If you were asked to name Australia's highest selling female recording artist, a performer who sang at the opening of the Sydney Olympics and the Paris Live 8 concert, you would probably go for someone with the surname Minogue. But you would be wrong. The name you should be groping for is that of Tina Arena, who is currently lighting up the Cambridge stage as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Matthew Amer chatted to the Australian songstress.
"It's a complete shock to the system. It's pretty hardcore," Arena sighs, talking about the physicality of her performance as the murderous showgirl Roxie Hart. Having just finished three and a half weeks of rehearsals, Arena is in the middle of her first week in front of an audience and is feeling the aches and pains that are "just part and parcel of our job description". She had been nagged by her husband to do a little extra fitness training, but decided that her natural ability would probably see her through.
Muscle soreness aside, Arena is thoroughly enjoying her short stint back in the West End. Her last and only visit to the London stage came in 2000 when she starred as Esmerelda in Notre Dame De Paris. She was later replaced as the gypsy by the younger of the Minogue sisters, Danni. Previously she had starred in Australian productions of Dynamite, Nine and Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Following Notre Dame she took the lead role in the Australian production of the Sam Mendes-directed Cabaret, another musical which, like Chicago, is very dark and set in a distinct era while being very contemporary thematically.
At the heart of Chicago is the tale of two women who will do anything to achieve celebrity status. It is a lust that leads to and thrives from murderous notoriety. For Arena, who plays the younger aspiring showgirl, Roxie Hart, it is an interesting idea, especially in these times where celebrity seems to be the most desirable of human facets. "I've never led a celebrity life," she says. "I've always been blessed enough to be left alone because I lead a very normal life. I'm not what celebrity would consider interesting and that suits me fine because I wouldn't want to be that; it doesn't interest me."
"I'm not what celebrity would consider interesting"
Like many people who have fought hard for their careers, exploiting the real talent that they have, the cult of celebrity is somewhat irksome for Arena. The rise of 15-minute stars who simply want to be famous is a phenomenon Arena lays squarely at the feet of reality television, which is creating stars that Arena, as a seasoned stage performer, has to compete with for leading roles. "Am I going to be depressed about it?" she asks, pre-empting my next question. "Well no, because I would be wasting my time. That is something that I have to deal with as a performer and someone who's spent several years honing my craft; I am in competition with those kids, absolutely. You are ultimately going to get a different show from someone who's been in the business five minutes as opposed to somebody who's been in it three decades."
Along with the cult of celebrity goes a media that likes nothing better than to tuck people up in a labelled box so that an all-too-willing public can know performers as one thing and one thing only. Arena has written all her own English-language tracks for the last 15 years, grew up on Australian television learning the ins and outs of the business, performed live, recorded albums in different languages and appeared on stage. Yet she will always be labelled a pop singer. This tag brings with it connotations that are none too appealing. "When you've had a singing career," Arena explains, "and this is the general perception of everybody, so let's just lay the cards out on the table; when you've had a commercial pop career, people don't think you have a brain. Just because you're in pop music doesn't mean you've had a frontal lobotomy!"
All this baggage leaves Arena in an interesting position. To many of the British public she is the Aussie pop star whose biggest hit Chains was released back in 1995, now raising her profile by appearing as a showgirl who wants nothing more than to be well known. To Arena, things are slightly different: "All [Roxie] wants is to be a celebrity, and I'm so far removed from that objective. My objective is not to be a celebrity. I am an artist. It took me a very long time to accept that I was an artist. I had my own struggle with that because I thought 'I guess I am what everybody thinks I am'; I thought that for many years." Now, again, she appears to be what everybody thinks she is, the pop star in a West End show, but at 39 she is comfortable enough with herself to not worry. "All I've ever done is work because I've wanted to do it, because I've been passionate about it and because I feel that I can bring something to it," she says. "If I don't feel that I can bring something to it I will let it go," she concludes.
