The Chamber of Musical Curiosities Podcast: Simon Gleeson
Photo Credit: Ken Irwin
In this episode, Artistic Director Paul Kildea is joined by actor, performer, and writer Simon Gleeson. Simon talks about his childhood and how his earliest performances were together on stage with his father in amateur theatre. He also describes meeting Paul Kildea when he was 15 years old and how Paul inspired him to seriously try and make a career in the arts.
The pair continue by talking about Simon's time at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, including the experience of having Nick Enright specifically writing a monologue just for him. Simon mentions his good fortune in getting a job whilst he was still at WAAPA as well as the impact that Gale Edwards has had on his career. Simon then proceeds to touch on his relationship and marriage with fellow actress Natalie O'Donnell, his iconic performance as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables as well as his transition from performer to writer.
Listen to the full episode below.
Paul: Hello, welcome to the podcast. I'm here today with performer, writer, actor Simon Gleeson. Now Simon, the way I tell the story is that you were a 15-year-old student boarding at Xavier College in Melbourne and rocked up to me one day and said, “look, I hear you play the piano, I'm a singer” and I said “of course you are young man”, and you suggested that we get together for some songs. I said, “of course we will, young man”. And then we went in, and we would have done some show tunes, some show songs, some great ballads and knock them about the park kind of numbers, at which point you opened your mouth and sang, and I just went, oh my God, you know, this guy is kind of interesting. And more than that, as I said to you in the past, your voice didn't seem to change terribly much from the age of 15 through to 25 through 30. So, that's how I tell it. How would you tell it?
Simon: I was a 15-year-old student, and a boarding master came to me and said, “you look like you've got talent! Would you avail yourself some of your time and please, please may I play for you?”
Paul: So more or less directly overlapping stories, like, they just fit together, hand in glove.
Simon: No, you're right. I do remember - I don't recall why I did - this is the thing, I don't recall why I asked you to play something or for your advice or counsel, I can’t even remember why we were doing it or whether it was just interest at that time, but I do remember, of course, I don't remember the reaction to it. I just sang and you played, and life carried on. But I do remember from that moment that you actually, you were funny. I remember clearly a moment where you actually… didn't get stern with me, but you were very serious in saying, listen, if this is something that you really enjoy, you know, it's worth actually taking it serious right from now. And I know I've said this to a lot of people and in your company, but when you're young and it is something you enjoy, you just think, oh my God, I'm never going to get anywhere, and I don't have a hope in hell, and someone that you respect actually says “I believe in you”. It's actually one of the biggest gifts you can receive.
Paul: Yeah, it's a pretty interesting thing to be taken seriously as a youngster, and I think that that's what we owe talent. It's what we owe everyone. But we owe talented people because you have a limited span and space in which to develop that talent to a really great degree if it involves music. But you weren't quite, I mean, you were a boy from the country boy from The Rock, but that doesn't quite capture your parents or your upbringing, does it?
Simon: No, not really. I mean, my father, my first memories are of my father singing Gilbert and Sullivan at the club, you know, or something in Wagga, and I just remember sitting there just loving, absolutely loving it. So my story isn't one of those oh I'm from the country, and my parents were adamantly against going into (music), or my father was embarrassed about my choices, or anything, it wasn't like that at all. I was blessed with a father who, although didn't necessarily think that it would be a career, was usually supportive of the art and didn't remotely think it was weird to get up on stage and have a go. And so my earliest shows were on stage with him, in amateur theatre
Paul: Isn’t that an interesting way of phrasing it as well, “who didn't think it weird to get up on stage”, which is kind of an off hand way of describing what was actually a very profound experience. A parent who can say” no, this is really natural” and a parent in Australia when you're growing up in the nineties, being able to say that is a huge gift, I would have thought
Simon: It is. And also in rural Australia, it's a whole other layer of unacceptability. Well, no, actually, maybe that's unfair. But I certainly felt that it wasn't the done thing. It’s just that I didn't feel that in my house. So even going to boarding school when it didn't feel like the done thing at boarding school, to be honest, or at school at an all boys school. It was an outsider thing. But maybe I was lucky because I also really loved and got involved in what was a popular thing, which was, of course, sport. And I loved that and cherish that as well. So I felt like I was lucky to be able to straddle both worlds.
