Todd McKenney was already a regular on stage and screen when he shook his maracas and danced his way into the Australian consciousness in the 1998 Boy From Oz. The show went on to Broadway without him (starring a young Hugh Jackman), but it was a defining moment for McKenney. “Having to be the motor of that show was something that really made me grow as a performer. I felt really responsible for the audience having a good time every night. I learned to sing, I learned discipline and how to look after myself as a performer.”
Fast forward to 2015 and the veteran performer is one of Australia’s busiest. The Boy From Oz delivered more than fame – it gave him a role as a judge on Dancing with the Stars and built a fan base that still turn out in droves to see his one man shows.
On the day of this interview, McKenney was up at 5am to film Winners and Losers, home in time to walk the dogs before fronting up for another high-energy performance of Anything Goes, before getting up again to do his regular radio spot on 2UE.
“I get to play in all of these different worlds,” he says, of his diverse schedule (the entrepreneur also runs ‘Centre Stage Tours’, inviting fans to join him for dinner and a show).
Show business is in McKenney’s blood, and he loves that there is always something new around the corner. “You get a phone call one afternoon and suddenly you’re on a plane to London to audition for something, or in Adelaide for a cabaret show or speaking to thousands of people at a corporate event.”
Music theatre was his first love, and he says it’s still his greatest job. “It’s the warmest thing I do. You get up there under the lights and the audience applaud and it’s so friendly.”
It’s also raw and exposed, live and liable for anything to go wrong. “In Anything Goes recently, Caroline O Connor and Wayne Scott-Kermond and I had a scene go awry on stage, and the three of us just had to improvise a stand-up routine while a doorknob was fixed. It’s exhilarating. And the audience love it!”
The enthusiasm of this cast: a mix of veteran performers and fresh faces keep things light and lively backstage. “You want every audience to see an amazing show, whether it’s the first or the 900th.”
How does a performer achieve that? “If I’m struggling, I like to focus on one particular part of my performance,” explains McKenney – focussing on a few dance steps he hasn’t nailed, or trying to get a laugh that’s been missing. “I like to give myself a challenge every night!”
McKenney did a concert version of Anything Goes a few years ago, and ever since, he has wanted to get the musical up and running. “Hearing a crowd of 2000 people guffaw every night was something I hadn’t experienced in a while. I went to John Frost and said it might be time for another big grand-daddy of a Broadway show. A show that made Broadway Broadway. With 30 people tap-dancing on stage!”
With Opera Australia and John Frost on board, the dream became reality, in a show that critics describe as “riotous entertainment” (The Age) … “a deliciously effervescent soda pop laced with a sharp shot of bourbon” (Herald Sun) … a “knockout” (Time Out).
McKenney plays Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes, a British aristocrat and a bit of a fop. The role has plenty of opportunity for slapstick, farce and even a little bit of tap-dancing, and McKenney has a ball. “It’s a great thing about show business that you’re never stuck in anything. But the flipside of that is that even the best shows don’t hang around forever!”
Anything Goes plays the Princess Theatre, Melbourne until July 17. The show transfers to the Lyric Theatre, Brisbane on July 25 and plays Sydney Opera House from September 5. Tickets and more information here.