My father lectures in classical music at the Centre for Continuing Education in and around Sydney. My father’s also an insomniac, like me, so often as an eight-year old, I would be desperately trying to get to sleep, and I would drift down the stairs and there would be Wagner at full blast. Like me, he does all of his work the night before, in a burst of genius. So, I grew up listening to an enormous amount of classical music.
My mother has sung in choirs her whole life, so she would always be practising for the Sydney Philharmonia, sitting at our little piano. And my father trained to be an opera singer – he’s got a beautiful light baritone. There’d be lieder around the house.
Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo © Marnya Rothe
My father would often say he loves the three Bs – but not the three Bs that everybody expects, not Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. He loves Bruckner, Berlioz and Britten, so I listened to a lot of that growing up. I remember being absolutely obsessed with Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I listened a lot to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. It was all dependent basically on what he had to teach at the time. We listened to John Adams’ Nixon in China a lot – that’s about the most modern we got really.
As a 14-year old, the first piece of classical music I remember going “holy shit, this is incredible!”, aside from Symphonie Fantastique, was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The full ballet is amazing, but Dance of the Knights…! I remember being like “this is a game changer!” It’s such a powerful piece of music and it’s so sexy. To me, it feels like rock music, I get a visceral response when I think of it. And because I was spectacularly cool – brackets sarcasm! – I came really late to rock and I remember going to a party and hearing Nirvana for the first time and being like “oh, that’s the same kind of feeling”.
I first encountered musical theatre when I was young because we had a series of VHS, which were basically my babysitting. We had The Rocky Horror Show, we had Calamity Jane and Kiss Me Kate. Those were the things I’d watch on high repeat. Also, apparently, my parents took me to see Cats when I was three, and I turned up at day care the next day, and said “so we’re all doing a production of Cats, I will be playing Rum Tum Tugger and directing.” There’s a picture of me somewhere in a homemade Rum Tum Tugger outfit with a guitar made out of a cereal box.
But my musical theatre education really started when I went to WAAPA and I hung out with a lot of amazing MT people who were like “what do you mean you don’t know The Last Five Years?” I went basically from Rodgers and Hammerstein straight into incredible modern music theatre.
Calamity Jane is my dream role. I’m doing it with a dream cast in the ideal way. The production is different every night. It’s just so beautiful, it’s available to be whatever it needs to be that night. It’s set in the Golden Garter saloon, and our audience members come knowing that they’re going to be in the saloon with us. Amazingly, some people turn up dressed up and sing along, which is deeply charming to me. We’ve become The Rocky Horror Show essentially. We’ve become like a cult. We should do a midnight version where Katie Brown and Calamity Jane actually end up together. That would be great.
THE MUSIC I COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT…
The Phosphorescent Blues
Punch Brothers, Nonesuch 546377-2
I am absolutely obsessed with a band called Punch Brothers. It’s incredibly smart, lyrically brilliant, kind of modern bluegrass. I believe it’s called ‘newgrass’. That sounds dull, but in fact it is so sexy and so funny. The main singer is a mandolin player called Chris Thile, and he is just so terrific. Their album The Phosphorescent Blues has got a couple of amazing songs on it and a Bach/Debussy thing all done on the mandolin. It’s amazing.