Toby Francis: The Rockstar of Indie Musicals

Toby Francis finds it hard to pick a side. Canberra born and raised, he fell into two different worlds with vigor: punk music, and musical theatre. Polarising as it sounds, Toby loves them both.

His first role was in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he was in Year Seven. “I was meant to be doing Oliver with my mum,” he confesses. “She was playing Nancy, and Tim Dal Cortivo – who I just did Carrie with – and I was going to do it because I really wanted to act. I didn’t like singing in public at all.”

Toby Francis, Ian Stenlake, and Scott Irwin. Photo by Noni Carroll.
Toby Francis, Ian Stenlake, and Scott Irwin. Photo by Noni Carroll.

It was down between me and another guy for Oliver, and it went to the other guy who had done much more than I had at that point. I had auditioned for The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at the same time, because, I don’t know why.” He laughs, self-deprecating. “Because I was a little bastard back then with no sense of commitment. But I got cast as Edmund in that. And it was the best thing, it was the thing.”

The theatre bug bit.

Doing the show, Toby struck up a relationship with the Phoenix players, a small amateur theatre group that took up residence at the Belconnen Arts Centre. He did a number of shows with them, and actually ended up in Sydney because of the connection he had made with the director of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, back at the age of thirteen. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

He was doing Tom Sawyer, and he couldn’t find a Huckleberry Finn. And at that point, I was kind of done with musicals. I was playing in a punk band, that was my life.The band had just broken up, and I was doing nothing, just drinking a lot. There’s not a lot to do in Canberra: just drink and look at roundabouts. Questacon is great,” he amends with his trademark quick wit, and we laugh. “But that’s it.”

It was a tough time for Toby, who had given up on his plans to go to NIDA, and wasn’t so sure about pursuing music either, but he took the part of Huckleberry Finn, and moved to Sydney.

With a mohawk.

His luck changed pretty quickly after that move, tattoos and all – Toby auditioned for and was accepted to AIM, and has had great success both on the cabaret circuit and in independent musical theatre. He won the 2011 International Cabaret Competition, and has had great success with his follow up cabaret about the music of Queen. He’s also appeared in two of the most positively received musicals of the past year – Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and, both with Squabbalogic.

But does he ever miss the punk band?

Toby Francis. Image by Blueprint Studios
Toby Francis. Image by Blueprint Studios

“Yeah, I really do,” he tells me. “That’s what’s been so great about Truth, Beauty, actually. Scott Irwin and [Ian] Stenlake and I are a band with Andrew Worboys, and it’s incredible. And Jackie Barnes is playing drums. And in rehearsals, it’s just that band vibe all over again. It’s very collaborative, just like being in a band again – only with more experience and more than four power chords.”

“I would love to play in a band again. I would love to. But I don’t have the time.”

Truth Beauty is Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, the new rock musical based on the music of Tim Freedman of The Whitlams. Currently playing at the Hayes theatre, the story centres around a rock band from the early 90s that never made it out of Sydney’s inner west, and Toby is having an absolute blast finally being able to marry his love of rock bands with his love of musical theatre.

In the show, Toby plays the deceased father of the show’s protagonist, who appears on the stage essentially in flashback. “As an entity, my character Stewie exists as an entity for the other characters throughout the show. And it doesn’t feel naff to me – it feels quite delicately done.”

To prepare, Toby spent some time in the inner west, soaking up the feel of the Whitlams. A past resident of Erskineville, he had the basics down, but went back to soak it all in. He had a drink at the Botany View, wandered past the Sando Hotel, and played a lot of guitar.

“Tim [Freedman] and Andrew [Warboys] who were around at the time, were incredible resources. And Tim was very hands-on and accessible.”

Tim, Toby stresses, has been generous through the process, available to the performers as they rehearse, coming to along to each rehearsal, even though he never had to do that. In fact, Toby can’t speak highly enough of his co-stars, reminding me constantly of the wealth of experience Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin have in the business, and how much he’s learning from being around these people.

Toby Francis - The King Is Dead: Long Live The Queen
Toby Francis – The King Is Dead: Long Live Queen

The angry punk has caught a slight case of optimism.

So why should we see Truth, Beauty, and a Picture of You? Toby panics at the pressure of the question, laughingly, and pauses for a long moment before answering. “I think, to be precise about it, because it is a new Australian work that isn’t about colonial times or bushrangers, and it actually speaks to something that modern people deal with – it speaks a modern language. With incredible music.”

And why should we see Love, Death, and an American Guitar, Toby’s new cabaret show about American rocker Jim Steinman (the guy behind, among other classic rock anthems, the Bat out of Hell album)? He struggles with this one too, telling me he doesn’t want to come across as arrogant or false. “Because they’re some of the best songs ever written, with probably the best musical director in Australia at the moment [Andrew Worboys], and I’m really proud of it. I really think it’s different. I really think it’s different to traditional cabaret. I do believe I have something worth saying about Jim Steinman.”

Toby will also be producing Hilary Cole’s O. C Diva for the Hayes Cabaret Festival, and he wants to create more work and get it out there soon, producing and performing with some projects already in mind. Though he’s coy about revealing his plans, I push anyway. What might be on the cards for Toby in the future?

He smiles, leans back in his chair.

“My mum has been on me for the past few months to write a cabaret about John Farnham, Cold Chisel, and Billy Thorpe. So we’ll see.”

Catch Toby Francis in Truth, Beauty, and a Picture of You at the Hayes Theatre until 1st June. His cabaret, Love, Death, and an American Guitar, will be part of the Hayes Theatre Festival on 4, 5, and 6 July. Book your tickets for both, and Hilary Cole’s O.C Diva, here:

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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