Anna O’Byrne was handpicked by Dame Julie Andrews to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews played the role in the 1956 original and is now directing the Australia production, at Sydney Opera House from August 30. Andrew Lloyd Webber brought O’Byrne to London, creating the role for her in Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. She now has international acclaim across opera, theatre, concert and film. O’Byrne chatted to me about the difficulties filling Andrews’ shoes, Lloyd Webber’s advice for her and staying in Britain longer than she’d planned.
How did you land the role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady?
The audition notice came through and I just thought I’d better throw my hat in the ring. It was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I’ve worked with Guy Simpson, who is the music director of the show, on a couple of other projects previously. There were just multiple reasons, and obviously Julie Andrews!
You were handpicked by her – what was that like?
It was weird going into the audition room [as] she was the first Eliza … [and] particularly because I have been such a huge fan all my life.
Were you nervous to meet her?
Yes I was, but she is such a beautiful person. She has, like, just amazing energy and she is so respectful to all the performers … She gets what it’s like to go in and audition and be vulnerable.
Did she give you any insightful tips?
Yes, she did all the way through the audition process, but particularly for my last audition in London. We had quite a long chat afterwards … She would tell me what songs to pull back in and how to particularly approach different kinds of songs.
Is it a lot of pressure to play her former role and have her direct it?
It is also a really, really challenging role too … with five huge almost operatic arias really essentially for Eliza, plus dancing, plus never really being off the stage. Obviously doing it for Dame Julie is also daunting, but she is so encouraging.
What should audiences expect from My Fair Lady?
I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t know a song from My Fair Lady, the music is so familiar … We are so lucky to have Julie recreating all the splendour and magnificence of the original production and I think audiences will have the same reaction as they did 60 years ago!
Does singing and dancing come naturally?
Dancing less so. I’ve had to work on that a bit as that comes a lot less naturally to me than singing.
How do you prepare for a big role like this?
We have a saying … being “show-fit”, which is being ready to do the show and all its physical demands, eight shows a week. So it’s like your stamina. It’s like being a marathon runner … I’ll probably go into class a few times so I can be with my singing teacher [and try to stay in the] eight-shows-a-week mentality.
You made your West End debut as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera – what was that like?
That’s actually another really challenging role, just in terms of the stamina of it eight shows a week as well … Christine is another one of those, like, super iconic roles that, like, every girl wants to play.
Prior to playing Christine, Andrew Lloyd Webber lured you to London to create the role for Love Never Dies. How did that come about?
I did Phantom here in Australia. It was my first gig out of college, but I was Christine’s understudy … Then, a couple of years later, he wrote the sequel to Phantom, called Love Never Dies. So I did that in Melbourne and then in Sydney, playing Christine. Then I went over to London and he was definitely quite instrumental in getting me into that production.
What is it like to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
He is such a giant in the industry and to get to work with, like, a living composer and to talk to them about their intention when they wrote this particular song and how to sing it … It’s amazing.
What is the best piece of advice he gave you?
When we were previewing Love Never Dies, he was, like, “When you take your curtain call at the end, even though you’re bowing, you need to still portray [the character].” I needed to come out of my shell more rather than being myself.
You say you need to come out of your shell when you are portraying a character. How do you manage the transition?
I don’t know if I’ve worked it out yet. I love playing a character on stage, but I find it stranger to kind of be myself. Just recently, in Guys and Dolls, the guy who I play opposite does the speech after we all bow … and that is just my idea of hell. I was not very good at … being myself on stage, quite particularly after you’ve been the character for the past few hours and then sort of having to step out of that.
How did you get into musical theatre?
I’ve just always loved it. My mum was a music teacher for a long time and we used to [be part of the] local amateur dramatic society. I didn’t go to a performing arts school, but I went to a school that had a very good sort of, like, performing arts program.
If you hadn’t gone down this career path, what would you be doing?
I used to want to be a librarian when I was younger. I’d still like to be an author or a librarian, something like that.
What was your first big break?
Love Never Dies [had] a lot of international interest in the production and it was filmed and released in cinemas internationally and on DVDs.
What’s next in the pipeline?
I’ve just released my album, so I’ll be doing a bit of promo for that, and I’ve got some concerts lined up over the Christmas/New Year period back in the UK.
Will you stay based in the UK?
My partner is a Queenslander. We keep saying it’s a temporary thing, but then we keep staying on longer.
Is he in musical theatre as well?
Yes, he is doing Les Miserables on the West End.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I love exploring the London parks, and spending time with my family is obviously a huge priority when we’re all in the same country.
Opera Australia and John Frost’s production of My Fair Lady previews from August 30 at Sydney Opera House; from $89.90. Julie Andrews is in conversation with her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton at the Opera House on August 28; from $4
WE WENT TO Sofitel High Tea, Sydney
WE ATE An assortment of sweets classic opera slice; macarons; Wentworth cheesecake; chocolate éclairs; lemon meringue tartlet; fruit tartlet; scones and savouries: Roast beef on whole wheat with horseradish butter; smoked salmon on ciabatta, cream cheese, cherry tomato, capers; cucumber dill on white bread; spinach and pumpkin muffin; quiche Lorrain
WE DRANK herbal tea and english breakfast tea.
ANNA WORE ZARA