With a career that has spanned over 40 years, it would be hard to find too many people who haven’t heard of Tom Burlinson. Whether it be as a panelist on Australia’s Got Talent, playing Billy Flynn in the recent Australian cast of Chicago The Musical, or his biggest and most renowned role in The Man From Snowy River, Tom has never ceased to entertain.
“I’ve been very fortunate, there’s no doubt about that. I think that my training at NIDA has certainly helped me. When I came into the industry and started making a living as an actor, initially on stage and then in television, I was making a living and things were fine. But I got a tremendous break when they cast me in the ‘Man From Snowy River’ and that got me being seen by lots of people in Australia and internationally. So even though when I got the job, I had no idea how successful it was going to become, I just applied myself the way I always do, with 100% effort. If you have a job like that in your resume, you have to thank your lucky stars. Even to this day the film is loved by people and generations of people who weren’t even thought of when we made the movie, who are now being put in front of it and love it too. It then led to other work in film. Who knows what the circumstances are that lead to that kind of opportunity? All I know is that if you get an opportunity, give it your absolute best effort: you never know how it’s going to work out. I’ve done that in other projects that haven’t worked out over the years as well. There are some shockers in that resume too!”
Apart from his work in plays on the stage, and roles in film and television, Tom is a very accomplished vocalist, most notable for his shows that pay tribute to Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra.
“When things really became quiet for me, I thought, “What else am I going to do now? What can I do now?” And that lead me into the whole development of musicality in my career, which up until that point had been dormant. So, I did that and backed myself financially with my initial show about Sinatra, which ended up far more successful than I had ever imagined, and I’m still doing variations on a theme to this day. That was something where I created my own opportunities, and being in a position to do that enabled further success and further employment in show business. I know it’s kind of rare to have a career in show business for over 40 years in Australia, but I know I’ve been able to diversify into different areas, which has contributed to all of that.”
And why Frank Sinatra? What about Frank lead Tom to the desire to present his life and songs to audiences?
“Just because I love it! I’ve loved his music all my life. My mother tells me I use to request Frank Sinatra when I was a toddler. She had a Frank Sinatra album. I became a huge fan of his in my late teens and early twenties. It wasn’t anything at the time that I thought I would develop professionally, but I just loved Sinatra’s style. I was exposed to Jazz by my parents, and the whole discovery of Sinatra singing, and the Great American Song Book was part of that enjoyment of his singing. Purely by accident I found that when I sang along with Frank, there was a natural similarity in the pitch and tone of our voices, so that was purely accidental and coincidental but it enabled me to get out there and sing like Frank. It was a labour of love because I genuinely love Sinatra’s singing and I wanted to share that career and the achievements that he made with the audiences.”
In April this year, Tom was going to be bringing his new show Swingin’ The Great Standards to Adelaide. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the show was postponed, but we are lucky to have Tom return to Adelaide in October. This will be Tom’s first production since distance and travel restrictions began. Is he excited to be back on stage?
“So much so! We were originally booked into the Dunstan Playhouse in April, then obviously due to COVID they were postponed. The Festival Centre came back to me and said they would love for me to relaunch the show in October and to transfer to Her Majesty’s, so it’s such a great opportunity and I’m so looking forward to coming back. This is going to be my first work for months and I’m really looking forward to it.
“The show is the music of The Great American Song Book, and I talk about composers: Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart. I’ve done a lot of research so this show is similar to my Sinatra show, where I talk about these great composers and their achievements between the songs. I’ve found out some interesting and entertaining things about how the songs were written and what was happening in the composers’ lives when they wrote the songs. It’s one great song after another. Who could not look forward to performing those songs with an orchestra, with strings and big band!”
Swingin’ The Great Standards covers a vast array of the legends of big band and swing composition. With such a long catalogue of music in The Great American Song book to choose from, how did he select what would be included in the show?
“A lot of these songs choose themselves. With so many songs, I told myself not to pick no more than 2 or 3 from each composer. You sort of have to go with the hits a bit, although not in every case. Some of my personal favourites are not the big hits. Sometimes there’s a particular story that I found out or researched about a song and I was very much, ‘Oh, that’s worth telling!” And then we will go into that song. There was that connection there between the spoken monologue and the music.
“I’ve always done shows with big bands, but this time around we are adding a string section, and that enables me to do some of the more lyrical and lush numbers that you can’t really do with a big band. In the Frank show I would drop all the musicians except the piano when I did ‘One For My Baby’ and ‘One More For The Road’, and that provided some contrast. But in this we have a wonderful string section and string arrangements of pieces like ‘Night and Day’ by Cole Porter and ‘Moon River’, and the strings just provide a different flavour and interpretation of those songs. That is somethings new for me, but I particularly enjoy it and audiences do too. So, it doesn’t all swing. Nineteen out of the twenty musicians playing for the show are all local Adelaide musicians.”
Artists, such as and Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr have re-introduced these timeless swing standards to a new generation. I was keen to hear how important Tom felt it was to do his bit to keep this music alive.
“Bublé in particular has been instrumental in that. He has a great love for all the guys – Sinatra, Dean Martin – but he has the ability to make a song his own. His albums over the years have exposed that style of music to a whole new generation, which I think is wonderful. I think this has made people go back and look at the source material. I think it’s great.
“I think of what I do. While the vast majority of my audiences are in the older demographic, because they grew up with those songs, often there’s a percentage of younger people in the crowd that may have been exposed to this music by listening to Bublé. They come along to my shows after making that discovery of this great music. I really do think the quality of the songwriting from these great composers is timeless. There are beautiful chord progressions, great melodic structure, and there was intelligence with the witty lyrics.”
Tom will be presenting Swingin’ The Great Standards at the glorious redeveloped Her Majesty’s Theatre on October 16 and 17. Her Majesty’s Theatre holds a special place for Tom after presenting his Frank show there back in 1998.
“It’s really exciting to bring this upcoming show to Her Majesty’s after having had such success there in 1998. We played for 2 weeks there, which isn’t a huge run by standards of other shows, but for us at the time it was fantastic. We got great reviews. So now that Her Majesty’s has been redeveloped, I’m really looking forward to being back there. I think, even with a 50% capacity restriction it’s the perfect size for this show.”
Ticket sales for Swingin’ The Great Standards are selling well, thanks to ticket holders from the scheduled April season choosing to transfer their tickets to the new October season.
“I am so pleased, because many people who bought tickets for April didn’t ask for refunds, and their seats have been rolled over to the October shows. The response has been wonderful so far. I cannot wait to come and do this show!”
Tom Burlinson will be performing Swingin’ The Great Standards at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Friday October 16 and Saturday October 17. Tickets are available through Bass.
Interview by Ben Stefanoff