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Actress-singer Christie Whelan Browne catapulted to the attention of theatregoers at a young age, untrained but bursting with talent. Here, she talks about fate, timing and discovering a love of musical theatre. “I was the clown, I really made people laugh. Boys told me I was ugly … I used comedy to fit in.” By Peter Craven.

Christie Whelan Browne’s theatrical life

Christie Whelan Browne is resolute – this golden girl actress-singer who has become a star without ever going to drama school – even though her manner is tentative and full of wonder. You can sense a strength in her that has nothing to do with easy certitude or actressy bravura. Of course, she faces a defamation suit from Craig McLachlan because of the allegations she made about his behaviour when she appeared with him in The Rocky Horror Show. “I’ve learned more about the law this year than I’ve ever known or wanted to know,” she says.

We have been talking about how the prospect of a career had been an impossible dream for her as a girl and all the frustrations of the past and the fears of what might come. “When I look at the way it’s worked out,” she says, “I realise there is a plan that someone has planned for me.”

Although not religious she admits to believing in some kind of providence.

“Yeah, I believe in fate, that things work out the way they’re meant to. Even when they seem bad I don’t regret it. I know that it was the right thing to do and I know that I will always know that I did something that was the right thing.”

She says that she wanted to make an “impact” and she clearly means this in a moral sense. As a performer she makes all the impact in the world. But that’s not what she’s talking about. She’s talking about something different, something ethical, something difficult, something she had to do to help other women. There’s always that shadow of a destiny in search of a script with a big-time performer and Whelan Browne highlights the gap between the person and the show-woman. Still, there’s a new show to talk about.

It’s weird to imagine her as Mrs Cheveley, the blackmailing superbitch of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, this gorgeous woman who found herself on the biggest of main stages doing The Drowsy Chaperone with Geoffrey Rush. She sang and acted like an angel, and then she was back with him again in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest where, as Gwendolen, she showed an extraordinary gift for comic timing.

She’s done a dark and dazzling one-hander about Britney Spears and another one about a woman watching her mother die. She’s fresh from the Sydney run of the musical of Muriel’s Wedding – a show she will return to both there and in Melbourne – and she is set to make her Shakespearean debut as Olivia in Simon Phillips’ production of Twelfth Night.

Whelan Browne has the kind of comic timing that brings to mind Maggie Smith, though her image would be closer to Marilyn Monroe or Melanie Griffith or Judy Holliday, whose most famous role she played in Born Yesterday last year at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

“She’s probably the villain of the piece, which I’ve never played before,” Whelan Browne says of Mrs Cheveley. “An amazing manipulator. She’s a seductress, she’s unapologetic, she’s getting what she wants, and she thinks she deserves it at anyone’s cost. That’s hard for me to understand but I’ve enjoyed living in her thick skin.”

She’s aware of the challenge and the way she’ll be revealing a new aspect of her skills in this portrait of a woman who uses her sophistication like a stiletto.

“She is more mature than anyone else I’ve had to play and more sure of herself,” Whelan Browne says.

So, what does she prefer – musical comedy or the high comedy of Wilde and Twelfth Night, which have their dark and deep places as well?

“Well, I did musical comedy for so long that I fell out of love with it for a while. So I didn’t do it for quite some time. Things like Wilde and Shakespeare, they’re so far off my radar that they’re things I wouldn’t think I’d be capable of. Sometimes I want to go back to a safe place and exhale with my old pal musical comedy.”

Christie Whelan, as she was born, grew up in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Eltham and owes her career – ultimately – to the fact that her local state school, St Helena Secondary College, was one of those schools that do a musical every year. The prodigiously talented teenager found herself playing Anna in The King and I and doing everything from Fiddler on the Roof to Little Shop of Horrors, as well as Grease, which she was eventually to do in the arena spectacular version.

She says she was an absolute extrovert in those days. “I was the clown, I really made people laugh. Boys told me I was ugly … I used comedy to fit in.” She adds in a throwaway way, “But loving yourself is a lifelong battle.”

She did amateur theatre with productions of Les Misérables among other things, but this girl from a sport-obsessed family never dreamed of making a career out of her enthusiasm for musical theatre, let alone theatre in general.

“I didn’t know that it was possible,” she says. “That was something other people did. My family was a huge sporting family … My dad took me to see Mamma Mia! – I must have been 18. At the end the audience stood up and everyone was singing – I just thought this would be the best thing ever but I didn’t think ‘that’ll be me one day’. So, the entire career’s been a shock. Everything’s been a bonus.”

