Sarah Morrison, performer, Mamma Mia!

It’s probably the closest thing to feeling like a pop star I will ever experience ...

As children, many of us dream of being a performer. When we grow up, however, we usually realise that we don’t really have what it takes to make it big. There are a few talented exceptions to that, and one of those few is local lass Sarah Morrison. Once a shy little girl from The Gap, Sarah has blossomed – rather quickly, might we add – into a rising star. While many performers spend years working their way through ensemble roles and cameos, Sarah jumped head first from children’s theatre into the lead role of Lisa in Tim Finn’s original musical Ladies in Black. From this December, we’ll see Sarah take the QPAC stage in her hometown in the hit musical Mamma Mia!, bringing to life the uber-catchy music of ABBA in the starring role of Sophie. We caught up with Sarah between rehearsals to chat steamy scenes, childhood memories and coming home for Christmas.

Let’s start from the beginning – did you always dream of being a performer?
Funnily enough – and I am not making this up – Mamma Mia! was one of the first shows I ever saw at QPAC. I would have been about 12 years old and I went with my mum. It was a girls’ night out – a really big treat. I remember sitting in the audience, looking up at the people on stage and thinking, oh my God, this is their job? I was so in awe and it was the first time I thought that maybe I could do that. During our tech week in Canberra for our first shows I’ve had a few out of body experiences, just remembering how I felt watching the show back then. I was at that age where I was starting to notice boys, and the scene I remember the most is that hens night/bucks night sequence, where the boys have their shirts off and the boys and girls are all dancing together. It was hot! Of course it stuck with me. While were teching in the song ‘Voulez-Vous’ from that scene, which is at the end of Act One, I just thought, “holy shit”. I’m here. In the costumes. With the music. On stage. In the lights. Doing. That. Scene. This is unreal. This show honestly was ironically one of those formative experience that lead me down this long path to being a performer.

Can you remember your first time on stage?
I was actually a super shy kid, so Mum and Dad put me in this one-day-a-week drama class in primary school when I was about eight or nine. It was to try and get me out of my shell because I was just so timid. It helped! Then, at my primary school in The Gap, when you were in grade five or seven you got to do the school musical. They were just those written-for-primary-school kind of shows and in grade five there was one called Danger Kids. I got cast as one of the Danger Kids and I just really loved it! Then in grade seven I was cast as King Neptune in this under-the-sea show, and Mum recalls me coming out onto the stage and I was like this different person. All the parents around her just turned around and looked at her, they couldn’t believe it was me.

You mentioned that when you went to see Mamma Mia! that first time that you were awestruck that the people on stage could actually do that as a career. Was there a defining moment when you realised that you wanted to make a career out of performing?
I don’t know if I ever made a decision that I was going to do this. If anything I felt like it was a bit of a pipe dream. I guess it was an accumulation of things – I started taking a jazz class, and then I did more drama outside of school. When I was 15 I got into the Children’s Chorus for Opera Queensland for La bohéme. The kids only ran on stage for a hot minute, but because of that it was decided I should also take up singing lessons. It’s funny – the thing that actually gets me cast a lot is my voice, but the singing lessons came last. It got to that point later in high school when people started asking what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I felt that saying I wanted to be an actor wasn’t really an option. I actually put down journalism as my first preference and got in, but I don’t think I ever had any intention of doing it. I just thought I had to have a real job, something solid. When I left high school I went to The Con for two years, but I was so unhappy doing opera, it just wasn’t for me. I knew I wanted to do musical theatre. The real commitment was getting into Ballart Arts Academy, moving state and deciding to dedicate three years to studying musical theatre.