Paul: Yeah, one of the things, because then I’ve, of course, left Xavier and went off to do Post Grad overseas. But we, of course, worked together after that and I remember some very happy collaborations. But I remember a kind of profound experience that you had while you were still a student at Xavier because Xavier had at that stage, and perhaps still does, some sort of exchange or presence in Broome, and this took you there, I can't remember in year 11 or year 10. But perhaps talk a little bit about that because I do remember that it it really did shape the way that you thought about, well, relationships, First Nations Australia, later as well, because you had the great fortune to be friends with someone who's important in your collaborative artistic life now, Michael Gracey. So, you're all plonked up there in Broome and having very profound experiences surrounding all those things. So, perhaps first get the date right for me or the age right for me and then just talk a little bit about that.
Simon: The year was 1995 which was year 10 for me and at the time, it's changed since, but at the time Xavier offered a 12… feels a bit long, 12 weeks, maybe it was eight, but a considerable amount of time, exchange program between what was then Nulungu College in Broome, it's since changed names. And four Xavier students would go up there and spend those 8, 10 weeks, I can't remember how long. And then the other part of the exchange would be a whole lot of Nulungu students would come down to Melbourne for a much shorter amount of time, but just check out Melbourne, check out the school and come to school. So Michael went a year before me because he was a year above me at school at the time, and then he ruined it. He and his group ruined it because they actually had a house, um, they were given a house, which is just so insane, but they were given a house, just the four of them.
Paul: What could possibly go wrong?
Simon: What could go wrong? Exactly. And yes, they ruined it for everyone. But honestly, they didn't because we didn't have the house, we were actually put in the boarding school at Nulungu, and I am actually so grateful we were. So, we were living on campus with the students, with the guys who live out on communities and were boarding from those remote communities. And so, yeah, every weekend we were, uh, what was nice about it was that it felt like more than ticking boxes. You know, it wasn't two weeks, so the sort of “oh, let's just see what life’s like here". We really felt much more immersed, and it fundamentally changed the way, obviously, I thought about indigenous Australia and learning. You know, we were just so ignorant back then, probably still are. But having also, just friends that I still keep in contact with, just on a, not cultural level, just on a pure friendship level, it was fantastic. I've been up since and I spent some time up there and it was as if nothing had changed. So I felt really lucky to meet some wonderful people there, to learn some things, to have a hell of a lot of fun. And we found it really hard to assimilate back at Xavier. And I found it very difficult to reconcile life up there with life in Melbourne. So, yes, it fundamentally changed who I was. Of course, 10 weeks doesn't do that, but in terms of what I thought Australia was, it fundamentally changed everything. And it's been nice to work, through a company called Big Art, work with some communities up in the, the Pilbara a few years ago and again, just another extraordinary time. So I feel like I've been really lucky. I don't know anything, I've still got so much to learn, but I feel like I've been able to have a taste.
Paul: But it does point to the sheer power of that immersion at an early age that we still don't manage to achieve in Australia. Because I do remember, yeah, there was a profound seriousness and depth to your engagement with our heritage here in Australia that I noted at the time when I’d come back after you were there. But look, after, you know, after that, and then after a couple more years at University, you end up at WAAPA, the West Australian (Academy of) Performing Arts. What's in the water out there at those days? It's like those phases, you know at NIDA, when you'll suddenly have this amazing collection of people coming through and WAAPA as well, you know. I know a handful of the people that went through with you, not least of all your wonderful wife. What do you think was so successful about the training you received then?
