Story And Song

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Hollywood is the stuff of legend. We all hear stories of famous actors and directors and their numerous forays in storytelling and entertainment. But imagine being behind a part of all this, interacting with these people and creating your own musicals. Originally from America, actor Chris Wallace has created Story And Song, a musical about his life in the entertainment industry. I got to speak to him about his show and life, and boy does he have plenty of stories to tell.

What got you interested in writing music for a living?
I’ll tell you exactly how it worked. I tried to do practical, intelligent, business-like things, and they were signs along the way that said this is not for you, and I finally read the signs. The last thing I ever expected to do was go into show business, but it was a perfect fit. Once I committed, everything else followed. I was an actor for as long as I could remember, but I didn’t say it out loud until I was 40. I’ve been married three times, and after the second marriage broke up, I figured I might as well do what I’ve always wanted to do now because I’m obviously not be a success at as a television executive or producer. That’s when I said, “I’m going to be an actor”.

Circumstances were such that I had that I went to a Thanksgiving dinner, which is in the show. Joan Hackett was an actor who done some film and a lot of theatre, and for some reason I was there, before I became an actor. This guy who was a critic at the time said, “Why aren’t you an actor? Why isn’t your face on the screen? You’ve got a great face.” Then I was having dinner with Ben Vereen and Liza Minelli and Ben said a similar thing, “Doesn’t his face belong on the screen?” Then my French wife and I broke up and I always thought I should get into acting, and at that moment I was free to do it and I did. When I said I was an actor out loud, that’s when the real emansipation took place. I started writing songs, and I was free to do whatever I felt like doing.

How do you feel writing music has changed since you started?
My music hasn’t. I’ve written a lot of kids songs, wrote songs for several shows in LA, and that kind of thing. I’ve always written articulate songs, I’ve never been a “I love you baby, I love you baby” kind of writer, and I never tried to break into the pop field, so it really hasn’t changed for me. I still do whatever I feel like doing. Not in this show, but in season two, there will be a story where I go in more detail about it, I ended up writing a song about writing a song. It’s something I can do, I don’t know where it came from, I’m not a musician per se. Once I got an instrument that made chords, I found a way to express it.

I’ve heard stories about you having dinner with the likes of Liza Minnelli and Woody Allen. What are they like?
The first song we do in the show, she recommended the title. I met Woody Allen a couple of times, and I met him at the Thanksgiving dinner I mentioned before, and saw him perform at a jazz club in New York. Liza I got to know pretty well, she was cool. She’s show business royalty, she’s a thoroughbred.

And how about Marlon Brando? I’ve heard stories that he’s an odd person.
Well, I produced some political things in New York, and the last thing I did before I became an actor was produce a show at the Harlem Theatre for a guy who was running for the U.S. senate, he was every progressive person’s dream, he wouldn’t take more than $100 from anybody. I got involved in this campaign and I found they had access to the Apollo Theatre, which was closed at the time, but the guy who owned said if we want to use it we can. Harry Belafonte called me and asked why I wasn’t doing a show without him involved, and I said, “You’re involved now”. Between us, we got some big names; he got Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Bill Withers, a comedian named Dick Shawn, and he got Brando. We were in the green room at the Apollo and Harry introduced me to Marlon. He was such a genuine human being, no bullshit. He is the consumate screen actor, the male equivalent to Meryl Streep.

What other celebrities have you encountered in your career?
When I was on the Screen Actors Guild, and Patty Duke was running for the President of S.A.G. and she asked me to be her campaign manager. So I knew her. Henry Winkler, the Fonz, one of the songs in the show is a reference to him, I met him when we did this video together. Morgan Freeman’s another good friend of mine, though I haven’t seen him since he was last in Australia. We lived around the corner from one another and we met at a black playwight’s workshop in New York, and I was essentially known as “the white guy”. I met Morgan at one of those things and we became really good friends, and we hung out. We did one play in Harlem, and they asked me to do a role at the last minute, and the play took place in a morgue and Morgan I think played the mortician or a Baptist preacher or something. It was in the middle of winter, and there was no heat in this theatre, and everyone was all rugged up. My part was in the fourth scene, somebody opens a casket and my hand comes out and I start gesturing with my hand, and that’s all I had to do in the play. Everybody was freezing their butts off, and the coffin was on stage from the beginning, and I was warm because my body heat was held in from the coffin, and I fell asleep. And when I woke up, I didn’t know where they were in the play. I had to wait for someone to open the lid and do my thing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever gotten for acting?
The best thing I ever heard about acting, I think it was Jimmy Cagney who said, “Hit your mark and tell the truth”. If you can’t see me acting, then I’m acting.

What made you decide to move to Australia, considering most actors aspire to go to America for their acting careers?
A woman. I met her in L.A., she was from Melbourne. We did a show together, then she came back. She decided she was in love with me, and that got my attention, so I came over for a visit, and then I came here to live and I got married. Within two years we were finished, but in that time, I had a musical produced at the Arts Centre, and realised this was a good omen, so I stayed. I’ve lived her for 22 years.

What do you think of the Australian acting scene? A lot of Australian actors have made it big in Hollywood over the years.
It’s a known fact that Australia punches way above its weight in sport, it’s equally true in art. I don’t know what’s in the water here, but what I think the key is that none of the Aussies that I’ve come across take themselves so seriously as to think they’re anything special.

What inspired you to do a show about your life?
This is the seventh show I’ve done in Australia, and the fourth at The Butterfly Club. The three previous shows I did there were variations of a show I did in Hollywood, where I had other singers and I basically took a much less prominent role and they could show off. I was telling one of the girls in the show a few stories of mine, and she said, “People want to know that stuff”.

Story And Song
The Butterfly Club, 5 Carson Place, Melbourne
Tuesday May 12 – Sunday May 17



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