BILLY SUTER chats to Durban singer, pianist and celebrated voice coach JUDITH HAWTHORN, who is making her Rhumbelow Theatre show debut with I Love a Show Tune. It will be staged at the Umbilo Rhumbelow Theatre, in Cunningham Road, at 7pm on March 26 and 27, then at 2pm on Sunday, March 28. Tickets cost R160 each. Book at Computicket or phone Roland Stansell at 082 499 8636.
I Love a Show Tune marks your first show at a Rhumbelow Theatre? Why has it taken you so long – and are there likely to be more? It is, indeed, my first show at the Rhumbelow It is the right time! Meeting and collaborating with Paul Spence (who has devised and directed many shows for singer-pianist Cat Simoni) has been the catalyst.
Tell me more about the production.
I get to share some of my favourite show songs and a bit of my story. It’s a simple and uncomplicated show, and audiences are invited to singalong with familiar, well-loved tunes.
Jacques Heyns, my extraordinary and sensitive accompanist, allows me to abuse him every so often as a foil for scenes that need a partner or accomplice! I think he quite enjoys his comedic moments in the spotlight.
Any costumes changes, what sort of possible surprises etc?
As I am playing various characters from some of the biggest musicals – like Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins – there are some costume add-ons over my evening dress, and the use of hats and props to create the feeling of a particular scene.
The surprises wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, but I can say they include some wigs and a diva entrance in Act 2.
What would you say to encourage people to see this show?
It is fun and funny, easy-going and warm-hearted, with plenty of opportunity for the audience to join in on their favourite songs, as well as providing some lesser known surprises. It’s unpretentious and feel-good.
Paul Spence conceived and directed the show. How much input did you have in song selection and direction?
Paul’s input has been amazing and I’ve learnt to trust his judgment. Most of the songs were in my repertoire already. Paul just had to pull in the reins so that we had a workable show.
What are two of your favourite moments in the production – and why?
I love the reaction and laughs from my Sunday School teacher character. She gets all the stories muddled into a confused version of Noah and the flood. It’s hilarious, and I have to focus so I don’t corpse.
My favourite number has to be Supercalifragilistic from Mary Poppins, the stage musical. It is a souped-up version of the original and is a showstopper.
I love it because it pushes me to my limit. It took me hours of rehearsal as the lyrics come fast and the choreography is insane!
What range of musicals are covered in the production?
The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Little Women, Beauty and the Beast, Oklahoma, Once upon a Mattress, Sweet Charity, Mary Poppins and more.
You first did the show in Hilton in December? Please elaborate, explaining how and why the show came about?
I started with a couple of preview performances at home in my large, airy lounge. They were very special. I then did two public performances before Covid rules shut us down.
It was lockdown that gave me time in my schedule to have that first conversation with Paul, that went something like: “I’d love to do a show with you…”.
Is I Love a Show Tune being staged anywhere else after the Umbilo Rhumbelow dates?
Hopefully, those shows that we lost in January and February will happen in April and May, so I’ll let you know!
What are your three favourite musicals (and why) and your three least favourite (and why)?
Currently I’m in love with songs from The Little Princess and Anastasia (you can tell I’m a princess kinda girl, and that I teach voice to young girls).
The Sound of Music never fails to give me goosebumps. When I was in it, every night on stage, I had tears in my eyes.
I’m too old to enjoy Hamilton – rap doesn’t do much for me, even rap by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Modern rock or angsty shows leave me cold. I’m a feel-good kinda girl too.
Growing up surrounded by classical music, you have been studying, making and teaching music in various ways your entire adult life. Tell me more about your musical theatre career as a mature performer.
Well, my classical training as a pianist led me slightly astray, so I was in my 30s before I realised I wanted to be a musical theatre singer and actress.
By that time I had a young family and had to start training (voice, dance classes). I nevertheless enjoyed many opportunities to perform in shows such as The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls and The Man of La Mancha. The last professional show I was in was Cinderella at the Playhouse, in 2011.
What instruments can you play and what singing achievements have you had personally?
I play the piano, and I play it in I Love a Show Tune, paying tribute to Victor Borge and dipping into childhood memories of Mozart, Beethoven and the like.
