When Kate Miller-Heidke first performed in Katoomba at The Clarendon Theatre early in her career she instantly had a good feeling about the town.
“Some of my first ever gigs in New South Wales were at the Clarendon,” she said. “I remember having three nights there in a row. The first night we had maybe eight people in the audience and the second night word got around and we had 25 and then the next night we were full. I remember thinking how great it was that Katoomba had this little venue that really nurtured culture.”
Miller-Heidke won’t have to worry about slowly building her audience when she returns to Katoomba for the Blue Mountains Music Festival in March. Her shows are likely to be standing room only, coming hot on the heels of her highly successful experience writing songs with her husband and collaborator Keir Nuttall for the hit show, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical.
The stage adaptation of the iconic Australian film took up two years of her life and was met with critical and audience acclaim. It enjoyed at sell-out season at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Roslyn Packer Theatre (a return season at the Sydney Lyric Theatre in 2019 has already been announced) and won a swag of Sydney Theatre Awards in January. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall won an award for Muriel's original score while it also claimed awards in the musical category including Best Mainstage Musical and Best Direction.
“The response was overwhelming really,” she said. “We were conscious that the material was pretty sacred to a lot of Australians and we had this big responsibility to honour the movie – and not f**k it up basically! But also to justify it being a piece of music theatre, to bring something new and fresh to it while staying true to these amazing characters and to this beautiful, sad, quirky story. The fact it’s been well received was a big relief.”
There was even a Blue Mountains connection to the production with former Katoomba local Madeleine Jones winning best supporting actor in a musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards for playing Muriel’s best friend, Rhonda.
“She so deserved it, she is absolutely brilliant,” said Miller-Heidke. “The friendship between Rhonda and Muriel is the absolute heart of the story and Maddy Jones just blows me away, she makes me cry,”.
Although Muriel’s Wedding The Musical was a wonderful experience, Miller-Heidke said it was also “all-consuming”, so getting back on the road to perform live has been a welcome change of pace.
“It feels just like what I needed to do right now,” she said.
Not that the Muriel’s experience is completely behind her. Miller-Heidke has been performing one of the musical’s standout songs, Amazing, at her live shows. A powerful ode to female friendship, she said the audience reaction to the number has been, fittingly, “amazing”.
“It has definitely been one of the highlights of the set so I’m thinking it might have to go on my next album,” she said.
Blue Mountains audiences can expect Miller-Heidke to “road test” new material for this album at the upcoming festival.
“Generally my material is a reaction against the previous thing I did. I think O Vertigo! [her last album in 2014] was a very poppy record and I’m just really enjoying acoustic instruments at the moment and going back to my folky roots,” she said.
While O Vertigo! was crowdfunded rather than backed by a major label, Miller-Heidke is unsure which route she will take for her next project.
“Instinctively it feels like you can’t stay still in this business. I feel like I need to keep shaking things up,” she said.
Blue Mountains audiences will get to see her shake things up when she performs on the Saturday and Sunday of the long-running festival in March.
“It’s one of my favourites festivals... [and] Katoomba is one of my favourite places in the world,” she said. “The music festival is so well curated and so lovingly put together, and the quality of the acts is so high, that I just love it.”
Having played at the festival twice before, Miller-Heidke is just as effusive about Blue Mountains audiences
“They’re an educated listening audience and I think they’ll go where they are led. I don’t think I need to dumb anything down or just play the hits,” she said.
One hit that will make the cut is Caught in the Crowd, her breakthrough 2008 song about bullying that has become a powerful teaching tool.
“It’s one of those songs where I go, ‘Thank God this is my song’. I love playing it. It is one of those songs that continues to have a life. I still hear from a lot of school teachers who use it to play in the classroom to open up a dialogue with students about bullying and about sticking up for your friends,” said Miller-Heidke.
Another song likely to get a run is You’ve Underestimated Me Dude from her 2016 best-of collection. Miller-Heidke has been quoted as saying the song is based on “a conglomeration of several dickhead men” and its take on misogyny is even more relevant in light of the #MeToo movement.
“It’s such a theatrical song. It’s so over the top it shocks the audience a little bit with the screaming. It’s fun and empowering to sing it,” she said.
The Blue Mountains Musical Festival is held from March 16-18 in Katoomba. For more details or bookings visit www.bmff.org.au.