Tyran Parke is a director, singer, and producer who is the head of the Victorian College of The Arts’ Musical Theatre Program. He is a huge fan of legendary, gay musical composer Stephen Sondheim, and on Thursday, 22 June will join the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) for A Night of Sondheim, celebrating his classic songs. Here Parke discusses the late, great ‘titan of the American musical’s most queer lyrics and the constant inspiration Sondheim’s work provides.


Performing on The Civic Theatre stage is every New Zealand performer’s dream! Tell us about your relationship with this iconic venue.


I’m actually so glad to hear the first part of this question – it SHOULD be everyone’s dream. It is one of the most beautiful theatres globally, and so often, we don’t value that. It’s also PERFECT for this concert because it is both classy and accessible. It gives the concert a sense of occasion that matches the beauty of the orchestra and the amazing singers, not to mention the delirious brilliance of Sondheim.

Your upcoming performance with the APO in A Night of Sondheim sees you collaborating with some incredible artists. Can you tell us about your connection with some of the other artists and practitioners on the project?

Well, when it comes to Sondheim, you need a fabulous musical director, and Mark Dorrell is the best in the biz. He worked closely with Sondheim himself, so he’s the closest thing we now have to a direct line to the man and his intentions through the music.

As for the cast, I only know Edward Laurenson and Bridget Costello by reputation, but I can’t wait to work with them. At the other end of the spectrum, I have an ongoing connection with Delia Hannah. The very first show I ever saw, Delia was understudy to the lead. I was about 12, and I wrote to her to let her know that I thought she was great, and she wrote back – I had never received mail before, let alone from a STAR! Now we have developed this lovely friendship, and I get to perform with her and direct her, and it feels like a full circle moment. There’s still a big part inside of me that is a complete fan – you’ll know why when you hear her sing!

How has Sondheim influenced your approach to performance and musical theatre in general?

Sondheim has influenced my approach to LIFE! That’s what’s so remarkable about his work – how does he know how to capture the human experience so directly that it both moves and delights us? His characters teach us about life without being preachy, and that’s the best kind of music theatre. I’ve no doubt that doing so much Sondheim means I demand more from all music theatre, in both writing and performance, and if it’s not written with that depth, then I consider it my job to fill it in in other ways. It’s a very nourishing meal.

How do you balance your personal experiences and interpretation of Sondheim’s work with the original intent and context of the songs?

Our job is always to serve the writer. And we do that by bringing ourselves and our own experiences to the role – it’s why we see so many Hamlets around the world. We don’t go back year after year to see how it ends! We go back to see what a particular performer will do with the role based on their experiences, BUT it is always in service of the writer. With a writer like Sondheim, the two experiences tend to align beautifully, and the rewards are huge. When the authors are expressing the same things about life that YOU want to express, the well of experience and inspiration is limitless.

Stephen Sondheim.
Stephen Sondheim.

Are there any particular Sondheim songs or shows that you feel resonate particularly strongly with the queer community?

The nature of him having identified as a gay man means that there are allusions everywhere in his work, but many songs have garnered their own resonances outside the original shows. ‘No One is Alone’ from Into the Woods (which is in our concert) became an anthem for the AIDS crisis in New York; certainly the material from Company is related, and in Bounce he wrote a beautiful love song for two men. For me personally, ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ captures the experience of coming out beautifully, though never written for that purpose. At the end of the day, it is easy to align this material with a Queer community because the material is so complex – I’ve sat in theatres being incredibly moved, then laughing hysterically, but for different reasons. The songs force you to investigate your humanity, and, in that way, they belong to all communities.

In addition to your work in the arts, you are also an activist and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Can you tell us about your involvement in the community and what drives you to be an advocate?

I guess it’s because, being an artist, I want the world’s stages to reflect my experiences, and, as a gay man myself, I see it as part of my job to bring a particular vision to the stage. I am also head of Music Theatre at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne, so I am acutely aware of the different kinds of struggles that young, queer performers might find when looking at popular culture. In my experience, the theatre has always been the domain of misfits. It’s where so many people find belonging, and my approach to theatre is so much bigger than ‘shows’. The theatre, for me, is about connection and community – the theatre offered me a place to find myself, and now it’s my job to offer that to audiences and show teams alike, whatever their experiences or identities.

Thus far, what has been your most memorable on-stage performance and why?

Oh god – I have so many! I was once playing a drag queen in an Australian musical opposite a huge star, and the idea was that we were supposed to be at an illegal drag party (Sydney in the 1950s!) when the police bust in and arrest us just as the curtain came down on Act 1, but we had a very limited budget, and everyone was doubling roles. The policeman was played by an older, straight actor who had to sashay off stage, quickly change out of a fancy kimono, get into a police uniform, turn around and harass us! Opening night, the cue was given, no police entrance. When I turned to investigate, I don’t know what killed me more – the fact that the actor was SO involved in his drag acting that he forgot to leave the stage or that he was yet to change from the rehearsal props to the real ones, and he was laying back on a chaise lounge smoking a PENCIL!

What is your favourite thing to do for yourself?

To go to the beach or anywhere I might connect with nature and walk – often and consciously. It’s why I love New Zealand. I am also the Artistic Director of the Australian Musical Theatre Festival in Tasmania annually, and the experience of nature there is profound and reminiscent of New Zealand.

What advice would you give to young queer artists who are just starting out in the industry?

Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. Uncomfortable and unsafe are two different things. Learn the difference, and always seek out the uncomfortable – it’s a hint that you are exploring new territory, and it’s probably going to reveal something important. And trust that you are enough.

A Night of Sondheim – Together with the APO, will be performed from 7.30 pm on Thursday, 22 June, at Auckland’s home of musical theatre, The Civic.