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Young stars of Fame the Musical are living their characters' dreams

Sally Browne
June 2010

IN THE grand foyer of Melbourne's Regent Theatre, 1980s tunes ring out over the PA.

There's a buzz of excitement in the air. It might be a Wednesday night in the middle of winter but a full house of young and old have come out to see Fame the Musical. Some are So You Think You Can Dance? fans, eager to see their idols take on starring roles in the musical choreographed and directed by SYTYCD's Kelley Abbey. Some are fans of the original Fame, the 1980 film about kids at a New York talent school, which became a hit TV series airing in 70 countries.

See the moves of Timomatic and Talia Fowler from the smash hit Fame

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In the opening number they're rewarded with the colour and sparkle of a polished show.

On stage, two dozen kids clutch acceptance letters from the New York City's High School of Performing Arts – they're actors, musicians and dancers with big dreams. They raise their voice in song: "I pray I make P.A.".

The audience responds with huge applause.

Rewind just one hour earlier and the same cast are on stage, warming up, still in their sweat pants. They're actors, singers and dancers with big dreams who've managed to score parts in Fame the Musical.

This part is real-life – but it's a story that echoes the one on stage.

For many of the cast, this is their first big musical.

Talia Fowler, 2009's So You Think You Can Dance? winner, is doing sit-ups in the corner, blending in with the crowd who laugh and show off to each other, doing backflips as if they were easy, and chucking moves that by rights, shouldn't be possible.

It's their regular warm-up before the show – usually led by SYTYCD veteran Marko Panzic, who the cast agree is the biggest show-off.

"His show starts when he gets into the building," jokes Timomatic, who also made his mark on SYTYCD. In Fame, Tim gets to shine as a phenomenal singer, playing the role of the talented and troubled Tyrone Jackson.

Hip-hop is the order of the day today and the cast cut some cool moves.

"You never know what he's going to play from hip-hop, gangster rap to Celine Dion," says principal cast member Rowena Vilar, who plays the feisty Latino singer and dancer Carmen Diaz.

Adds Talia, who plays ballet dancer Iris: "Everyone likes a bit of Usher. I like ghetto stuff."

And 1980s tunes are represented. "Whitney Houston remixes," says Timomatic.

To keep the gang inspired, pages torn from 1980s magazines are plastered on the walls backstage.

After the warm-up the cast get their one-hour call and then it's off to their dressing rooms to get ready before the group circle for a last-minute prayer.

"The boys don't usually do much until the five-minute mark," says Marko to a round of laughter.

When they're on stage, though, the cast give it 110 per cent, and tonight's show is no different.

While Fame might be a New York story, it's a universal one, and one that gets the most out of its Australian stars.

The show boasts the cream of young talent, from Kylie Fisher, who learned the drums a few weeks before her audition to play tomboy Lambchop, to Jaz Flowers, who performs a show-stopping number as the large-of-appetite and large-of-voice Mabel Washington.

Even Talia, whose background dancing with the Queensland Ballet is put on show in the role of Iris, gets to sing a line. "It's funny because I spend time warming up and rehearsing backstage and the wardrobe lady's like 'Talia, you have one line'," she says.

As well as its young cast, the Australian musical, produced by John Frost, stars Darlene Love, a veteran of the US music scene, and Australian TV stars Andrew McFarlane and Brian Wenzel.

After the show, the cast gather for nibbles and drinks, but there won't be much partying. Fame is a full-time job, which means they rest as hard as they work.

"During the show I'm a princess," says Jaz. "I take my tablets and I'm silent. I don't speak for days."

Tim agrees you have to be careful with how you spend your time, and that includes ditching mates who make you laugh. "Laughing messes you up vocally," he says.

Performing for eight shows, six days a week is hard work, but even when performers are feeling a little sick or tired they still put their all into it. "Doctor Footlights," Jaz calls it, referring to the lights at the front of the stage that suddenly make everything better.

Fame, conceived by David De Silva, was first released as a film in 1980, which spun-off into a much-loved television series featuring regular characters Leroy, Doris and Bruno. (Remember their names?) The film won Oscars for best score and best song.

The musical debuted in Florida in 1988, featuring a new cast of characters and running in London's West End for 10 years. The stars of the Australian musical know the story back to front – they've lived it.

The next day in the green room, in the rabbit warren of the Regent Theatre's backstage, principal cast members reassemble for a chat. They're looking fresh, despite some of them going to bed at 3am. They're discussing last night's show.

A highlight of the show – both romantic and comic – is when Talia's character Iris jumps up on her beloved Tyrone for a kiss.

Says Talia: "She's never been kissed before. I just have to latch on. There's no way I can make that innocent."

"It's funny, it's fresh," says Tim.

Showing off comes naturally to this crew – especially when someone special's going to be in the audience.

This goes back to childhood, they all agree.

"I'm the most massive show-off," admits Talia. "I made my dad build a stage in the backyard. He wanted to make a cubby house and I said, 'No can we just leave the floor for a bit?"'

The gang erupt in laughter.

Tim admits he wanted to be like Michael Jackson in his youth, to the point of donning the jacket and shoes. "But I always had massive glasses, so it was quite funny," he says.

But while they might be living the dream, they know it's not a dream everyone can embrace. For the few that make it into talent schools – or a career beyond – there are thousands that don't. Rowena, who has starred in musicals like the Boy from Oz and We Will Rock You, says there are countless hours of hard work that are not seen on stage.

It's all about a work ethic, says Marko. "When I was younger it was a dream, but now being in it, it's a work ethic. It's such a lifestyle.

"You eat, live, breathe it . . . It's the non-stop travelling, the not-stop tour, the non-stop being on, the non-stop taking classes, recording, fixing your voice, conditioning your body. There's so much to it.

"If you want a career as a performer, you have to sacrifice, and that's what a lot of people don't get, you have to sacrifice family, love, you sacrifice normality at the end of the day. Every show that you do you have a new family. It's a weird sort of world."

"You become Fame," says Rowena.

Tim adds: "But there's so much positivity to it. And the best thing about the show is that it's our story. At the end of the day it's about us."

Fame the Musical plays at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC, until August 1. Tickets: or 136 246.



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