The versatile performer dons Dusty Springfield’s beehive and “white soul” voice for an Adelaide season of the musical.
Amy Lehpamer spent much of 2016 playing the free-spirited, sweet-natured Maria in The Sound of Music. Two weeks after the national tour wound up in Perth, she started rehearsals for The Production Company in Melbourne, playing the altogether raunchier Dusty Springfield in Dusty: The Musical – a role she is about to revisit in Adelaide.
Amy Lehpamer as Dusty Springfield. Photo by Jeff Busby
It’s quite a leap: from late 1930s Austria to London in the Swinging Sixties; from a traditional musical theatre style to a jukebox musical with a hit list of iconic pop songs; from Maria’s clear soprano to Dusty’s sensual, soul-infused mezzo.
It’s been that way for Lehpamer for quite a while now. With her career on a serious roll, she has clocked up a list of credits that show her considerable versatility. Since 2011, she has moved in quick succession from one very different role to the next: Kansas-born Sherrie hoping to make it big in Rock of Ages, supposed soap heiress Christine Colgate in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Janet in The Rocky Horror Show, socialite Tracey Lord in High Society and Maria in The Sound of Music. Along the way she has also appeared in two new Australian musicals: Eddie Perfect’s Shane Warne: The Musical and Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert in which she created the title role in 2012.
“I’ve always had a strange thing with my own singing voice, where I don’t know what I sound like strictly,” admits Lehpamer. “I think there’s a degree of me in every role, but 40 percent is whatever the character is, and I like that. I think for some performers it works for them to have a real sound and I think probably the really successful ones, it’s what they do. I don’t think I have that kind of a voice, it navigates a different kind of world [for different roles] and I like having that ability, and that’s sort of been really fun,” she says.
Amy Lehpamer. Photo: supplied
Lehpamer will ring in the New Year as Dusty Springfield. After a virtually sold out three-week season in Melbourne in November, The Production Company show, directed by Jason Langley with a cast including Todd McKenney and Virginia Gay, opens at the Adelaide Festival Centre on December 31 for a three-week season.
Asked how difficult an adjustment it was to move from The Sound of Music to Dusty, Lehpamer says: “I think [Dusty] is more of a home base for me. It’s much more instinctive, and I’ve always loved singing pop songs in musicals. I think the first three years of my career all I auditioned for was Jersey Boys,” she adds with a laugh.
“When I first started in this industry, every show was either Mamma Mia! or something like that. For the audition, they all wanted either sixties or eighties pop songs. I didn’t ever really have a good back catalogue of music theatre repertoire, I had all these pop songs that I kind of managed to arrange in a way to tell a story. I was always trawling through playlists to find songs that I thought were good storytelling songs, and a lot of Dusty’s songs fall into that category, as would Carole King’s. There was a lot of that kind of really strong female storytelling in that era. I always had a real connection to that. So, coming into Dusty and singing this stuff feels more ‘me’. I feel unselfconscious about this kind of music. It’s really lovely.”
Written by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, Dusty tells the story of Mary O’Brien, a red-haired Catholic girl from London who transformed herself into a 60s pop icon with her blonde beehive, heavy eye makeup, evening gowns and incomparable voice, which combined influences from both black and white popular styles to create a distinctive ‘blue-eyed soul’ sound.
Amy Lehpamer and cast members of Dusty. Photo by Jeff Busby
From mid-1966 to the early 1970s she lived with singer Norma Tanega and subsequently had a series of lesbian relationships. In the 1970s and 80s, alcohol and drugs took its toll on her career, and she was also diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She returned to the top of the charts in 1987 when she accepted an offer from the Pet Shop Boys to duet with their lead singer Neil Tennant on the single What Have I Done to Deserve This? She died from breast cancer in 1999.
The show doesn’t have the greatest book but it has around 30 terrific songs including I Only Want To Be With You, Wishin’ and Hopin’, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself and Son of a Preacher Man.
