Ali Harper takes on New York
We talk to Ali Harper, star of the stage, master of the microphone, and mother of three.
A tale of two cities
Standing in a Paris hotel, struggling to check in, Ali Harper heard a deep voice behind her ask, "Do you need some help?" Five words from a tall, dark and handsome man led to three unforgettable days in Paris and launched Ali's journey to New York, where, next month, she will perform on a stage often graced by Liza Minnelli.
During a life peppered with such serendipitous moments, Ali, mother of three, has carved a successful career as a singer, actress and.
When Ali said "yes" to David, a New Yorker also holidaying in France, she fell into a romance perfect for someone nursing a broken heart and feeling the pressure of turning the big 3-0. She was wined and dined along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and danced late into the long evenings. "We ended up walking around Paris, singing Nat King Cole songs, harmonising," she says, recounting a fairytale moment 11 years ago, when she felt the universe was looking after her.
From Paris, Ali returned home to Wellington and settled back into her acting career. To her surprise, the holiday romance continued across continents and, after The Court Theatre's production of South Pacific finished, Ali booked her first flight to the Big Apple. There, her musical career was challenged and enhanced through workshops and master classes she took while visiting David, and New York is where she met one of cabaret's biggest stars, Liza Minnelli.
Ali was invited to the Birdland jazz club by someone in the same circles as the shy star, who made polite conversation about wanting to visit New Zealand one day. "This is Liza Minnelli, who we watched on Cabaret, and there she was - Judy Garland's daughter - all that history, and all that sadness, so that was pretty amazing, but New York's like that."
In June, Ali will be singing at John Caruso's Cast Party, where stars fresh from a Broadway show take to the stage for an exclusive audience. "Often, Liza will turn up and sing on those nights, so, fingers crossed!"
Ali is also performing her own show, Naughty and Nice - A Down Under Diva, at The Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret clubs, a few nights later.
Chance encounters have been a theme in Ali's life. Her New York liaison ran its course and, in true Ali Harper style, she met her husband-to-be three days after deciding to get back on the dating scene. She says she would never have met Iain Cave had she not created an account with an online dating service. Eight months later, the couple were engaged, and later married in Wellington. When it was time to buy a family home, Christchurch beckoned again.
It is easy to tell the beautiful character house in Strowan is often filled with the infectious laughter of young children. A double buggy is parked on the step and two car seats await passengers in a station wagon in the driveway. The backyard is a colourful playground, dotted with the favourite toys of two blonde boys, Thomas, 3, and Archie, 2, and family photos on the fridge show off Ali's 13-year-old daughter Charlotte (Lottie).
Crayon scratchings on the living room wall could easily be from the hand of Archie, who Ali describes as "very loud", while his older brother loves puzzles. "The analytical brain that my husband would have, that, maybe, is the puzzles, and then Archie being the crazy, loony one, that's me," says the proud mother, who, when the stresses of a busy career get too much, finds herself yearning for a slice of domestic bliss.
"There's a part of me that craves being a homemaker. I love baking. Now Thomas is three, I adore baking and we often do baking together ... I remember when I was a kid I would practically chew that spatula so it was like part of the ingredients. I've stopped that; I've matured," Ali says with a big grin. Baking with her children is as relaxing as the occasional chocolate bar - "it does wonders" - and running.
Ali's CV lists a fitness certificate and diploma among performance master classes and graduation from Toi Whakaari, New Zealand's Drama School.
The intensity of the two-year course at the school (1993-1994) temporarily pushed Ali away from the stage. Together with a personal trainer, she ran a studio in Newtown, Wellington and also worked in Australia as an aerobics instructor.
With life's busy schedule, Ali is happiest when she can squeeze in a run at 6.45am, before Iain joins a tiling team restoring the Novotel Hotel in the central city. Not only is she training for her second half-marathon in June (a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis), but she's clearing her mind and continuing a habit she picked up following the Canterbury earthquakes. Ali remembers thinking "I could sit on this couch and eat lollies all day to cope with that stress, or I go the other way". Inspired by Kerre Woodham's book Short Fat Chick To Marathon Runner, she put on her trainers and joined a Saturday runners' group.
