Friday, July 31, 2015

Musicals / What's On / Industry News / Tips & Tricks


With a starring role in a high profile Australian tour and a freshly minted debut album, Alex Rathgeber is riding high.

Unwinding in his dressing room after a matinee with a refreshing brew of The Five Vocal Tea, Rathgeber shared his insights, recollections and future dreams. Read on to discover the famous stars he has worked with, the worst audition he ever had, and the time he was forbidden to be in a musical.

Rathgeber has recently won a Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role, for his performance as charming, love-struck broker Billy Crocker in ANYTHING GOES. “It’s a really lovely thing to be recognised, especially three weeks after we’ve opened. For the whole show to be nominated nine times in different categories and to get that kind of celebration happening when we’re so new has just been a really nice thing for everyone.”

Alex Rathgeber and Caroline O'Connor
ANYTHING GOES, Opera Australia and John Frost
Photo by Jeff Busby

Todd McKenney and Wayne Scott Kermond are also in the show again, but with the rest of the company new to the show, rehearsals had to begin from scratch. “It definitely felt like a head start having done it before, but the three of us had to jog our memories. Doing it opposite Caroline [O’Connor], Claire [Lyon] and Bart [John] in this new cast was totally different. In many ways it feels like I never did the show before.”

Preparing for a fully staged production allowed for a longer rehearsal period. “Last time we were flying by the seat of our pants by the time we opened after only two weeks. To have five weeks of rehearsals this time allowed for a lot more depth and excavation of all the little nuances. It’s nice to find all that truth.”

ANYTHING GOES has been an ongoing favourite for decades. “It’s bloody funny. And the music and the dance numbers are so infectious. In our production, Dean and Andrew [Hallsworth]’s interpretation of all that has taken it to another level again. I was laughing out loud at the first read through because of what’s on the page; it’s a very special combination of book and music.”

Alex Rathgeber and Claire Lyon
ANYTHING GOES, Opera Australia and John Frost
Photo by Jeff Busby


Melbourne Theatre Company began 2010 with smash hit THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. Rathgeber credits this success to Geoffrey Rush and the rest of the incredible cast, but notes modestly: “I don’t include myself in that when I say that!” Rathgeber’s affection for his costars is evident as he goes onto list more names: “Robyn Nevin, Richard Piper, Christie Whelan-Browne, Rohan Browne, Zahra Newman, Rhonda Burchmore, Adam Murphy. It was just the most spectacular combination of actors.

“I saw it on the West End when it first came out when I was living over there and it was one of those shows where you nearly wet your pants because it’s so funny. A lot of people find musicals a strange phenomenon, saying ‘I go to them but they’re just so silly’ or ‘Why did that person just burst into song?’ and THE DROWSY CHAPERONE captures the essence of what people like that love to see.”

Unlike many franchised musicals from overseas, MTC staged a new production of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE . “It was so great to be in the rehearsal room with [director] Simon Phillips and Geoffrey and Robyn and those older actors have such a long history and such a close relationship. It was just wonderful. The combination of skills there was really special.”

Grant Piro, Christine Whelan-Brown and Alex Rathgeber
Photo by Jeff Busby


Another Australian premiere was rarely seen Broadway musical GREY GARDENS. “I loved working with Roger [Hodgman, director] on that. I did my first professional musical with Roger, my first two actually: ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and KISS ME, KATE. GREY GARDENS was a few years later, and it was great to work with Roger again, and Dana [Jolly, choreographer] and Kellie Dickerson [music director].

In the tour de force roles of Big and Little Edie, Rathgeber’s castmates were Nancye Hayes and Pamela Rabe. “Together, and individually, they were very, very special. Their attention to detail and finessing every last little thing and just really immersing themselves into the physicality and the vocal colours of the characters was quite extraordinary.”

Rathgeber played dual roles: handsome young naval officer Joseph P. Kennedy Jr and local teen Jerry. “They were very contrasting kinds of men. One a younger boy, one’s a slightly older boy so I knew that had to be very different. I especially loved playing Jerry because he really did get this amazing closeness with them. I remember sitting on stage and sitting next to the bed. It doesn’t really get any more intimate than that does it?”

Alex Rathgeber and Liz Stiles
GREY GARDENS, The Production Company
Photo by Jeff Busby


Earlier this year, in the Sydney season of NEXT TO NORMAL, Rathgeber again played dual roles. Both being doctors made the distinction a bit harder. “I found it challenging playing the second doctor, Dr Madden, because he gets spoken to and sung at a lot; he has to observe.

“But playing opposite Natalie O’Donnell was just the most moving experience. She just throws herself like a bull at a gate, gives everything every time. And [Anthony] Harkin as well. The two of them together were just off the charts, it was amazing.”

The personal nature of NEXT TO NORMAL affects audiences strongly. “We definitely had a lot of people tumultuously moved after the show. A lot of that was to do with their own personal experiences of having lost a child, or having someone close to them that’s lost a child, or dealing with mental issues themselves or again with someone close to them.

“People come along to see a musical, which nine times out of ten are more joyous experiences, and to come away rocked to the core and all of this emotion brought up from deep within, it’s very, very special to be able to do that with any piece of theatre.. I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to do NEXT TO NORMAL this year and ANYTHING GOES, which are really at either ends of the spectrum in terms of how they affect an audience.”

