Legendary women of Aussie theatre

A couple of years ago I wrote about the sad fact that the way the industry is today it is hard for local artists to become household names, or “stars” if you like, through leads in local productions of large commercial stage shows (which by their nature tend to be musicals).

A couple of years ago I wrote about the sad fact that the way the industry is today it is hard for local artists to become household names, or “stars” if you like, through leads in local productions of large commercial stage shows (which by their nature tend to be musicals).

I wanted today to look at three leading ladies in our industry who have escaped and managed to have great identification with the Australian public through their music theatre work (isn’t it odd that most of the legends of music theatre who are still so well known are women – Warlow, Jackman and Campbell excluded of course).

I am thrilled also that these three wonderful women that I write about, namely Nancye Hayes, Toni Lamond and Jill Perryman, are about to receive recognition at the Helpmann Awards this year for a lifetime of achievement in the industry – how right, how appropriate.

I make no bones about the fact that I get frustrated with the many inconsistencies associated with the Helpmanns (I have just learnt that producers have a say as to which year their productions will be nominated – crazy) but in this instance the Helpmanns have got it right in rewarding the work of three of the greatest female talents this country has ever produced.

Firstly, Nancye Hayes, who is a glorious theatrical institution in herself. She received the star status in 1966/67 through her role in Sweet Charity. Nancye has never left the arena since then. They haven’t always been star vehicles, but if not, always strong supporting leads. Her music theatre credits read like a who’s who of so many great musicals. Now, as she has aged (but only just a little) she is still performing, sometimes in mature non musical roles, to great effect–most recently in Turns with Reg Livermore, and, if the rumour mill is correct, she will soon be seen as Miss Hannigan (a role originally played by Jill Perryman) in Annie. This is fascinating and ironic in that Nancye played Lily St Regis in the 1977 production and understudied Miss Hannigan, its only taken 34 years to move up, but it says much about Nancye’s energy and vitality that she can still handle such an active role.

In recent years Nancye has done some incredible work in roles of imperious older women, her Mrs Higgins in My Fair Lady was a treat and she ran circles around anyone I saw on Broadway play Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. She has often performed roles made famous on film by Shirley Maclaine (Sweet Charity, Steel Magnolias, Six Dance Lessons – Maclaine is about to film this I believe) it would be great one day to see these two great dancing “dames” perform together.

Toni Lamond remains another living treasure.  Toni was the only one of our musical stars to embrace television, and she is just that little better known for it . She was the very first Aussie musical star to be given a leading role in a local recreation of a Broadway hit in The Pajama Game. Hit has followed hit after that (and of course a couple she would rather forget – like Wildcat). Toni’s greatest hit was probably giving the theatre world her son, Tony Sheldon, who is keeping the tradition alive in Priscilla and being nominated for a Tony for it. Loved by so many, it is wonderful that Toni has passed on the torch to her son, while still appearing in shows from time to time.

One must also never forget Toni’s long career in America, where she embraced just about every leading female role in contemporary musicals. What a career she has had and what a great theatrical family, mother and father, sister (Helen Reddy) and son (Tony), a true theatrical show business dynasty.

Then there is Jill Perryman, beautiful, wonderful, awe inspiring Jill. Jill has not been active in recent years owing to ill health and living in Perth with her husband and fellow performer Kevin. No one would argue with me that Australia music theatre’s greatest star and living legend has to be Jill. She burst onto the stage in many musicals in the fifties and early sixties (Pajama Game, Carnival, Hello Dolly) but when she did the impossible and beat off no name Americans to star in the local production of Funny Girl some sort of rare magic occurred. Many, like myself, who are lucky enough to have seen that production (I think personally about 20 times at least), still cherish it as one of the greatest of all music theatre performances.

It remains in my mind as the most vivid, truthful and exciting star turn of all and I have seen many many great performers all over the world. Yet it is Jill as Fanny Brice that I would put at the top if asked to make a list today. Sadly there is no real video footage of that performance and the next generations who were too young and many instances, not born, have just heard the legend.

Legend is a good word to describe Jill. She remains a class act, sadly (as is the way with Australian theatre) few roles followed that could ever equal that role for her. She was a great Miss Hannigan in Annie, her mother in Boy from Oz was memorable and warm hearted, she has also done some good strong non music theatre stage work. That role could have made her an international star (I still find it hard to watch Barbra Streisand’s showy, idiocyncratic performance in comparison), yet Jill chose home and family (she has lived comfortably in Perth for many years). She is one of the most generous and giving people I have ever met. Ask any WAAPA graduate and her name is like royalty, they get to know her while studying in Perth, some very well. She supports and gives great advice to them and sees all their shows .

A few years back she came back to Sydney for the launch of the Kookaburra music theatre company. She knew her voice wasn’t as strong as it was, so she played with a lightweight song and let a chorus of young male music theatre beginners dance around her, what a classy choice. She defines the word “star”.
If you are lucky enough to have met or know this lady then you are truly blessed. Yet my greatest theatrical memory is the final moments from Funny Girl, dressed in an Indian suit, as she picks up the egg given her by Nicky Arnstein and breaks into a heart stopping reprise of ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade’. At the closing night at the Theatre Royal in Sydney, the cast hoisted her onto their shoulders as streamers hung from her  and sang ‘Henry St’ – it’s worth being a little older to have had the privilege to have seen her performance and be in that audience. Her legacy will live on long after she goes (and that is hopefully in the much distant future) with the generations she has influenced.
This country just doesn’t give enough to our performers, but Jill, Nancye and Toni have all given much to this country and to our future generations. How lucky we are, to have  these women, they make the theatre a better business for their ongoing talent and contribution.

One thought on “Legendary women of Aussie theatre

  • Great write up for a great lady.


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