Stormin' Normie brings a Holt to show of his life
Nathan Hotchkin-Van Neuren (left) and Julian Campobasso (right) play Normie Rowe as a teen and a young pop star in Normie: The Musical. Rowe plays former Prime Minister Harold Holt. Photo: Wayne Taylor
AUSTRALIA'S first King of Pop, Normie Rowe, is to appear in a stage musical about his life – playing not himself but former prime minister Harold Holt, the man he believes conscripted him to the Vietnam War as a PR exercise.
The 65-year-old singer will sing four songs as Holt in Normie: The Musical, including Shakin' All Over, which was a huge hit for Rowe, as Rowe, in 1965.
''I'm trying to play it straight but it's hard to get Harold Holt singing that song and not make it a comic turn,'' says Rowe, who was born and bred in Northcote but has lived on the Gold Coast for the past decade.
Rowe is played by 27-year-old Julian Campobasso, who sings most of the songs that made Rowe one of Australia's biggest stars from 1965 to 1968.
The musical – which covers the years 1964 to 1972 (sorry, folks, the big Midday Show biff with Ron Casey will have to wait for the sequel) – has been in development for more than four years and will make its debut in an amateur production mounted by Old Scotch Music and Drama in the private school's $25 million, 430-seat state-of-the-art theatre complex at its Hawthorn campus.
According to producer Dennis Smith, the seven nights at Scotch ''takes the place of a workshop, but in a much better way as we'll be able to see how an audience responds''.
If they respond well, he is hopeful that the show – written by former journalist Graeme Johnstone – could make it to a major stage for a professional run.
''If you said to me, which of the Australian entertainers has a story strong enough to support a stage musical, there aren't many,'' says Smith, whose credits include the hit shows Dusty and Shout, about singers Dusty Springfield and Johnny O'Keefe respectively. ''Normie's story has all the makings of a hit show.''
That story includes a journey from working-class origins to teen stardom around Australia and, by 1968, a sniff of success in Britain. But the journey was truncated by Rowe's conscription into military service in Vietnam - a call-up that the singer believes was not simply a matter of a randomly selected marble with his birth date on it.
''There's a song Harold sings in the show called How Can I Sell A War?,'' Rowe says. ''Holt is hell bent on trying to find a way to do that and this military attache comes in and says, 'Look, you've got to put Normie Rowe in'.''
It is, Rowe says, ''a wonderful piece of theatrics'', but he insists the moment is grounded in fact. About five years ago, he heard from a source he claims was ''absolutely reliable'' that the man on whom the attache character is based had made a deathbed confession.
''He said to his son, 'I want you to find Normie Rowe and tell him that putting him in the military was my idea, and I told Harold Holt, and that's how he got in'.''
If Holt did target Rowe, perhaps it's Rowe who is having the last laugh. This is the second time he has played the man who drowned off the Portsea back beach in 1967; the first time was in the dramatic recreation segments of the 2008 documentary The Prime Minister is Missing.
At any rate, there's little debate about what happened next. Though he could have dodged the draft by staying in England, Rowe returned and joined the military in 1969. The next year he was in Vietnam.
''My attitude was if it was good enough for a bank jockey or a mechanic to be called up it was good enough for a pop singer,'' he says. Besides, he says, he believed in the mission.
By the time he returned to Australia, ''the audience had moved on – I was way out of step''. His pop career was effectively over.
Rowe might reasonably be expected to harbour some resentment about the way things turned out, but he says he wouldn't undo his Vietnam experience even if he could. ''It would preclude some of the best friendships I could ever have,'' he says. ''There are people I know who are prepared to lay their lives on the line for me, because they have literally done that, and vice versa.
''How many people get to know that, that their mates are prepared to absolutely go to the wall for you?''
Normie The Musical, Geoffrey McComas Theatre, Scotch College Nov. 23 to Dec. 1.