When it comes to the stresses of fame, the physical effects of dancing for a living for over 30 years and the financial precariousness of showbiz, there’s not much that song-and-dance man and television personality Todd McKenney doesn’t know.
The 48-year-old Perth-born star, who returns to Perth next month for the stage version of Grease, has done the lot.
From starring in musicals, producing and touring his own shows, radio DJ to outspoken judge on TV’s Dancing With the Stars, Todd told Medical Forum that he was destined for this life.
“My Mum ran a dance school in Morley. In fact she was on the way to class when she went into labour with me. I’ve been brought up in a dance school.”
Apart from a teenage flirtation with springboard diving, Todd has been treading the boards consistently since his debut in 1983 in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance and his timing couldn’t have been better.
In the late 1970s, filmmakers began to return to the musical genre, producing such modern classics as Grease (with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) and here in Australia, Baz Luhrmann’s wildly popular Strictly Ballroom.
Musicals have been hot tickets ever since.
“We’ve got a lot to thank Baz Luhrmann and Lloyd Webber for – it’s cool to be in a musical again. Technology has also advanced and musicals look a lot smarter now – they are less vaudeville and more Hollywood.”
Todd’s cameo role as Teen Angel in Grease sees him on stage for three minutes 53 seconds … “though I milk it to four minutes so I can be on stage a little longer.”
“I arrive at the theatre half way through the second act, wander round watching everyone else sweat it out then swan on stage and steal the show. Well that’s my aim, at least. I took on the role because I thought it would be good fun and it’s turned out to be exactly that.”
The Perth season will also be an opportunity for local theatre lovers to see Todd in a vastly different role, this time as dinner host and backstage guide as part of his new venture, Centrestage Tours.
“When you work in theatre, you can take all the excitement for granted and this is a way to give people who love theatre an insight into our world.”
“The tour includes a three-course dinner at a classy restaurant, hosted by me, with the odd visit from fellow actors or backstage creatives; great seats for the show and then afterwards head backstage to meet the team. The tour ends on stage with the lights up facing 2000 seats. It freaks out a lot of people.”
“We’ve been running the tours in Sydney and Melbourne where we’ve sold out. It’s been really well received.”
The two roles that are synonymous with Todd are Peter Allen in The Boy from Oz and the ‘nasty’ judge in the celebrity TV dance competition, Dancing With the Stars (DWTS).
The first live theatrical show Todd saw when he was a kid was Peter Allen at the Perth Concert Hall in the late 1970s. It sold him on showbiz, and Allen’s style and repertoire became a model for the budding entertainer.
A chance meeting with Allen’s sister after the singer died in 1992 led to a close friendship with the family.
“When I auditioned for The Boy from Oz, Peter’s mum asked me to come by their house on the way to the audition. She had packed up three of his shirts for me to wear. She said ‘If anyone is going to play him, we hope it’s you’. I’ve always been humbled by my Peter Allen experience – it’s been my career and I love it.”
Equally DWTS has been a huge part of Todd’s life for more than a decade. It took a bit of effort to get used to being recognized when he was at the supermarket and even more effort to understand why people seemed to hate him for what he consideredwas a part he was playing.”
“When the show first started, I got spat at in Hobart. That took a lot to come to terms to. I couldn’t understand how people would take a dancing show so much to heart. I even had a guy in a butcher shop throw sausages at me, but the benefits of the show far outweigh the negatives.”
“It’s a joy to see people discover dance and it is a powerful thing for contestants and the audience to see just how hard and how committed you have to be to dance well. And it’s heaps of fun.”