The Phantom unmasked

DAVE MCMEEKING: Relaxed and ready to immerse himself in the Southland scene. 
DAVE MCMEEKING: Relaxed and ready to immerse himself in the Southland scene. 

After 25 years, Dave McMeeking walks into the Invercargill Musical Theatre rooms, breathes in deeply that slightly musty smell and feels he's home.

Coming back to Southland after 25 years of starring in musical productions all over Australasia is the best move he's ever made, he says. It feels right.

McMeeking has had a musical career quite out of the ordinary.

He played the lead role of Jean Valjean in 11 different productions of Les Miserables and was an understudy to the great Rob Guest for 2 years in Phantom of the Opera. He's sung everything from opera in Sydney to pop songs in the old lobby bar at the Kelvin Hotel.

In between his 10-hour days working as an anaesthetic technician in the operating theatres at Southland Hospital, he's throwing himself right back into the southern music community.

Already he has auditioned for Invercargill Musical Theatre's Mamma Mia, he performed a blistering opening song, U2's Beautiful Day, at the ILT Southland Entertainment Awards last week and last weekend found him entertaining the happy throngs at the Boys' High Farmers' Market.

This week he'll be immersing himself in restaurant theatre for three nights at the Ascot Park Hotel, singing up a British 60s storm in the Hippy Hippy Shake show, where he'll be sharing the stage with other leading Southland musical names like Jason Schmidt, Shannon Cooper-Garland, Gerry McSoriley and Jim Waddell.

In barely the blink of a lifetime, Dave McMeeking is back where he belongs.

IT'S almost a paradox that McMeeking has enjoyed such a high-profile career on Australasian stages. At heart, he's still a fairly unassuming, humble lad from Tuatapere via Wyndham.

"In Phantom that was something I had to overcome," he says, "being a quite reserved little country boy from Invercargill in the bright lights of Sydney in one of the biggest shows that they put on there.

"I was thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing here?' "

There had been a big cleanout of the cast before he joined in March 1996, with 10 new members. They'd gone around the room introducing themselves and sharing their experiences. McMeeking was the only Kiwi. The rest were Australians who had all been through the prestigious music conservatories and drama schools.

It was almost laughable when he introduced himself as Dave from Invercargill, with 13 years of pro-am theatre.

"But at the end of the day, stagecraft is stagecraft. It doesn't matter where you've learned it. I just happened to learn all my stuff from Di Lenihan and all the directors that I had."

He says part of being theatrical is being sure of yourself, "which is something that I still grapple with".

"Eventually I decided, ‘well, I'm actually good enough to be here', and after telling myself that for a while I actually came to believe that."

Rob Guest's name is synonymous with the role of the Phantom in Australasia. He played it for seven years, from 1991 to 1998, with his record 2289 performances making him the world's longest-serving Phantom.

Dave McMeeking got to play the lead role twice (he's not counting the third and fourth times when there was only half an audience), which in itself required a lot of alignment of the planets. As third understudy, for McMeeking to get to play the lead role of the Phantom Rob Guest and two other understudies had to be sick or unavailable. McMeeking was in the cast, performing one of the show's busiest roles every night, so "I was on all the time".

"But I managed to rehearse the role once a week, every week, for the 2 years that I was in it."

Young and single, he enjoyed the life - "it was living the dream" - but he had what the rest of the company considered an unconventional approach to touring.

"It was four months here, six months there, a year in Melbourne, living out of a suitcase. Every time you relocate you've got to get a new flat and new stuff."

The cast could choose to either take the company's accommodation, which was all paid for, or find their own and take the living allowance, which gave them more money in their pockets.

"I went that way and lived in a little shoebox everywhere I went. Everyone thought I was nuts. I bought an old rickety pushbike and was biking to work."

IN his previous life McMeeking was a primary school teacher, at Waikiwi in 1983, then South School, then Surrey Park. "Musical theatre was my social life. It was a lot of fun but I didn't really take it too seriously.

"I've always done musical theatre. My first show in Invercargill was 1983 in Grease."

He left Invercargill in 1989 to go to Christchurch, then moved from Christchurch to Tauranga in 1995.

McMeeking knew that he could sing but he was usually in the back row of the chorus, with the occasional small speaking role.

The turning point in McMeeking's life was winning the lead role of Jean Valjean in the Tauranga Musical Theatre Company's production of Les Mis.

"That's when I was starting to get serious about my singing."

He had been playing Valjean, his first lead role, in Christchurch, but the company wasn't performing often enough for McMeeking so he moved to Tauranga to try his hand there.

He made his mark straight away and was soon encouraged to "give it a go". Buoyed by the support, he put his name in the hat for Auckland auditions for the professional Sydney production of Miss Saigon.

"A group of us went up and auditioned in the afternoon. Unbeknown to me, they'd had auditions in the morning for Phantom of the Opera.

"They rang up the director (of Phantom) and said, ‘look, we've got a guy here you should come and have a look at'."

It took six months of auditions, flying backwards and forwards to Sydney, before McMeeking got the call-up.

"I hadn't had any professional experience, I hadn't been to any conservatory of music or drama school. My background was 10 years of amateur theatre in Invercargill and Christchurch, basically."

He had never sung in bands but did play a guitar and sang in the lobby bar of the Kelvin Hotel for several years in the 1980s.

"That was my first professional gig, albeit $50 or whatever it was."

During Phantom he got some "really world-class tuition" on how to sing.

It expanded his range so much he found he could even sing opera, which he now does as a party trick during gigs for "a bit of a change". People often don't believe it's him singing. "It's such a completely different sound."

He had never considered singing opera or even been that interested in it until he was asked to sing a duet in 2000. The song was the Puccini aria Nessun Dorma, made famous by Luciano Pavarotti. "It wasn't too bad. I just stuck at it and developed that part of my voice."

He met his partner, who is from Whakatane, in the Bay of Plenty, while he was living in Australia, and moved back there after Phantom, retraining as an anaesthetic technician during a four-year training course in Auckland at AUT.

He has been living in Whakatane for the past 14 years. "Their hospital's quite small. I trained there but decided I needed to get a bigger hospital to get more experience, so I thought ‘where will I go? I know, I'll go home'."

McMeeking's excited. Now that the amateur rights to Phantom have been released to the societies in New Zealand he's hoping he'll get the chance to resurrect his favourite role.

"It's just sitting there waiting. I've done four years of rehearsal for it."

Perhaps he'll be seen behind the mask in his hometown. "I don't know if it's been locked in but Invercargill is certainly chasing it. So fingers crossed."


The Southland Times