A household name in Australia, Todd McKenney’s versatile career has spanned three decades. He has represented Australia in ballroom and Latin American dancing, winning many international dance titles. A multi-award winning musical theatre performer, Todd has also graced Australian TV screens on ‘ The Morning Show’, ‘Australia’ Got Talent’ and of course, in a starring role as a judge in ‘Dancing With the Stars’. His new show ‘Duets’ sees him teaming up with fellow Australian performing veteran Georgie Parker for an evening of singing, dancing, gossip and playful banter. The multi-talented Todd sat down for an in-depth chat with Blank GC ahead of his appearance at The Star Gold Coast in August.
You were 14 years old when your mum bought you tickets to a Peter Allen concert and you had no idea who he was, years later you go on to perform his classics. Who else did you grow up to in the industry or in your younger years?
We grew up when musicals were big, like Hollywood blockbuster musicals were big. And my mum was one of the first people ever to buy a video recorder and so we got all of these videos of Fred Astair, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and all of those big old Hollywood musical stars and we just watched them endlessly. Shirley MacLaine was one of mum’s favourites so we watched nearly every Shirley MacLaine movie again and again and again. My hero probably would’ve been Gene Kelly.
So that was some time ago in Perth. In that era in Australia what were some of the challenges growing up and wanting to pursue dancing as an interest and a career?
It was a little tricky because there wasn’t much work at first for dancers, so it became pretty clear that if you wanted to have a career and a business like I did, you would have to leave Perth (which I did in 1983 and started my career in Adelaide). I’ve been lucky enough to work ever since, I say as I touch wood!
I watched the Peter Allen mini series and absolutely loved it. What is it you admire most about his career and was doing his stage show a career highlight for you?
Yes it changed my life. I was already a fan, as you know I saw him when I was 14. He taught me my craft basically. I had to learn how to talk to an audience which was something that terrified me up to that point. I’m happy to sing and dance but to talk to a crowd is a whole different thing. So I studied Peter Allen, but more than his dancing and more than his singing; I studied his chat to the audience because I think that was his real charm. He was totally himself up on that stage. He chatted to the audience like they were his friends and he was telling them a naughty secret and that was really what gave me the hook to be successful in that show. It was really the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, for sure.
Let’s talk about your upcoming show. What can we expect from your duet show with Georgie Parker coming up in August and September?
Apart from you getting to see two dear friends mucking up on stage? Georgie is like a naughty sister me and we just muck up. So, you’ll get that and a lot of backstage ‘Home and Away’ goss, and backstage ‘Dancing With the Stars’ goss, in amongst some of the world’s most famous duets. The only prerequisite that Georgie and I had when we put this show together with my band is that the audience had to know every single song. We want everyone, as soon as the they hear the first chord of the song to just go “Oh I remember that!” and we’re singing a wide range of material from Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ right through to Nancy and Frank Sinatra’s ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers ‘Islands in the Stream’, some Marvin Gaye.
So basically we’re in for a bit of a karaoke night with audience participation?
Totally! We want the audience to sing along to every song and if we do our jobs right, you’ll be singing our songs for the next three weeks.
We’re in for quite a diverse range of songs. Vocally, which ones were the hardest to rehearse for, and which one came more naturally for you and Georgie?
Well we’re doing a musical section of the show as well because Georgie and I worked in a musical called ‘Crazy For You’ so those songs obviously come very easily for Georgie and I. The cruisy kind of songs come easy to me like ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ and another song called ‘Something Stupid’, they came easy to me. The harder ones were things like Tina Turner, Jimmy Barnes, ‘Simply The Best’ I find at the end of that I can hardly speak, just so raspy. So that’s challenging me to find a different type of voice which I really kind of like. I’m channelling my inner rock god at times in this show.
So, you’ve teamed up with the amazing Georgie Parker who you’ve known for 30 odd years now, and met in the dancing studio. Are you going to break out into a dance of some sort during the Duets show?
Yeah we definitely will. We don’t know what or how much dancing we’ll do yet but we’ll do several musical theatre numbers. We’re doing a song called ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ and we generally do some form of tap dancing but without the tap shoes on. And we’ll do a little bit of Fred and Ginger’s style as well so we’re hitting the dance studio as soon as I finish doing Peter Pan.
We know Georgie for her acting career but heard she wanted to pursue dancing but could not due to her scoliosis which limited how far she could go. You’re a judge on dancing with the stars, how do you rate her as a dancer?
She’d kill me if I gave her anything other than a 20/10. There’s no way I’m going to begin to judge her. She’s a great dancer. I used to lift her above my head in dance training and spin her around and catch her with her nose two inches from the ground, all that stuff.
