Growing up in Maungaturoto in the early eighties, Hayden Tee admits he was ‘not your typical rural Kiwi boy’. You couldn’t get a more rural upbringing: on his mum Debbie’s side he’s the fourth generation of the Brooks Motors family who have run buses for 80 years out of the small town west of the Brynderwyns. Funding from them helped to build the Otamatea Repertory Theatre where, years later, the young Hayden first hit the stage. Lachie McLean, director of the theatre at the time (now well-known director of the Waipu Pageant and many other shows), remembers him well. “Even as a kid, whenever the stage door was open at the theatre, Hayden was there – he just wanted to be part of everything in any way he could.” Lachie also remembers the look that he and legendary voice coach Joan Kennaway QSM exchanged when Hayden sang at his first proper audition. “It was a big voice all right… we knew he’d go far.”
Fast forward a couple of decades or so, and Hayden has just finished performing on Broadway and in the brand-new Dubai Opera House, playing the second lead, Javert, in Les Miserables. Junction caught up with him in Waipu, home for Christmas.
What’s your best memory about growing up where you did?
I didn't realise how lucky I was until I left really. I love the waterfalls at Waipu gorge [Piroa Falls] – I actually visualise them as my ‘safe place’ when meditating. I try to visit them whenever I am home.
How and when did you start becoming aware that you could sing?
I was very shy as a child. My grandmother took me to see a show at the local amateur theatre company to increase my confidence. A friend at high school was in the theatre company so I decided to give it a go. I didn't really know I could sing until I auditioned to be honest.
How did it develop?
I was drawn to musicals because of the way the characters have to be pushed to such a heightened state of emotion that speaking is no longer enough – the only thing to do is burst into song. That intense emotion and escapism really appealed to me. Performance was not exactly the cool thing to do at school but I never felt harassed by my peers. I'm sure they thought I was a bit weird and I did feel different, but that wasn't necessarily due to performing. It wasn't till later in life that I realised that ‘different’ just means ‘unique’ – which we all are. I just knew I had to do ‘me’.
Who were you most influenced by musically as a teenager?
Frank Sinatra, Elaine Paige, Darrel Lovegrove, Anthony Warlow... see, I was always a little different, ha!
How much of your success do you owe to your mentors in NZ?
I trained with Joan Kennaway in Whangarei and owe her so much of my confidence, passion, work ethic, drive – and love. She not only taught me solid singing technique and stage presence but to have the confidence to be true to myself.
First big break?
After my final year of high school, I went to do a one-week holiday course at NIDA drama school in Sydney. I knew that Kate Blanchett, Mel Gibson and Toni Collett had been there. It was my first time abroad and I was alone and terrified, but at the end of that week the tutors asked me to come back and audition for the musical theatre course. Three weeks later I moved to Sydney to study full time.
When was your first big overseas break?
Winning the New York award at the Sydney Cabaret. The prize was to go and perform in New York City (which I now call home). I knew as soon as I walked down Broadway and saw all the theatres that to be there was the dream.
What’s your weekly regime, practice-wise?
Once a show is up and running it becomes mostly about staying healthy. The main thing is to rest my vocal chords so I can perform eight shows a week.
Have you been inspired by others who have played Javert?
Philip Quast made a huge name for himself with Javert in Australia, so for me, starting the role there was daunting at first. But I always like to pretend that I’m the first person to play the role so returning to the source is essential – in this case the novel by Victor Hugo. When I finish my Javert journey next April I will have realised my dream to play the role in Australia, Broadway and the West End, and have added Dubai as well, which is all I could personally hope for.
What’s the opera house in Dubai like?
Amazing – the pictures say it all! I am in awe every day. The seats, for example, are made by Ferrari. It’s out of this world. We’re the first musical to play here which is a huge honor.
Does it feel just a bit surreal at times performing there as the boy from Maungaturoto?
Walking the streets of Broadway, the West End or Dubai I’ll often suddenly realise where I am and where I’ve come from. It can be overwhelming at times. When I first saw my picture and name up outside the theatre on Broadway I couldn't breathe.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be heading to London soon to do one more season of Javert in the West End, then in May I’m off to Sydney to play the roles of Lea Sonia/Lana in the musical ‘Only Heaven Knows’. I knew after three years of Javert I wanted something completely different, so when offered the role of a comic female impersonator from the famous Tivoli stage of the 1930s I thought to myself – well, I can't get much further away from Javert than that – sure, I'd love to! Ha!