Rachael Ward and Mark Hill chat all things THE PRODUCERS

The irony of The Producers will never cease to make me laugh.

The Mel Brooks musical revolves around Max Bialystock and Leopold Bloom, two producers set out to put on the worst musical in history in order to commit some serious financial fraud – but the actual show itself has been met with nothing less than critical acclaim since its 2001 Broadway premiere. Winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score, The Producers is definitely nothing like what Max and Leo tried to do. Filled with hilarious songs, ridiculous jokes, and some dancing grannies, there’s something for everyone in this laugh-a-thon of a musical.

Now, The Producers have landed at Brisbane’s Powerhouse Theatre in Altitude Theatre’s first production of 2021. With a stellar cast including Matt Young, Mark Hill, Rachael Ward, and James Lee, the show is playing for a limited run, ending this weekend.

Rachael is an accomplished international stage and screen performer. Musical roles include GFO’s Australian tour of the London Palladium’s Production Wizard of Oz – The Musical, the Production Company’s Hello, Dolly! and Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, Margarita in Opera Australia’s EVITA, Bombalurina in CATS in Paris, and Roxie Hart in Chicago. Rachael understudied the role of Lina Lamont in the Australian tour of Singin’ In The Rain and went on to tour the show to Tokyo. Rachael is a gifted jazz singer having recently performed with the Shenzo Gregorio Quartet at the renowned Brisbane Jazz Club, and is a private performance coach.

Mark is an acclaimed performer, who has spent the majority of his life working professionally in the performing arts. In 2019, he was nominated for a Helpmann Award and a Sydney Theatre Award for his portrayal of Riff in Opera Australia’s West Side Story. A graduate of NIDA BFA (Acting), his television credits include The Wayne Manifesto (Patrick), Cybergirl (Brad) WANTED s3 (Eli Harris), Wakefield (Rod). His theatre credits include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Eurobeat, Mary Poppins (Bert U/S), A Chorus Line (Don), South Pacific, (Billis U/S) This is Our Youth (Dennis) and Gypsy (Tulsa). Despite all this, Mark is most remembered for bursting surprisingly through a door in the opening of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, in a role he originated (Bjorn).

How did it feel to get back onstage?

Rachael: I felt myself, again, if I’m honest. But I got to tell you that adrenaline… And just to be in a creative space, again, with like-minded people, and just to feel the energy. I think [Opening] was just such a beautiful night because everyone felt that gratitude after the year that had been. No one took it for granted, everyone was so present. And it’s the perfect vehicle to come back with, I think anything somber or depressing or, you know, filled with drama… we don’t need that now at all. So just to get people together and laughing and to forget about all the worries was a dream. And I mean, I’ve always just wanted to do this show just because of the role, so I’m thrilled to be a part of it regardless. I’ve always wanted to do more comedy, actually, so this has been fun. But yeah, to to be doing a show about putting on a show, it’s fun. The show so much more than that in the way Mel Brooks has constructed it, gag after gag. It’s such clever, creative writing.

Mark: Oh, it’s so much fun. This show is nothing but fun. The way I always think of it is that when I’m not on stage, I have to behave like an adult, but when I’m on stage I’m a child. I feel like that’s like one of the major factors that draws me to the stage, the privilege to be able to behave like a total child on stage. People seem to love you for doing that. It’s wonderful to be back on stage and actually doing it, and magic that just cannot come from anywhere else in my life.

Matt Young and Mark Hill as Max and Leo

Are Leo and Ulla like anything you’ve performed in the past, or has this been a new experience for you both?

Rachael: You know what, I find such a joy in finding a character for myself and incorporating elements of me and finding her and really embodying a character. So for me, it was just about really starting from scratch, because I think it’s good to come into something with fresh eyes. Drawing off all the experience I’ve had, I think the closest thing to it would probably have to be understudying Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, that’s the closest character – I mean, certainly not with the triple threat quality of Ulla, but yeah, acting wise and comedic timing and stuff like that I’d say she’s probably the closest. But not accent wise! [laughs]

Mark: I think that’s a very interesting question. And, you know, I do think it’s quite a fresh experience. I think that’s one of the things that makes Mel Brooks unique, is his way of writing characters. You combine multiple types of comedy in every character, in every scene, each character has moments of sort of slapstick comedy.

Rachael, how did you tackle the Swedish accent?

