Lauren McKenna: More than a dream role (Part 1)

Our Editor in Chief, Lauren McKenna, has put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!) to share her journey towards the role that changed her life. This is Part 1 of her story of how she became Australia's Tracy Turnblad. 


When I was 16 years old, I was lucky enough to travel to the Mecca of Musical Theatre, New York City with my parents. I had been obsessed with musicals since I starred in my first community theatre production at 10, playing the lead role of Mary Lennox in THE SECRET GARDEN.  I was one of those kids who could listen to a song once and know all the words on the second play and I would sing and dance non-stop around the house.  I would watch videos of classic movie musicals like THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and GREASE until the VHS tapes (you may have to google it) would no longer play (no joke).  So naturally, New York City represented the pinnacle of my dreams to me, and still does.  On our first night in the Big Apple, my folks took me to see my first Broadway production. It was a show my friend Charlotte had given me the original cast recording of months earlier saying, “Oh Em Gee! Lauren! You will love this musical!”  She was right! I listened to that soundtrack over and over again on my DiscMan (this is before I was cool enough to own an iPod) and I memorised every word.  You can imagine my excitement when my dad surprised me with tickets, announcing, “We are seeing HAIRSPRAY tonight!”

I sat in the audience buzzing, about to have my first taste of what Broadway has to offer.  I can remember there was a huge beaded curtain in the shape of a vintage hairdo and I remember feeling so excited that I was actually sitting there, in New York City about to see my new favourite show on Broadway.  The overture started and I held my mum and dad’s hands tightly.  This. Was. Happening!  The cleverly designed “hair curtain” rose, as did the black scrim to reveal the lead actress asleep in her vertical bed.  There she was.  Tracy Turnblad.  It is hard to explain what I felt in that moment.  Here was a girl who didn’t look like other typical Broadway performers.  She was gorgeously round and had a smile to melt hearts.  She wasn’t a slender, leggy showgirl or a petite pocket rocket.  She was in a category all of her own but she was a star!  Watching HAIRSPRAY, I had tears streaming down my face from start to finish.  Seeing this type of girl play the lead in a Broadway musical was incredibly special and inspiring for me, who fell into a different category of performer too and felt awkward in my growing body, like most teenagers do.  I thought to myself, “If this girl can be the leading lady, why can’t I?” 

The role of Tracy Turnblad is unique.  To the best of my knowledge, it is the only leading role in the musical theatre canon written specifically for a plus size female.  Unlike roles such as Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables or Ursula in The Little Mermaid, it is one of the only roles traditionally for curvier female actors that doesn’t have a “villian” persona attached to it.  In Hairspray, Tracy gets to be the heart and love interest of the show whilst wearing one of the largest sizes onstage and this is really important! Theatre tells human stories and some humans happen to be bigger than others! Tracy is effervescent, adorable, kind and talented - so why shouldn’t she get the guy in the end?  

2015 was an incredibly important year for me personally and professionally.  I had been given a rare opportunity to perform in the Australian Premiere of HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL and had been recognised by Sydney theatre critics winning the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer.  “Chuffed” does not even come close.  I was incredibly proud of and grateful for the experience of playing daggy Martha and eccentric Ms. Fleming with such a talented cast and team.  Serendipitously, I was working alongside the wonderful Jaz Flowers who played Tracy Turnblad in the Australian tour of HAIRSPRAY.  This girl is an absolute powerhouse performer I had always looked up to and now she is also a close and inspiring friend.  With HEATHERS, a move back to my hometown of Sydney and a new agent, 2015 was shaping up to be my favourite year.  When I had tea with the incomparable Simon Burke in his beautiful Sydney home, I had no idea my life was about to change even more...



Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon......


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