You recently completed a return national tour of the Helpmann Award-winning Ladies in Black playing the lead role of Lisa. What was your most memorable experience during that time?
For me, Ladies in Black was a quantum leap from doing kids shows to the lead role in a musical. I suppose traditionally people work their way from ensemble, to featured ensemble, to cameos and so on, so it was a really unique experience being thrust into it. A real baptism of fire. Playing that role for two years, being a woman, in a show about women, in an industry where there really are few roles like that was incredible. I think the biggest gift with Ladies in Black was playing that character, because I don’t know if I’ll ever get that kind of an honour – to play a woman of that kind of calibre in the sense that all Lisa wanted was further education. Lisa was very special. I am so lucky going into another show now where the two leads are women and not only that, they are a mother-daughter duo who are fiercely independent. Donna runs a business on her own and has brought Sophie up herself. And the thing I like the most about Sophie is the fact that she wants to find her father isn’t because she feels incomplete or needs her dad – she just wants to know. She’s perfectly fine and capable as she is, she’s just curious.

Speaking of Sophie, what was your reaction when you found out you had been cast in the role?
I had just landed in Brisbane and between getting my bags off the carousel and getting into the car with my dad, I had missed a call from my agent. I called her back in the car and she told me that I got the role. Sometimes you’re not with anyone when you find that stuff out, so it was really special to be with Dad and for him to be part of that moment. In the beginning I misjudged how much is actually going on with Sophie. It’s easy to look at her and think she’s just a silly young girl who has gone and created havoc – which, in fact, she has – but there’s so much more going on. It’s been really beautiful to find out as I get to know the character more. It’s also been amazing working alongside Nat O’Donnell, who plays my mum, and has played Sophie before. She’s been really great at letting me find the character for myself, and I feel like every night I am finding there is a lot more to Sophie than meets the eye.

Mamma Mia! is jam-packed full of toe-tapping, high-energy scenes. Do you have a favourite?
That’s a tough one! At the moment it changes every day. A new favourite for me – and I think at the beginning I underestimated how special the moment is – is ‘Thank You for the Music’. It’s where Sophie first meets and sings with the three dads.

ABBA’s music is a guilty pleasure for many – what guilty pleasure might we catch you singing into a hairbrush in your bedroom?
A bit of Tina Arena’s ‘Sorrento Moon’, or you can’t go wrong with Celine!

Mamma Mia! is coming to QPAC’s Lyric Theatre from December 26 and we can’t wait! As a Brisbane girl originally, what are you most looking forward to doing when you’re in town?
I am just so excited to see all of my friends and family, eat and hang out. It’s the perfect time of year – I’ll be home for Christmas and New Year’s Eve with family and friends.

Many people are familiar with Mamma Mia!, either from the stage show of film version. What can we expect from this tour?
The show has been around for 18 years, but this is the first time Australia will be seeing something fresh. And when I say fresh I mean fresh costumes, the new choreography by Tom Hodgson is amazing, the ensemble is incredible, there is a new set, new direction – the whole show has just had a fresh set of eyes on it. Last night this woman excitedly yelled “Better than the movie!” at me after the show. That is a real testament to this production – we’re performing the stage show that has worked and continues to work 18 years on, but evolving it to acknowledge the fact that so many new patrons are only familiar with the film. There are so many people that don’t realise that the film did not come first. On the weekend there was a huge group of 12-year-olds who had come to see the show, because I think for that age group Mamma Mia! is the Grease of their generation. So it’s amazing how it is just transcending these generations, and it’s because of the movie. I think that a lot of people are only familiar with the movie and I implore them to come and experience it the way it was first intended, which is live. There is nothing like the finale – I have never seen anything like it. It’s probably the closest thing to feeling like a pop star I will ever experience. It’s unbelievable.

You’re a woman of many talents – you sing, act, dance, plus we hear you’re also a dental nurse in your spare time. If you could have just one other talent, what would it be?
You know what? I would love to be able to cook.   

Finally, what is your idea of true happiness?
At the moment, I keep on crying a lot because I am happy. I am just overwhelming joyful and this show has given me a real check on how incredible it is that I am in the situation I am in.

Mamma Mia! is coming to QPAC’s Lyric Theatre from December 26. For more details and ticketing information, head to our Event Guide


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