Simon: I think at the time there were just so few options. And in fact, I didn't even know about WAAPA, but it was another Xavierian in Matthew Newton, who at the time, I was out at my uncle's farm, and I remember he ran up and he said, I’ve signed your form, I’ve paid your money, I’ve forged your signature. All you have to do is to arrive at the audition with a monologue and a couple of songs. And so, I remember learning my monologue in the car on the way there.
Paul: Can you remember what it is?
Simon: Yeah, I remember it clearly, I couldn't recite it for you, but..
Paul: I’m not asking that
Simon: Could you imagine? Now sit back while I give you…
Paul: Let’s have another 40 minutes, can we?
Simon: Yeah, exactly. It was Equus.
Paul: Ah, is it the Peter Shaffer play?
Simon: That's right, yeah, I remember learning it in the car, which was stupid because I was driving. But you just couldn't get away with that anymore, the students now, those auditioning, I don't know, I mean, it is so - it was pretty competitive then - but now it is brutal. And there's no way - and I laugh at this – we would never, would never get in now. No way would we get in. Everyone is just far more polished and put together, and of course, they have knowledge through the Internet, of different shows. And we were just hopeless. But at the time, there weren't many options, so, you know, they sort of had their pick of people. And, uh and I think there's something to do with the location. You can fail spectacularly in Perth in a way that you can't do when people come and see your shows in Sydney or in Melbourne. We really felt we could risk and not, you know, land on our face, you know, in the long term.
Paul: Yeah, let's not say where does that degree land someone or did back in the nineties, but where did it land you? What were kind of some of the early gigs that it set you up for? Both in terms of people taking you seriously - you would have had your end of year showing, you would be taken seriously when it comes to going for auditions, uh, you would be able to have conversations with agents and all the rest of it. So that's understood and in good days, that's what occurs. But what happened in your case?
Simon: Look, even more blessed to be honest that they were re-casting some people who were leaving the tour of Les Misérables back in 1998. And so, they were after a couple of people, and they came to WAAPA and auditioned us, and both Nat and I got in before we had left, before we even showcased. So, we were incredibly fortunate and we knew it. And I remember we were doing a show, and Nick Enright was in a show with us and he, at interval, I was sort of going, I don't know what I'm going to do because I have to do a monologue for showcase because I can't do a, um, scene because I'm not going to be here to rehearse it, and I don't know which one to do, and I was a bit lost and Nick tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I'll write you one” and I said, uh, I think I swore, you know, I swore I said “oh shut up Nick, I'm actually being serious” and he said, “so am I”. And so, we sat down, and he wrote me this beautiful monologue. That's one of the things I cherish. Funnily enough about Phil Quast’s brother, and this was obviously years before I would meet him and become friends with Phil. So, it's weird how life works, but yeah, Nick, bless him, he was great for showcase. So, we didn't have that pressure of “will I ever get a job?” because we were in one, and we still were allowed to showcase, and so just, again, just so lucky. It had nothing to do with being necessarily proficient. I didn't know anything. It was just lucky I could hold a tune and was what they were after at that time. And so, yeah, I felt really lucky.
Paul: Hilariously understated assessment of your own skills. But I like the idea that if Arthur Miller is dead and can't write for you, well, you might as well get Nick Enright.
Simon: Exactly. I just love that. I just naturally thought he was joking, and he wrote it between Perth and Sydney on the plane and faxed it to me, obviously back then. And so, I’ve still got the original fax and yeah, he was wonderful to a lot of people back then. He was a wonderful educator as well as a writer.
Paul: Now I had left Xavier to go and study thinking I'll do three years postgraduate, which, three years turned into 25 in England and Germany. And you, of course, land up in London and I just can't remember when. I remember lots of time together in years in London, but that may be in the early two thousand's, not least of all, because one day you rocked up at Wigmore Hall, where I was artistic director, and you asked at the box office if you could speak to me. And you got this wonderfully, wonderfully English response saying, “oh, my goodness, no. Paul is very busy today. Apart from anything, we have Alfred and Adrian Brendel playing here tonight” and you in that wonderful, laconic Australian way, said, “ah yes, the Brendel brothers”. Slightly missed a generation.
