Rehearsals are just around the corner for the first major musical set to reopen Australian theatre when Pippin starts previews at the Sydney Lyric Theatre next month. This will be Ainsley Melham’s first return to a major musical after playing the leading role in Broadway’s Aladdin. He will play the title character, acting alongside Gabrielle McClinton, when the show begins previews on 24 November. The Gordon Frost Organisation production, playing exclusively at the Lyric Theatre, will be directed by Diane Paulus, working with a mixed Australian and American creative team. First staged in 1972, Pippin includes music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz which unfolds the story of the young Prince Pippin, mediated through a mysterious performance troupe led by the Leading Player (played by McClinton).
In the Lyric Theatre presentation of Pippin, Melham will find himself back on the stage after the COVID induced lockdown, a proposition that he admits makes him somewhat nervous, despite his experience and past success.
“I like being on stage and in the media, so this past eight months was a big change,” Melham says. “I won’t lie, I’m slightly apprehensive, because these sorts of things, our skills as performers and artists, they need constant attention and upkeep, and of course some consistency. When you’re out of work for eight months and not able to attend to these things every day, you sort of get out of practice. I’m sure I’ll be feeling that a bit, but we’ll all join hands and get through it together, and I’m sure soon enough we’ll be back in the groove.”
After spending most of the stay home period with family in Bathurst, and more recently back in Sydney enjoying quiet meals with friends or exploring local beaches, Melham says he is grateful and humbled that he is able to be among the first to get back onto the stage in these unpredictable times. “It’s not lost on me,” he says, “that a lot of my peers are still scraping by and doing their best, hoping for the industry to come back. I hope this show is a first step in that direction and that we can all, all my peers and the whole industry get back on our feet very soon. It feels like we’re moving in the right direction.”
His role in Pippin is Melham’s first in collaboration with the Gordon Frost Organisation, and his first time working with the rest of the cast. “There are so many people in the cast that I’ve admired for so long,” he says, “and now I get to perform alongside them. Lucy Maunder is one of the people that I’m really thrilled to be onstage with. She plays Pippin’s love interest in the show, Catherine. When I was studying and in my early years in the industry, I always watched her perform. She’s had such a wonderful career, and she’s such a pro. She always delivers, so I’m really excited. This will be my first time working with her.”
In fact, Melham has not worked with anyone from either the Australian or American team, though he knows many of them by virtue of being in the same tight-knit industry. He is looking forward to working with a whole new team of people, bringing a revival of this 1970s hit back to the Australian stage. “I’m excited to do the show,” he says. “It’s such a wonderful show with such beautiful music. And the revival is really exciting. I spent most of the evening last night listening to a recording of the original cast with Johnny Farnham and Colleen Hewett. That was in the 70s. To hear how the show has progressed and changed, especially with the revival, it really interesting. I’m really excited to be a part of this project.”
When pressed about what most excites him about playing Pippin, Melham oozes enthusiasm. “Oh gosh, I mean… Pippin. Such an amazing role for someone like me. I think stepping into the shoes of the likes of John Farnham, who originally played the role here in Australia in the 70s when he was a young fellow – those are huge shoes to fill, but it’s also very exciting. I’m grateful to be able to carry on that legacy. And apart from that is the music Stephen Schwartz has written for this show. It’s beautiful. I’m really excited to sing that.”
On top of all that is the theme of Pippin, life fulfilment. Its relevance to the contemporary global situation is not lost on Melham. “It feels like it’s everybody’s story this year,” he muses, “at least every artist’s story, everyone in the arts or who is an entertainer. I imagine we’ve all had this conversation with ourselves at some point in the last eight months, asking, what am I doing? This is not who I am. I don’t feel fulfilled or like I’m achieving what I want to achieve. You know, like I don’t have a purpose. I’m sure we’ve all had those thoughts, because that’s the sort of thing you go through when your work and the thing you love have been taken away from you. It’s not much of a reach for me to feel those feelings. They’re already there.”
Rehearsals for Pippin are due to commence shortly. There will be five weeks of rehearsals, and previews begin on 24 November. “It’s a quick turnaround,” Melham says, “but we’re all passionate about it and ready to get it out, considering that we’re finally allowed to. We just want to make it work the best we can.”
The production promises plenty of excitement, including what Melham calls a “circus element,” with acrobats and circus performers. “They literally have me jumping through hoops for this show,” he joked. “Little things like this bring more complexity to the role. You could say it’s fairly similar to Aladdin, which had me climbing or jumping over things, but this will be more technical. I’m intrigued to see what all it involves.”
When asked what he would say to those who are yet to buy a ticket, Melham replies, “theatre was originally created as an ‘experience’. It’s like there was a golden age long ago, during the Great Depression, when theatre was around to lift people out of it all. Theatre provided people with a bit of escapism, lifting them out of their own personal depressions that grew out of daily life. I feel like we’ve gone through that in 2020. It’s been a really turbulent year, and this is a chance for people to get back out to the theatre and experience a bit of joy and a bit of happiness. You can do that with your whole family. We’re taking precautions to make sure everyone is as safe as possible, considering the current state of the world. There’s also plenty of flexibility in booking tickets, refunds, and all that. Definitely, if you’re in a bit of a funk or going through a tricky time, this will be a show that will bring you a whole lot of joy.”
Perhaps it is just a musical comedy, but it’s one that aims to give life meaning. After such a lengthy hiatus, there could be no more fitting way to bring the Australian stage back to life.
Tickets for Pippin are selling fast – book your seat at Ticketmaster by clicking HERE.