The press release trumpeting the world premiere run of Dr Zhivago, Star City’s new big-budget musical, includes the rather romantic tale of the show’s composer, Lucy Simon, seeing Anthony Warlow on stage some 16 years ago as one of the leads in her previous musical, The Secret Garden.

“There is my Zhivago,” she’s reported to have breathlessly exclaimed.

A sweet story seeing as Warlow is now exactly that, but it’s one that Simon (pictured at right with Warlow and his co-star Lucy Maunder) admitted wasn’t altogether true.

“Anthony and I had this wonderful connection during The Secret Garden, but that story’s a bit exaggerated,” she told the Star Observer after a long day of rehearsals prior to the show’s opening last week.

“I didn’t yet have the rights to do Dr Zhivago, but it was a thought I had — if I’m ever lucky enough to do this, Anthony would be perfect. Still, it’s a lovely story, isn’t it?”

The American composer, and sister of music legend Carly, chatted to us before the show’s disaster run of previews, where Warlow tore a calf muscle just hours before the first performance and an underprepared understudy meant the show was abandoned half an hour in.

Thankfully, Warlow’s now fighting fit and back on stage. Simon was effusive in praising her leading man.

“Very few musical actors here have had the experience of creating a role from scratch, rather than recreating a character another actor’s already put their stamp on. This is the first time Anthony’s created a new role, and it’s so exciting to watch him do that, to watch him create his own Dr Zhivago.”

Simon and her creative team started work on the project almost a decade ago. A longtime fan of the 1965 film adaptation, she read Boris Pasternak’s epic 1957 novel “three to four” times before attempting to distil its 600-odd pages into two acts of musical entertainment.

“I’m glad you said ‘distil’, because the word that’s frightening to me is ‘reduce’. If you distil it, you’re taking the essence of the novel and you’re not reducing it. You’re making sure each moment is important,” she said.

“It’s a huge novel, and it’s the work of one of the great Russian poets of the 20th century. The story covers close to 30 years, but at its heart it’s a story about five people. The backdrop is the history that’s going on in Russia at that time.

“It’s an interesting challenge to stay historically accurate without boring the audience with a history lesson.”

Dr Zhivago is the latest in a line of world-class productions to premiere in Sydney, prompting some commentators to suggest that our fair city is acting as a trial run of sorts for productions expected to do big things on Broadway or the West End.

“I don’t know that I agree that Sydney’s the try-out,” Simon said.

“We’re not doing this as a trial run — this is it, this is the premiere. But if it’s embraced by the theatre community, hopefully it’ll travel the world.”

info: Dr Zhivago is now playing at the Lyric Theatre, Star City. Visit www.drzhivago.com.au

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