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After almost six distinguished decades in a notoriously fickle industry, Nancye Hayes is still captivating Australian theatre audiences with her indomitable mix of sass and charm. “Some people can’t stand musicals, but they’re joyful and moving. Music is very emotional and touches people.” By Jinghua Qian.

Stage doyenne Nancye Hayes

Theatre doyenne Nancye Hayes.
Credit: Thomas McCammon

“I’ve never been a particularly ambitious person,” Nancye Hayes tells me.

I’m a little surprised because Hayes has just about done it all. She’s an actor, dancer, singer, choreographer and director. She’s played the leading lady in nearly every major musical – Charity in Sweet Charity, Roxie Hart in Chicago, Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd – and her list of credits in non-musical theatre is equally extensive.

She’s been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to the performing arts. She even has a theatre named after her – the Hayes Theatre in Sydney’s Potts Point. In a difficult and fickle industry, she’s stayed the distance: next year, the 77-year-old will celebrate 60 years in show business.

Yet according to Hayes, her impressively varied career has been more the result of opportunity than design. The key to her enduring success is her buoyancy – she’s always ready for whatever might come her way and committed to giving her best.

“As you get older, there aren’t so many roles, so doing a range of things has kept me in the mix,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time when change is happening.”

In this industry, change is a constant – and never more so than this year, when Covid-19 triggered closures at every theatre in the country. When I speak to Hayes, she’s in rehearsals for the David Lindsay-Abaire comedy Ripcord, which opens on Wednesday night at State Theatre Company South Australia (STCSA) with chequerboard seating to keep audience members at a safe distance. The season has been extended to accommodate the venue operating at 50 per cent seating capacity.

The production is a homecoming of sorts for Hayes, as her first mainstage play was Born Yesterday with the then South Australian Theatre Company in 1971. Before that, Hayes had exclusively appeared in musicals, or “musical comedies” as they were often called. At the time, there was a strong division between musical theatre performers and other stage actors that was difficult to traverse. Born Yesterday – a comedy about a dodgy junkyard dealer who brings his showgirl mistress with him to Washington, DC, and then hires a tutor to school her in the ways of the social elites he’s trying to schmooze – offered an obvious transition into “straight” theatre, as Hayes had played similar roles in musicals.

In the years since, Hayes has appeared in countless plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest at STCSA and the wildly popular Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks alongside Todd McKenney. Ripcord, a kind of odd-couple sitcom set in a retirement home, will give her the opportunity to demonstrate her well-honed comic sensibility while exploring serious subjects and a complex character who is a little more cantankerous than the roles she usually plays.

Hayes stars as the resident misanthrope, the curt and churlish Abby, opposite sweet and sunny Marilyn, her unwanted new roommate played by Carmel Johnson. The two septuagenarians make a wager for the best spot in Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, unfolding a series of escalating pranks and personal revelations as they each try to provoke the other into anger and fear.

Ripcord will also see Hayes reunite with Mitchell Butel, who got his first professional theatre job from Hayes when she cast him in a musical she was directing, The Fantasticks, with Newtown Actors Group in 1991. Now in his debut season as artistic director of STCSA, Butel says that directing Hayes in Ripcord will be the seventh time he’s worked with her.

“She is a model of grace, strength, style, wit and sass … Her long and illustrious career is a testament to always striving to do better and finding new ways to delight people,” he says.

Hayes says it’s given her a bit of stage mum pride to watch Butel’s career evolve. “It’s a wonderful thing to watch when you’ve known someone from their earliest beginnings,” she says. “It’s great to see what opportunities they get and sad to see when they miss out.”

As she’s aged and found fewer suitable parts available, Hayes has branched out to take on more choreography, directing and mentoring. That has meant she’s cheered on a lot of younger actors and theatre-makers through their careers.

“It’s not an easy business – it never has been,” she says.

Hayes has had her own share of setbacks. She started dance lessons at the age of three. At seven, an accident resulted in surgery and required her to wear a caliper. But the doctors suggested that dance would aid her recovery and strengthen her bones, so she went back to dance school.

Growing up in the Hunter Valley and later Manly, Hayes didn’t get to see much live theatre as a child, but movie musicals made a big impression on her. She would often go to the movies after dance class on Saturdays, enthralled by the magic of story, song and dance.

She always knew she wanted to be in theatre, but her mother insisted that she have “something to fall back on”, so she trained as a secretary for a year and worked in the typing pool for two years before she was allowed to audition. By then she’d turned 18, and she soon landed a chorus role in My Fair Lady with the J. C. Williamson company.

