Chatting with Elise McCann about her upcoming show, Dahlesque!

The Adelaide Cabaret Festival takes place each year in June, showcasing a variety of incredibly talented artists performing their diverse, moving and entertaining pieces. This year, Dahlesque, a concert featuring music from the various adaptations of Roald Dahl’s work, will be making its world premiere at the festival. Very fittingly, it will star the incredibly lovely Elise McCann who won the 2016 Helpmann Award for her performance as Miss Honey in Matilda the Musical. We chatted with Elise to find out all about growing up reading Roald Dahl, her experiences in Matilda, and what audiences can expect from Dahlesque.

Did you grow up reading Roald Dahl and if so did you have a favourite book?

Yes I did! My mum is actually English; she was born in Bath so we grew up with a lot of English writers. My favourite was always The Witches; it terrified me and excited me at the same time. And my sister loved The BFG and we used to debate each other over which one was better. Even though the movies are quite different, we used to watch all of them as well. We were definitely big fans of all of his kind of work and the amalgamations that came from his works as kids.

What do you think it is about Dahl’s writing that lends itself to the musical form?

His stories are so exciting but they never pander to children; they’re dark, yet they’re also really irreverent and playful. So when you’re a kid you feel like you’re doing something a little bit naughty just by virtue of being able to read him. When you’re an adult it’s still really engaging and entertaining because it reminds you of the simple things of being a child, and he represents the things that are real in life like the good don’t always win and sometimes the bad are just bad for no reason. When you’re an adult you lose sense of the things you find hilarious as a kid, but when you read Roald Dahl you kind of feel like a kid again. So it translates so well to musicals, and movies, because it has all of those really wonderful elements of story but also the full range of emotion; the danger and the terror and the naughtiness, and always the heart. It’s just inherently entertaining.

Did your experience of being Miss Honey in Matilda inspire this cabaret in any way?

It absolutely inspired it! Mainly because I had forgotten how great Roald Dahl was so when Matilda came out and when I was auditioning, I started to look into all of Roald Dahl’s work again. My nephew has actually just turned 3 and I bought him the box set of the Dahl stories when I was doing Matilda, so I started reading them again and I remembered how incredible they all are. And then I was at a concert in Sydney and Tony Sheldon performed a song from one of Roald Dahl’s books. And I thought there have been so many great songs that have been made from the movies and the books, so being in Matilda inspired me to re-explore Roald Dahl but also it just happened that at the same time, I cottoned on to all the works that have been inspired by Dahl.

And do you think you will bring elements of Miss Honey’s character into the show?

It’s more me in the sense that I’m not playing Miss Honey, but I do sing a few songs from Matilda, one of which is a Miss Honey song because I had to! But there’s a representation of a variation of Miss Honey in almost all the books. There’s always an adult in one of his stories who is a rock star; who is kind and considerate and hasn’t lost their child instinct. So that character is in all of his stories somewhere in some amalgamation, so in that way there’s some elements of Miss Honey throughout the show but it is a lot more me.

So what songs can we expect to hear?

We’re focusing on all the adaptions of his works, so we have something from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the new musical, we have something from the original Willy Wonka movie, we have some new compositions from the revolting rhymes, we have some from Pasek and Paul’s James and the Giant Peach, some from Matilda. We also have a piece from James Bond, because Roald Dahl actually wrote two movies- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and James Bond: You Only Live Twice. He hated Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but he loved James Bond so we’re using one of the songs from that. And the thing we’re focusing on in those adaptions are bringing out those Dahl qualities like those obscurities and that playful darkness and intrigue that you might not always get in the movie or musical adaptions.

You’ve had your own cabaret show before, Everybody Loves Lucy, what are the highlights and challenges of creating and performing your own cabaret in contrast to performing a pre-written role in a show?

When you’re in a film, or a musical, or whatever it is that’s created by someone else- you’re employed to just play that character and focus on that one thing and give it your whole heart. And you have a whole breadth of people behind you in every other area. So there’s a real sense of family and a sense of greater support networks when you’re doing a project like that. For Matilda, we had over 200 people involved on a day-to-day basis just at the theatre, so there’s so many people part of that experience with you and it’s quite wonderful having to only worry about just having to do your one part.

Whereas, when you’re creating your own work, you work ten times harder because even if you’re not doing every single role, you’re still the one overseeing it because it’s your vision. So that’s exhausting and challenging because you need to be on top of so many things, but it’s also so liberating because you get to be an active participant in every element of it. It’s absolutely terrifying, but it’s also a completely rewarding feeling to see something you’ve worked so hard on, come to life. And there’s a real sense of pride and achievement in that. And there’s a real joy in being able to bring people together, because these people do their jobs because they love what they do, so it’s really joyous to be able to create something and employ other people to work with you, because you don’t get to do that all the time.

And who is the team you will be working with?

Richard Carroll, who I wrote Everybody Loves Lucy with, is my co-writer for this show. And Stephen Amos who has been my musical director on a number of projects, he’s done all of the musical arrangements for the show. And Michael Tyack is the musical director for all of the performances. And we have a wonderful female director who is yet to be announced! So we’ve got a great team of people working on the show with us.

Do you have any intentions to tour the show after the festival?

I’m a Sydney girl, but I’m living in Melbourne now, and I have family in Queensland, so we hope to take it to all of those places if we can! And we’ve actually just recorded an album with ten of the tracks of the show, so we’re in the process of getting that out.

Matilda will be on in Adelaide at the time of the cabaret festival, will you go and see the show and how do you think you’ll feel sitting in the audience and not performing on the stage? 

I’m definitely going to see the show, 100%. I just finished in Perth and I saw it for the first time then, it was very bizarre to watch the show I’ve done over 650 times but it was incredible, it was just wonderful! I felt this overwhelming sense of emotion, because I felt so honoured to be a part of it, and Lucy Maunder, who is one of my best mates, did a wonderful job. I’m excited to see it in Adelaide when I’m not so emotional, and to see all of the family that’s part of the show, so that’s going to be really exciting.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Dahlesque?

Roald Dahl always said that his main goal in everything he did was to entertain. He would always drop bits of morality into the work because he thought it was important to drop ideas around children so they can pick up what resonates with them and through that he was empowering people. And that’s something I really value. And the big thing I want people to take away is that: a strong sense of having a great time, I want them to be really entertained. But we also really want to bring out those Dahl qualities and help remind people of what makes Dahl so special which is that he is so truthful and he doesn’t shy away from the darker elements but at the same time he’s playful and he has so much heart. So I want people to have a really great time, and to also feel moved at the same time.

Get your tickets to see Dahlesque at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival now!

Bec Caton

Bec has a diploma in musical theatre and is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English. She is a freelance theatre writer in Sydney.

Bec Caton

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