As The Boy From Oz neared its world premiere in Sydney in 1997, many thought rock star Chrissy Amphlett was taking the career risk of a lifetime attempting to play Judy Garland in the musical.
Up to that time, no one had ever attempted to play Garland on stage. The iconic star had kept drag acts busy for decades, but as for playing her in a dramatic context the spectre of the Garland legend loomed too large.
But Amphlett, the hard rock queen of Australian music who had spent years wearing a torn school uniform on stage while belting out songs like I Touch Myself, was boldly and bravely up for the challenge.
As critics and audiences soon agreed, the combination of Amphlett and Garland proved a winning combination. Her star turn as the ageing diva in decline helped turn The Boy From Oz into a hit.
Now, six years since the last time she slipped into one of Garland’s beaded outfits, Chrissy Amphlett has left her New York home to return to Australia for the arena production of The Boy From Oz, which opens 3 August at the Entertainment Centre.
Speaking with the Star during a break in The Boy From Oz rehearsals, Amphlett is a far cry from either the rock’n’roll Divinyls rock diva or the sassy, showbiz survivor she plays in the show.
There is a gentle style about Amphlett as she walks into the room, and then sits down to chat with a thoughtful intensity.
She says she had no hesitation about reprising a role as fascinating as Garland, particularly as it was alongside Hugh Jackman reprising his Tony Award-winning turn on Broadway.
I had to reacquaint myself with the whole thing, Amphlett says. I am dancing more in this show, which is a challenge. As long as I have challenges, it will be interesting, not just the same thing. So I am on edge with this, so that is good.
She says with a character as complex as Garland, the most important thing she learnt from her last experiences was to focus on the spirit of the late singer.
There was a frailty and vulnerability there and an emotional capacity, which at times made things difficult for her, Amphlett says. There were all those things there for her to contend with, but once there was an audience there, she just went for it.
She always tried to keep going. If the audience was behind her, she was fed by the audience, by that love.
The more Amphlett speaks about her feelings about playing Garland again, it soon becomes clear that the two singers had more in common than just powerhouse vocal styles. In some ways, it sounds like Amphlett could be talking about herself.
In her book, Pleasure And Pain, which was released last year, Amphlett exposed some of her own dark demons and the ways she battled them.
She also admitted she lived her life fed by an audience and also by the old showbiz adage that, no matter what, the show must always go on.
Writing the book was actually like therapy -“ like 250 hours of therapy, she admits. It made me feel quite ill and exhausted.
I wondered afterwards if it had been all worth it, but I think now it was. I feel I have been able to integrate all those lives that, before the book, felt disjointed.
I now feel like there is some kind of continuity to my life. I also had a good laugh at myself and things I had shame about dissolved. To get rid of that was heaven.
Amphlett says she truly felt the audience’s love when she performed I Touch Myself at the 2001 Sleaze Ball. I was glad I did it as I felt the love, and that was great, she recalls. To walk out on that stage and feel what I did was pretty amazing.
She then adds she was not surprised by that kind of reaction from a gay and lesbian crowd.
I have always gravitated to people who are outsiders or on the edge. I have always been with people who were misfits, and I think they [gays and lesbians] always had an attraction to Divinyls.
While playing Garland in The Boy From Oz certainly brought Amphlett new respect from the theatre crowd, it seems time has also brought acceptance from the rock’n’roll fraternity.
At this year’s ARIA Awards on 16 August, Divinyls will be inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
I never felt that embrace before, so it is nice to feel that now, she admits.
In the band, we did things on our own terms, so it is funny to come through all of that and now be accepted and be told we were pioneers.
This is a good thing, after all this time. We were never the darlings -“ we were always the little horrors. We still are a bit, she says with that slightly dangerous look which earned her a place as the wild woman of rock.
She then breaks into a laugh as she warns you wait until the night -“ you’ll see. We will be trying to make it a celebrating of what we always did.
The Boy From Oz opens 3 August at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Bookings on 1300 883 622 or the Ticketmaster website.