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Markus' Really Useful People - Simon Burke
Simon Burke

Well it’s time for another of our “Really Useful People” and this time round it’s The Sound of Music captain himself, Simon BurkeFor the last ten months or so Simon has been sweeping Connie Fisher, Summer Strallen and, indeed, Aoife Mulholland off their feet as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music at the London Palladium.

In a long career Simon has many theatre, television and movie roles to his credit.  In Australia he starred in the original cast of Les Miserables and the movies The Devils Playground  and Slate, Wyn And Me. He is also a long time presenter of the Australian incarnation of popular children’s show Play School. His West End credits include A Little Night Music and The Phantom Of The Opera.

It’s only apt that we start at the very beginning as that’s a very good place to start, and it’s fair to say you “started very young” as an actor, with an award-winning role in The Devils Playground as a teenager,  but what can you recall of your very first acting role? – and I mean very first, so school shows count!

My very first role was playing “Ro-Boy” – a boy robot in a children’s theatre piece called The Magic Travel Box at the New Theatre in Sydney, Australia.  I was about nine years old and I had probably my first and only ever spiritual experience!  The lady who made the costumes lived next door to our family and asked me to help her take them up to the theatre one day. We went into the auditorium and she had a meeting with the director. I found myself onstage just mucking about by myself.  As I was on stage in this empty theatre I suddenly had this weird feeling that this was where I needed to be – now and forever – and then the director suddenly called out to me onstage. “Hey, you look like you might be the right size to fit the Ro-Boy costume – you wanna be in the show?”

Can you remember the first time you saw a stage musical, and do you think this inspired you to pursue musical theatre as part of your career?

The first stage musical I saw was a really dodgy production of a musical about Brer Rabbit when I was about seven, although I still remember almost every song from it. What I do remember is seeing a couple of actors that I recognized from telly being foxes and owls and rabbits and I think I got, from them even, a sense of what a ridiculous way it was/is to make a living.  The next musical I saw was when I was dragged by my mum to see A Chorus Line for my sister’s birthday and I thought it was really nothing I would ever be interested in. In fact I refused to see another musical until ten years later when I saw A Chorus Line on Broadway on my 21st birthday and that changed my life.

So what other shows have had an influence on you?

For me, the most phenomenally gut-wrenching show I ever saw was Les Miserables on Broadway, and then the West End in 1987, having just been cast by Trevor Nunn as Marius in the original Australian cast – never having done a musical before. The emotional roller coaster and the truth of the piece, combined with the enormity and the exhilaration of the task that lay ahead, was quite mind blowing.

Are there any people in particular, from the musical theatre world, that have inspired you?

I’m inspired by everyone I work with, the good, the bad and the ugly! Every job you ever do and every performer you ever work with contributes to the performer you are today.

You have played everything from Carl Magnus in A Little Night Music and Raoul in Phantom, to being a co-host on the Australian version of Play School. What would you say are your particular career highlights – musical and otherwise?

Certainly Carl-Magnus in Night Music. I mean I was married to Patricia Hodge and getting it on with Dame Judi! Does it get any better than that? That was a job I had to pinch myself every single day to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

The Sound Of Music and this glorious production of Jeremy Sams’ is a constant delight. Playing the Captain is a definite career highlight – not to mention having the Judy Garland room in the London Palladium as my home for a year.

In Australia, I suppose winning the Australian Film Institute’s award for best actor for The Devil’s Playground at the age of 13 was pretty special.

Hosting Play School on and off now for nearly twenty years. That’s pretty cool!

Having my own TV variety show – Studio A With Simon Burke, which I also co-wrote and co-produced was a real buzz.

Writing and hosting The Helpmann Awards from 2001-2006. Our version of The Tony’s or The Olivier’s.

And I did the world premier of a play called Three Furies – Scenes From the Life Of Francis Bacon (2005-2006) in which I played Bacon.  Without a doubt the most incredibly demanding role of my life and probably the point where everything I have ever learnt over the past, however many years, as an actor was needed.

If you could play any role from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s repertoire which one would you choose, and is there anyone you would particularly like as your co-star?

The lead in his next big show of course! And I’d walk over broken glass to work with Connie again!

