Having agreed to again take on the iconic role of Peter Allen after a break of more than 10 years, Todd McKenney admitted to some early nerves about whether, at 45 years old, he’d still be able to summon the energy to properly channel the legendary entertainer, night after night.
“I didn’t want to be compared to myself 10 years ago and come out worse,” he told the Star Observer.
Any jitters were quickly allayed during the show’s recent dream run in Melbourne, where on more than one occasion McKenney was forced to take an umpteenth curtain call clad in nothing but a towel.
“The crowd wouldn’t leave. I’d be in my dressing room changed out of my smelly outfit five minutes after the show, the houselights would be up but the audience weren’t going anywhere. I actually walked back out on stage and told them to piss off!”
The show, playing for a limited season at the Capitol Theatre from February 26, is a slightly different beast from the original high-glitz production that toured Australia in the late ’90s and became the first Australian musical to enjoy a sell-out season on Broadway.
McKenney said fans could expect a slightly stripped-back production with more of a focus on the story of Allen’s life.
“The older version had more sets and tricks to it, but you really don’t miss them. In this version, the story’s a lot more prominent, and the orchestra’s on stage, which is better for me, because half of the show is Peter Allen in concert.”
McKenney said that despite the decade-long gap between performances, it only took about a week of rehearsals for him to “dust off the cobwebs”.
“I read through the script once before I started and I realised I already knew it as I turned each page,” he chuckled.
It’s no wonder the show is ingrained in McKenney’s mind — he’s clocked up over 800 performances and counting. That’s surely enough maraca-shaking to give anyone RSI.
How does he still summon the required passion for each performance? Or is he on stage thinking about which groceries he needs to pick up on the way home?
“No, I’m thinking about whether I’ll last until the end of the number! My body doesn’t recover like it used to — I can still do the fan kicks but then I limp home.”
While next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Allen’s death from an AIDS-related throat cancer, when the show first premiered in Sydney, little more than five years had passed.
McKenney, who has a long friendship with Allen’s family and met the man himself on several occasions, said receiving the blessing of the entertainer’s loved ones had been an integral part of his winning the role.
“I think in many regards Peter’s mum probably would’ve preferred the musical didn’t happen. But on the day I was to travel to London to audition, she called and asked if I’d stop by their house on the way to the airport. She and Peter’s sister Lynne had packed up three of his shirts for me to wear.
“They said, ‘If these shows are going to happen, we want it to happen with you as Peter,’ so I wore his shirt in my audition.”
Once McKenney won the role, the family supplied him with home videos and unseen recordings of Allen to help with his performance.
“I felt very endorsed by the family, which meant a lot to me. It must have been very difficult for them to see the show.”
Not all of Allen’s loved ones were so supportive. When media outlets asked Allen’s ex-wife Liza Minnelli how she felt about the show, during her 2009 Australian tour, she made her distaste clear.
Ever forthright, McKenney had no qualms in deviating from the PR script to empathise with Minnelli.
“I don’t know how I’d feel if somebody was on stage playing me; I probably wouldn’t be that comfortable about it. I can understand where she’s coming from — if you’re still alive, you don’t really want to think that there’s somebody else out there who can be you,” he said.
Perhaps it’s little wonder McKenney can relate — after all, he was famously usurped by the more bankable Hugh Jackman for the show’s Broadway season and ensuing Australian arena tour. It can’t have been easy, handing over a role he’d fostered since the very first performance, but McKenney handled the situation with grace.
No hard feelings and all that — but did a smile escape when he saw Hugh’s balls-up of a crash landing into the Oprah set in Sydney last December?
“I actually set up that flying fox myself for him. If you saw someone in a balaclava leaving the premises earlier that morning, that was me,” he joked.
“I mentioned Hugh in the show after that, because we have license to make current references a few times without bastardising the story…
“Hugh Jackman — doesn’t he have an eye for the ladies? Well, he used to have two.”
info: The Boy From Oz, Capitol Theatre, February 26 – March 17. Tickets through Ticketmaster.