Emma Matthews is to make her theatrical debut in August when she plays Dame Nellie Melba in a new musical about the legendary Australian opera singer at the Hayes Theatre Co – the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, Sydney, which has been invigorating Sydney’s musical theatre scene since its formation in 2014.
Emma Matthews. Photograph © Brendan Read
The news comes with the announcement of the Hayes’ season for the second half of 2017. Melba is part of a programme that also includes a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins starring David Campbell, and High Fidelity starring Toby Francis. The season also includes Under the Covers, the latest cabaret show by former Olympic gold medallist diver Matthew Mitcham.
At a season launch, hosted by Campbell, one of the producers running the Hayes, it was also announced that the next Neglected Musical will be Jerry Herman’s Mame starring Virginia Gay, who recently thrilled Hayes audiences in Calamity Jane – a production which began life as a Neglected Musicals staged reading.
Award-winning soprano Matthews, one of Australia’s most loved opera singers and a regular guest with all the state opera companies, spoke to Limelight about Melba: “This is my first musical since high school. I’m looking forward to it very much. I’ll get to sing some wonderful opera repertoire from her life, and to share in telling the story of a remarkable artist and fascinating woman. I do get some dialogue, not loads, but enough to get my teeth into,” she said.
Asked how she feels about playing such an iconic figure she said: “I’m not daunted, rather honoured. As to attempting the Melba sound, no. I’ll be singing with my own sound. I think the fact that we’ve both studied the Marchesi method [named after German mezzo-soprano and teacher Mathilde Marchesi] will be a close enough match.”
Melba has music by Johannes Luebbers and book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo. Wayne Harrison will direct a cast that also includes Annie Aitken as the younger Nellie, Michael Blakey, Caitlin Berry, Blake Erickson, Adam Rennie and Samuel Skuthorp.
Based on Ann Blainey’s biography Marvelous Melba, the musical was developed through the New Musicals Australia development programme at the Hayes Theatre Co. Born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Melbourne, Melba was the most celebrated singer of her generation. The musical charts her life from humble beginnings to a career on the stages of opera houses across Europe, telling a story filled with tragedy, stardom and shame that is little known beyond her stellar career.
Dean Bryant, who directed the award-winning Hayes productions of Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors, will direct Sondheim’s Assassins in September with a cast that includes David Campbell, Hannah Frederickson (who played Sandra Dee opposite Campbell as Bobby Darin in the musical Dream Lover), Connor Crawford (who played John Paul Young in the Channel Seven mini-series Molly), Martin Crewes and Madeleine Jones.
Sondheim’s darkly comic, deeply political, revue-style musical with book by John Weidman, gets inside the messed-up heads of nine men and women who attempted to assassinate presidents across a century of American history, four of them successfully. Lisa Campbell, who is the Executive Producer of the show, said that the Hayes Theatre Co is presenting the musical “because it seems important now” in what David Campbell described as “this post-Trump, post-Brexit, Viva La France world”.
David Campbell – who will be making his stage debut for the theatre he helped establish – plays John Wilkes Booth who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Chatting about the show, his wife Lisa quipped that they were looking for someone “who was enigmatic and arrogant” for the role “so we chose you”.
In November, Neil Gooding will direct the musical High Fidelity, with music by Tom Kitt (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his musical Next to Normal), lyrics by Amanda Green and book by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the novel by Nick Hornby and the Touchstone Pictures Film. Relocating the action from Hornby’s original London setting, the musical tells the story of Rob Gordon, an obsessive Brooklyn record shop owner. The production will star Toby Francis, who is currently playing Charlie Price in Kinky Boots. Francis is also co-producing through his company Highway Run Productions, with Neil Gooding Productions, in association with Hayes Theatre Co.
In July, Matthew Mitcham will perform his new cabaret show Under the Covers. The show has been created with the same team behind his debut, award-winning cabaret Twists and Turns about his life (including his drug and alcohol addiction): director Nigel Turner-Carroll and cabaret performer Spanky (aka Rhys Morgan). Under the Covers is a sequel, exploring the difficulty Mitcham faced in coming to terms with life after retiring from his diving career a year ago. At the launch, Mitcham said he related to what sportsmen like Grant Hackett are going through – though he himself has now been in recovery from addiction for six years. More cabaret shows will be announced at a later date.