MARCIA SHINES | 'Oh, look, I don't do the woman thing'

You have extraordinary breadth and versatility in your career, but surely playing a dragon is a new one for you. Is it time for you to do something left of centre for fun? Such as? Playing a dragon? Well, I don't know that it's so strange. It's just a part, just like any other part. I'm looking forward to learn how to sing off-stage and work with puppeteers who'll be working my mouth, right up 'till the end when I do my grand entrance.

And your look on stage? My costume and hair and makeup for Shrek will be very different in the sense that I'm not on stage for a lot of the performance, most of it in actual fact. The dragon is done by puppeteers and I'll be singing backstage. This is a new thing for me, 'cos I've never worked with puppeteers, so I look forward to that.

I come out at the very end in the costume, very glam, but I'll keep that as a surprise and not give you too much here! I'm there for the whole show but not on stage a lot.

You hear my voice and then I come out for a nice boogie at the end in a nice frock! I sing a song called Forever, and I sing it to Donkey 'cos I'm in love with Donkey.

The only original song in the show is I'm a Believer and I get to sing that at the very end with the rest of the cast.

Like all of us, no doubt you loved the 2001 movie. Loved it! Eddie Murphy killed it. He was brilliant. Having him in it was so, so important and he brought so much great humour and friendship with Shrek.

Few people know about your family background. It's amazing the story of how you came to Australia. You didn't know your dad because he died of a war wound when you were a baby. Your mum was a single mum to you and your older brother at a time when that was especially hard. You're also related to former US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Grace Jones -- how? Bloodline. Yes, and that's all I know. I don't have any contact with Colin. Deni [her daughter] hooked up with Grace when she was here. I tried to meet Colin but like any politician his time was all backed up so I didn't but I got a lovely message from him.

Like so many famous singers, you started in the church choir. We have that in common. Well the first part anyway. How important is Gospel music to you now? How much of that early church influence is with you still? It's a great basis for music, period, whether it's about this church, or that church. As long as the choir's good. I gotta say, there's nothing worse than going to a church and the choir's bad. I tend to get up and walk out.

But if it's good and usually in a black church there's a bass guitar, rhythm guitar, drums, keyboards and some slammin' singers, and hopefully a good preacher 'cos they can be very amusing too. That church influence has never left me.

How extraordinary that Harry M. Miller was made your legal guardian for you to come to Australia at 16 for Hair -- the youngest featured performer in Hair anywhere in the world. It must have been a whirlwind. Well, you know, to be very, very honest it wasn't a whirlwind. It was just like, oh, wow, I've gotta be in Australia, let me out of here!

So I left Boston and I came to Australia and look, when you're 16 you're bullet-proof.

I had a great gig, I was being paid incredibly well in 1970 when I first came and look, you don't think of those things. Everyone else does. You just keep on keepin' on and doing whatcha doin'.

Pushing boundaries continued and you copped backlash, from some quarters, being an African American cast as Mary Magdalene. You were still a teenager -- how were you feeling about this? Didn't. The backlash had nothing to do with me. It just showed what a clever entrepreneur Harry M. Miller was.

With Hair and Superstar you began a lifelong working association with so many in Australian music and theatre. And you stayed. Clearly, we loved you and you were able to build a whole career in this country that was eager to adopt you. But was that always your experience? Yes, it was always my experience. When you're in the industry you live in a fishbowl. And when we did Hair, the show was the talk of the town. It was the talk of the world. We were invited to very grand parties and wherever we went in Australia and New Zealand we were accepted as great performers, I suppose, or unusual people at least.

Australia is now one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world. But you came here just before that wave began to break and you were among the few that had to break that ground on your own. How did you find that? Well, I didn't because I don't think I had to break anything on my own. I just think I was just being Marcia, and I'm still just being Marcia, and I'm very grateful for the love.

You've spent a whole career succeeding in a tough industry. Looking back, and looking at where we are now, is Australia getting better at recognising and promoting the talents and contributions of women? Oh, look, I don't do the woman thing. Because I just think talent is talent and if you're willing to sacrifice and if you're willing to work really hard then the spoils come. It depends on what you're willing to sacrifice and put in.

It's not an easy job, that's what I'm gonna say. I don't care if you're a boy, a girl, or whatever, it's just not an easy job, right? And so, if you're willing to work hard and make sacrifices and, most importantly, listen to your management and I've been really blessed, I've had good management all my career. If you listen to the people who care about you, you'll be cool. And if you're not, move on!

  • Shrek the Musical opens at Sydney's Lyric Theatre on January 1.