An Interview with Amanda Harrison and Ben Mingay
On the eve of rehearsals for An Officer and a Gentleman, Simon caught up with stars Amanda Harrison and Ben Mingay and heard all about the excitement of being part of a world premiere, the West End’s answer to Amanda Harrison and the alcohol awareness program that had Ben Mingay in top shape for auditions.
On Easter Sunday 1983, at the Doncaster Village twin cinema, a teenage boy, his aunt, his mother and his grandmother watched the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. I, that teenage boy, shed tears over the tragedy and romance of the ending, my Mum and Grandma giggled over the swearing and sex scenes, and my Auntie slunk lower in her seat pretending not to know any of us.
This history led me to start off by asking about the generational appeal of the brand new musical based on the 1983 worldwide smash hit movie An Officer and A Gentleman. Amanda replied: “It’s definitely going to appeal to the people who loved the film, it’s sticking quite close to that, the film’s story. And it’s also really kind of raunchy, gutsy, sexy show. Theatre is attracting a really young crowd at the moment so I think they’re going to really enjoy it as well.”
The amount of swearing in the movie seemed high for a musical stage and it sounds like most of it has made its way into the book for the musical. “There’s a fair bit of it,” explained Amanda, “I think maybe on a par with Jersey Boys.” Ben agreed with my memory of the classic lines in the film, noting: “There’s some whoppers in there,” but going on to clarify the limits: “Not the c-bomb, we don’t drop the c-bomb!”
With the show such an unknown quantity at this stage, one of the most inspiring elements is the impressive track record of the production and creative teams. Producer John Frost gave us a lavish staging of new musical Doctor Zhivago last year, and surely Officer will be on a similar scale. Amanda pointed out that sets and costumes are as much a mystery to the cast as to the rest of us at this stage: “We’re not rehearsing until the 19th of March so we have 10 days before we meet everybody and also before we see any set models or anything so we’re still very green at this stage. Talk to us again in a couple of months and we’ll able to tell you so much more!”
Cutting his teeth on smaller scale musicals during his tenure as MTC artistic director, Simon Phillips has gone on to prove himself the master of massive scale musical premieres. Priscilla Queen of the Desert is currently launching in its sixth country, while world attention intensifies on the Australian production of Love Never Dies. Amanda agrees with this view: “He has such a vast background in theatre being director for MTC for many years and most recently with Priscilla and Love Never Dies. Bringing out these massive shows and world premieres and creating these things in Australia - it’s going to be really good. I think he has a vision and he’s going to make it happen.”
Another talented member of the team is highly creative choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, Associate Choreographer of Priscilla and frequent contributor at The Production Company, where his highlights include Carousel, The Boy Friend and The Boy from Oz. Amanda is well accustomed to working with Andrew: “He did Anything Goes last year and also The Leader of the Pack which I was in years ago so I’ve worked with Andy a couple of times.”
I asked the pair about the type of dancing we might expect to see in the show. Ben was first to respond: “There is actually quite a bit of military choreography in it. We went through this all in the audition. There is a bit of a routine which is really interesting, it’s kind of choreography / military movement.”
Amanda provided further details: “And there’s room for choreography within the music that has been composed, like there’s a party song, so there’ll be dancing at the party. There’s quite a few numbers there where there’s going to be choreography. Like even that number the working song at the beginning where they’re all at the factory doing their paid thing. I have a feeling that there’ll be some sort of choreography in that. But as for jazz dancing type numbers there might not be so much of that.”
Add in Associate Director Dean Bryant to the mix and the team is really looking very exciting. Amanda agreed: “Well, they’ve been working together since Priscilla – Simon, Dean and Andy. They’re doing it in Brazil right now. So they’re coming straight from Brazil to us!”
Like recent new West End musical Ghost, An Officer and a Gentleman has a very well known hit song as part of its score. In Ghost the musical, “Unchained Melody” is now a song from the radio that Sam plays on his guitar and sings to Molly. I was interested as to whether “(Love Lift Us) Up Where We Belong” would be altered in any way. Amanda filled me in on this: “I don’t think so, no. They’re incorporating it into the final scene of the stage show, I think, as far as it is at the moment. Seriously, I think lots of things will change as they do in these situations, but it’s part of the finale of the story and I think they’ll probably use it as underscoring before that”
Ben added that they already been singing the song and the response has been great: “We’ve sung it all these trade events. Everybody loves it, they just love it.” Have a listen to Amanda, Ben and castmates sing the hit song in the official film clip below:
Speaking of music, next up was some exciting news that should please all music theatre fans. When I asked about a possible cast recording of the new musical publicist Ian Phipps gave the lowdown: “Like we did with Annie, there’s a plan to record the first three performances to have the original cast album fairly early in the run. Negotiations are still going on with the record company so it’s not totally locked in but that’s the plan at the moment.”