But anyone who saw Whelan Browne in an audition or glimpsed her on stage could tell she was a natural-born star. It was no accident she was catapulted into the Grease spectacular.

One of the funny things about her is that she’s one of the most glittering figures to hit the Australian stage in an age, and yet the woman who carried the whole weight of Dean Bryant’s production of Born Yesterday, and who you could imagine as everyone from Shaw’s Cleopatra or Major Barbara to Shakespeare’s Rosalind to the title role in Annie Get Your Gun, still sounds as unaffected as she must have sounded playing basketball in the outer suburban sun.

Besides, she says, her life is still continuous with that childhood idyll.

“It was quite sheltered,” she says. “I thought that was what the world was. That’s all I knew, and I loved it. I haven’t moved that far from where I grew up. I’m still out where the trees are green and that kind of suburban life.”

She lives in Heidelberg now, not far from where she grew up, with her husband, the actor-singer Rohan Browne.

And she likes it like that. She tells me she never had “those ambitions” to star on Broadway or in the West End. Even when the London audiences at her Britney show screamed out every word of the lyrics – “it was brilliant, it was like a rock concert” – some part of her wanted to be tucked away in Melbourne.

She says The Drowsy Chaperone was the turning point but adds, “I’m not trained – all I have is what I feel. When I sing and act that’s purely my heart.”

When she’s away from doing a musical she feels most alive listening to country music, to the likes of the Dixie Chicks or Shania Twain. She says it takes her back to the days when she’d sing her heart out in the shower.

I’ve seen Whelan Browne lip-sync at the drop of a hat with the fiercest concentration, as if music was something she could only mime.

When I say this, she says without any irony: “Copying is actually my greatest friend.” Of course it is, because mimicry both of voice and tone is at the back of her comic skills.

So, as Mrs Cheveley, does she actually channel someone like Maggie Smith?

“I use a Maggie Smith sort of accent,” she says. “And the thing about an accent and the dialogue – with the dialogue it’s really melodic and it goes from the top of the octave to the bottom. That’s in my focus, the rhythm and the tune. It’s like Shakespeare, in a way. Wilde’s words require a certain rhythm.”

She admits that all this is paradoxical because so much of whatever know-how she has about comedy must be from watching Seinfeld and Sex and the City and Friends. Not to mention her love of British comedy, of Fawlty Towers for instance, surely one of the purest distillations of British comic technique.

And then, classically and characteristically, she comes out with it: “What I understand about comedy [is that] I don’t know why I understand it.”

We talk about comic timing being like perfect pitch for a singer and she says in passing of Brent Hill, her Lord Goring, “Whatever comic is, he’s got it.”

In her youth, when she didn’t know where she was headed, it was chronic fatigue syndrome that was part of her way forwards.

“I had glandular fever,” she says. “And it led to chronic fatigue. I think with hindsight I hadn’t found my place in the world and I didn’t know what life was going to look like and actually, just as I was recovering, I was cast in Grease.”

So, it was partly a psychological thing? It was a form of melancholy?

“Maybe not melancholy,” she says, “but anxious.”

She says her parents had been pressing her to do some sort of university course. “I’m not very studious and I have to learn in my own way.” So, she didn’t want to be a school-teacher or a lawyer?

“No, I have my own intelligence, but it’s like my hair colour,” the blonde says. “Born Yesterday, that character is really like me. She was smart but in her own way.”

She reveals that she has one of the greatest and rarest assets an actor can have. “I’ve got some sort of photographic memory. I can never learn a part until I start rehearsal, but if I read it from the book once then I’ll know it. It’s pretty helpful.”

The conversation then roams around as she anticipates the joys of older parts in the future. Lady Bracknell in comedy, Mama Rose from Gypsy in musical comedy, god knows what in drama. She says she wants to have kids. “I hope so. That’s the next step in my life. I hope so.”

And then there are the frustrations of someone who might have been cast as Eliza Doolittle or in any starry musical role in sight.

“I was upset about Legally Blonde,” she says. “That’s the only thing that’s devastated me. And I said to my husband, ‘If I’m not that, what am I?’ ”

What is she? Whelan Browne is a homegrown Australian star of the brightest kind. She has a talent so prodigious it could catch the attention of any theatre on earth. She’s a whiz at playing a ditz, but there are worlds of feeling inside her and she has all the technique you could want. She can be earnest, she can be naked, she tries so hard to make sense of her own experience. There’s something about her – a scrupulousness, a truthfulness – that makes you think the girl who dreamed the impossible dream will be able to take on all the giants and windmills in sight.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Musical cheers ". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.