My proudest moments as a singer have been on stage in various musicals and performing with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.
In recent years, your passion for music has been directed to choral conducting and teaching private singing lessons. Tell me about some of your achievements in that field.
I’ve been privileged to tour to Latvia for The World Choir Games in 2014, winning ‘gold’ there. There have been too many other highlights and accolades over the years, it becomes boring. I leave every choir rehearsal elated from the joy of making music together.
My proudest moments as a voice teacher have been seeing my students cast professionally in shows like Beauty and the Beast, The Sound of Music and Annie. Some of these students are now in drama school and pursuing professional careers.
There is a defining moment with every young student when they find their voice, literally and figuratively. It keeps my passion burning.
Are you still teaching music?
I am currently the choir director at The Wykeham Collegiate in Pietermaritzburg, a wonderful school with an extraordinary music department.
What have you been up to in recent months – and how has Covid-19 chaos affected you, personally and work-wise?
Covid lockdown provided time and space to return to performing, as my schedule trimmed down to just a few hours of work daily. Teaching voice online was a steep and uncomfortable learning curve, but has borne much fruit and has made me a better teacher.
Where and when were you born, was music a big thing in your family already – and where were you schooled?
I was born in Durban in 1964 and my family was very musical. We were a little bit like the Von Trapps, and I realised only recently that we were the super-nerdy family. It just felt fairly normal at the time.
I attended Glenashley Primary, Forest View Primary and Hillcrest High. I was not a high achiever at school, I was there for the social time and the school productions!
At what age did you get bitten by the music bug? What formal music training have you had?
I can’t remember not having the music bug. I started piano lessons aged seven and as a family, we sang heartily at church and listened to the English service on radio (no TV back then) and classical music albums. We attended classical concerts, the ballet and the opera.
I was not exposed to popular music until around Grade 6 or 7 and then in Grade 8 mum purchased the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s album of Abba hits. I was slightly shocked as this was wildly out of character for her!
Tell me five things about yourself (however trivial) that the general public is not likely to know.
I adore ballet. I took it up as an adult and am currently doing Advanced 1 with Julia Powell. I wish I had the time to dance every day. My dream is to be famous enough to be asked onto a Strictly Come Dancing show.
I love my two rescue dogs, Toffee and Noodle, and enjoyed agility training for a time until I got too busy to continue.
I’m addicted to cappuccinos but I’m allergic to caffeine so it’s a delicate balance.
I love history, so the History Channel is my go-to entertainment.
I rode my horse to school in Grade 10 and 11. I was a minor celebrity as a result.
What has been your most embarrassing or otherwise awkward moment on stage or in the public eye?
The most recent embarrassing moment was performing I Love a Show Tune at Amberglen in December and having a costume malfunction. I didn’t know how to handle it, so just announced to the audience that I was stepping out of my ballgown petticoat… and promptly handed it to Paul!
Any fears or phobias?
I’m terrified of snakes. I hate it when my husband watches Air crash Investigation. He has amplified my anxiety around flying!
If you could perform alongside any two performers, who would they be?
I would love todance with any of the fabulous professional dancers on Strictly Come Dancing.
Any superstitions or lucky charms?
Nope, but a prayer before going on stage helps me remember who is in control.
What are two of your most cherished possessions?
My parents gave me my childhood piano as a wedding gift. It is a very beautiful Kawai boudoir grand with a gorgeous tone. Also cherished is my iPhone, but I am rubbish with technology so nothing is backed up. I’d cry if I lost it!
Who are your musical heroes?
Musical theatre actresses Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Julie Andrews and Kristin Chenowith. Also composers Alan Menken, Stephen Swartz and Stephen Flaherty.
What five things would you list under the heading Ab Fab? And what five things would you place under Definite No-nos?
Ab-Fab: my husband, my daughters, my pets, cappuccinos at The Hilton Station Stop Café, and ballet classes with Julia.
No-nos: conversation in the first hour of being awake; inefficient and poor service from our local municipality; mid-summer heat/humidity in Durban and Pietermaritzburg; power failures during the extreme heat; and grey/taupe/brown/cream/neutral clothing. If you see me in these colours, please make an appointment with a therapist for me.
Your life motto?
Go big, or go home!