Founded by American-born actor James Cassius Williamson, the J. C. Williamson company was a powerhouse of Australian commercial theatre for nearly a century. Starting with Gilbert and Sullivan musicals in the 1870s, the company grew into an entertainment empire, presenting musicals, straight plays, operas, ballets and concerts at the network of theatres it controlled across Australia. Many knew it simply as “The Firm”. The company set up the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, owned and operated the Tivoli circuit for a time, and toured performers such as Dame Nellie Melba, Anna Pavlova and the Bolshoi Ballet.

In the 1960s, Australian companies typically cast their lead actors from overseas, usually the United States or Britain, as audiences tended to be more impressed with the idea of an international star. Hayes got her big break when she landed the title role in a 1967 production of Sweet Charity, paving the way for Australian actors to take the lead.

Sadly, she also lost her mother and grandmother during the show’s run. Her father had died in a car accident when she was 11. But the theatre formed a family of sorts around her, and the company’s choreographer and casting director, Betty Pounder, helped her navigate her budding career. Pounder had made her own J. C. Williamson debut in 1941 and performed for the troops on the battlefields of France during World War II.

Hayes recalls, “The greatest piece of advice she gave me was, ‘Be ready because you never know. You have to be ready to go.’ ”

Pounder’s advice stood Hayes in good stead when opportunities sprouted from odd corners. In the early 1990s, the fall of the Berlin Wall led to Hayes developing her first cabaret show, Nancye with an E, with writer and director Tony Sheldon. She was supposed to be touring a show in East Germany but, following the country’s reunification, a company that had held the rights for West Germany put an injunction on the performance. When she was offered the opportunity to do an autobiographical cabaret show back home in Sydney as part of the Tilbury Hotel’s Legends series, it seemed that fate pushed all the pieces into place.

She’s since followed that with two more cabaret shows, Hayes at the Hayes at her namesake theatre, and Bosom Buddies with Todd McKenney. Cabaret has added another item to her repertoire, giving her a show she can bring out on her own time. It’s another way to stay buoyant.

“You never stopped learning,” Hayes says. “You’re always learning by watching and observing, that’s part of our business.”

Over the years, Hayes has witnessed waves of change through the industry, both welcome improvements and new hurdles.

These days there’s a little less cultural cringe and more support for homegrown talent compared with the beginning of Hayes’s career, when companies usually imported their lead actors. There’s growing interest in diverse, original Australian work and organisations such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance that keep an eye on conditions and opportunities for local actors. The barriers between musicals and “straight” theatre have mainly dissolved, with more actors moving between the two.

Hayes is excited by shows such as Hamilton that push the envelope for musical theatre, drawing new audiences and expanding the possibilities of the art form. “Musicals were very frivolous years ago – a sketchy story attached to some songs,” she recalls, pointing to Show Boat as one of the first to have a more serious storyline.

While different styles and trends have come and gone – sung-through musicals, the rock era – overall the scope keeps widening, with stronger writing, deeper stories and more discerning audiences. The idea of what a musical might be is much more expansive than it was in the days of musical comedies and revues, though arguably awards such as the Golden Globes still preserve some of those historical assumptions with combined categories for comedies and musicals.

Hayes hopes to see more Australian writing on stage, whether it’s the book, lyrics or music. Her namesake Hayes Theatre runs a creative development program to support writers and composers of new Australian musicals, and she encourages playwrights to consider writing the books for musicals. “Some people can’t stand musicals, but they’re joyful and moving,” she stresses. “Music is very emotional and touches people.” She’s delighted at the success of Australian productions such as The Boy from Oz, Shout! and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and the international opportunities they’ve provided to their cast and creatives. Hayes was thrilled to see Tony Sheldon in Priscilla on Broadway, a performance for which he received a Tony Award nomination.

At the same time, she notes that it’s harder now for individual performers to gain a following. Often, their names don’t even get billing. “The shows are the stars,” she says. The demise of the variety show format has also left its mark, as these shows provided opportunities for performers to do a whole number on television with a live band. You can still find clips on YouTube of Hayes’s interviews and performances on The Mike Walsh Show and Bandstand with Brian Henderson. For many productions, this footage is the only extant video documentation.

The old problems still remain: there are a lot of performers and not a lot of work. The Australian industry will never grow to the size of Broadway or the West End, with an audition every few days. Musicals represent a sizeable financial risk for producers, so it takes persuasion to get them to invest in new, untested work. Australians still look to bigger overseas markets for inspiration and validation. And of course, the pandemic has devastated the live performance sector.

Reflecting on what could be different, Hayes says that a lot needs to change to cast a wider net and give everyone “a proper go”. But her advice to performers is simple, echoing Betty Pounder. Be ready and respondent. Be brave. Be as good as you can possibly be. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2020 as "A buoyant life".

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Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations.