Richard Wherrett AM 1940-2001

Richard Wherrett

Richard Wherrett

In 1996 Wherrett directed The Stars Come Out, a gala concert at the State Theatre in Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

In 1998 there was The Merchant of Venice for Bell Shakespeare, and 1999 saw a restaging of the opera Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the Sydney Opera House.

Richard Wherrett was scheduled to direct a revival of The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin when he died of an AIDS-related illness on 7 December 2001.

 

Wherrett’s experience with his only feature film, a comedy with music called Billy’s Holiday, was hardly happier. It was based on the unlikely fact that actor Max Cullen’s singing voice was indistinguishable from Billy Holiday’s – and it was swiftly forgotten. Another disappointment followed. In 1995 Wherrett was chosen to direct the Australian production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Presented by Kevin Jacobsen and Michael Edgley in association with Disney, this version starred Rachael Beck and Michael Cormick, with a supporting cast including Hugh Jackman, and Bert Newton. Again Wherrett was uncomfortable, finding he was expected merely to reproduce the American original.

In 1996 Wherrett directed The Stars Come Out, a gala concert at the State Theatre in Sydney for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (he had directed several earlier Mardi Gras events), another gala concert to celebrate the reopening of Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on 17 August, and Richard Mills’ operatic treatment of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for the Melbourne International Festival. This was televised by the ABC. In 1997 he directed the musical Cabaret for Gordon Frost at the Footbridge Theatre in Sydney, another musical, Pageant, for Harry M. Miller at Paddington Town Hall, Red Hot and Rhonda, the high-powered Rhonda Burchmore showcase that opened the Showroom in Melbourne’s Crown Casino on 8 May, and Katharine Thompson’s play Navigating for the Queensland Theatre Company. In 1998 there was The Merchant of Venice for Bell Shakespeare, and 1999 saw a restaging of the opera Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the Sydney Opera House.

In 1997 Richard Wherrett and his brother Peter, the noted motoring writer released a co-written autobiography, Desirelines: An Unusual Family Memoir, revealing Richard’s homosexuality, Peter’s transvestism, and the unhappy childhood they suffered with their violent, alcoholic father. Richard’s own autobiography, The Floor of Heaven, was published in 2000 and dedicated to Jacki Weaver. He also wrote Mardi Gras! From Frock Up to Lock Up, published in 1999. 

Wherrett was responsible for the staging of perhaps the most heart stopping segment of the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony – the entry of the Olympic flame, its transfer by Cathy Freeman to the waiting torch, and its slightly shaky ascent to the cauldron. His last major directorial credit was the Johnny O’Keefe musical Shout! The Legend of the Wild One, with David Campbell in the lead. It opened at the State Theatre in Melbourne on 26 December 2000 and toured widely.

Richard Wherrett was scheduled to direct a revival of The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin when he died of an AIDS-related illness on 7 December 2001. In spite of his homosexuality, he had enjoyed a long, loving relationship with actress Jacki Weaver, and she lived with him through his last days. In her tribute she called him ‘Richard the Lionheart’. The lights on the Opera House sails were dimmed in his honour.

Frank Van Straten, 2007

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Biographical references

Ron Blair: ‘Richard Wherrett’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Tony Watts: John Hargreaves – a Celebration, Parrot Management, 2000
Jacki Weaver: Much Love, Jac, Allen & Unwin, 2005
Richard Wherrett: The Floor of Heaven, Sceptre, 2000