You have worked in your native Australia as well as many times here in the UK. What would you say are the biggest differences between the experience of performing musical theatre in the two countries?

The great thing about theatre people is that they really are the same the world over – the same highs and lows, and crazies and mentors, and lost souls and inspirations. What is a little different is the context.  In Australia there is so much less on because of our population.  The mere fact that a show is even on can stop another from getting on so there tends to be a lot more focus on the health of the industry as a whole which is kind of counterproductive. Here, and on Broadway, there seems to be much more of a sense of the whole rather than the various parts.

To paraphrase Peter Allen (“The Boy From Oz” himself) I am sure that, wherever you are, you still call Australia home.  With the exception of the obvious answer of friends and family, what have you most missed while you have been away? Tim Tams??

I miss the beach deeply. Bondi and Freshwater in particular.
I miss vegemite – you can get it here but it runs out too quickly and I like to spread it thick.
I miss my warehouse in Surry Hills. I miss a Thai restaurant called Spice I Am, but I love every second of being in London.
Oh yeah, I miss Tim Tams too – and violet crumble chocolate bars!

For any of your English fans visiting Sydney can you recommend anything that’s a “must do” that wouldn’t normally feature on the tourist map?

I’m a Sydney boy – born and bred – but it’s like London. The very best things to do are always the cheesy tourist things – climb the harbour bridge, go to Palm Beach where they film “Home And Away”, take a ferry to Manly Beach, walk through the botanical gardens at dusk, past Lady Macquarie’s Chair, and end up at the opera house and marvel at the marvel it is…..shut up, you’re getting me homesick now!

And likewise for any Australians visiting London?

Hang out, for days, at the National Gallery, the V & A, the British Museum, the Tate Modern, The Wallace Collection…No one does the museums like the Brits. Just enjoy the fact that you are in the best city in the world and it doesn’t matter what you are doing.

If you weren’t an actor what do you think you would be doing now?

Cursing myself for not being an actor!

And outside of the world of grease paint who are the people who have had the biggest impact on your life?

My mum of course! Everyone else I’ve worked with!

What makes you really happy?

Lying by a pool or on a beach reading/eating/drinking – finally taking a break and stopping after months/years of pushing it too hard.

What makes you really angry?

People (including and especially myself) not realising how lucky they are. Arrogance combined with lack of talent is not a great combo either.

Humpty or Big Ted ?

Humpty can always be put back together again but Big Ted hasn’t got all the kings horses and all the kings men.

Designer lederhosen or home made (from the curtains of course) dirndls?

Lederhosen or bust (and one night they did – split all down my right leg from the crotch to the knee – not a good look in the curtain call, not to mention “Edelweiss”)

You are coming towards the end of a year playing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound Of Music at the London Palladium.  What have been the highlights of your experience?

I’ve done a lot of shows in the past 30-odd (wow!) years but nothing comes close to the roar of the crowd on a good (most) night(s) at the London Palladium. I have keenly felt the honour that it is to play that stage in that incredible theatre. Apart from the really great relationships I have had with all my Marias, I’ve had such a great time with the entire cast and crew.  There are a lot of laughs backstage. I have been especially lucky to have Derek Johnson as my dresser – who is, without a doubt, the best in the business and has made me laugh for 12 months non-stop.  But, I suppose, the highlight for me has been the 72 different Von Trapp kids I’ve worked with. Because I was a child actor, I think, I see a lot of myself in each of them. As they start out in this crazy game – and either keep it up or move on to something eminently more sensible – you get the sense that this experience, with all of us in The Sound Of Music, will stay with them for the rest of their lives, and it’s pretty special to be their dad for a couple of months.

If you had to choose a show song that sums you up which one would you go for?

“It’s So Nice To Have A Cuddle” which I sang on my platinum album “Play School In The Car” back in the nineties and still get royalty cheques for!

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Easy – you get Connie and Summer and Aoife and Gemma Baird to play opposite you and problem solved. How lucky am I?

And finally, of course, can you give us a handy household hint?

Separate your whites – but you all knew that anyway! Get someone to iron your shirts because you’ll never learn now!

Posted on: 18th July 2008

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