THE GIFT OF SONG
Judith Durham is delighted by a new musical celebrating the legacy of the Seekers, writes Justin Burke
For Judith Durham, the lyrics to Georgy Girl have resonated with ever greater meaning across the five decades since she first sang it with the Seekers. The song, which originally featured on the soundtrack of a 1966 Oscar-nominated British film with the same title, speaks of loneliness and insecurity, seemingly at odds with the liberated spirit of the 1960s. But its chart-topping success in Australia, Britain and in the US confirmed a remarkable and enduring connection to audiences.
“I thought I was the only person in the world who felt like I did at that time,” says Durham, 72, who struggled with self-confidence during the band’s dizzying ascent to fame.
“Today there is so much more awareness of issues such as weight and self-image, and as I have matured in many ways — spiritually as well as physically, of course — I have become more appreciative of the universal messages of the lyrics I’ve been singing for 50 years.”
The song’s appeal is to be tested in another incarnation, this time as the title song of Georgy Girl: The Seekers Musical, which opens on Tuesday in Melbourne, before touring to Sydney in April. (Producer Richard East, an original hand on the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! in the early 1990s, says if the show is successful, London’s West End is a logical ambition.)
Based on the 1994 biography by Graham Simpson and written by Durham’s brother-inlaw, playwright Patrick Edgeworth, it tells the story of the young singer and her bandmates Athol Guy, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, starting from their early days as a folk-pop quartet in Melbourne.
“Yes we are all planning to go to the premiere,” Durham says with a laugh. “We don’t take things for granted at our age — but it is so marvellous that this is happening now, and not after we are all gone.”
Durham has suffered several serious health issues in recent years, most recently a brain haemorrhage in 2013, following a major car accident in 1990. Fewer people are aware of the lung condition bronchiectasis that she has man- aged since childhood; it’s an ailment that logically would have ruled out a career as a singer, and one she continues to manage with a diet.
“I am totally blessed to be able to speak, given the brain haemorrhage” she says. “I have to be careful how I ration myself out on a daily Judith Durham with actress Pippa Grandison, who is playing her in Georgy
above; Grandison with other cast members from the musical, left basis so I don’t blow a fuse, but the Lord has spared me to allow my life to continue to unfold and perhaps be an inspiration to other people.”
While Durham hopes audiences will find the story and music uplifting, she says she just as eager to sit back and see how actress Pippa Grandison will portray her, and how audiences will react. Despite the adoring fan mail Durham continues to receive, questions about how fans see her still linger for her.
“All singers have an image, from Lady Gaga [to] Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley, if I may put myself in their category — it’s almost like a formula,” she says. “When I go on opening night, I will actually be able to understand better how the public perceives me.”
For her part, Grandison, an acting veteran ( A Country Practice; Underbelly) and no stranger to the way young women in the entertainment industry are scrutinised, says although playing Durham is daunting, the role is not about impersonating the singer’s distinctive vocals.
“Judith told me when she went out on stage to sing, the audience comforted her; that she conquered her nerves by simply seeing the people and sharing the music with them — that’s what I will try to emulate,” says Grandison.
In contrast to the band’s rock ’n’ roll contemporaries from the 1960s, or indeed today’s music scene, the Seekers’ image has always been decidedly wholesome.
Durham believes that music stars today are selling short their musical talents.
“I sort of feel sorry for people that have bought into thinking [hypersexualised performances] are necessary,” she says.
“For example, Lady Gaga is an amazingly charismatic person and puts an enormous creativity in her music, but she’ll never know whether or not she needed the constant wardrobe changes.
“Then you see an artist like Adele, who is writing her own songs and is such a beautiful person, not resorting to gimmicks.
“I have been so boring with how I present myself, putting my hair to one side, singing the same way — aren’t we lucky that whatever it was we did, which wasn’t contrived in any way, just connected with people.”
opens on Tuesday at Her Majestys Theatre, Melbourne, before touring to Sydney in April.