Margaret Fulton: the musical
Flour power ... Margeret Fulton is the subject of a new musical. Photo: Pat Scala
Margaret Fulton doesn't mince words. Watching the boats steer a course under the Sydney Harbour Bridge from inside her Balmain home of 40 years, the elfin-like 88-year-old is quick to correct her status as one of the National Trust's Living Treasures, not a National Treasure.
''I'm something you don't put your coffee cup or sherry glass on just yet,'' she quips.
Indeed she is not.
Sweet spot … Amy Lehpamer, of Rock of Ages fame, portrays Australia's most loved cookery writer in Margaret Fulton: Queen of Desserts. Photo: Sarah Walker
Undoubtedly Australia's most loved and celebrated cookery writer, Fulton transformed our national cuisine and taught generations of Australians how to cook no-nonsense, wholesome food through her magazine columns in the 1960s and '70s, and later through her cookbooks (The Margaret Fulton Cookbook was the first of her 20 books, selling 1.5 million copies with 19 reprints).
This month, it is Fulton's lesser-known personal life that will be celebrated, alongside her famous pavlova recipe, when the musical, Margaret Fulton: Queen of Desserts, premieres in Melbourne.
Written by comedy great Doug MacLeod, the musical was conceived in the mid-'90s when MacLeod first met Fulton. Working then for Steve Vizard, he had been tasked with pitching a television special to her. Instead of walking away with a deal, he left morning tea at Fulton's with a stomach full of Anzac biscuits and the shell of a musical.
''Margaret was a firecracker and it occurred to me that there were aspects of her life people knew nothing about,'' he says. ''She had spent time as a member of the Communist Party - something I imagine readers of Woman's Day knew little about.''
MacLeod recorded six songs based on Fulton's life, wrote the first draft of a script, showed a pleasantly surprised Fulton, and later shelved the idea due to lack of funding. He never halted work on the script, however, gleaning much of Fulton's life story from her autobiography, I Sang for My Supper, online interview transcripts, and discussions with the cookery queen herself.
Last year, the artistic director of Present Tense theatre, Bryce Ives, directed Call Girl the Musical, which MacLeod co-wrote. When Margaret Fulton: Queen of Desserts was mentioned, the duo began working almost immediately on bringing the musical to the stage.
The show casts Amy Lehpamer, 26, of Rock of Ages fame, as a much younger Fulton and charts her life and struggles from the 1940s to today.
''Margaret Fulton is anything other than the cliche and this show endorses that,'' director Ives says. ''At 88 she's still so energetic, still full of ideas, still working, and she's still an advocate. We needed to cast someone young to deliver that vibrancy and energy.''
The musical looks back to Fulton's early adulthood when, at 18, she moved to Sydney and rented an apartment in the bohemian Rocks district. Her first job was in a factory X-raying nuts and bolts for cracks, before heading up the appliance section of an expanding David Jones.
Believing she would never end up a cook, the Scottish-born Fulton entered the man's world of food advertising and then became the food editor of Woman's Day in 1960.
''She was constantly breaking through the glass ceiling and was beating men at their own game,'' Ives says. ''Whether it was advertising or sitting around the board table of big organisations negotiating deals, Margaret became legendary for challenging the norms.''
Fulton credits her mother, a member of the suffragette movement, for her own determination, making meal times ''a happy time'', and raising the daughters in the family as equals to men.
''It made me very outspoken,'' she says.
A single mother to her only child, Suzanne, Fulton worked tirelessly. ''I used to get up on the Pacific Highway and hitch to Sydney from my sister's in Mooney Mooney to save money,'' she says, laughing.
Fulton married twice, losing her great love, second husband Michael McKeas, to cancer in the late '80s.
To this day, she's partial to a well-made Dundee cake as a ''little something'' for when people drop in. She credits her love of baking to her country upbringing. Rural cooks didn't ''muck around'' in the kitchen but stuck to one speciality and got better, quicker and more successful at it.
''I always had that in the back of my mind: doing one thing properly,'' she says.
A grandmother to Louise Fulton Keats and Kate Gibbs, and great-grandmother to ''little Harry'', Fulton still can't quite believe a musical has been written in her honour. ''Isn't it funny?'' she giggles. ''I never really thought it would happen. Now, it's almost time for opening night and I have to think about a frock.''
But MacLeod is already looking beyond opening night. He says: ''It's my fervent hope that the show will have a long life and go to Sydney, where much of the show takes place.''
Producer Sean Bryan says the aim is to see the show on main stages around the country.
Where and when
Margaret Fulton: Queen of Desserts runs from November 16-20 (previews); November 21-December 1 (season); Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda. Tickets: full, $45; concession and under 30, $30; preview $25. Bookings: 9534 3388 or theatreworks.org.au