Luhrmann’s Greek Fran

Phoebe Panaretos grew up consumed by musicals like Grease and Strictly Ballroom. She now takes on the lead role in Baz Luhrmann's stage reinvention of his iconic movie.

When the film Strictly Ballroom set Australian Baz Luhrmann on the path of becoming one of world’s most acclaimed film directors, back in 1992, Phoebe Panaretos was one year old.

Fast forward twenty-two years, and Baz Luhrmann’s reinvention of his graduate stage show, Strictly Ballroom The Musical premiered in Melbourne last month, with Panaretos in the lead role of Fran.

It was as epic as it sounds – Baz Luhrmann himself hand-picked 23-year-old Phoebe Panaretos, a relatively unknown VCA graduate, to play the lead role. But it was a lengthy and an uncommon journey for the world of musical theatre, with the audition process for Fran taking over eight months.

A long journey for Phoebe, within a long journey for Luhrmann himself, whose involvement with Strictly Ballroom has lasted over three decades – from a small student play to his first motion picture, and now a full-blown theatrical stage musical.

“I knew that Baz liked me, but there were things he needed to see from me and get out of me,” Phoebe tells Neos Kosmos. “When the auditions started, I thought I’d be lucky to get in the ensemble of the musical. I was completely taken by surprise by how far I got and how quickly I became a forerunner. But then that was joined by eight months of auditions…”

Baz Luhrmann did what he had to do. Fran is a fighter and if Phoebe was to be his Fran, she had to prove herself over time, and over again. Once he recognised dedication and fearlessness, the role was hers.

“Unlike other characters, my journey of getting the role was the longest. I’ve gone through a lot, I got to a point where I had lost fear, and I think that’s where Baz wanted me to get.

“I wasn’t afraid or nervous anymore, I was just like – OK, I did it so many times, I’ve sung a million songs…”

So ready was Phoebe to hear the final answer, that she received a personal call from Luhrmann himself. “Of course, you are my Fran,” he told her.

From Newtown to Baz’ ballroom

It was at the Newtown School of Performing Arts in Sydney that Phoebe took her first dancing steps at the age of six. At 11, she made her professional debut in Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Oliver, playing the role of Rose. This role introduced her to musical theatre and she fell in love with it, watching musicals day after day at her yiayia’s house. Since then, she was certain performing was everything she wanted to do.

Today, Phoebe is what they call a triple threat – dancer, singer, actress. A bit shy by nature – just like her character Fran – but never when on stage.
“I love performing, being a different character; acting, singing and transforming into somebody else,” she says

Since the beginning, her family has been Phoebe’s greatest support.

With her roots reaching to Kythera, in the backstage of the show Phoebe is often greeted by family members, long-lost relatives she has never seen before, or simply Kytherians who recognise her Kytherian surname.

“I always have a relative in the audience, no matter what,” she says with a giggle. “My yiayia has seen the show at least seven times by now.

“I’m very proud of it. I think getting something like this has made me love and appreciate my Greek culture even more because I find Greek people so supportive. It’s like it happened to them, like they are on stage.”

The story that inspired the world to dance, Strictly Ballroom The Musical had its global premiere in April at the Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Playing the pivotal role of Scott Hasting is Thomas Lacey who, alongside Phoebe Panaretos as Fran, leads an outstanding Australian cast of 43.

This new production is staged by the original creative team behind the classic 1992 film, including director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann, set and costume designer Catherine Martin, choreographer John ‘Cha Cha’ O’Connell and co-writer Craig Pearce.

Since the Sydney premiere, Phoebe has gone on to receive rave reviews for her role in the inspiring story of a championship ballroom dancer who defies all the rules to follow his heart.

“Every night is so joyous, the audience just love it. When Scott and Fran kiss for the first time, the audience erupt and cheer, it’s like a Romeo and Juliet story, the ugly duckling story – and everybody likes that, everybody can relate to that, feeling like an outcast or inadequate. It’s a universal story of defying the odds, the unlikely scenario of the prince falling in love with the ugly duckling.

“It’s a story about self-revelation, discovering who you are and being confident in that, dancing to the beat of your own drum and nobody else’s. It’s a universal story that can relate to everybody and teach everybody something, something that people will forever relate to and enjoy. And it’s ours.”

Working with an Oscar nominee whose opus includes movies like Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby, for the Sydney-born Greek Australian it was the time of her life – exciting and honouring at the same time. Unlike other musicals currently on stage in Australia, Strictly Ballroom is not from Broadway in New York or London’s West End. It’s purely Australian.

“I was really challenged. It’s a new musical that has never been done before. It’s a brand new production, so there was a lot of creation involved. We were not just copying someone else’s show. It’s all-Australian, and having an ownership of it was really exciting,” Phoebe explains. “Hopefully one day we can take this show over there, and it would be our mark on the music theatre industry worldwide.”

With eight performances a week, and only one day off stage, sacrificing time is the most challenging part of Phoebe’s job.

“I don’t have much time to do other things. My life is my job, and I love my job, I love going to work every day. Now that I’ve been doing it for a while there are things you realise that you miss. There were days that have been harder than others and you have to leave everything in the dressing room.

“Because I’m so dedicated to giving a good performance – if it means that I have to spend all day not speaking, so I can come to the show and be vocally fit for it, I will do it. The sacrifice of time for other people is probably the most challenging part, as I like spending time with friends and family, but I’ve had to say ‘no’ a lot and I find it hard.”

She may have had to learn the hard way, but it was all worth it, Phoebe says today, as Strictly Ballroom The Musical takes off in Melbourne.

“This is my big break. I was lucky it was Baz – he didn’t need to find a celebrity, he could choose whoever he wanted, and I was the lucky one,” Phoebe says.

As clichéd as it sounds, she is very convincing when she says that Baz is “the most wonderful man” she has ever met.

“He is so artistically innovative, powerful; he will walk into a room and sell his story to everybody, execute an idea that is so exciting and brilliant that you want to be a part of it.

“He has opened my eyes and I’m so hungry for more. Working with him has been the greatest experience of my life,” Phoebe says.

Being the lead of the musical means you have to hold a flag for the cast of 40 people and a crew of the same number, be a leader, be mature and hold your head up high. That’s what this lead role has taught Phoebe.

“You have to be strong for the rest of the cast. What you do – what Tom and I do – affects the whole show. And the show is bigger than you, I’ve learned that. I’ve got to be on my game not just for me – but for everyone. It’s definitely taught me to be mature.”

Now in Melbourne, Phoebe is excited to be in a place where the Greek community is so strong.

“I’m loving my new large Greek family – I just love it. I think Baz is excited too, he is, like, ‘make sure the Greek community is coming along to the show’.”

Strictly Ballroom The Musical is playing now at Her Majesty’s Theatre. For more information, visit http://www.hmt.com.au/whats-on