Simon: I love how you say it was wonderfully laconic, as opposed to, you know, horribly ignorant. But yes, I didn't do you any favours that day.
Paul: Oh no, you did me every favour.
Simon: I do remember that. I remember her look, which was, you can leave now.
Paul: But we did spend lots of time together, and I just can't remember when you arrived and then you were starting to do some pretty interesting projects in the West End. So, had they come about simply because of like, a rather lovely accumulation of experiences and plays and musicals in Australia?
Simon: They had, but they came about really because of Gale Edwards. I was doing a show with her called Eureka, which didn't last very long here in Melbourne, a new Australian show. And she rang up and said, “I'm looking for a quintessential British officer and I can't find one in London”. And she said, “so could you put down a video audition and just don't be Australian. So even when you're talking and introducing yourself, do it with a British accent” and whatever. So I did that and they cast me for this role. So it was sort of like leaving WAAPA where, you know, fates were with me and I was just fortunate enough to go to London, which I was going to anyway, because at the time Nat was living there, and I was always going to join her there, but it happened, and just as luck would happen, uh, I went there with a with a role in the West End, and so again, just incredibly fortunate. But I remember rocking up and the night I rocked up, there was a party at this beautiful place near Harrods where one of the producers of the musical, you know it was their place, whatever. So, I rocked up. I remember I was all in black and I was pretty jet lagged, and I met the producer and he said hello and I went, “hello mate, how are you?” And he then found out for the first time I was Australian, and the blood drained from his face when realised it was a multi million dollar musical hanging on this bloody Australian. And it was really embarrassing because while that was going through his mind, a guy from the party tapped me on the shoulder and said, “could you please get me two glasses of champagne?” because he thought I was the waiter. It was just so humiliating and then had to get up and sing as well. It was awful, but it was a wonderful experience. And so, I do owe Gale, you know, she's been a big champion of mine, and, you know, I feel, again, still feel very lucky to have worked with her, but also to call her a friend. So yes, so we we've worked with each other a lot, but she was the main leg up in England, for sure.
Paul: Yeah, and we keep mentioning Nat and not giving her full accreditation. Nat O’Donnell, beautiful actor, singer and theatre maker, much like yourself. And so, you're both there doing that impossible thing of being jobbing actors in London in your late twenties, I suppose, and doing it rather well and then children and all those kind of things. Eventually, there's a pool home, but it would be fair to say, at different times and different degrees for each of you. I genuinely, genuinely don't know how, uh, couples who do the same thing, you know, with obviously different asides to them, how you reconcile those kind of big moves and whether it's simply – I know in later years it became around who was offered the big gig. Which gig trumped the next big gig and whose time was it to do the childcare and all the rest of it – but what's it like in your twenties? Early thirties, making those decisions?
Simon: Well, it was awful, especially even in the early twenties, where, uh, you know, I guess it's embarrassing to admit this, but I will, that when we first started out and we did Les Mis together and then Nat just was killing it. She was just getting, uh, every lead role under the sun and I found it really difficult. I felt that – because also, we’d been in the same year at drama school – so I really felt like, I guess I was inherently not good enough and had a huge lack of confidence. And although I was supportive of Nat and wanted her to achieve, I found it really, really difficult to feel like I was worthy. And I think there's been – I don't want to put words in Nat’s mouth – but there's probably been times where she has felt the same thing. And so it's difficult for that reason, and that's why a lot of relationships don't sometimes work and we had to make a decision and it was so much easier after children because the decisions were made for you - what is best for the family. And going back, you know, leaving London was one of those decisions. It was what is best for the family and leaving London was one of those. So I didn't want to leave London, but recognised it was the best thing, and Nat was, as she often is, absolutely right. It was definitely the best move to come back. And it has been great because I've been able to work there since, so it’s been fine.
