Blazey Best, Lisa Campbell and Hayden Tee tell us why the 1988 Australian musical still has much to say today.

Ever since the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto the scene in February 2014 with an award-winning production of Sweet Charity, the little-venue-that-could has proved to be an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene in Sydney.

As part of its remit, the consortium of producers running it were keen to revisit the occasional Australian musical that had enjoyed great success when first performed but which had been rarely seen since. In November 2014, Luckiest Productions – the company run by David and Lisa Campbell, which is one of the driving forces behind the Hayes – produced Miracle City by Max Lambert (music) and Nick Enright (book and lyrics). The second coming of the show – which tells the dark story of a US televangelist and his family – was a sell-out hit, with Blazey Best winning a Sydney Theatre Award for her portrayal of the preacher’s wife.

The cast of Only Heaven Knows at the Hayes Theatre Co. Photograph © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

Now comes Only Heaven Knows, with music, book and lyrics by Alex Harding. Another Luckiest production, it’s a show which David Campbell knows intimately having starred in it 22 years ago at the start of his career.

“As with Miracle City we felt that this was something that has a magic and almost a legend about it,” says Lisa Campbell. “I’ve been with David for 11 years now and I would say in that period somebody, at least once a month, has come up and said to us, ‘I loved you in Only Heaven Knows, it really made a difference to me, when is it coming back?’ And that has increased since we’ve had the Hayes so it seemed like a pertinent time. And it seemed like the right kind of musical for Hayes.”

Only Heaven Knows premiered at the Stables Theatre for Griffin Theatre Company in 1988, when AIDS was still ravaging the gay community. A revised version opened at the same venue in 1995 with Campbell in the lead role and quickly sold out, transferring to the Sydney Opera House. The new production at the Hayes, which is currently previewing ahead of its official opening on Tuesday, has already extended a week.

Set in Kings Cross in Sydney in the 1940s and 50s, it tells the story of Tim, who leaves an unsupportive family in Melbourne and comes to Sydney where he finds love and his own identity as a gay man and aspiring playwright among a close-knit group of misfit friends.

Ben Hall plays Tim in Only Heaven Knows at the Hayes Theatre Co. 

The first act is set in 1944 when the war had opened up an extraordinary new freedom for Australian women and gay men, and is a celebration of that bohemian time. The second act jumps forward 12 years to 1956 during the Cold War period and the Menzies era. Sydney has regressed to become a more conservative place again and Tim and his friends must weather social hostility.

Directed by Shaun Rennie, the Hayes production features a top-notch cast: Blazey Best, Matthew Backer, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall (who plays Tim) and Hayden Tee, who has returned to Sydney direct from playing Javert in Les Misérables in the West End and on Broadway. David Campbell describes it as “quite a simple piece… written direct from the heart”.

“The music is quaint and simple in a beautiful way, just like the story is,” says Tee. “The beautiful new arrangements that [musical director] Daniel Edmonds has created are bringing it into the here and now, I think.”

“Then we’ve got big numbers with a 1940s jazz and big band influence that anchor us in the time it’s set,” adds Lisa.

In his introduction to the published script, Harding writes: “Only Heaven Knows is a piece of music theatre that owes as much to the style of Sydney’s drag shows for its storytelling as it does to the traditions of the English theatre in which I grew up.”

Both acts are topped and tailed by the ghost of Lea Sonia, an American female impersonator who came to Australia before the war to work for the Tivoli where she enjoyed enormous success, before her untimely death in 1942. “She came to an end through a hate crime, really. During the brownouts an American serviceman came onto her, thinking she was a woman, and then in his own disgust, I guess, pushed her under a tram,” says Tee who plays both Lea Sonia and a flamboyant queen called Lana, who is best friends with Guinea (played by Best), a nightclub singer who rents a room to Tim.

Best was aware of the show but didn’t know it at all when she was approached by Lisa Campbell about playing Guinea. “I read it and I thought the character was fantastic. She’s bucking the norms of society and she’s living her best and most fabulous life. And I would do anything for Luckiest Productions so I just went, ‘OK, great.’ Then when I saw the cast that was attached to it I said, ‘I’ll be in it for sure’, says Best.

“It didn’t really resonate that much with me, though I was aware that my character was a beaut. But when we had the table read [at the start of rehearsals] and sang the songs, I went ‘OK, I get it now! I can see why people remember it and love it so much.’ It’s very moving and it has very well-drawn characters. At the table read, I nearly sobbed out loud at the end. I can’t tell you,” adds Best, tearing up again as she recalls the moment.

Blazey Best as Guinea and Hayden Tee as Lea Sonia in Only Heaven Knows. Photograph © Johnny Diaz Nicolaidis

“It’s an important story that I think needs to be told now,” says Tee. “I’ve lived in this area, in Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay, off and on for the last 10 years before I went away, and as the show says it’s a beautiful place where people can come and be part of a community and feel free to express themselves and not have to fit into norms. It’s a nice comment on the gentrification that is going on now, to look at what this area used to do.”

“Obviously, it’s a love story, and a story about a community, but all those things come into it for me. I thought, ‘this is something that needs to be told.’ People in Sydney need to see it now. It’s important, particularly with what we are going through in the world right now.”

Tee jumped at the opportunity to be in the show and to work at the Hayes for the first time. “I was looking for something to do after playing grumpy old Javert for three years. I was desperate to do something as far away from him as possible and when Lisa approached me, and I read the script, we made the dates work. It’s so perfect. It’s light-hearted and funny but it’s important – something that needs to be said. It’s an honour to be in it, and I’m thrilled,” he says.

Tee says that Lana is “an effeminate, uptight character. In the script he is described as a poor man’s Robert Helpmann. I like to say he is like a grand old fairy, which you don’t see anymore. When I was working in London recently my ‘wiggie’ was an older gentleman and his mother was a dancer with Lea Sonia at the Tivoli, so I picked his brains. He’s Australian and went to London 30 years ago and he reminds me so much of Lana, so he’s been a real point of reference for both those characters.”

With Harding’s permission, there has been some updating to Lea Sonia’s monologues. “There are specific references in the published script, which is the 1995 version,” says Campbell. “We spoke to Alex Harding – who I speak to a lot – and he has given us permission to change those references to make a them a bit more current. The reason Lea is showing us this story is so that the audience can learn from it. Therefore it’s very important that we recognise that she is talking to us, and so therefore the current aspect of it is very important – which Alex understood.”

Things have certainly improved for the LGBTQI community in Australia since Only Heaven Knows opened but there is still a way to go, not least in legalising same-sex marriage. As David Campbell says: “You still can’t marry here. It’s really emotional and it’s really mental to think that this is still happening. This play should really feel like a retrospective piece. We should be watching it thinking, ‘thank God it’s not like that anymore’. But unfortunately that’s not the case.”

Only Heaven Knows plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 1