Growing up in Perth, Rodney Dobson revelled in his school music and drama programs, deciding early on that musical theatre would be his course in life. Now he’s come full circle, back here in the mind-blowing Moulin Rouge! – The Musical at Crown.
“I was born in Wonthaggi, Victoria, my parents were working class people with three boys and decided to head to Perth for better opportunities, so we trekked across the Nullarbor and settled in Wanneroo,” Rodney tells Have a Go News in between rehearsals for the Perth shows of the popular musical.
“Coming here gave me great opportunities, there were school music and drama programs which I really took to, leading me to study further in the arts. WAAPA had just started their music theatre course so I didn’t know what I was really getting into; all I knew was I loved music and theatre.
“I auditioned for the course at a time when the Labor government had invested heavily in the arts so I was able to get Austudy and do a very affordable course in singing, dancing, piano and acting lessons, eight hours a day, six days a week.
“I was there three years and learnt about all things musical theatre from ground up, then trekked off to Sydney to pursue my dreams, was booked for a job and I’m still waiting for it to stop.”
Rodney says the arts world was in a difficult place during the pandemic but Moulin Rouge! – The Musical is the “most beautiful thing to come back with.” He is in the ensemble and also understudies Simon Burke AO as Harold Zidler in the show.
“My job priority is as understudy. As it is a diverse community at the Moulin Rouge, I represent a patron who is slightly more experienced than the others, a bit more mature. I take pride in the fact that I can sing, dance and jump around with these talented young people and fit in.
“Harold Zidler wears a red velvet handmade tail coat with a windmill embroidered on the back, a top hat, cane and white gloves as the ringmaster of the Moulin Rouge; it’s a great, fun role.
“The backstory in our version is that the Moulin Rouge is struggling financially and Zidler is the shyster, mover and shaker trying to keep the club afloat. Along comes the Duke of Monroth (played by WAAPA graduate James Bryers) who Zidler tries to get money from in an effort to keep things going.
“You get some serious scenes, some fun and comedy and get to party well. It’s a demanding lifestyle in the theatre but I have done it for so long now I don’t think of it too much. But when I speak to someone in the real world, they say: ‘so you are away from home every single night, you can’t go out on a Tuesday night’.
“I say: ‘that’s right.’ But that’s the way it is and I have the day but not the night. It is very trying on the family but after so long it is ingrained in me. When I have nights off between cities, I see restaurants full of people and wonder where they all come from.”
At 54, Rodney says he is proudly singing and dancing in musicals with 20-year-olds.
“I have so many favourites. Chess was my first show, I was really lucky someone pulled out and they were looking for a cheap, readymade actor so I jagged that audition. It led me to a long line of theatre including Miss Saigon, Sunset Boulevarde an Aspects of Love back in the 90s so I was really lucky.
“A highlight was working for the Australia Opera Company when they did a production of Sweeney Todd the musical. The cast was all opera singers but there was a couple of guest roles of which I was one. I was impressed as anything to be among such illustrious company at the Sydney Opera House.
“It was a great production which was very well received. It probably changed the course of my career to a degree and I was shown a bit more respect. I then did a musical based on The Fully Monty so we had to take our kit off on stage which was a very nervous but exciting experience.”
Rodney raised his now two adult children on the Central Coast of NSW where he still bases himself, commuting to Sydney for work.
“My son has just graduated as a nurse and my daughter is in child care.”
Rodney says he has been in the theatre industry 35 years now. “I’ve seen a lot of really talented people fall away from the industry because it is so difficult and tough on families. I just hang in there but during the pandemic I really thought it was time to do something else and think about my future.
“But since then there have been a lot of new shows coming and my agent has been ringing with lots of opportunities.”
Outside the theatre, Rodney likes a game of golf and, until a few years ago, was a registered player with the Australian Football League. “I’m very driven, like to look after myself and go to the gym.
“I like to inspire young people around me to think that I’m still here and you can have a long career.”
Rodney’s parents and several family members and old mates are still in Perth so he has had time to catch up with them. His contract with Moulin Rouge! – The Musical ends after Perth.
“I’m moving on to a new production, Beauty and the Beast. I’m sad to be leaving the Rouge but it’s time to try something different.”
Moulin Rouge! – The Musical is on now at Crown Theatre until April 21. Tickets through Ticketmaster.