Paul: Well exactly. And funnily enough, in coming home, it did set you up for a quite a different role in Les Mis, and I remember I caught you performing Jean Valjean a couple of times in that run which lasted, I think, three years. But I do remember you saying the tally of how many performances you have given and certainly in the early days in Australia, that was, you know, seven or eight performances a week of a role when you're on stage for, you know, three to three and a quarter hours at a time. And it's hard to imagine getting to five o'clock on a Saturday and saying “let's all do this again in a couple of hours!”.
Simon: Yeah. When I look back and I can look back now, obviously, but it was something like 800 and something shows in the end over those three years. And so, I only ever did seven a week both here and in London and had a wonderful understudy, especially through most of it here in Australia, Dan Bell, who's terrific. So, I felt really lucky and supported, but yeah, I think there wasn't one show where I felt “I've got this”. Every show started “dun-dun-dun-dun” And in Australia the production starts where everyone's on stage and I would sit there and in the dark and I would, you know, cross my fingers and I’d go, please let this be okay. And I think I did that every show and that was not to do with anyone else, it was just me going “oh, my God. Please let me survive this”. But looking back, of course, I look back on it so fondly that it was such a wonderful time. And this is the thing is it's so bizarre that there wasn't one day that I didn't want to go. I always wanted to go. I always wanted to be up there. It was just, I just hoped like hell, like I'd make it through, but there was not one show that I didn’t want to be there. So, it's very strange that sort of fear and desire at the same time, uh, and they ran together for those three years, and it was a big hit on the family. Only because I had to look after myself, I guess. But just because it was a preoccupation and it also made everyone move, I wasn't there a lot, it was a big effort for Nat to carry things when I wasn't there, and often when I was, was harder. But it also afforded everyone seeing some really great parts of the world and living in London for a while and then travelling. And so, there were wonderful aspects of it, too, and it was nice to then finish that and Nat started Mamma Mia! and I could, at least in a little way, go alright, well I can take the reigns at home and you can go and tour now.
Paul: I’m going to tie up this conversation, which could go on for hours, but you're a busy man. Twofold: every now and then we do a little bit of art song, classical music, together and I'd love to hear what your impression of the overlaps between your world and mine actually are, and what they're like and how you feel. Perhaps that's the easier question to ask, how you feel, I was going to say trespassing, I don't mean that, I mean coming onto my grounds. And then the second thing is, sometimes I think of you as, these days, as almost a reluctant performer that you're actually now so much happier writing. And this is where the full circle with your friendship with Michael Gracey going back all that time to the Xavier days and those pre-Broome days, how that's really come to the fore in your own life. So those two things I wouldn't mind you talking about, and if you can wrap them together, that's a great thing, the classical music aspect and what it can mean to you. And second, yeah, this idea that now you're so immersed in a creative world that's inside your own head and how you bring that out onto the page and screen really interests me.
Simon: I mean trespassing…
Paul: Terrible word!
Simon: …into the classical world. I feel like I haven't in a way, and I would be, as you know, the last person to suggest that I belong in that world. I just don't, fundamentally, don’t have the skills. The times that I ventured, you know, dipped my toe in those waters, I've actually found them wonderful experiences through a little project with South Australia and the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland and-
Paul: That was Keith Warner wasn't it, I think?