Rachael: You know what’s really interesting? I’m a big one on research, I love researching a character to be as authentic as I can. But I mean, you don’t really get results if you just try to search ‘Swedish accents’ on YouTube; it doesn’t come up. It’s not a common one like American. So it was a big challenge. But I had a session with our fantastic dialect coach, Melissa, and if I’m honest she was just such a gorgeous help. And she gave me many, many, many YouTube clips, and I just sat listening. And it’s been so much fun establishing her accent because it’s a pretty wacky, even in singing. It’s big because you’re trying to stay authentic to the accent, to the story and the character and their personal traits within the accent and their back story.

Do you have a favorite scene or song in the show?

Rachael: ‘That Face.’ It’s the number that I do with Mark. It’s just so Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and I love that dancing. And for me it’s just a number where I don’t feel pressured, I’m just enjoying myself, you know, we’re just having so much fun and it’s so beautiful and classic. And Joe’s choreography is just so gorgeous in it. So, yeah, if I’m honest, that’s absolutely my favorite number in the show.

Mark: I mean, look, I have many favorite moments in the show. But the first thing that just came to my mind when you said that is sort of the quiet climax of the friendship of the show, ”Til Him.’ It’s kind of a romance song about my mate. The more I’ve explored and the more we’ve done it, we’re finding all this vulnerability. I mean, it’s been on more than one occasion, I’ve sung the first verse in the court [scene] and then walked across stage to this little scene with Matt, and he’s just gone quiet, just openly crying.

Mark, you’re following in the footsteps of actors like Gene Wilder and Matthew Broderick – how have you approached Leo Bloom?

Mark: Well, to be fair, I haven’t watched the original film. I sort of made the decision not to when I got the role. I do know that tends to be a sort of an issue, cross pollination. And as you become aware of another actor’s performance, there’s a danger that it can sort of pollinate your work. Which I wanted to try and avoid with this, because there’s so many things about Leo that I also felt I could explore. And we’re not doing the Susan Stroman production, we’re not copying from Broadway. I certainly refuse to watch any sort of bootleg and find the answers from how Matthew Broderick did it. So we kind of have to find the answers for ourselves, and and that meant lots and lots of playing, you know, and lots of exploration.

Mark Hill, Rachael Ward, and Matt Young as Leo, Ulla, and Max

How have you found working with each other?

Rachael: I think Mark and I work opposite really well together. So that’s always a dream. I mean you talk about it a lot, to have that collaboration; usually you do a show and you know there’ll be something in it that doesn’t sit right. I’m really fortunate because as an actor, you never know what you’re really going to step into. It’s so important, particularly as Mark and I spend a lot of stage time together, and throughout the show we have to have established a long period of time on our relationship. I’m just so fortunate that I’ve got these good actors [the cast] to bounce off – and they’re also just really lovely people. It’s a comedy, but you need to be really vulnerable. It’s one of those things where I’m grateful, because they checked all my choices and they’re happy for me to throw others at them. So we have a really good working relationship where the trust is there, which is what you dream of.

Mark: I’d crossed paths with both of them [Matt and Rachael] so many times before in the industry, but I’ve actually never worked with either of them before. Ironically, you know, this is sort of what we call the Chorus Line family – Matt did a tour of it in the US, and then the next production he saw with the Australian tour in 2012, which I was in, playing the same role that he played. It was a crazy coincidence, we both played Don [chuckles]. But, you know, this process has been pretty fast. We only rehearsed for four weeks, and two of those weeks were part time. And to be honest, working with Matt and Rachel, it’s just been it’s actually been really lovely. It’s been very collaborative and very open.

Why should people come to see The Producers?

Rachael: I would just say even if you’re not particularly theatre goer, this is Mel Brooks. He’s a household name with other films and whatnot. And it’s just a laugh. You don’t have to sit there and sit through a serious piece of theatre and worry about things or try to understand. And I just think, why not? After being locked down for however long, why wouldn’t you just take yourself out to a colorful, cheerful, joyous night out? Not much else is happening in the world, so you’re actually one of the lucky ones.

Mark: I would say come and have the time of your life. I’m laughing and smiling so much, and the response has been extraordinary. So I’m reassured that the people should come and and just have a fun, fun, night.

The Producers is currently playing at Brisbane Powerhouse

For tickets and more information, visit www.altitudetheatre.com

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of AussieTheatre.com. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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