, a reflection on identity, family, show business...and losing your mind!
TURNS is a theatrical journey filled with song, dance, laughs, and so much more.
Wednesday 29 June - Saturday 9 July
Playhouse Theatre - The Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Pictured above : Christy Sullivan, Next To Normal, MTC