WITH hair as big as her voice, cabaret star Catherine Alcorn channels one of showbiz’s biggest divas in her show The Divine Miss Bette — without a Beaches reference in sight.
Q How does it feel to bring your show The Divine Miss Bette to the Sydney Opera House?
I was there recently standing on the steps looking at the building and it’s funny, I knew I’d always play there but I’m so amazed at the same time that it’s happening. When that moment arrived it felt like ‘Oh my God, I’m doing it!’ It’s exciting but it’s also nerve-racking because this will be and has to be the greatest performance of my life. It’s the most iconic building in Australia for me, there’s something really special about being just about to tread on those boards.
Q Why Bette Midler?
To be completely honest I feel like it’s something that was out of my control, l was always going to play this part. I was at the Slide Lounge in 2009 when friends were doing a cabaret show and I was blown away by the venue and the intimacy; the general stylings of cabaret.
I raced up and said to my friend this was what I wanted to do and he asked who I’d want to do and I said Bette Midler. I’d been out of the industry for a while doing film and TV production and I think her as an artist was the best option for me to showcase my talents in acting, comedy and singing. And I’ve always been an admirer, I think she is a true triple threat when she sings, dances and acts.
Q Do you remember the first time you heard Bette Midler?
I think it was Wind Beneath My Wings. Obviously I must have heard songs on the radio as a little girl but it wasn’t until I saw Beaches that I realised it was her singing them. I was 10 years old when I saw her at the cinema and before that she hadn’t been on my radar.
Q Your show got its start in Wagga Wagga. Why did you choose to premiere it there?
We premiered it in 2009. I’d gone to uni at Charles Sturt studying an acting, screen and stage course there and I’d been in a vocal duo through uni and we’d gigged for four years in pubs, clubs and parties working with local producers. That was where I learnt my craft. I debuted it during the Wagga Wagga Country Club’s Christmas Show season in 2009 and brought it up to Sydney in 2010. It’s had quite the life, from Wagga to New York!
Q You toured in the US. How did American audiences respond?
I was so nervous going over, it’s the land of Midler! Her biggest fans are there so I was thinking ‘Oh my God, what will they think about the show?’ But they loved it, I got standing ovations and it was so beautifully received. A few diehard Bette fans said they’d bought tickets but thought ‘If she stinks we’ll leave after five minutes’. But they said they’d loved it. I channel her and put in personal improvisations and audience interactions.
Q You took your son on tour with you, how was that?
It was a gruelling tour! He was five months old, so it was exhausting. We did four cities in two weeks; we played Arizona, LA, San Diego and then went to Nashville for eight nights just to sleep and do laundry before Palm Springs. I was still breastfeeding so the demand on me physically was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. The performing, travelling, different time zones, packing up and getting to the airport and through security with a stroller and a baby, playing shows and then breastfeeding and trying to sleep — it was full on. I don’t think people understand how hard touring is on you, but at the same time you’re pumped full of adrenaline because you’re so excited to be there. But you fall in a heap when you get home.
Q Do you know if Bette Midler has ever seen parts of the show?
I haven’t actively sought to meet her. If I do it will be a natural occurrence if we just crossed paths. But she did wish us well. In the 2014 season at a theatre in Sydney, the box-office manager’s partner was a box-office manager on Broadway and told her there was a theatre back in Australia doing this show and she said to give me her best for the season.
Q How long does it take you to transform into Bette?
To be honest, not very long. That was an attraction to the character. Personality-wise I’d been likened to her for so many years, even before I’d thought about doing a show on her. And my background was in original music and rock ‘n’ roll, and her ‘70s stage shows had big costumes and big numbers and amazing arrangements of Tom Petty and Neil Young, etc. This show allows me to be as big and brassy as I want to be on stage and that comes quite naturally to me.
Q What is it about cabaret that you love?
I think how closely you can connect with an audience. That’s what I love to do, to see audience’s eyes and reach out and touch them … and sit on their lap if I need to! There’s something thrilling about a live performance, you never know what you’re going to get. Our show changes night to night because there’s so much audience interaction and improvisation. The audiences can sometimes feel in control because of their reactions and the stories they give, I feed off that.
Q What else are you working on this year?
I’m working on a new show with Phil Scott, an Aussie comedy legend. He worked on the script for my show Cathartic in 2016 and we were in stitches the whole time, we click beautifully with the way our minds work. There’s always a few other things under my belt.