Todd McKenney hasn’t left his maraccas behind — he’s doing Peter Allen in the clubs — but the Boy from Oz moves like greased lightning when he’s dancing with the stars of Grease! He talks to IAN HORNER.
GREASE is a great movie, but it’s crying out to be seen on stage don’t you think?
“Oh yeah. And it works really well on stage, too. I hadn’t seen it on stage before but I call it a cartoon musical. The story’s tongue-in-cheek and it sounds to me like all the dialogue is unashamedly driving towards the songs. It is what it is and it works really well. And the songs are great.”
Who do you play and what do you sing?
“I’m Teen Angel, a fantasy character. I sing Beauty Queen Dropout and I’m on stage for 3 minutes 53 seconds in the second act [laughs]."
But who’s counting!
"The first time I did it I asked the stage manager to time it! But it’s 3 minutes 53 seconds you won’t forget ’cos it’s really in your face! When producer John Frost offered it to me he was slightly apologetic. He said ‘Look I’m gonna offer you something. It’s a small role but we’ll do whatever you like with it.’
"Every time they cast this role they work to the strengths of the person playing it. Like John Farnham, Anthony Warlow. And for me, because I’m a dancer, they beefed up the dance part and John said ‘What do ya wanna wear?’ I said ‘I wanna hit the stage like a human mirror ball!’ So I’ve got this massive white quiff going on [pictured], big silver aviators and this white-and-gold pinstripe suit with 2500 Swarovski crystals on it. He took me at my word — I am a human mirror ball! ”
It sounds a bit Priscilla.
"Someone put on my Facebook page I look like Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra [laughs]! And I thought yeah, you’re absolutely right. I’m a mixture of Peter Allen, Liberace and Mr Whippy. It’s really great. There are references to Dancing with the Stars, The Boy from Oz and they really bring the house down! So it’s working well."
Do you appear on stage at all any other time?
“I turn up to the show when it starts and chat to the cast backstage through the first half, I get dressed at interval and I go on and do my 3 minutes 53 then come back for the megamix at the end and basically bow and go home [laughs]! I said to Frosty, I feel like I’m stealing from you each time you pay me. In most of my previous work I was the motor of the show, driving it, and at the end of each performance I was always completely wrecked. But this is completely the opposite. I bounce out of there ready to do it all again. I’m loving it, it’s great!”
Listen to Todd talk about playing Teen Angel in Grease (duration 1.30):
You brought up The Boy from Oz. There are very, very few performers whose work you wouldn’t tire of after doing it 766 times. But there’s poetry and there’s depth and superb musical artistry in Peter Allen’s work isn’t there.
“Absolutely. I’ve sung Tenterfield Saddler, without exaggerating, at least 2500 times throughout my career. And I never tire of it. Audiences really love it and sing along when I do it. The lyrics are beautiful to sing, the melodies are beautiful to listen to. And he’s a great man. A class act, and funny! He’s really funny. I used to see his shows when he came to Australia and leave thinking God, what a funny man.”
How old were you when you saw him perform?
“14. It was at the Perth Concert Hall. I saw his second-last concert actually as well. All through my life really I’ve been going to his stuff. And, you know, funnily enough, I just put one of his albums on the other day – that’s testament to the man.”
Watch Todd perform a huge production number of I Go to Rio on Dancing with the Stars (duration 5.30):
It’s ironic that he couldn’t get his own Broadway show up and running for any length of time yet the musical about him has become a phenomenal hit. What was the problem with Legs Diamond? Was it flawed material?
“No, the soundtrack is brilliant and the book is OK but I think the main problem is people didn’t buy Peter playing a gangster. Even Peter said that himself. And lots of people wouldn’t put money into Legs Diamond and at that point when it was on he put $3million of his own money into it.”
It’s hard to recover from that.
“Yes, but also now in retrospect and in hindsight I think Peter knew he was HIV-positive. He didn’t care about the money – he just wanted to get the Broadway experience out of his system. And a lot of other people didn’t know he was sick. Most didn’t know he was HIV-positive but I think he knew. But the soundtrack’s brilliant.”
I’ve seen you, and I’ve seen Hugh, and give me you any time. You don’t have to comment on that but I’d like a comment on this: Sometimes when people constantly offer you sympathy for losing out on a great opportunity it can have the opposite effect. Too much empathy can stop you from moving on.
“Oh, yes . . .”
So how did you get over that devastating decision to take The Boy from Oz to Broadway with Hugh Jackman and not you?
“Excellent question. You’re the only one over the last 15 years who’s actually put it that way. Yes, I felt really patronised. Everyone was trying to be lovely, everyone was patting me on the back, patting me on the head, and it was extremely patronising and that was the hardest part. Not losing to Hugh. Hugh I like. I clearly understand the producers’ decision to put a star in the role. I get that. It was the patronising . . .