Ben is particularly pleased with this method of recording. “If you record at the studio you kind of lose that edge to it. I think if you take it straight off the desk it’s just a whole different monster than it is if you go into the studio cause you lose that live feeling. As a muso and singer, there’s nothing that compares to singing live, having the audience there and having everybody playing at the same time. If we’re just on our own in a booth it’s just not the same.”
Amanda had one of the biggest hits of her career in the Australian premiere of Wicked. I asked her about how the singing demands of this new role Paula Pokrifki, compare to playing Elphaba. “I put it out there- I didn’t want to work that hard again! I have two children now and vocally Wicked was a real stretch for me. I wanted something a little easier on me and this is. It’s right in the pocket of my range. I have 4 or 5 numbers instead of 10.
“The main thing for me is the story between Zak and Paula, the love story. That’s the focus of my character; it’s not necessarily the singing. I have one brilliant song that’s called “Wings of my Own” and that’s the moment where everyone goes “Right I’ve got my Amanda Harrison belt fix, I’m happy.” As an actress and mother I just wanted something that was really going to work with my life.”
In terms of care of singing voices, I mentioned speech pathologist extraordinaire Debbie Phyland. Amanda replied enthusiastically, “Yes! She’s just brilliant. And she’s doing such a wonderful thing for musical theatre, studying and specializing by doing a PhD in voice and the way that musical theatre artists get tired and how they can you know prepare themselves for all this full on singing that we have to do. She’s just wonderful.”
While vocal fitness is important for the cast, physical fitness is more important than ever given that the story is largely set on a naval training base. Timing of the auditions last year was ideal, with Ben just coming off successful involvement in the alcohol awareness/cancer fundraising program Dry July. “Yeah, last year it was very fortunate that I’d just done Dry July and I’d actually just been working out heaps. It was perfect for the audition so I went in there being able to do push-ups for 15 minutes during the scene, which is what they wanted.
“At the moment obviously I’ve been keeping up some gym work but we’re still gonna be doing physical work every day to start off rehearsals so it’s going to be full on. I think everyone’s doing some preparation in their own way because nobody wants to get in on day one of rehearsals and be struggling. We’ve all got to run around the block a few times before we start!”
While the training may be a grind, the excitement of rehearsing a world premiere musical is building. Ben is looking forward to the process, having been through it before with worldwide hit Dirty Dancing. “We’ll be working hand in hand with all the creatives, like the people who wrote the music and the script and everything which will be cool. That’s what’s going to be so interesting cause our interpretation of it will be exactly how it’s supposed to be interpreted because we have the guys who created it there saying “when I wrote this, that’s what I was kind of thinking.”
“Nothing is set in stone, it’ll just keep growing and changing until we open and, of course, it’ll keep changing throughout our whole run as it gets tweaked or whatever. Watching it grow, that’s the most exciting thing about being involved in a world premiere. We’re not just going to jump on stage and imitate Debra [Winger] and Richard [Gere] so we’ll be creating these roles and then down the track when people are playing these roles in other countries or whatever they’ll be doing what we created. So there’s a bit of excitement there and inspiration to do the most creative, exciting job that you can so that you create a bit of a masterpiece which people will be, you know, trying to live up to for years to come.”
Ben had a wonderful five years with Dirty Dancing, performing in Australia, New Zealand, London, Toronto and throughout the US. Amanda spent good deal of her early career working in London’s West End. She points out, with a laugh, “I didn’t get taken round the world, I had to work a bit harder! I took myself over there.” Amanda went on to mention the thrill of seeing herself and her We Will Rock You castmates in the recent BBC documentary series The Story of Musicals. The We Will Rock You segment of the series can be seen here.
One of Amanda’s We Will Rock You colleagues was the sensational Kerry Ellis, who starred as Meat on the West End, a role Amanda played to great acclaim in the Australian premiere (where the character was re-named Oz). Given that Kerry also played Elphaba on the West End, I asked Amanda how it felt to be playing a role that Kerry hadn’t done. “I can’t believe I’m doing a role that Kerry hasn’t played! Actually, we’re friends on facebook and she said “Good luck with that, maybe I’ll get to play it down the track!” Well, you know, we do everything the same, our careers have very similar credits.”
I finished up with a question of glamour: who would the stars be wearing on opening night? Ben was first to reply: “For this show I’m being sponsored by Oscar Hunt suits in Melbourne here. They’ve whipped me up three lovely suits that I wear at publicity events, and when I’m out on Saturday night.”
Amanda will be equally splendidly attired: “I’m wearing George Gross/Harry Who to all the events, so opening night I’ll get to wear one of their beautiful frocks.”
An Officer and A Gentleman opens at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre on Friday 18 May 2012.
The second film clip to be released features Ben Mingay singing the new song "I'm Gonna Fly."
Photos 1,2,4: Michael Bradley