‘Don’t sing like a bloody girl’ was the best advice this actor ever had. Now, from Sondheim to Hairspray, he’s an old musical hand.

I didn’t come from a musical household at all, but I found myself drawn to music very early. When I was in primary school I wanted to be Burt Bacharach. My mum was completely in love with him and had all his albums. Meanwhile, our Greek next-door neighbours had a piano and I used to just wander in, I was fascinated by it. I worked out how to play when I was about five or six, I think. Playing and singing, I thought that’d be cool. 

Somehow we scraped some money together to get me lessons and I studied piano in high school. I remember going for my Grade 5 exam. You did an aural thing where you had to sing the intervals and the examiner said to me, “Well, for a piano player you’ve got a fantastic voice!” I said, “Yeah, but what was my piano playing like?” and she said, “Well, it’s a really good voice…” Nowadays I’m timidly coming back to piano – I’d love to learn to play again.

On the other hand, I came to singing quite late, considering I started as an actor when I was 10 or 11. I didn’t really burst onto the musical theatre scene for 15 years after that.

Les Misérables was the first commercial theatre production I did. Trevor Nunn was very much my mentor during the rehearsal process. There was a big scandal when I got the role, because there were all these musical theatre boys that were sure they were going to be Marius – they basically thought that they were already signing the contract – and then this actor comes along and gets it!

I’d go to him once a week and he’d say: Come on, don’t sing like a bloody girl!

I didn’t sing at all beautifully at the time, let me tell you. I was heading for some very big vocal problems, understandably, because I was doing eight shows a week – it’s a huge sing. After about three months I went to see this guy called John Fulford, who was a principal at Opera Australia. He was this great big guy and I’d go to him once or twice a week and he’d say, “Come on, don’t sing like a bloody girl!” About two months before I finished in Les Mis, I got the lead in Anything Goes and we had to record the cast album during the rehearsal period. So I had to be show fit for that as well as doing eight shows a week of Les Mis. Fulford really helped me with that.

There was a time when I think I was hard on myself as a singer, but over the last few years I’ve gone: “You know what? No. I’ve earned just as much – probably more – singing than I have acting”. So now I think I’m very musical. I’m always astonished when you go into rehearsals for musical theatre and most actors can’t read music. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I find I actually can’t sing something if I don’t have the dots in front of me.  

A few years ago I got a call from the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to go down for three days to work with this director called Jeremy Sams. I walked into rehearsal and Jeremy said, “I remember you – you played opposite Judi Dench in A Little Night Music. You were fantastic!” We had this whirlwind friendship. He’s incredibly inspiring and musically he’s so literate. I was sitting there open-mouthed the whole time! Six weeks later on a Friday night at midnight, I got a call from my London agent about the role of the Captain in The Sound of Music. He said, “Can you get on a plane on Sunday? Jeremy Sams wants you to sing for Andrew Lloyd-Webber on Monday.” I auditioned and got offered it – supposedly for a year – and it ended up being five.

The music I couldn’t live without…

Strauss: Four Last Songs
Jessye Norman s, Leipzig Gewandhaus/Kurt Masur Philips 4758507

During my nine months of The Sound of Music I went on a holiday for four days. I said to the director, Jeremy Sams, “I know nothing about classical music. I want you to make me a list of your favourite bits.” The playlist is about four days long, but I just listen to it all the time. I think my favourite is Strauss’s Four Last Songs. The autumn one, September, just kills me.

Simon Burke is in Hairspray at Brisbane Convention Centre, April 8-10