Hayden Tee interview

Hayden Tee (left) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tapoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

Hayden Tee (seated) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tipoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

In early 2013, Hayden Tee was in Pittsburgh performing in a musical called 1776, playing a strutting landowner with a chilling song extolling the slave trade. The US tour of Cameron Macintosh’s new production of Les Misérables happened to be in town at the same time and unbeknown to Tee someone from the company saw his performance.

Out of the blue, Macintosh’s London office asked him to record videos of him singing Stars from Les Mis and his song from 1776. Several auditions later, both online and in person in Australia, Tee landed the prize role of Javert in the Australian production, for which he has won rave reviews.

After six months in Melbourne and two in Perth, the production is currently playing in Sydney. Chatting in his dressing room at the Capitol Theatre, Tee is great company. He’s never been happier, he says, and he certainly exudes a tangible feeling of excitement, bonhomie and wellbeing.

He has done his dressing room up as a kind of home away from home for the next few months with a pink wall, red sofas, coffee table, lamp, photographs and several soft toys from fans including a Jabear (a small bear dressed as Javert) and a penguin.

New Zealand-born Tee began his career in Australia after studying at NIDA but moved to the US five years ago where his credits include the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods in Atlanta, Freddy in My Fair Lady in Boston, Arthur in Camelot and Rutledge in 1776 in Pittsburgh and, most recently, Jack in a new musical called Being Earnest in San Francisco.

However, he leapt at the opportunity to return to Australia to play Javert, the implacable policeman who hunts reformed convict Jean Valjean (played by Simon Gleeson) across the years.

“I moved to America because I wanted to do new musicals and be the first to sing a song. But I got there are realised that in order to do that you’ve actually got to do a lot of crap, you know what I mean,” he says with a chuckle.

“The good ones come along very seldomly. In workshops it’s an amazing process but it takes time to hone something so it’s really nice to come here now for Les Mis. I think it’s absolutely my favourite role that I’ve ever played. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” says Tee, who in 2005 played the young, love-struck student Marius in London’s West End.

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Tee sees Javert as more of “an antagonist” than a villain. “I’ve grown up with these characters, Marius at 25 and now Javert at 35. I love Javert. He’s not a villain. He’s written in such a way that he’s just a man doing what he thinks is right. I have to walk out there every night firmly believing that he’s the hero and he is trying to get Valjean off the streets to protect people,” he says.

“Javert doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean meets the Bishop and has a real life change. He doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean finds a new reason to live in this girl he looks after. When he finally sees an element of that in the sewers where he’s got Marius and he says, ‘let me go, the boy’s done nothing wrong’, that’s when the whole thing starts to fall apart for him.

“(The character) is so well written, it’s so multi-layered. I’m openly gay and very different to Javert so it’s personally rewarding to prove to myself and others that I can inhabit the particular type of masculinity required for a role like this,” adds Tee.

Born in a small New Zealand town called Maungaturoto (population around 800), Tee (who turns 35 in June) began acting in his teens.

“There was a very strong theatre group in the village where I grew up. My stepfather and mother and little brother are now involved. That’s where I started. I remember I was very shy growing up and my Nana thought it would be a good idea to boost my confidence by sending me along to the Otamatea repertory theatre – and it did.”

Mind you, he never suspected then that it could become a career. “People including myself didn’t think it was possible that you could get paid for doing that. My Dad now can’t quite get his head around the fact that it’s professional theatre. I think he still thinks I have a job and it’s kind of what I do on the side.”

He does, in fact, have another job that he has done between acting gigs and, for a while, alongside his theatre career: fashion make-up – though one suspects there won’t be much time for that in the coming years.

“I love fashion,” says Tee. “In New York I spend so much money on clothes. I feel a little bit guilty but I’ll just have to wear them now. That’s the world I got into in New York more because I’m a make-up artist as well. I designed 14 shows for fashion week in New York in February last year. For years I tried to keep them very separate and would never talk about the make-up stuff if I was acting and vice versa. I guess as I’m getting older, I think, ‘who cares?’”

Tee was first introduced to Les Misérables by his stepfather. “He was courting my mother and to get in my good books he bought me the video of the 10th anniversary production of Les Mis and I watched that on repeat until it fell apart. I didn’t know the show. I watched it and went, ‘oh my god, this is amazing.’ I just loved it.”

The original production famously used a revolving stage. This 25th anniversary production has replaced that with a stunning new staging, which includes projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself.

Tee, who knew the original staging intimately after his stint as Marius, describes it as “new and fresh. It’s almost like an homage to the original but at the same time it’s very different. I thought it might be a bit more scaled down but I think it’s actually more epic.

“I think getting rid of the revolve has really exploded the whole thing out in many directions. I love the new lighting and the new orchestrations. I think it’s much more epic in general. The new projections are beautiful. I think you really feel you are stepping into Victor Hugo’s version of Les Mis, the way he envisaged it.”

Tee has read Hugo’s epic 1862 novel on which the musical is based three times now – the first time when he played Marius and twice in preparation for this current production – and says that Hugo uses a lot of animal imagery, describing Javert as a tiger.

“I initially thought he’s a bit of a wolf. He’s very dark but wolves hunt in packs. After I read that I went and watched a few tiger documentaries. They are very still but when they go, they are decisive, and they are lone hunters. They are very solitary animals, which is absolutely what Javert is,” says Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee. Photo: Matt Murphy

“I don’t think anyone knows him. He keeps up an absolutely façade. He was born to a gypsy prostitute mother and a convict father and I think he’s trying to hide that so people don’t know where he comes from. He has this kind of posh upper-class exterior but there are certain moments when he lets that animal inside him out, and the only that really triggers that in his life is this dude called Jean Valejan.

