For a four-time Gold Logie award winner and household name, Lisa McCune is remarkably down-to-earth. Dressed down and makeup free when she arrives at the theatre hours before another performance of The King and I, McCune is fuelling up with a simple breakfast of porridge and fruit.
The star of stage and screen is coming to the end of a dream three-year run performing Rodgers and Hammerstein heroines with Opera Australia, first as the vivacious American nurse Nellie in South Pacific and in 2014, as the indomitable English governess Anna Leonowens in The King and I.
“As a performer, you always want a challenge. I’m so grateful to Opera Australia that they trusted Teddy [Tahu Rhodes] and I to do South Pacific, and then cast us again!”
That trust was well placed – their onstage chemistry is unmistakeable, and the Sydney Season of The King and I garnered the highest ever advance ticket sales for any show ever staged at the Sydney Opera House. Reviewers have praised McCune’s poise and depth, with The Australian going to far as to say “McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier … she is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.”
McCune studied musical theatre before she landed her first big television gig, and it’s been a privilege to return to the stage and warm up that singing voice again, she says. “I’m really keen to keep exploring that part of my life and developing that skill set, because I really do love it!”
But when she leaves Anna Leonowens behind in November, the first thing on her agenda is to head back to Melbourne and spend a few months just being a full-time Mum to her three children Archer, Oliver and Remy. “I’ve been doing nights or on tour for longer than I can remember!”
On playing older roles
At 43, McCune is enjoying moving into the ‘Anna era’ of roles. “Anna and the King are both roles written for an older woman and an older man. They are mature roles, there’s a deep respect and a growing love between this woman and this man that is really different from the love stories you see portrayed in movies and most musicals.
“It’s not boy meets girl, but there is young love within this, and that fascination with each other,” McCune says. “It can never be seen through to its conclusion, and I kind of love that! When I knew I was doing this role, I read the play on a plane trip and remember just crying when I got to the end. It’s a really moving story.”
Anna’s strength makes her compelling, she adds. “After you’ve played a character for a little while, you start to think about the deeper issues. She must have learned a huge amount about herself being in a country like Siam in those times, so far removed from the English, living abroad and having adventures.”
The King and I only works if the audience have divided loyalties – sometimes following Anna’s strengths and vulnerabilities and sometimes going in to bat for the King. “I mean, Anna causes great unrest within the palace! You always want your character to be likeable, but you have to stay true to the text. The best characters in television or movies or books or shows have a secret or a story or a darker side or a fault. And that’s what makes the journey interesting.”
On the intense workload
Anna is on stage for almost the whole musical, but the workload has proved an unexpected highlight for McCune. “I never get back to my dressing room, I’m on stage so much, but that actually helps. I have to stay in the zone the whole time.”
Despite the weight of those impressive period dresses, McCune says The King and I is less physically demanding than South Pacific. “The weight of the dresses actually mean I can’t move my lower body very much. So I just have to glide around.”
She keeps showfit by getting plenty of sleep and popping out of the Sydney Opera House to run around the Botanic Gardens. “But mostly, I don’t think about it. If you think about it, you’ll be exhausted.”
On working with children
Never one to complain, McCune is quick to point out that the three children’s casts actually go to school all day and then come to do a show. “They’re exhausted sometimes! But they’re gorgeous, and they love doing it.”
Working with young children is really interesting for a seasoned performer, McCune says. “You can pick the ones who have something special, and if I was casting a TV show or film at the moment, I’d be snapping them up! The other night, one of our princes found something new in the script that he’d never been directed to do. He just felt it, and did it out of instinct. It’s amazing when you can see that talent.
She laughs. “Imagine having your first gig at the Sydney Opera House. It took me 42 years to get here!”
On the things nobody sees
The best part of working on such a massive show is something that nobody sees, McCune says. “When you do shows like this, you get to see and appreciate the fine work that the wigmakers and costume makers and the set and prop makers and the sound and lighting designers and everyone working behind the scenes. The detail and effort they put into their work – it’s incredible.”
“There’s a lot of people working behind the scenes that are bending over backwards to make us look good out there.”
All of this comes together to create a great experience for the audience. “They don’t have to think about all the work that goes on – they can just come and be entertained.”
The King and I is on at the Sydney Opera House until November 1. Tickets via the Opera Australia website.