Talking things Only Heaven Knows with Matt Backer

Only Heaven Knows is a beloved musical set in the 1940s and 1950s, telling the story of one young man’s discovery of love and life in Sydney. 

Having just finished his critically acclaimed Puck in STC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sydney Opera House, Matthew Backer will now make his Hayes Theatre Co. debut as Alan in Only Heaven Knows.

We caught up with Matt during rehearsals to chat about the classic Australian musical!

Could you introduce us to your characters in Only Heaven Knows?

I play Alan, a gay man in his late twenties living in 1940s Kings Cross who at times struggles very deeply with his homosexuality.

This is your first Hayes production! Excited?!

Incredibly! That theatre has changed Sydney’s theatrical landscape in so many joyous and important ways and I’ve seen many shows there as a Hayes fan so it’s exciting to now get the opportunity to perform in that intensely intimate space. And the fact that my Hayes debut is in an Australian musical with such strong ties to the area on which the Hayes Theatre stands makes it even more special.

You’ve predominantly done theatre roles in recent years, with smaller singing parts here and there. What’s it like to be part of a full musical production? Is it very different?

This show is not drastically different to a play because it’s quite a scene-centric piece. Characters in Only Heaven Knows don’t really burst into song mid scene or sing songs directly to other characters, nor do the songs ‘advance the plot’, so to speak. Most, if not all, of the songs exist in a type of stasis, separate to the advancing plot. The scenes are really what drive the piece and songs are scattered amongst it, often used to feature a character singing on their own, whether in a concert setting or like we’ve caught them mid-thought. For that reason, it doesn’t feel vastly different to doing a normal play. That being said, when you’re side stage listening to the likes of Hayden Tee, who’s just been doing Les Miserables on Broadway and the West End, belt out a big ol’ number, you’re definitely reminded where you are, who you’re amongst and what you’re doing!

Only Heaven Knows is set in the 1940s and 50s. What do you think of the time period? How do you think it would have been like living back then?

I think living in any time period would have its charms and its woes. I do find the 1940s and 1950s charming in an Old Hollywood type of way – or an Old Aussiewood type of way, in this case. They were two extremely contrasting eras. The 40s were a time of certain freedoms for women and queer individuals, with many of the nation’s men who would usually call the shots in society being overseas fighting in WWII. Then came the Menzies era, which brought with it harsh winds of change and control over these groups of individuals especially. From my research, homosexual individuals would have lived tough, closed-off lives, as their sexual nature was considered illegal, immoral and deemed them to be mentally unwell. So, safe to say, probably wouldn’t have been too much fun.

In the musical it’s a particularly intolerant time and place. What do you think is the most important message that comes out of Only Heaven Knows for the LGBT community?

That, as a community, it is a joyous, unique, vibrant, resilient, loving, caring, strong, fierce, needed one in today’s world climate. It is a family. Extreme far-right, almost bigoted, sentiments seem to be sweeping the globe at the moment and it’s so important for minority communities, such as the LGBTQIA community, to remember those who existed before them and have fought, and in some cases fallen, for more equality in the world. But also to remember that there is a long way to go in this long march towards equality, and to never get complacent. It’s hugely embarrassing that we are still waiting on Marriage Equality here in Australia. Our ‘politicians’ need to put their tails between their legs, pull their socks up and clip themselves round the ear for not seriously listening to 62% of the population supporting same-sex marriage. So hopefully some of those pollies come along to our little show and I want them and others, whether they’re gay, straight, bi, whatever, whatever, to leave feeling more hopeful, more open-minded and more fabulous than when they walked in.

Now that you are well into rehearsals, is there a favourite scene or moment that we should all look out for?

I’m really enjoying when all five of us are on stage together. It only happens a few times throughout the piece so it’s pretty fun when you catch yourself standing on stage with the likes of Hayden, Blazey, Tim and Ben. Our director, Shaun Rennie, has assembled a killer cast and creative crew and I think my favourite moment is going to change with each and every show.

And finally, what’s something “only heaven knows” about you?

That’s for heaven to know, and you to find out…my folks will be reading this.

Matt will be appearing in Only Heaven Knows at the Hayes Theatre from 26th June – 1st July. Tickets are selling out fast so head over to hayestheatre.com.au for more information and to book!