After an exhaustive search, we found the perfect person to play the lead role in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical – Maggie McKenna.
The 20-year-old newcomer from Melbourne will be making her professional stage debut playing Muriel Heslop, in what amounts to a dream come true for the young performer. We caught up with her recently to talk about how she got here and what’s ahead…
Maggie, when did performing and music become something you wanted to pursue?
I remember at primary school, we all had to pick instruments and I originally went with violin – but I was terrible! So, I switched to guitar and loved it. I was about 8 years old, playing guitar, writing songs, doing little performances at school, having a great time. Then, when I was 11, I entered a national songwriting competition for under 16s through Mushroom Records. I ended up winning the competition, which was the first time ever that I thought, "Oh, maybe I could actually do this – be a singer!" From there, I just kept working at it. On a holiday in Los Angeles, when I was about 12, I got really inspired seeing the musical Wicked. I remember turning to my parents and saying, "When I’m an adult, that’s what I’m going to do."
Did that come as a surprise to your parents? Given they (Gina Riley and Rick McKenna) both work in show business, were they hoping you’d follow in their footsteps or did they steer you away?
They were very much the opposite of 'stage parents'. They kept me away from any performing growing up – they understand how hard the life can be, especially for a sensitive kid, which I was. They wanted me to have a childhood and they wanted me to make my own choices. They were great, they weren't saying, "You need to be a doctor". They just wanted me to have my own life and not jump into performing because I could see my parents doing it.
Who were the performers you were inspired by?
After seeing Wicked, I started becoming a musical theatre nerd – I loved Patti LuPone and Bernadette Peters and, you know, anything Stephen Sondheim wrote and whoever was in his shows. But I also remember seeing Christie Whelan Browne in The Drowsy Chaperone and being blown away by how funny and cool she was as a performer. And then, obviously, my mum is one of my biggest inspirations and seeing her in Chicago was an incredible experience.
So, what happened when you finished high school and had to choose a path to follow?
When I graduated, I knew I wanted to leave Australia for a bit and throw myself into training as a performer. I went to LA and did an acting course there at AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy) that had singing and dancing on the side. I loved that challenge of going to a completely different place, training every single day, learning to toughen up and take care of myself. I finished that course last October and auditioned for Muriel in December, so it all happened very quickly. I thought I’d still be in LA working at Disney Land.
Being a Princess. I was in training for it – standing around in a costume all day posing for photos as a Disney Princess. I'm very, very happy that isn’t my fate. Some people want to work there so badly, but I was not one of those people. I’d much rather play Muriel than a pretty princess.
Speaking of Muriel, what are your memories of the film?
I first saw the film when I was really young because it was one of my grandma's favourite movies. She loved watching it, so I feel like it was a core part of my Aussie upbringing. It's such an iconic piece!
It’s hard to forget Toni Collette’s performance. Have you spoken with her about it?
No, I would love to! She's such an inspiration, so I would love to talk to her about it, but I think I’d be terrified as well. Of course, I want to bring all of what she brought to Muriel because it worked so beautifully, but at the same time, I can't copy her performance because I'm not Toni. The essence of Muriel – her highs and lows, all the stuff she's going through – is the same. But we're also crafting a new show, so it is also going to be a new Muriel in a sense.
What are the songs in the show like?
Well, there’s some ABBA, of course, and the music that Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have written is so good at getting inside the heads of the characters. The songs feel modern and really authentic to what the characters are thinking in their heads but could never say in the movie. And the songs work so well with the script – it flows together. Muriel’s Wedding just makes so much sense as a musical.
Finally, if Muriel has ABBA, what’s your go-to karaoke song?
Oh! I used to be (but secretly still am) a big Avril Lavigne fan. Her song ‘Complicated’ was my jam and I can still sing every word. That’s my guilty pleasure.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, 6 Nov 2017 – 27 Jan 2018, Roslyn Packer Theatre
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