"Everyone was being so lovely you couldn’t say please don’t do that. But that’s what I had to do the most work on. I just put my shoulders back and my head up and ploughed through but it wasn’t losing the job, it was the sympathy thing which really got to me. Yeah, that’s a very great question. No one’s asked me that before.
"Yeah, I had to do some soul-searching, I had to do some work to get through it. I didn’t tell my mum I was feeling like that, I didn’t tell my friends. I didn’t tell anyone. It was a very personal, lonely time ’cos of that, because everyone was being so nice, you know. And the media really wanted me to hate Hugh and, you know, I just couldn’t. I got through it. In hindsight I wouldn’t have had Dancing with the Stars. I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had. I wouldn’t have had a child. It was great."
"In hindsight it was great. I was also aware of incredible support from the theatre-going public. That was kind of good to find out, too."
Listen as Todd discusses with Ian how he got over well-meaning but hard-to-bear comments about his not going to Broadway with The Boy from Oz (duration 2.03):
You’ve moved from judge to judged. On Dancing with the Stars you were a judge, infamously [he laughs]. Then you’ve got your other career as a performer, 42nd Street, Singin’ in the Rain, Priscilla, Annie, Grease. Suddenly you’re being judged yourself. And as one Dancing with the Stars contestant famously told you “I wanna knock your block off!” Another said "Todd's a bitch!" [he laughs]. When you walk out on stage as a performer do you ever regret how seriously you may have judged other performers?
Watch as Red Symons says "Todd's a bitch!" on Dancing with the Stars (duration 0.48):
"No, it’s actually made me polish my act. I’m very aware I’ve really got to nail it each time I go on ’cos I’m living in a glass house. So I treat it as a challenge. I always give 100 per cent but I’m very aware people are sitting in their seats going ‘Yeah, rightio, let’s see!’ That’s kind of good for me because it makes me brush up. The really funny thing is nearly every single show I do someone holds up a scorecard. [laughs]."
What’s your worst score?
"I got a 1. I’ve had everything from 1 to 11 [laughs] which was great."
How do you go connecting with your daughter? The context for that is that these days families are all over the place. No longer the nuclear family of the ’50s and ’60s. I live with my male partner and I have kids who still don’t talk to me 10 years after I came out.
"Oh, wow . . ."
So family life can get very complicated these days. How do you go connecting with your daughter?
"Well, she’s at an age now . . . she asked me the other day why I wasn’t born in Melbourne, because she lives in Melbourne with her mum. Although she’s up here at the moment for three months which is great because her mum [actor] Anne [Wood] is doing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. She’s just starting to ask why we’re not like other mummies and daddies.
"The first time the other day I was reading to her in bed and she closed the book herself, which is unheard of in the story department, and she said ‘Daddy, why weren’t you born in Melbourne?’ I said: 'Oh darling, I’m in Sydney and I’ve got your own room for when you come up – and I’ve gotta look after Joey and Chrissie, my dogs. Then she put her hands on my face and she said: 'I’m so lucky you’re my Daddy.' It was like, oh my God, I bawled.
"I went into the lounge-room and said to Anne she’s just asked why I wasn’t born here and said she’s so lucky I’m her Daddy. It’s probably about now we’ll just start telling her the truth and not treating her like a baby about it."
How old is she now?
"She’s six and a half. As you said there are just so many different ways to have a family these days. Anne was always going to be primary carer and I was always gonna be Daddy. I wasn’t gonna be some sort of uncle figure in the background. She’ll grasp it. She’s much like me. We have a very different relationship than she does with Anne. It just kind of works. It’s kind of what we imagined it.
"A lot of people ask me this thing about a gay man having a baby but that was never our priority. I’m not waving any flag for gay people having babies. I wanted a child, so I had one. And so did Anne, and we’re dear friends and it just works. We’ve managed to keep her out of the media, not that we’re hiding it at all. We didn’t want her to become public property. Knowing her personality, I reckon she’d love to be snapped everywhere [laughs]. She’s my daughter after all! The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree." ❏
■ Grease ($64.90 to $149.90): 1300 723 038 or greaseistheword.com.au.
■ Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen: Dee Why (October 18), Castle Hill (November 15), South Sydney (November 29), Belmont (December 13), Bankstown (February 28). Details: toddmckenney.com.au.
Ian Horner's other interviews:
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Casey Donovan for Mama Cass tribute – Casey Donovan has found her own idol
Amanda Muggleton for The Book Club – A book club for those who'd rather laugh than read!
Rachel Griffiths for Magazine Wars – We owe a big debt to Ita and Dulcie
Simon Burke for Mrs Warren’s Profession – A timeless take on the oldest profession
Ellen's mum Betty DeGeneres on marriage equality – Not supporting gay marriage is bullying
Amanda Muggleton for Torch Song Trilogy – Return to the spotlight
Matthew Mitcham for Twists and Turns – He couldn't believe the moment would last