Natalie O'Donnell and Alex Rathgeber
NEXT TO NORMAL, Doorstep Arts
Photo by Yael Stemple


In June this year, Rathgeber released his debut album, EASY TO LOVE, with a song list he has been planning for a long time. “I’ve had my dream song list for an album or a show for years, ever since I was at WAAPA. I’ve got all these bits of paper in my piles of music. I had a couple of attempts at getting it going and doing it over the last couple of years and for whatever reason it didn’t ultimately seem like the right time. So when I got cast in ANYTHING GOES I had 14 months until I started rehearsals and that seemed like a good amount of time to capitalise on the opportunity.

The opening track is from the 2014 Broadway musical THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY “I’ve listened to the score a lot in a short amount of time because it’s fairly recent. I was so moved and inspired, and just felt this very strong connection to the music and to the story and to that particular character. And I love that kind of musical theatre where there’s an evocative emotional content. I also have adored Jason Robert Brown and have sung various songs of his over time.”

For the haunting “Somewhere,” Rathgeber is joined by Lucy Maunder. “I haven’t been in WEST SIDE STORY, I have just always loved that song and that score. I sang “Tonight” as one of my two songs to get into WAAPA, and I guess that’s when my knowledge of that show started. I auditioned for WEST SIDE STORY when it came out about five years ago. I remember going in and thinking ‘I think I sit somewhere between Tony and Riff. I’m not really the right vocal type for Tony, but I’m also not really a good enough dancer for Riff, or not quite right personality wise for Riff.’ So I sort of knew going in that I wasn’t right. And it was one of the most embarrassing dance auditions I’ve ever done!”

Rathgeber may be one of the first artists to sing both Raoul’s “All I Ask Of You” (in a duet with ANYTHING GOES co-star Claire Lyons) and the Phantom’s “The Music of The Night.” Rathgeber played Raoul in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in London’s West End. “I used to just listen to Ramin [Karimloo] sing “The Music of the Night.” I’d go down and stand in the wings and listen to his absolutely mind-blowing version of it. I don’t know whether I’d ever be right to play the role but I just love the song.”

A third duet on the album is “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” with ANYTHING GOES leading lady Caroline O’Connor. The idea of a launch or one-night concert presentation of the songs on the album has been discussed backstage. “Caroline suggested I do that. Todd [McKenney] informally offered to host and Caroline offered to introduce me. It seems like it would be a fun thing to do and have Caroline and Claire and Lucy all there and do our numbers. So we’ll see what happens.”

Like many professional music theatre performers, Rathgeber began at a young age. “My first couple of productions were really special: THE KING AND I and THE SOUND OF MUSIC - two of the most beautiful, everlasting pieces. They were my introduction to musicals and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then I did GODSPELL, and that was really special at the time. They were Horsham Arts Council productions.

“I came down to Melbourne and went to boarding school. Because the level of education was quite a considerable step up from Horsham, Mum and Dad wanted to me to focus on my studies, so for the first year I wasn’t permitted to be involved in the musical. But I’d hear when they were upstairs just above the boarding house, and I used to go up to the rehearsal room and watch.”

Happily, Rathgeber achieved pleasing academic results and was allowed to be in the following year’s musical, which was the biennial operetta. “I played Strephon in IOLANTHE with the Nervo twins, Olivia and Miriam. They’re drop-dead gorgeous girls, twins, who have gone on to become huge pop star DJ sensations internationally!

“I played Jesus in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR when I was in year 12, which was an amazing opportunity.

“Eddie Perfect was in third year when I was in first year at WAAPA and he’d written a show called UP. So at the end of my first year, we were the original workshop of it, with my amazing classmates Verity [Hunt-Ballard], Patrice [Tipoki], James Millar, Lisa Sontag and Vivian Carter.

“The next year we did PACIFIC OVERTURES with John Milson, who has since passed away. He used to run the course and was such a character. His knowledge of everything music theatre was second to none so he was an amazing director to have. Nancye [Hayes] came and did PERFECTLY FRANK with us, which was really amazing.

“We did FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in third year as our mid-year musical and I played Mordcha. Then we finished with THE WILD PARTY and I played Black, which was my absolute favourite because where else would I get the opportunity to play that?”

Besides the musicals discussed in this article, Rathgeber other appearances include The Production Company’s THE BOY FROM OZ, MAME, THE BOY FRIEND, CAMELOT, and THE PAJAMA GAME, plus THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, SIDESHOW ALLEY and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN.

Alex Rathgeber
CAMELOT, The Production Company
Photo by Jeff Busby


Alex Rathgeber and Kate Kendall
Photo by Brian Geach

Having already played some of his dream roles, Rathgeber is looking ahead to new material. “I’m really excited about the prospect of doing new things that haven’t been done in this country before, that are either written by someone overseas or that are home grown. I’m excited about doing new things and creating the role, and having the luxury, hopefully, of being able to do musical comedy like this and being able to do deeper more dramatic musicals as well.”

Purchase details for the album EASY TO LOVE are listed on Rathgeber’s website: HERE.

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