“I’m so lucky to have Gleeson. He’s such a generous beautiful man. And he’s so present (as a performer). He’s an absolute gift to work with.”

Some people have said to Tee that he’s too young for the role. “But Philip Quast was 29 when he started. I’m actually older than Philip was,” he says.

A “huge fanboy” of Quast, who played the role in the original Australian production, Tee had to pinch himself when he was asked to sing Lily’s Eyes from The Secret Garden with Quast at a fund-raising concert for the Hayes Theatre Co.

“He’s such an amazing man and such an amazing performer. I feel the pressure of his legacy and the way he did the role. I don’t want to copy him. We spent the whole day together (rehearsing at the Hayes). Philip brought in this truncheon for me to look at that he made himself (for Javert) and gave me lots of little tips that I came back and shared with my two understudies as well.”

As for Russell Crowe’s widely maligned performed in the film: Tee isn’t one to put the boot in.

“I honestly do think that Russell Crowe brought something new to the role I hadn’t seen before, a certain vulnerability. Whether or not that vulnerability was (him thinking) ‘I don’t know if I can hit those notes or not’, there were moments where it really did work, I think, like leading up to the suicide. I liked that part of the film. I could do without his voice but he is amazing actor. And he’s a Kiwi.”

Tee says that the show is attracting hordes of fans, many of whom gather at the stage door after the show, some of them in costume.

“The amount of middle-aged women I have coming dressed as Javert…. I love and adore them but it’s like, what’s with that? This one woman has every costume I have in every scene. It’s just one of those musicals. But they are very, very supportive, I must say.

“We had the same thing when I did it in London 10 years ago now. We had these fans, mostly women, who came like two or three times a week and they always came to the stage door. They had their favourites. There was one in London – Fred her name was – and she hated me. When I left, she bought me a suitcase and said, ‘pack it up’. Others loved me and they would get into fights. Very bizarre.”

Whatever Fred may have thought of Tee’s Marius, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t be blown away by his Javert. He is superb: a commanding, dark presence, who stalks the stage with a contained yet ferocious power and his spine tingling rendition of Stars is one of the highlights of the show.

Asked whether there has been any interest in him playing the role elsewhere, he pauses. “Maybe…” he says with laugh.

You get the impression that he’d be happy to play the role for some time to come.

“I’m happier than I have ever been in my life at the moment,” he says. “I love playing Javert. I love it so much. I feel very lucky. It’s a real pleasure to come to work.”

Les Misérables runs at the Capitol Theatre until July 12. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 558 878

A version of this interview ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 22

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2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

Waiting for Godot

Sydney Theatre, November 16

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s just three years since Ian McKellen and Roger Rees toured here in a British production of Waiting for Godot that played up the vaudevillian theatricality in Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary, absurdist drama, with Vladimir and Estragon relating to each other like a well-oiled comedy duo.

Now comes a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir that undoes you emotionally in a far more profound way. The comedy is still there, beautifully so ­– though less self-consciously vaudevillian – but beneath both the humour and the existential bleakness is great tenderness, humanity, pathos and a disarming sense of caring.

Even the oppressed Lucky (Luke Mullins) gently wipes the face of his tyrannical master Pozzo (Philip Quast), having helped him to his feet at they prepare to depart in Act Two. It’s an incredibly touching moment that takes you completely by surprise and has you suddenly re-evaluating their relationship.

The production was to have been helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who directed Roxburgh and Weaving in the STC’s acclaimed 2012 Uncle Vanya. When an injury left him unable to fly, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach, with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel as his associate, and directs a production of great clarity that is light on its feet yet terribly moving.

Zsolt Khell’s stark set resembles a charred, empty theatre, open to the back wall, within a false proscenium studded with broken and missing light bulbs. The famous tree is a thin streak of trunk with a single branch that arches heavenwards, disappearing from view.

It is beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, who bathes the stage in a sudden snap of blue light as night descends, while Alice Babidge’s costumes are suitably tattered and worn.

Weaving and Roxburgh are like two sad but resilient clowns who have made their way together, for better or worse. Roxburgh’s boyish Gogo is the more lost, despairing and occasionally angry, tugging plaintively at his ill-fitting boots and looking to Didi for comfort and food, yet he is playfully funny too.

Weaving’s Didi is jauntier and more in control, rolling the words around his mouth as he enunciates crisply like an old theatrical pro, the one who seems to remember more of the past, including the fact that they are to meet the enigmatic Godot.

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Quast and Mullins are more than their match as Pozzo and Lucky who appear in both acts, helping to alleviate the endless waiting.

Mincing onto the stage, his back arched dramatically as if promenading amongst high society, Quast is superb as the pompous, grandiose Pozzo: a big, corpulent figure compared to his scrawny servant. With his rich, resonant voice, Quast’s Pozzo is like a ringmaster in the first act, brutally in control. In the second act, now blind, he staggers on like a wounded bull, his authority undone.

With long, straggly white hair, Mullins is a ghostly yet feral presence and knocks you for six with his explosive, tortured outpouring of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue.

On opening night Rory Potter completed the exemplary cast as the boy who arrives, twice, to say that Godot won’t be coming.

In this thrilling, incredibly special production, you experience afresh Beckett’s iconic, exquisitely written play about everything and nothing. It really does seem to encompass the whole of life. Unforgettable.

Waiting for Godot runs at the Sydney Theatre until December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 24