Arena is frank in a way that she describes as "very Australian" and talks about her "no bulls**t factor". Sitting in the dimly lit boardroom at the Cambridge theatre she is happy to tell it like it is on any number of subjects without batting an eyelid. There is something intrinsically businesslike about the interview. Possibly it is that Arena's responses are delivered with a self-confident, assured, thought-through power, rather than a wandering ramble, though Arena also seems very relaxed. Occasionally she rests her booted foot on the low table, her dark tresses framing a face that is starting to show signs of age. Not that I think this would bother her, she is who she is.
"It took me a very long time to accept that I was an artist. I had my own struggle with that"
It is her straightforward nature that she thinks aided her French career. Arena's star waned in Britain following the release of Chains and follow-up single Sorrento Moon; in France she is still a huge star. Having found French success with I Want To Spend My Lifetime Loving You, her duet with Marc Antony taken from the soundtrack of The Mask Of Zorro, Arena approached her new market "humbly" and refused to be anything other than herself. She is not enamoured with artists who feel they have to role play to sell records. "The only thing that people can expect from me," she states, "is for me to be myself and not to pretend to be any different." Among acting's elite, she names Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons and Cate Blanchett as the performers she admires, as they deliver outstanding, award-winning performances but keep their private lives firmly to themselves. It is the model for her own life: "I go to work, I do what I do, I walk off stage, I'm Filippina, which is what my name is on my birth certificate. That's who I am; I'm a woman, I have a partner, I have a child, I have responsibilities, I have a family. I have things to do outside my work, so I make a very clean separation. Don't blur the both because that's where the trouble starts."
This is the first time that, as a mother, Arena has had to pass some of the responsibility for her son onto a nanny. Previously, Arena and her husband have been entirely hands on, their child travelling with them since he was only seven weeks old. But with Arena now performing matinees twice a week, a nanny has become a necessity. The process has been a bit of a wrench. "It is a very difficult thing to relinquish," Arena explains, without going too far into a very tough subject. "There’s a lot of guilt."
For someone who has so much to say about issues, it is slightly surprising that Arena does not have more to say about events that could be considered 'defining moments' in her life and career: she sang at the opening of the Sydney Olympics and performed at the Paris Live 8 concert. Though she enjoyed both occasions and is proud of her appearances, there is not the gush of excitement you might expect. She was particularly happy that her father, being a sports fan, saw her sing at the Olympics, but there is no 'greatest moment in my life' style speech.
This may be due to Arena's constant sense of progression, the drive she has to always move on to the next thing. Her run in Chicago is only five weeks as any longer would hinder her movement onto the next project. A long contract, she says matter-of-factly, "would defeat my total spiritual purpose. You can't tie me down. If somebody told me I had to play Sally Bowles or Roxie Hart for 12 months I think I would slash my wrists. I don't think it would be good for me, not good for my creativity at all because I'm someone who's constantly thinking of other things."
"If somebody told me I had to play Roxie Hart for 12 months I think I would slash my wrists"
This sense of constant evolution is what led Arena to leave a secure, thriving career in Australia and strike out for a life elsewhere. The small fish in a big pond scenario appeals to Arena as, "I see so many more different things, I learn so many different things and I'm confronted with very different opportunities." It has also given her a great respect for the reverse journey that her parents made, risking all and leaving their Sicilian home for an unknown life and the promise of more opportunity in Australia.
Throughout the interview, Arena's responses have been mixed between open frankness, quick remarks and pondering, deliberate answers. As she has said, there is a distinction between Arena the performer and Filippina the person. How much you get of each is debatable. She's never more deliberate than when explaining slowly what motivates her to keep performing: "A knowing very strongly that there are people out there who still have a need to hear stories told in music, however simple they may be or however complicated they may be." Again the balance tips, and she haphazardly throws in: "There is still a desire out there for quality, which there ain't a great deal of, or if there is it's very buried. I think people still like to hear stories and I say thank God, because if you take that little pleasure away from us you may as well just say 'see you later' and press the button." em>MA