Songs for everybody

Singer and actor Ali Harper pays tribute to five female musical legends in Songs for Nobodies. Photos: Supplied
Singer and actor Ali Harper pays tribute to five female musical legends in Songs for Nobodies. Photos: Supplied
Ali Harper as Doris Day in A Doris Day Special.
Ali Harper as Doris Day in A Doris Day Special.
Ali Harper in Legendary Divas.
Ali Harper in Legendary Divas.

After transforming into 12 characters in 90 minutes you could forgive Ali Harper for needing an early night. The singer and actress tells Rebecca Fox about what drives her passion for one-woman shows.

Ali Harper is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie.

Sitting around waiting for the phone to ring was never going to work for the actress and singer. She found a solution - start her own production company.

''It's not for the faint-hearted.''

Ali Harper.
Ali Harper.

Despite the challenges - finding work, hiring venues, organising travel and more - it has enabled Harper to take control of her career and do what she loves best.

It has also enabled her to juggle her career with motherhood and, on occasion, have her husband travel with her.

''I have a passion for the work. I love the variety.''

While she may occasionally crave a ''normal job'' with routine, her husband reminds her she would hate it - and he is right.

There is no way someone in a ''normal job'' would contemplate a one-woman show where they are required to turn themselves into 12 different characters, including one who speaks French.

''It's a bit of a rollercoaster,'' Harper admits.

She is about to tour Songs for Nobodies, a show directed by Ross Gumbley, that she debuted in New Zealand at the Court Theatre, Christchurch, last year.

It was written by Australian Joanna Murray-Smith and is a tribute to five female musical legends - Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas - all of whom died prematurely: Cline at age 30, Billie Holiday at 44, Garland and Piaf at 47, and Maria Callas at 54.

Harper plays all of these singers as well as five ''nobodies'' who each have a connection to the legends.

''It is a real stretch as a part. I've been in the industry for 25 years so when a piece like this comes along it is hard to resist.''

It is a piece that is easy to identify with, she says, being a mother, wife and a woman in her 40s who is also a singer and actress.

''These are real-life people who have experienced good times and hard times. It's a beautiful story.''

If that was not enough, the writer added in an extra character, a hard-hitting journalist from New York.

Preparing for the show took a good four weeks of rehearsal as well as a lot of research into the legends themselves, with help from Google.

''I learnt about the terrible conditions of 1920s Harlem where Billie Holiday grew up, how Maria Callas died of a broken heart after Aristotle Onassis married Jackie Kennedy, and how Judy Garland was a survivor despite her drug and alcohol problems, or that Patsy Cline died after meeting the love of her life.''

She also learned that those women still went out on stage even when their lives were falling apart.

''Those women did that, sing through the pain. I don't know if I could do that. It's all hard-hitting stuff.''

The legends became famous because they wore their hearts on their sleeves.

''They slugged their guts out to get to the top. They had a true love of singing even when the alcohol, drugs and men abused them.''

Getting the accents right was ''exciting''. She also had to learn French to sing Piaf's songs.

''They tap into being a woman, how you think, how vulnerable you can be... it's really funny but poignant. I love it.''

It had been a real honour to do this play, given how highly regarded Murray-Smith is and that she gave the rights to the play to the Court Theatre on the condition Harper play the role, she says.

''There was a lot of pressure to get it right.''

She succeeded with rave reviews and the Court gave her the set so she could take it on the road.

Harper had earlier starred in another of Murray-Smith's one-woman shows Bombshells, which she toured with from 2008 to 2014.

Harper took the show to the New York solo festival where she won best actress - there were 80 one-person shows in the festival including one with Billy Crystal.

She has been invited back to the festival this year to do an encore performance where she will perform Songs for Nobodies without having to worry about the competition.

''It's in 42nd Street, in the hub of Broadway. I love it. I'll be holding up the Kiwi flag. We're very well received in America.''

Just what drives her to keep challenging herself with such shows, she is not sure.

''Something keeps driving me. I like going to new towns and meeting new people as well as returning to towns I keep going back to.''

Wanaka is new on the list for Harper and she is looking forward to the visit.

She will also come to Dunedin in September, as part of Arts Festival Dunedin, just before she goes to New York.

Harper also does stints on cruise ships as in-house entertainment, and finds people of all ages enjoy her show. It often opens young people's eyes to music they did not know about, she says.

Doing the one-woman shows, especially Songs for Nobodies, is physically and emotionally draining.

She usually heads straight out to the foyer after the show to autograph CDs.

''I find the energy from the audience balances me out.''

When she is performing in her hometown she likes to head home to bed afterwards and she may do a yoga class and have a nana nap before the next day's performance.

When she is on tour, it is more tiring so she has a strict routine where she does not drink after a show. Instead, she has something to eat then heads to bed.

''I have a tool kit with vitamins and take my yoga mat.''

The days she hits the road, she tries to fit in a 45-minute nap before her performance.

''I rely on good sound and light techniques given the different spaces we are in. I need to know I'm well supported so I don't have to overstretch my vocal chords.''

She knows the importance of looking after her vocal chords and had noticed getting older changes them.

''It's like being an athlete. It's important to treat them with respect.''

Her passion originally developed through singing. She loved taking part in the school choir.

''Acting came after.''

It started with a part in a amateur production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

''I caught the bug from that.''

She then moved on to her first professional job at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre.

''I really got some good roles I could sink my teeth into.''

Harper then decided to get some professional training and went to Toi Whakari in Wellington.

''I've been working professionally ever since. I love being on stage. I love telling stories and seeing the audience's pleasure.''

One of her performances that stands out is the reaction to one of her Doris Day shows where she had a 92-year-old woman come up to her and say how much she had related to the show as she had lost her son the way Day lost hers.

''A lot of older men say to me their first love was Doris Day.''

Another person said how all their father wanted to listen to in the hospice was her recording of Legendary Divas.

''It's a reminder of how much of a gift this is, why I do this.''


To see

Songs for Nobodies is on at Southland Festival of the Arts, SIT Centrestage Theatre in Invercargill on May 19 at 2.30pm and 7.30pm and at Lake Wanaka Centre on May 21 at 7.30pm.


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