The Age

Friday November 28, 2008

Susan Horsburgh

A new musical about Shane Warne promises more than jokes about text messages and inflatable penises, writes Susan Horsburgh.

Let's face it, Warney is a soft target. The man may be a legendary spin bowler but he also seems to be the master of wilful self-sabotage. Dodgy dealings with bookies, saucy adulterous text messages, tabloid-documented romps with two models and a blow-up toy ... his off-field antics have almost eclipsed his extraordinary cricketing achievements.

Which is why Eddie Perfect joked to his manager three years ago that someone should write Shane Warne The Musical. His manager, a cricket buff, suggested he do just that - and after Perfect worked his way through a pile of books on the sporting hero he agreed that Shane Keith Warne's life was indeed the stuff of high drama. Warne's story offered sex, drugs, scandal, exotic locations - and a window into the Australian psyche. "He's that Australian that everyone is incredibly proud of and ashamed of at the same time," says Perfect. "And that's Australia: we kind of love ourselves and hate ourselves at the same time. How can he be so amazing on field and such a tragic figure off it?"

Bleached and bronzed for the title role, Perfect takes a stab at resolving that conundrum when Shane Warne The Musical opens in December. Since Perfect graduated from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts in 2001, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter has emerged as one of Australia's most promising musical theatre performers, but this is his first full-scale production and the stakes are high. The current economic gloom and rival imported musicals mean Shane Warne has its challenges, but the $2-million show also has some of the industry's biggest names behind it, with the acclaimed Neil Armfield as director, Tony Award-winner Brian Thomson designing the sets and Chunky Move's Gideon Obarzanek choreographing.

"It mustn't be a total piece of shit - if it was, they wouldn't want to be involved," reasons Perfect, who admits to feeling the pressure. "It's terrifying but it's also exactly what I wanted to do. It's the best stuff I've written and it's where I want to be: large-scale stuff that's character-driven. Everything that I've done has been a lead-up to this."

To get in touch with his inner, baked-bean-loving bogan, Perfect will have weekly spray tans and sport a neck chain and earring for the show, but he stresses that the musical goes beyond cheap shots to a broader critique of celebrity spin and Australia's penchant for lopping tall poppies. "You could probably write something in six months that was what everyone expected: a romp with Shane Warne running around texting with women wearing nothing, carrying an inflatable penis," he says. "And I didn't want to do that."

The country's perception of Warne, says Perfect, is based purely on information spun either by his camp or the media - a narrative of failure and redemption - so he set out to explore the creation of Shane Warne the brand: "I wanted to make the musical about Shane, but also about how we access Shane and how we create a Shane or anyone else: what our part in that is and whether that's really that healthy." Australians tend to claim ownership of their celebrities, he says, and every cock-up is taken as a personal affront. "People talked about Shane Warne as if he was married to them and he cheated on them," says Perfect. "I don't know how squeaky clean other people are, but I found it all became really self-righteous and moralistic. I'm like, hang on, who are you? Everyone felt they had the right to have an opinion about whether Shane was a good guy or a bad guy."

After reading almost everything written on Warne, Perfect seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sportsman, as well as a genuine admiration for him, particularly his ability to perform under enormous personal pressure. Perfect read Paul Barry's unauthorised Warne biography, Spun Out, and couldn't understand why the author bothered to write a book on someone he didn't seem to respect. "I didn't like the book because I thought it was mean-spirited," says Perfect. "There were a few cursory nods to how good Shane Warne was at cricket, but I could just tell he didn't like the guy."

Stung by a series of unauthorised biographies, Warne himself recently expressed disappointment that the musical had gone ahead - "You should have permission off anyone to write about their life," he said - but Perfect insists his show is more celebration than piss-take. "Shane is a person who has always said, 'My life is a soap opera and I don't know who's writing my script,' and it's true," says Perfect. "I would like to think that at the end of my life I could look back at it and say, 'Wow, some really strange, diverse, hilarious, wonderful things happened. I made some good choices and I made some bad choices, but I lived a big life.'"

Shane Warne The Musical chronicles the leg-spinner's story from his early days as an emerging AFL player in Black Rock in 1989 through to his retirement from professional cricket at the end of the 2006 Ashes series. A musical mix of opera, electro-rock, gospel, power ballads and Bollywood, the two-hour, 21-song show features a cast of 10, singing show-stoppers such as "What an SMS I'm In" and "Piss It All Away".

Gathered at the North Melbourne Town Hall on a recent weekday morning, the cast and crew run through "That's How You Spell Success (AIS)", a number about Warne's arrival at the Australian Institute of Sport's cricket academy in Adelaide. Mid-rehearsal, an SMS alert rings out and choreographer Obarzanek sheepishly fetches his mobile from his bag. Everyone gleefully points to a plastic penalty box on the director's desk labelled "The Shane Warne Fund for Mobile Phones". It has a plastic Warney figurine stuck to it and a couple of $2 coins from other offenders whose phones have gone off during rehearsal. Back on the job, cast and crew toss around ideas for the scene, in which rebel Warne clashes with a sadistic AIS coach (played by Matt Hetherington). "Take these heart-rate monitors, go run 10 kilometres then we'll test you and molest you with rectal thermometers," sings the coach, as he puts his new recruits through their paces. "How do you spell success?" he asks and they all purr "A-I-S", in between pelvic thrusts and erotic exercise moves. It's all good bawdy fun and the crew erupts in laughter as Perfect and his fellow performers ham it up.

