Blake Bowden sat in the audience at the Princess Theatre last year as some of Australia’s biggest music theatre stars sung and danced their way through South Pacific. This spring, he is standing among them on the Sydney Opera House stage, singing the role of Cable in the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic he grew up listening to.
“I’ve wanted to do a Rodgers & Hammerstein my whole life,” the 29-year-old said. “So the opportunity to do South Pacific and this production, the famed Bartlett Sher production … it’s beyond my wildest dreams, to be honest.”
It might seem a serendipitous journey for a young actor and singer, who makes his Sydney Opera House debut with South Pacific, but spend five minutes with Bowden and it is clear that luck had nothing to do with it. While his picture-perfect good looks surely haven’t hurt his chances, Bowden’s early success comes down to a rarer quality: the young tenor approaches his craft and his career with an earnestness that defies his age.
Bowden is revelling in the experience, from the simple– “walking to work, into the Sydney Opera House, is just amazing” – to the lifechanging – “for years, people have been telling me about holding myself on stage, and in just five minutes, Director Bartlett Sher actually taught me how”.
He has nothing but praise for his fellow cast members, who “have been incredibly generous,” he says. “I look into Lisa or Teddy’s eyes on stage and they’re giving me 110 per cent. It allows me to play and find new moments, and as a new actor coming into a production that they have already done, they’ve been gracious enough to allow me to interpret the character as I wish.”
“Joe Cable is a young lieutenant in the marines who comes to this island with a mission,” Bowden explains. “He unexpectedly meets and falls in love with a young native girl called Liat, and that affects his whole life, his whole story and brings everything he was brought up to believe into question.”
It’s a nuanced role that requires both arrogance and vulnerability from a performer, and a range of emotions that leaves Bowden feeling exhausted at the end of the show. “It’s so emotionally taxing. It upsets me what I do to Liat, and I find that the hardest part of the show to work out how to play. Because I actually just want to let go and scream – but you can’t in theatre. I have to find the balance between showing the truth of the moment and also being able to play it, over and over again eight times a week!”
Bowden has been working hard with Sher and the revival director Neil Rutherford to find the unnatural arrogance of wartime in Cable’s character. “There is a certain arrogance that comes with being a young American marine, which I think is necessary to survive the devastation of war. But I also believe the audience needs to love Cable. The things he does to Liat are very confronting, and if the audience don’t understand and sympathise with his character, the story will be lost.”
Bowden has two of the most famous numbers in the show – one known for its beauty (“Younger than Springtime”) and one for its controversial message (“You’ve got to be carefully taught”). The second is a difficult song to sing – cut from the original for an audience not ready to hear a message about racism. “Although this show was written in 1949, it’s strangely so relevant,” Bowden says. “It’s almost upsetting that 60 years later we’re still needing to be taught this message.”
Bowden describes the story at the heart of South Pacific as almost frighteningly real. “People might believe they’re coming to see a frivolous musical, with beautiful songs and beautiful costumes – and they do get that – but they also get this unbelievably real story.”
With someone like Lisa McCune in the lead role of Nellie, Rodgers and Hammersteins’ message of universal humanity finds new light, Bowden says. “Lisa brings such truth to it that it just rips your heart out.”
Still a young performer, Bowden is carefully building his voice and his stage presence in musicals and operas. He’s open in admitting how much he has to learn and effuses gratitude for the chance to do it in South Pacific. “You learn so much from great actors and great directors. That’s how I’ve learn my entire career. In these past few days with Bartlett Sher directing on stage, I’ve learnt more than I’ve learnt in the last two years. And being on stage with Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes? That teaches me every single day.”
For more information on South Pacific and tickets, click here.