By Ellen Burgin – Senior Writer
She’s just loverly- Internationally renowned performer Anna O’Byrne has worked with some of the greatest legends in musical theatre history – Dame Julie Andrews says she is one of the loveliest Australian actresses in musical theatre today, with a gorgeous voice and a phenomenal range, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has said she’s a classic timeless screen beauty. With all this high praise and her extraordinary global career, O’Byrne was still humble, excited, and delighted when I spoke to her about Becoming Eliza, the first show she’s written, about her journey to becoming Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady, after being hand selected and mentored by the Dame herself.
The show began as a sort of musical theatre actor’s diary, of notes and observations scribbled in the margins of her script while rehearsing for the 60th anniversary tour of My Fair Lady in 2016.
“It very much started in the rehearsal room, with me just wanting to document, or engage with the process in a slightly more permanent way than just nodding my head in the rehearsal room. I think I knew that this was meant to be a pretty unique experience. And then little moments that happened in the rehearsal room as well my observations and my blocking and those sorts of things that just sort of got scribbled into my script. One point, Robyn Nevin leaned over to me, and she said, “Are you writing this down?”’, O’Byrne explained.
“Those scribbles kind of grew and changed and went out into different notebooks. In the two and a half years, I spent playing Eliza. I spent like a couple of weeks just tapping away at my laptop trying to get everything out. I had been reading a couple of like actor’s diaries at that at that time, Nicholas Hytner and Michael Blakemore’s books”.
She then shared the idea with producer Enda Markey, about playing Eliza and working with Julie, and Julie adjacent songs, and he snapped it up immediately, bringing on board a creative team to help bring the idea to life.
“The show was really well received in both Sydney and Adelaide; people have been loving it. I think there’s something about the music. there’s something a little bit nostalgic about it. And we’ve done these arrangements that doesn’t make it feel so nostalgic, that makes it feel very present, because there are these things in there that are still really relevant as well today”, she said.
In Becoming Eliza, O’Byrne shares stories about working intimately with an internationally adored icon, and what it is to share a role, created sixty years apart as well as the lessons she learned from both Dame Julie and Eliza – Dame Julie really did make them call her ‘mum’ in the rehearsal room, and she was a bit like the Higgins to O’Byrne’s Eliza, in the show and in life.
“I think I think that there is a relationship between the director of My Fair Lady, and in any show, where they are sort of a mentor figure. You’re involved in bringing that person’s vision to life and that’s your responsibility is the actor to be able to do that to the best of your ability. There are such strong parallels to me, of the journey of the actor playing Eliza goes on to become Eliza. And then what Eliza herself goes through. And again, the interesting thing about Pygmalion and My Fair Lady is that you see that happening, and you see behind the curtain”, O’Byrne said.
Unlike myself while talking to O’Byrne, she managed to not have a fangirl moment in the audition process.
“You’re going into your audition, and it’s a lovely audition in front of the original Maria von Trapp, Mary Poppins, and the Queen of Genovia. It’s crazy that you walk in there and that she’s sitting there. But you don’t lose it, you keep it together, because it wouldn’t be appropriate or professional and nor would it be very comfortable for her. But she’s much, much nicer and much more beautiful to work with – the first day we started rehearsals, was just me and Alex Jennings who was playing Higgins, and the core creative team, and we met for a day at the house that she was at the house that she was staying at, and her manager and her assistants were all staying there, because they’re like a big family. We read through parts of the script and talked about things and had lunch, like a bit of an icebreaker”, she explained.
“She was very honest, all the way through, when she didn’t know things, like she would turn to our choreographer and say, ‘Well, what, what should we do here?’. She treated us like creative family and trusted the team who she’s assembled around her. From my perspective, that was extremely refreshing, because that meant that I felt comfortable to be vulnerable, so I never sort of felt that pressure. I don’t think I ever did have that fangirl moment. I mean, she did sign some things for me!”, O’Byrne laughed.
“I think the beautiful roles that we see on screen, we see her grace and humour, she’s so funny, and full her generosity, but she’s very human person. As wonderful as the performances that we know of her, to reduce it down to just that does her a disservice in a way. She was much, much nicer, and much more beautiful, it was definitely a pinch me moment”.
For O’Byrne, this is just the latest pinch me moment in her extraordinary career – she speaks fondly of working with Lloyd Webber, from two weeks after graduating from VCA, scoring the understudy role of Christine Daaé in the Australian tour of Phantom of the Opera, creating the role in Love Never Dies, and making her West End debut as Christine – she was even the first actress to perform Christine in Phantom in Russia!
“He’s been incredibly supportive, like instrumental in getting my career established in in the UK. I would have expected him to be very hands on in terms of the delivery of how I was singing his songs. I remember when we were filming Love Never Dies, he took me aside for five minutes before I sang the aria and said, ‘Now this is the story that the song needs to tell’. He didn’t talk to me about the notes or the tone, or the phrasing, he’s never been prescriptive about how I should sing things. And he’s been just so supportive, I’ve done several events where he’ll just pop on the keys and play for me”, O’Byrne said.
Not only does she have an extraordinary voice, career and album, but she balances it all with being a mum to a toddler, with her partner Andy also working in theatre.
“The grandparents that been essential. It’s been very interesting because he was born just a couple of months before the pandemic began, and now with both my partner and I working we don’t really have any show fitness for this, we’re just really working that out now when he’s sort of a toddler. My son came up to Sydney with me for the show and it was beautiful to have him there. He thrived, I mean, why wouldn’t you with ferries in Sydney and trains! He’s had us basically full time for two and a half years, which is an experience that we wouldn’t have had had the pandemic not happened”, she said.
The pandemic didn’t stop her either – she was already a trail blazer teaching singing online before it all began.
“I love it, I have a really beautiful little studio of students. And the great thing is that we’re also open to online learning now. It’s made the world so much smaller; people are a lot more willing to sort of learn in that environment. I love teaching on Zoom, I think that there are a lot of benefits. Because they can see themselves on screen, you can say take a look at yourself there, so they can kind of check in physically with what they’re doing. It’s such a fun way of doing it, and maybe because you’re not in the room with someone, you feel a bit more confident maybe to try things out”, said O’Byrne.
At least the pandemic gave her a lot of time to write and refine the show, which she thinks was to the benefit of the show, for the honesty in it, and her courage with the writing.
“It afforded quite a long development process for the show. I sort of thought we’re storytellers, and we’ve not been very good at telling our own stories to people. This was interesting to me to pull back the curtain a little and let the audience in on the process, to see to see the behind the scenes as you’re doing it. If COVID hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I’d be quite as bold to do that. Writing has always been something that I’ve done, but I’ve just never been very public about it. And it’s been really exciting to have my first show premiere at the Opera House, it’s crazy!”, she said.
Working with director Sharon Millerchimp and musical director Guy Simpson, the show has already performed in Sydney and Adelaide, and O’Byrne discussed how exciting it was to have now performed and experimented with the show.
“We’ve done a really stripped back version out of Ukaria, which is a beautiful new music venue in the Adelaide Hills. We did a very low-fi version of it, and it went over really well. So that was exciting, because it shows the strong and that people are engaged, and the music is carried across. It’s been great to do a couple of different versions of it”, she said.
Becoming Eliza is now playing at His Majesty’s Theatre in Perth – if you haven’t been able to catch this show at the Sydney Opera House, at Ukaria in Adelaide or in Perth this weekend, keep an eye on the show’s website, as we hear there has been a lot of interest in the show (and hope!) more dates may be announced in the future.