Today's rehearsal might not suggest it, but Armfield says the musical is deeply moving. "If it weren't taking Shane seriously it would be a one-gag wonder," he says. Armfield first encountered Perfect four years ago. Back then, the up-and-coming cabaret star had teamed up with Max Gillies in The Big Con, and Armfield was struck by how well Perfect held his own next to such a seasoned performer. Gillies recalls having total confidence in his young co-star. "When he was out there you could hear a pin drop because the audience was taking a breath, completely shocked, or they were rolling around laughing; you could come out and pick up where he left off," says Gillies.

Last year, Armfield directed Perfect as Alexander Downer in Casey Bennetto's Keating! The Musical. Perfect donned fishnets and made the part his own. "Eddie's version was less Frank N Furter and more Buster Keaton," recalls Armfield. "You had this sense of this man who was completely the architect of his own catastrophe." Offstage, says Armfield, "it's like he rewrites the rules. Everything happens on his terms, and his terms are very human and they're right for him." Although Armfield wanted his Company B to produce Shane Warne, Perfect went with his gut and bypassed the big-name contenders for Kevin Whyte's Token Events, which had never produced a musical before. "He's very secure in his own skin," adds Armfield. "He knows who he is ... so he won't do anything he's uncomfortable about."

Perfect made his name with his own out-there style of satirical cabaret, which he once described as the kind that "steals your ciggies and f---s your sister". In his acerbic but entertaining one-man shows, the self-confessed mad lefty took aim at everything from consumerism and evangelical Christians to Oprah and Ikea. He sang his own profanity-laced compositions such as "Some of My Best Friends Are Aboriginal" and "Poor Little Middle-Class Me" and wore T-shirts on stage emblazoned with slogans such as "Starbucks can s--- my c---".

In the three years, though, since his last solo show, Drink Pepsi, Bitch!, Perfect has mellowed. Perhaps it's a product of maturity or falling in love, but he's not as interested in singing from a soapbox. He even finds the earnestness of his earlier shows a bit embarrassing. "I'm pretty idealistic about a lot of stuff but I wouldn't get on stage and say some of the idealistic things I've said before, not that I don't agree with them," says Perfect, who turns 31 on December 17. The long-time vegetarian has started eating meat again and even talks about having babies; he has taken his "Gay People Shouldn't Get Married" clip off YouTube (he got sick of emails from angry, satire-ignorant Americans) and stopped wearing his "I'm afraid of Americans" T-shirt (he got sick of confrontations with angry American tourists). "I just don't feel combative in that way any more," he says.

Perhaps he just doesn't feel the same need to prove himself. Writer Fiona Scott-Norman, who worked with Perfect on his first solo show, Angry Eddie, says his success in recent years has made him more comfortable. "His creativity had to come out and his identity had to form," says Scott-Norman. When Perfect started out, she says, he was scared of being trapped in a musical theatre world where people wanted him to be something he wasn't; his agent, for example, once advised him not to wear his hair in his signature spiky faux-hawk. Perfect never liked the "cabaret" tag - and he is still scathing about the genre, which he sees as cheesy, baby-boomer entertainment. "The name 'cabaret' just needs to go because no one is ever going to revive it," he says. Cabaret is full of performers singing other people's songs and, to Perfect, that's a cop-out. "There's this fakeness about cabaret," he says. "People are performing songs by people like Tom Waits and Nick Cave and I really like both those artists' music, but when a cabaret artist does their songs it's like they're saying, 'Look, there's some good stuff in Nick Cave and Tom Waits but I know that it's a bit too full-on for you to grasp ... so what I'm going to do is sanitise it and perform it in a theatre where you're sitting in nice seats and you can get a champagne at the bar. You can get a car park and you don't have to deal with smoke or young people, but you'll feel like it's a little bit risque and naughty.' If you can't get your arse to the Forum to see Nick Cave perform you don't deserve to hear it."

Perfect has a highly tuned bullshit barometer. There's an appealing realness to him; he doesn't seem to self-censor in conversation or wonder how a quote will seem on paper. And he doesn't pander to audience sensitivities onstage either. Two years ago he caused outrage in the Malthouse production of Babes in the Wood when he dressed up as Steve Irwin and sang "Die Doing the Thing You Love" with a back-up bevy of dancing stingrays. Talkback listeners went berserk and Perfect copped a blast on 3AW before the show had even opened. When it did, he received daily death threats and had to be escorted to his car every night after the show. "It was probably the first time in history anyone has been offended by a pantomime," says Perfect. Although he says he doesn't set out to offend his audience, he does like to shake them up a bit: "As soon as you put ideas in something you risk people disagreeing with them, but I hate anything without ideas in it."