Ali Harper isn't the type of woman you would often find languishing on a couch - unless it's to watch her all-time favourite show, Coronation Street. Instead, she accepts most of the new challenges that come her way, whether they are stage productions, MC-ing corporate events, or singing gigs. "It's a big decision for me to turn down work, as I've always been a 'yes' person. And because you think, I should say 'yes' to that because of the opportunities that it might [open up], it might make me grow as a person, or it's another play that could really stretch me, but you can't do everything."
At one point last year, Ali performed three shows for The Court Theatre back-to-back, including the first show in the red shed in Addington. In the evenings, she became a Russian folk dance teacher for Shortcut To Happiness; during the day, she rehearsed for Side By Side By Sondheim. When the Side By Side By Sondheim season began, so did rehearsals for Calendar Girls. "Life got a bit ... frantic, then," she admits. And all before Archie turned one.
Ali also teaches singing at St Andrew's College three mornings a week, and helps 19 private students with their singing and speech and drama.
Balancing work and family commitments wouldn't be possible if Ali hadn't found her perfect match. Until this year, Iain was a stay-at-home Dad and he is also "the details man", who puts his masters in business management to good use helping run Ali-Cat Productions, which Ali started in 1998 to produce her own cabaret shows. "I give him the ideas and he puts them to work. Between the two of us, it's a good team."
There's a confidence and openness about Ali that makes conversation flow easily. She retells her life's ups and downs with smiles and frequent laughter, and says now, at 41, she mostly follows her instincts. "You don't have any self-doubt, because you've learnt from any mistakes you've made in the past, read the warning bells and go 'no, something's telling me to be careful if I go down this route; I'll change direction'."
This faith in herself encouraged Ali to take full control of her second album.
Naughty And Nice features 19 new treatments of old songs and received $6775 from donors on New Zealand's crowd-funding website Pledge Me - a new-age idea on which Ali took a punt. To turn that cash into an album, Ali handpicked a team of local talent, including Richard Marrett, Fiona Pears and Luke Di Somma, and complemented it with New York-based producer and arranger Alex Rybeck, who Ali met during one of her early New York trips.
Alex was at the 2005 International Cabaret Conference at Yale University, which Ali was able to attend after submitting a video application. "For nine days, we lived and breathed music. We worked with Broadway practitioners, musical directors, arrangers. Just to name drop - Michael Orland - who is the musical director on American Idol ..."
Alex, who has worked with Tony Award winner Faith Prince, has become a valuable contact and will be Ali's musical director for her New York trip in June. Alex has also arranged a song for Naughty and Nice, giving The Shadow of Your Smile a refreshing New York-style.
The double album includes a few French songs, as Ali loves singing in this beautiful language. "The way French is placed in part of my head, in my nose, in my eyes - it's just, you embody it a lot more." She gets lost in French songs much more quickly than in English ones and she fondly remembers how her late father, while not a musician, was also readily affected by music - becoming emotional over certain lyrics. "I feel I got a lot of my connection with [music] through him."
In order to master French, Ali would love to spend six months in France and, as a master of her own destiny, it's more than likely to happen. "The thing with me is I do do it! Luckily, I have a husband who's very flexible and very supportive."
Conveniently, Ali also has a friend who books artists to entertain passengers on boats floating down rivers in the south of France.
Ali also has plans to write a one-woman play about the American actress, singer and animal-rights activist Doris Day. She has already written to the star and cherishes a photo of her signed "Dear Ali, lots of love, Doris". Ali shares Doris Day's love of animals and volunteered at Newtown's SPCA on Saturday mornings in the days before children.
At the moment, however, Ali is focused on promoting her new album with Canterbury concerts this month and preparing for what she hopes is the first of many more New York shows.
There's little doubt that where life takes Ali next will be down another path dotted with serendipitous events and landmarks of impressive achievements.