By David Hennessy
“I remember having a conversation with my mother and saying: ‘Actually mum, this might sound crazy but we’re going to take all our savings and put it into a show in the Olympia and postpone the wedding for a year. That was fun,” Naas actress Sharon Sexton tells The Irish World of when she and her husband put their own money into staging Somewhere under the Rainbow, their one woman show about the life of Liza Minnelli,
“It was brave or stupid, depending on who you talk to,” Sharon laughs. “But it worked. It had to. We didn’t have an option, it had to work.”
Now preparing for its London premiere, Somewhere Under the Rainbow began as a short play for Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. After its successful run at The Olympia in Dublin, it toured Ireland before being lauded at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe. Sharon is currently part of the cast for The Commitments in The West End.
“It’s really exciting doing it in London because she (Liza) has such a huge fan base here and people have so much love and admiration for Liza. And of course, there’s a massive musical theatre community and gay community over here so she’s got a really strong following and they’ve all been incredibly supportive so far.”
Written and directed by husband Cillian O’Donnachadha, Somewhere Under the Rainbow is the first original production of the couple’s Biscuits for Breakfast company. The Edinburgh Guide said “Sexton does not just portray Liza, she embodies her emotionally, capturing her with true showbiz style” and her performance previously won her the Eva Gore-Booth award for Best Female Performer at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.
“I think there’s so many myths that surround Liza. People try to put her in a box because ‘she’s just Judy Garland’s daughter’ whereas she’s done so much in her own career so that was kind of an incentive but to tell a story as well.”
Liza Minnelli has been acclaimed for her performances movies like The Sterile Cuckoo and the film version of Cabaret, for which she won an Academy Award. Liza is among the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. Set in her dressing room, the play documents a colourful life, interspersed with recognised songs from Liza’s songbook.
With her first screen role coming at the age of three in the film In the Good Old Summertime, which starred her mother, Minnelli grew up around show business and was surrounded by massive stars like Frank Sinatra from an early age.
“I think Liza has grown up in the media so I think it’s actually very rare, even if you watch her being interviewed or deal with the media or the public, that you see the real Liza because I think she’s grown up with this media friendly mask on her from a very young age. What Cillian has tried to do is break that down a little bit. I think when she sings onstage you see how vulnerable Liza is. She’s so honest, she just puts her heart and soul into every performance and he’s tried to get past that mask in the play as well.
“We really wanted it to be Liza’s story, we didn’t want to focus too much on Judy but the more we wrote, we kind of discovered it’s just impossible to separate them and what was really interesting for me was how hard Liza had to fight to be recognised in the business. She has spent her whole career proving that she deserves to be where she is and trying to step out of that shadow so we realised we couldn’t tell her story without discussing the big elephant in the room.
“A myth is that she got to where she was because she had a leg up from her mum and dad when actually we discovered that she left home at 16. Judy really didn’t want her to go into show business in any way so they cut her off financially so she had to do everything herself. From an outside perspective looking in, I would have always assumed she had an easy ride to make her way in the business.
“I have great admiration for her because she was just relentless and still is, she’s still going. She’s 68 and she’s still gigging out there with the best of them. I would have thought things may have come to her easier, I think that’s the perception a lot of people have but it’s nice to know even Liza Minnelli had to fight for the roles that she wanted.”
For the full interview, see the May 3 edition of The Irish World.
Somewhere Under the Rainbow, the Liza Minnelli Story plays at The Landor Theatre May 12- 17. You can call the box office on 020 7737 7276. For more information, you can go to: www.somewhereundertherainbow.com.