Like Warne, albeit on a much smaller scale, Perfect has met with public disapproval and a hostile media. He also understands the world the cricketer comes from. Perfect may never have been a sporting giant in his youth, but he feels a bayside affinity with Warne. The son of high-school teachers Tom and Judy Perfect, middle child Edmund grew up with his two sisters in Mentone and went to St Bede's College, just across the road from Warne's alma mater, Mentone Grammar. "Shane's not that much different from guys I went to school with and I know what it was like at school: if you were good at sport you got a free pass for everything," says Perfect. He suspects that anyone with the same upbringing and cultural make-up as Warne would probably have gone on to make much the same life choices and mistakes.

Although Perfect, who is 184 centimetres tall, played basketball at school, he says he was a chubby, nerdy kid who was drawn more towards literature and art. His parents nurtured a love of culture in their children, taking them to live theatre and the local bookshop regularly and enrolling them all in music lessons. Perfect's sisters went on to work in government policy but the siblings still occasionally sing together around the piano. "We weren't a family that had nice cars or took overseas holidays," says Perfect, who didn't travel abroad until he was 26. "We always went camping around Australia." He says his parents didn't dole out money either, which meant he developed a work ethic, first with a paper route when he was 12 and later as a Red Rooster kitchen hand and a bookshop assistant. Most of his high-school classmates still live in the same postcode as their parents, he says, and many of them have married girls from their sister college, but Perfect couldn't wait to escape the suburbs. University was a revelation: "There were punks and goths and freaks walking around and I was like, finally, a bit of diversity and something interesting."

Perfect had always wanted to be a visual artist so he enrolled in printmaking at RMIT but dropped out after a year - "I just had nothing to say" - and switched to music at the University of Melbourne. He lasted two years in that course but found it painfully academic, and eventually switched to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. It was there that he combined comedy, music and songwriting and discovered his artistic niche. After graduation he did some acting in theatre and television, including parts on Blue Heelers and Kath & Kim, before writing his breakout show, Angry Eddie. The deadline to register the show for the 2004 Comedy Festival was looming and Perfect was still in limbo, waiting to hear whether he'd won a part in Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Urinetown, when he decided to take control of his career. He turned the MTC down and went ahead with Angry Eddie. The show put Perfect on the radar, introduced him to the comedy community and gave him a month of valuable performing experience. "Perfect is sharp, smart and right on the button," one critic raved. "He has the stage presence and confidence of a veteran."

Other than his stints in Keating! and Babes in the Wood, Perfect hasn't performed in three years and admits he has missed it. "Writing is kind of depressing," he says. "You go into a hole and I generally don't look after myself: I don't really exercise, I've started smoking heaps and drinking at least a bottle of wine a night." Moving in mid-2007 to Sydney - where his girlfriend works and he hardly knows anyone - only added to the isolation. In October, however, he put his things in storage and returned to Melbourne for rehearsals. Keen to start a family in the next couple of years, Perfect says he'd now like to stay in Melbourne to be near his parents and sisters.

Perfect met Lucy Cochran, a strategic planner for advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, in January 2006 when he introduced himself at a Prahran bar - "because she was good-looking," he says. "I never ever thought I would meet and fall in love with a person I met in a bar, but we just clicked straight away."

At the time Cochran, who is also 30, had never heard of him. She was seeing somebody else but Perfect discovered that she lived at the end of his parents' street in Richmond and they started emailing. When she visited her hometown of Adelaide, he invited her to see him there in Drink Pepsi, Bitch! - a show that lampooned the advertising industry - and by mid-2006 they were together. "People were like, 'Why the hell would you want to go out with someone in advertising when your show's all about it?', but I find all that stuff really interesting," he says. "Some of my friends are like, 'All advertising is evil and it's all money-hungry people' - and then they're busily trying to advertise their shows and market their band. They could actually learn a lot from talking to Lucy."

Being in a contented relationship, it seems, has only heightened the importance of making Shane Warne a hit. After living hand to mouth for the past few years, Perfect says, he finally has the chance to set himself up financially, especially if the show tours to the UK. "I've always wanted to have kids but I've always been petrified of it holding me back or slowing me down," he says. "Now I'm really into it ... That's why I'd like to get Shane Warne The Musical up and I'd love that to be successful because I'd have a solid base for me to do all those things that I want to do. And that's probably why this whole thing stresses me out more than usual because there's a lot riding on it."

Professionally, he says, he'd like to "create theatre that people want to actually see and that ignites the local industry". He would love to see one of his shows produced on Broadway before he turns 40 and perhaps write a feature movie musical, too. Eventually, he sees himself as artistic director of a theatre company or a festival. Those who know him can't see any reason why he can't tick every box. "I think he can do anything," says Gillies. "He's ambitious," adds Scott-Norman, "and a lovely, lovely guy. I look forward to lazing around his penthouse in New York when he gets there."

But success, of course, is all relative. Perfect may be excelling at what he loves but others aren't always so impressed. He can't count how many times audience members have come up to him after shows to tell him he should audition for Australian Idol - as if that could be his big break. "That's what people value; they see being on TV as an important thing," says Perfect, laughing. "I'm like, 'I'm playing the Sydney Opera House, you bastard! I thought that was pretty good.'" (m)

© 2008 The Age

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