Rhonda Burchmore is a song-and-dance legend. Known for her effervescent and skilful physical performance and stunning voice, she has made her mark on Australian entertainment in a number of iconic stage roles from shows like Annie Get Your Gun, Mame, Guys and Dolls, and Mamma Mia, not to mention her extensive work in concert, cabaret, and opera. Now, Rhonda and co-writer Gary Young in conjunction with Bold Jack bring the story of one of the most underrated cool jazz greats of the 1950s and 60s to life in Cry Me a River: the World of Julie London. After an incredible response and sold-out shows in its inaugural run at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Rhonda and her team are set to bring the newly expanded production to Brisbane’s Powerhouse next month, for eight shows only.
No one before has really told the story of Julie London, and I have to wonder if it was waiting, simply, for Rhonda to tell it. “As I’ve got older,” she tells me, “my voice has gotten deeper, and now it’s sort of at its peak for singing these jazzy, bluesy songs.”
Even if Rhonda says she’s better suited vocally for London’s cool jazz styles these days, she’s no stranger to one of the most prolific artists of the 1950s — she’s been listening to Julie London since she was young, and has wanted to do the show, which she calls her baby, for a long time. “Apart from musical theatre, obviously, I always had passion for jazz singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Horn and Lena Horne, but I always loved listening to Julie’s low, husky voice. She’s just this hugely glamorous creature of the 50s and 60s, and she’s a redhead,” adds the famously redheaded Burchmore, “So it felt right. We started to ask if anyone had ever told this story, but it seemed like it really hadn’t been told, so we began the process.”
‘We’ are Rhonda’s fellow creatives and great friends, co-writer and director Gary Young (Menopause the Musical, Mamma Mia), and Ray Aldridge, Rhonda’s Musical Director of the past twelve years. “It’s really nice,” she confides, “when you can work with people you like.”
The revamped show, from the cabaret festival limit of 70 minutes to a whole 250 minutes, includes an expanded repertoire of 37 songs, and Rhonda calls it a “a very big study.” It’s a departure of sorts from her usual cabaret acts, which are less scripted; she says her dialogue, being someone else’s story, is very structured. “I have to tell her story, and I can’t digress too much like I usually do!” she adds laughingly.
The process of preparing for the new season has also involved developing the show with Bold Jack, who have a particular knack for telling stories of iconic artists through performance without falling into the cliché-ridden trap of the usual “tribute show” formula. They have identified the new genre of “narrative concert”, seen in their successful shows featuring stories from the lives of John Denver, Eva Cassidy, and Doris Day. This partnership is important to Rhonda, because it’s avenue to still tell what she calls the “smaller stories” that might be overlooked in entertainment’s quest for what’s biggest, brightest, and flashiest.
In fact, she thinks that’s probably the reason why Julie London has been overlooked for so long. “Look at Piaf, Dusty Springfield — they were fairly sensational with dramatic problems, abuse… they were kind of tragic heroines in that way. Julie was never tragic or sensational but of course she was still interesting. The magic of this is that you walk away saying ‘oh, I didn’t know that’ — you find out more about her.”
There is plenty to keep the story interesting. The second-most popular pinup of her time (after Marilyn Monroe), Rhonda laughingly tells me that London’s cover shoots used to take longer than the albums did to record. There was personal conflict in London’s life, too, including her husband’s womanising and alcoholism. “All the songs are peppered into a moment that’s happening in her life, and with such a catalogue to draw from it meant we could really find the right one,” Rhonda explains with sincere enthusiasm. “There’s a more obscure number called ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’, which is about a woman who sees her husband cheating on her in a bar, which is basically what happened to Julie. Her songs of heartbreak work so well, like Black Coffee and the title song Cry Me a River… but there’s fabulously fun songs as well like ‘Hard-Hearted Hannah’.”
With such a large body of work and a very real person’s story to tell, Rhonda tells me that it’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure to carry the show and do it justice, but she adds that it’s also “really rewarding for oneself. The musicians love playing the music, and we stay true to her cool jazz sound – not imitating it, but honouring it – and I love singing it.”
And we can expect to see that love on stage, coming through her performance. “If there’s one thing I’m passionate about it’s a good lyric,” Rhonda says warmly, a woman of music. “The actress part of me loves to sing a good lyric, and that’s what I get to do.”
I’m not sure we could ask for a more potent combination.
Cry Me a River: The World of Julie London at the Brisbane Powerhouse from 1st February.
Bookings and further information at www.brisbanepowerhouse.org or call (07) 3358 8600.