Georgie has had a few set backs as far as scoliosis is concerned. What has been some of the setbacks you’ve had in your own career? And who or what has helped you overcome that?
I suppose the hardest thing to get through is when your body doesn’t do what your mind wants it to do; you would know that better than anybody. As a dancer, just having to modify things. You know going into my 53rd year, for instance, my left leg doesn’t work so well anymore. So I’ve now got to make sure when I’m choreographing that all the weight is on my right not my left and that’s something I haven’t had to think about before. I think the hardest thing to get through is staying motivated, staying interested and vibrant in the business without getting jaded. A lot of actors get to a certain point where they get bitter but I am hell-bent at not letting that happen in my career. I do a lot of different jobs; big jobs, small jobs, free jobs, paid jobs. I’m not exclusive; I don’t say “No that’s below me now”. It just keeps me mixing with a variety of different and new people and I always feel that I’m enthusiastic about it. And that’s hard, it’s hard to do that and when you get tired especially but that’s all part of the discipline of the business and it could all stop at any minute. So I think staying motivated is one of the key issues.
So, how did you guys come along to selecting the songs that you’re doing in this show? Was there any tension?
Yes! We just said, “You go away and write a list of your favourite songs. I’ll go away and write a list of my favourite songs and we’ll meet again in two weeks time”. Stupidly I also said “If there’s any songs of mine you don’t like, I’ll take it out and same with yours”. I loved all of hers and she didn’t like all of mine. So I’m the only one that lost any of the songs they wanted to do. I should never have said that.
Well I lost Barbra Streisand’s ‘Guilty’, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jimmy Hewis ‘Crusin’ I had to really, really talk Georgie into doing ‘Islands in the Stream’ but I won that battle. I said if she didn’t let me do that I was going to turn her microphone off in her favourite songs.
Just want to have a quick chat now about your interest in the deaf community. What made you interested in learning Auslan and becoming involved in this community?
The first time I saw Auslan was in 1989. There was two interpreters that interpreted the musical ‘42nd Street’ which I was in and I just thought it was a really fascinating language and a really beautiful language, especially signed singing and it just got stuck in my head I thought “I would love to do that one day”. It’s so expressive, it’s like choreography, but you’re talking to people and telling a story. I remembered it and I ended up doing an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald and they got me to do a bucket list, “10 things I want to do before I die”, my number three on the list was to learn sign language. The next day The Australian Theatre of the Deaf director, Caroline Conlon, was on the phone texting me saying “If you’re serious, I’ll teach you one-on-one and you’ll become a patron of Australian Theatre and Dance.” That was 10 years ago now and then Caroline and I became very good friends. Caroline is deaf and she lived with me for a couple years and we’d holiday together and all of that and now many of my friends and I are fluent. I can chat to deaf strangers. It’s just a quiet little passion of mine. I don’t even talk about it that often it’s just something I do and it’s just great. One of the best things about it is when I’m with my deaf friends we can talk about people in front of their faces and they’ve no idea we’re even talking about them.
How active is the deaf theatre community in Australia? Do they put on a lot of performances?
No they struggle to get funding but their patrons love it. It’s very clever because they put on shows that work for a hearing audience and a deaf audience at the same time so it works on two levels and it is fascinating to watch. But it could be stronger; I think the government could get behind it a bit more.
So how can both deaf and non-deaf people become involved in theatre and support it?
If you get online and have a look at organisations like ‘Auslan Stage Left’, and there are all sorts of places you’ll find once you start googling it. Go along and watch and support the shows, I think you’ll be really fascinated by what they do, artistically it’s amazing.
What I want to do now to finish my interview is something I call speed dating for journalists, its Marlena’s Minute. The idea of this is to answer as quickly as possible and in short sentences.
So, your favourite holiday spot is? Rome
Last thing you googled is? Myself haha!
Your favourite colour is? Yellow.
Last CD you listened to? Boney M. “Oceans of Fantasy”.
Last concert you went to? Kylie Minogue, years ago.
First car? Datsun 180b
Most embarrassing moment? Wetting my pants on stage when I was 5.
Success is? Lucky if you can have it and varied and broad.
I’d love to meet? Oprah Winfrey.
One item of food in my fridge I must have? Cheese, cheese, cheese.
I am passionate about? Auslan and the deaf community.
If I was Prime Minister for the day I would? Legalise gay marriage.
Catch Todd and Georgie in ‘Duets’ at The Star Gold Coast on Saturday 26 August. Tickets available here.