Simon: Yeah, man I love Keith Warner, he was just the best, I had such a great time with him. And Ukaria with you, you know, last year. There's still… I feel like every time I have, they've been on my terms where I haven't been asked to do… I just can't do it. It's just not, it's just not what I do, and there's other people who do it so much better. And I feel I would hope that I bring something else that's sort of unique and different to the party. I feel like the classical performers are just so highly skilled now, it's not just about the voice I think they're moving into… you used to probably get away with just a nice sound. You just can't anymore. And I think that's super exciting. And will obviously, you know, make every performance more vibrant. So in a way, people like me are not necessarily needed in that world anymore, because there's just multi-skilled people. But I respect it. I have a healthy fear of it. And every time I open my mouth, I just go, oh, God, you know, it's always done with a little bit of an apology. I don't know. I actually – what you were saying before – I do love performing and I do actually miss it, and I missed it through – I still have that fear of it in a way – but I miss it – I've missed it through Covid. So, I still love it. I think I also love the teamwork of being around a cast, going in and knowing every day what it's going to be. Some people hate that. I love it. I love waking up, knowing that at this time I'll be at the theatre. I'm going to do this show. And writing has been completely different for that, because every day I'm going “I wonder what's going to happen now”. And especially as we get… there’s a film that’s, uh, sort of in pre-production at the moment that I've co-written and working with Michael which I love more than anything, and he's terrific and we've talked stories for 20 something years now, and to be able to do that together on a big scale is really exciting and daunting and terrifying. And he calls me Chicken Little because he is the eternal optimist, and I'm always terrified of the sky hitting me, and I wish to God I wasn't. But I can't help it. That's who I am. And I think it's only because catastrophising… there was a time when I was at school when I was in grade two, and I know I've got to shut up now, but there was a time when I was in grade two where I got pulled out of school. I remember it clearly because if there was a sunny day like today, I would believe it was a drought. And if it happened to be raining – and apparently this isn't an odd thing, apparently this is actually, this isn’t unique – but if it rained, it was going to be a flood, and I don't know why I did, and I grew out of it, I guess. But I sort of didn't. And I wish I was this person who was going to be like, “oh, everything's going to be great, and I'll work towards that”. But the writing, I do absolutely love it. I love sitting in a room and I love the blank page and I love being immersed. I actually really, really love it. But I still want to be on stage, and it's where I feel in control. So, I would love to get to a point where I get to do both. That would be ideal.
Paul: You will without doubt and are actually. But tell Grace I always thought it was Henny Penny who worried about the sky, but that might be my problem. And I know exactly what you mean about -
Simon: Wasn’t it Chicken Little who does?
Paul: I thought it was Henny Penny.
Simon: Maybe you’re right.
Paul: We better find out who these characters are
Simon: Post haste we better find out!
Paul: But I really respond to this idea of writing and going “what's going to come out?” and every time – the same thing – when I was mixing a lot of conducting with a lot of then coming home for a couple of months and working on a book, I would sit down at my desk and turn on the computer and say, well, where did I get up to? And then okay, there, and then you'd have to go well, what's going to come out now and never quite knowing what will come out in the course of the day, and it's incredibly creative. And the best way I can put a gorgeous full stop on this conversation, and it's always just amazing talking to you my friend, is I remember listening to an early edit of your very beautiful CD from five years ago or so, and I played a song to a great friend of mine, a fantastic musician who just listened to one song, and he just said, “oh, what wonderful storytelling”. And I just figure that that's kind of what you do. And on stage, I know that's what you do and in your writing, that's what intrigues you. So, I think that's a pretty nice way of someone just hearing you, and in that moment going “wow, I've got this guy. I know exactly what he's up to”.
Simon: Yeah, well, I hope so. And It's nice to be able to publicly, whenever I get a chance, and now to your listeners, you know, thank you for your support. Even through the album, pretty much every step of my creative journey has involved you and your counsel. So, it's nice to be able to again publicly, you know, thank you for that.
Paul: Tish Tosh. But my beautiful friend Simon and his lovely, much nicer wife
Simon: Much nicer human being, goodness gracious yes
Paul: I’ll leave you to get on to do some pretty interesting film work, and I look forward to seeing you as soon as we can.
Simon: Amazing. Thanks so much.