Sharon Millerchip talks Queens, Swings and Fandoms of SIX THE MUSICAL
Sharon Millerchip - Australian Associate Director of SIX the Musical - sits down with Theatre Thoughts to discuss the success, fandom and the NINE Queens of Australia's currently touring production of SIX!
Sharon is one of the most versatile creative talents on the Australian stage with a swag of awards, including three Helpmanns to her name. Sharon’s theatre performances include Roxie Hart in Chicago; Caroline in Fangirls; Meg Giry in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies; Charity in Sweet Charity; Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast; Catherine in Pippin; Velma Kelly in Chicago; Columbia in Rocky Horror Show; Cordelia in Falsettos; Sonia Walsk in They’re Playing Our Song; Meg Giry in The Phantom of the Opera; Little Red Riding Hood in Into the Woods; Anita in West Side Story and Demeter in Cats.
In addition to her formidable list of performing roles, Sharon has added some impressive directorial credits to her name, including Resident Director and Resident Choreographer on the mega Disney blockbuster Aladdin; Resident Director on Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant production of Strictly Ballroom the Musical for Global Creatures and Associate Choreographer on Yve Blake's smash hit Fangirls for Belvoir and The Queensland Theatre.
Other recent starring roles include the eponymous heroine in Shirley Valentine; all female roles in Last of the Red Hot Lovers; Penny in The Appleton Ladies Potato Race; everyone in the critically acclaimed one woman show Bombshells for the Ensemble Theatre and Joan in Small Mouth Sounds for the Darlinghurst Theatre.
You have an extensive performance in Australian theatre. What first drew you to SIX the Musical? Was there a particular aspect that you felt you could add to it?
Well, the first thing that I’d heard of it really was Louise Withers, the producer, who called me and explained what it was over the phone. I remember explaining to her that I thought it was right up my alley, and she said, “I think so too.” And I was listening to it at home, and I remember both my teenage kids at different times came in and asked, “Oh, is that from a Musical?” because they both knew all the songs and didn’t know they were from a show, but both just thought it was popular on Tik Tok, like they were just pop tunes. Then I went down the rabbit hole of exploring Tudor history and exploring the lives of the six wives and Henry VIII, you know, I had a basic knowledge of it, and because know I am obsessed. Their stories are just fascinating and there’s no other soap opera as salacious or as interesting. There’s also so many elements to this show that just ring my bell, and of course the cast are amazing! It’s just beautiful storytelling, it’s brilliantly choreographed – as an ex-dancer/singer/actor myself, every element of this show just spoke to me. I’m just obsessed with it.
What do you think then is the magic quality that has given SIX such a following and its appeal?
I think it’s kind of a bit genre unto itself. It’s part musical, part pop concert and immersive and then it’s got that historical element that’s so seductive. Every now and then you’re reminded that these historical women existed and have this sort of horrendous history to bring to the stage and that adds another element with it. It’s witty and sort of celebrates unapologetic individuality, and it’s very layered. I think it’s a bit of Trojan Horse in that sense – you can go, “I just want a fun night out at the theatre with lots of singing and dancing,” and you certainly do get that but with a whole lot more bang for your buck. Sometimes it goes a bit dark, and you get some questions that you didn’t anticipate it was going to, and it’s very uplifting also. I think there’s no secret as to why it’s been given eight Tony Nominations.
I was actually going to mention that! Do you think the nominations are reflective of the fandom?
I think so, and how cleverly crafted the piece is. Toby Marlowe and Lucy Moss are just so interesting, and so switched on and clever; they sort of have so much to say. This is just the beginning for them. It’s just such an interesting story for how it came to be.
I remember when I first saw it in London, and I did some research into how it came about, and a lot of these massive shows seem to follow the same formula. They start as a university project, which then goes to the Edinburgh Fringe and gathers a following and then takes off from there.
I know that Louise Withers procured the rights very early on before there was any talk of Broadway or anything like that. So, when Lucy Moss came over for the original incarnation of the show – which was of course pre-COVID – she just walked in the door and she had platform sneakers on, and green hair and this sort of denim tunic. She was just this young artist looking like she was off to a festival, and I just thought it breaks every sort of cliché about who writes the great American songbook. They just turned the whole thing on its head, and it was so refreshing. She’s still so excited and Toby’s still excited, I think they still can’t quite believe everything that’s happened with it.
