Pippa Grandison first met Judith Durham on August 24 last year, just minutes before she was to make her first public appearance in the role of Judith Durham. Grandison won the role as the Seekers lead singer in Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical several months prior, but it wasn’t until the media call announcing the Australian cast that she got to meet the inspiration behind the role.
After a quick chat, Durham and her fellow Seekers took a seat in the front row, alongside a mass of media, to see the actors who would bring their story to life on stage and perform several of the band’s biggest hits.
“It was pretty scary, I have to say,” Grandison tells Daily Review. “But now I feel comforted when Judith is in the audience. Sometimes she’s in, and I don’t like to know who’s in the audience at each performance, and they tell me afterwards that she’d been watching.”
Grandison, who has played leading roles in musicals such as We Will Rock You, Wicked and The Witches of Eastwick, has won unanimous critical praise for her dramatic and vocal performance in the Melbourne season of Georgy Girl, tracking Durham’s life from Essendon through to fronting the first Australian band to achieve major success in the United Kingdom and United States.
Durham has always been a confident, magnetic stage performer, but behind the public persona she dealt with serious injury, illness, the death of her husband and an ongoing body image crisis.
“It’s much more emotionally challenging than I thought it would be,” Grandison says. “I find myself having to take the character off when I take my makeup off and leave it in the dressing room. She’s been through a great deal in her life — a great deal of joy, but also a great deal of sadness.”
It’s always a challenge for an actor to portray a real, living person, but it’s made even more difficult when it’s a popular icon like Judith Durham and the actor is required to perform the songs made famous by that singer.
In preparing for the role, Grandison watched hours of footage of Durham’s performances to try to get an understanding of how she held herself on stage. She also listened very closely to her voice, although her performance isn’t an exact impersonation of the distinctive, clean-cut Durham soprano.
“I had a meeting with the director in the very early stages,” Grandison says, “and I asked what he was after: did they want an imitation? Did they want me to try to recreate that sound as close as I can? I was hoping he would say what he did, which was ‘no, we don’t want that, we want the spirit of her’.”
Grandison has adjusted her vocal technique to try to find the flavour of Durham’s phrasing and certain tones, but says the Seekers’ rich harmonies and folk songs lend themselves better to the honesty that comes with a singer performing in their natural voice.
“I was really frightened that fans might be disappointed or people would say ‘she doesn’t sound anything like her’. But nobody seems bothered by the fact that our voices aren’t identical — although there have been those who have said that I sound exactly like her.”
After their quick meeting back in August, Grandison got the chance to spend a bit of time with Durham on the publicity trail. It was an unlikely process of research.
“I got to know her while other people were asking her questions,” Grandison says. “We spent a bit of time in a mini-van going from radio station to radio station, and I did get to ask her a few questions about how she would respond to certain situations and how she felt about performing, because she was so young when they broke through. It’s such a treat to be able to get the answers you’re looking for.”
Grandison has now played the role in Melbourne, and opens next week in Sydney before moving to Perth in July. There’s plenty of things she’s taken away from her eight shows a week in Durham’s shoes, but perhaps the most profound is her individual approach to live performance.
“She’s quite spiritual about it; she gives it to the people and there’s no ego in it at all, which is a wonderful, rare quality in a performer.”