“I knew Dusty’s voice quite well already,” says Lehpamer. “I think it’s one of those ones that struck me quite early, and reading a lot about her, I had kind of the same reaction that she did to a lot of the music, with that wall of sound that was going on at the time, and the really big cut-through hits like Tell Him and that girl group sound. I always loved it from a young age and Dusty kind of made it her business to bring that sound to the UK and was quite a pioneer in that way.”
Lehpamer believes that Dusty’s life and career is a big story. “I read someone say that it’s a common rags-to-riches tale, and I got really frustrated because it’s not in my opinion, it really isn’t. This isn’t a well-worn tale of success. Yes, she was successful and she lost her way, but the reasons why and the time that it happened for a woman is actually a story we don’t hear very often. And this girl was so tortured within herself but also kind of prophetic. She knew that this music was the way of the future and she was uncompromising in the production of it.
“She’s not credited really with any of the producing but she really was a lead producer. She didn’t write herself but she definitely had her hand in the arrangements. She was very precise and a perfectionist, and demanded a lot of herself and those working with her. In that time, in the sixties, for a woman to be that outspoken was one thing, and then to be a lesbian on top of that is an entirely other thing altogether,” says Lehpamer.
Amy Lehpamer and the cast of Dusty. Photo by Jeff Busby
“My dear, very clever boyfriend’s mum [actor Sarah Peirse, mother of Lehpamer’s boyfriend, actor Tom Hobbs] said to me that she’s a real story of binaries: she is white but she sings black, she dresses for this heterosexual norm but she’s actually a lesbian, and she was bipolar. She’s kind of straight-down-the-line but she’s working in these binaries her whole life, and it is quite startling to enter that world and go ‘okay, you can’t judge that when you’re playing the character, you’ve got to see why.’ You can’t empathise with it to play her, you’ve got to live it, and she lives it in this show through the music,” says Lehpamer.
“There are a lot of songs, and they are all part of her story, and that’s how she lived her life, I think. Even if she hated the idea of getting onstage, she always got onstage and she always delivered. And you can see it in her. I mean the wonders of YouTube, you can see in her performance she loves it, you can see there’s a connection, she has very idiosyncratic movements which are quite famous and very fun to do, I have to say.”
Lehpamer watched hours and hours of footage of Springfield performing. “She’s very connected to the instrumentation. You see in her physicality her acknowledging of a trumpet call out or something. She’s not just thinking about the vocal line, she’s got a full sense of what’s going on and her body tells the story. It’s really fascinating to watch and I love that about her. That’s kind of been the best thing, trusting that her musicianship was at the forefront of her success and kind of trusting that as a performer that that’s the driving force. And then her life is what’s going on around that attempt to kind of be this artist.”
Donning the costume each night, helps get into the character. “It just gives you an edge, I think,” says Lehpamer. “And knowing that with her, it was part of the artifice. It was what helped her be her, having that image. She created it, the name, everything. Mary O’ Brien became Dusty Springfield and it was a full-time job.”
Amy Lehpamer with Nicholas Kyriacou and Joshua Mulheran. Photo by Jeff Busby
“I don’t think I’m much like Dusty, in and of itself. But when you put that make-up and wig on, a weird confidence comes with it, and off I go. I also love the fact that Dusty herself had quite terrible eye sight. Watching her clips, she’s quite giving when she performs, and there is something confident in what she’s doing. She’s never eyeballing the camera or looking out for people. She doesn’t seem vulnerable. And [when I found about her eye sight] I thought she couldn’t really see! I think she was always cocooned by her own lack of vision, and I kind of love that!” says Lehpamer with a laugh.
“So, when I go out there I have this sense that she’s in this bubble. She’s got a world around her, and that’s her reality. She didn’t like the contact lenses, she certainly didn’t wear the glasses. So I think she made her own world, what she needed to get by, and it’s a strange wall that you get. It can be your security but it can also be your downfall, I suppose. I try and think of all these things.”
Dusty plays at the Adelaide Festival Centre January 31 – February 22