Talk to me about Australia’s Queens then. They are all incredible performers in their own right, so how do each of them add their own spin to the characters?
They really do add their own spin! I’ve worked in Music Theatre for decades, and I know that shows arrive on our shows as sparkly polished diamonds, and we get cast in them and absolutely bring ourselves to these roles but there’s always a strong template that we adhere to and stick to in terms of characterisation. SIX kind of breaks the mould on that. Yes, we have characteristics and historical elements, and they sing the same lines and they hit the same notes as everywhere else in the world, but in terms of interpretation, individuality is celebrated on this show like no other show I’ve worked on.
Our Anna of Cleves, she’s completely different to the one on the West End and the one on Broadway. We absolutely have our own distinct Australian flavour. We just had George Stiles (who wrote some of the music for Mary Poppins and was one of the original producers on SIX) come to see our show last week and he thought it just absolutely embodies what SIX is all about. That all of our Queens are up there and authentically and completely unapologetically themselves, and our production is unlike any other and we celebrate that.
That’s our challenge as a director as well that we are still telling the story and honouring the piece, and yet still inviting the performers to bring an element of themselves, and their own charismatic spin on the characters.
What about the Swings? They’ve had just as much work as the other Queens recently, what does it take to be a Swing?
*SIX Australia's swings are Chiara Assetta, Shannen Alyce Quan, and Karis Oka.
These swings* are just off the charts! They’re each ready to take any of the six roles at any given times, and they do. Sometimes they’ll play Seymour in the matinee and Aragon in the evening. They put the work in, we worked really hard from the beginning, and in the rehearsal room to get them on top of everything they need to know to comfortably shape shift from one character to the other and have this deep well of resources to know what they’re doing.
Unlike a lot of other shows, our swings are, again, celebrated for their individuality – they even have their own fandom! Their job isn’t to go on and impersonate the person they’re covering, you know they don’t even have the same costume as the person they’re covering, they actually have their own. So, when they go on, you’re seeing Shannon’s Catherine of Aragon, or Karis’ Catherine Howard. They have their own publicity photographs, and when they go on, we announce it on social media, and they have their own “coronation”. So, it’s never the case of slipping in a swing to make it like they’re somebody else, we celebrate the individuality of our nine Queens.
You’ve starred in countless productions yourself; as Associate Director, do you think this helps when stepping behind the scenes?
I think it does. We have a mutual respect sort of thing, they know I’ve walked the walk and know what’s it like to do eight or nine shows a week on tour, and they trust me and that I’ve always got their backs. It’s been such a rewarding addition to what I do as a performer. I’m lucky enough that I’m at the point where I can direct on SIX, and I’m directing Anna O’Byrne at a show at the Opera House next week, and I’ve just finished performing in North by Northwest, so I’ve got a few balls in the air and that’s how I like it. Because I feel that being a performer makes me a better director, and being a director absolutely makes me a better performer.
Sharon Millerchip as Belle in Beauty and the Beast
They really do kind of lean on each other don’t they?
They absolutely do, you know it’s broadened my world. Especially in technical rehearsals, which is when you move into a new theatre, and you stand around for hours as they focus lights and such. And I think my only experience of it as a performer was I couldn’t understand what was taken everyone so long! But now, I captain those ships. I know what goes on in a technical rehearsal and my breadth of knowledge has grown so enormously and I love that.
So, what’s next for you then?
Well, the show that I mentioned earlier is Becoming Eliza, and it’s Anna O’Byrne’s experience of playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady under Julie Andrew’s direction. I did Love Never Dies with Anna, and now she’s playing for a week at the Opera House in the first week of June and I’m directing that. Then I’m going back into Fangirls which is also at the Opera House, it’s going to be great with an all-new cast. Karis who played Edna the lead, Yve’s (Blake) role, she’s one of our swings in SIX and Shannon as well, was one of the swings in Fangirls and we have her as a swing on SIX as well. So that gives you an idea of the calibre of our swings on the production.
SIX the Musical is currently on tour in Adelaide performing at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The show will then tour to Melbourne's Comedy Theatre from 17th June before touring to New Zealand and Brisbane, more information to be released soon. Jump on the New Zealand waitlist and Brisbane waitlist now.
Photos: James D Morgan, Getty Images