At home with leading theatre family

Simon, Rafferty 9, Natalie, Molly 11, with their dog Freddie. Picture: Louisa Jones

By Angie Hilton

This might sound creepy, but I seriously wish I was a neighbour of the Gleesons just so that I could eavesdrop on them singing in the shower!

Simon Gleeson and Nat O’Donnell are considered Australian music theatre royalty and we are lucky enough to call them ‘Geelong-ites’.

Simon is probably best known for his lead in Les Miserables as Jean Valjean around the globe, and Nat as leading lady in Mamma Mia! playing both Donna and Sophie.

Their life almost feels like a script from the Notebook or something. The award winning duo met at Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts and became the best of friends. They were such great buddies that they were hesitant to mess with that perfect bond by turning it into a relationship.

Well 19 years on and two adorable, uber-talented children later, this fairy tale has taken them all around the globe from stage to screen and beyond.

What strikes me about this couple is just how ‘normal and nice’ they are. One could presume this level of talent would come with supersized egos, but Simon and Nat are two of the most grounded, humble and genuinely kind people you’ll meet. In fact, they are so modest that you can tell they feel uncomfortable talking about their achievements.

So I’d love to imagine life in the Gleeson home is like one big musical where you sweetly sing ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ at breakfast time. What’s the reality?

(Laughs) Reality is chaos! But you’re close to correct – we do often laugh that there’s always a dinner and a show!

So what’s going on professionally at the moment?

Simon: We are juggling quite a few hats at the moment! Both of us have branched out creatively over the last couple of years. So as well as performing, I’ve been spending a lot of my time writing and am working on a couple of film projects.

Happily it feels like the industry is starting to open up again after Covid. There’s a long way to go but it’s buoying to see shows start to open again.

Nat: Like Sime, I’ve spent the last couple of years working in new creative roles. I’m currently working as a producer with an amazing arts and social change organisation called Big hART. They’re an organisation I’d worked with as an actor and was just blown away by the work they were doing and the care in which they did it. So it feels like a privilege to now be working with them as a producer. Performing wise, like Sime said, it’s a relief to feel like the industry is slowly recovering. We have a few concerts coming up and I’m really looking forward to being back on stage again.

Tell us about your upbringing and how you got into performing?

Nat: I was originally from Colac and then we moved here when my mum remarried my wonderful dad, Kevin. For me it was a wonderful place to grow up.

I really cut my teeth performance wise through an awesome youth theatre company called Doorstep which was run by the amazing Darylin Ramondo. She is now like family, a mentor and Molly’s Godmother.

I loved going to school here at Sacred Heart. I love the friendships I formed and the school provided great opportunities to explore my passions.

I remember the last day of Year 12, I went to rehearsals before I went to celebrate the end of school. In theatre I really found my people and it just gave me so much joy.

Simon: I grew up in a really small town called The Rock near Wagga Wagga. I absolutely loved it. Performing was not the done thing at the time, however my father would do amateur theatre in Wagga, so singing wasn’t discouraged in the home. However, I was really shy about my voice so I would wait until everyone had left the house.

So it was a really personal thing for me before it became something I did for a living.

My sister was also in musical theatre from a young age and has gone on to be a very successful professional actor. With her being older I think I just wanted to follow in her footsteps, or maybe I was just jealous of all the attention she was getting (laughs).

With everything you’ve done from stage to screen, what would be your favourite career highlight?

Simon: Actually a career highlight only happened a couple of weeks ago. I got to share the stage and sing a song with a hero and mentor of mine, Phillip Quast.

I spent my childhood listening to Phil through soundtracks like Les Mis and The Secret Garden and he was a real idol. So to sing ‘Lily’s Eyes’ (from The Secret Garden) with him was nothing short of magical. It’s a sad song but you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.

Nat: We’ve both been so lucky and have worked on lots of great projects with some incredible people. Singing the anthem at the Australian Open was a ‘pinch myself’ moment.

In terms of shows Les Miserables was my first professional gig and I learnt so much, it really defined the way I work still today.

Mamma Mia! both times remain really cherished experiences for me as was playing Diana in ’Next to Normal’. That show was produced and directed by Darylin Ramondo who started and ran the Geelong based youth theatre company ‘Doorstep’. This is where I fell in love with telling stories. So to work together professionally and take the show to Sydney was really, really special.

OK so take us to the scene of your biggest productions yet … the births of Molly and Rafferty. And was Simon a good co-star?

Both our babies were posterior, which added a level of intensity and time!

Raff was also almost 10 pounds. I’m a pretty little person so, the midwives and obstetrician actually started laughing when they saw the size of him compared to me.

We had Molly in London and thankfully Sime’s parents were over there at the time.

His mum was a nurse and had trained early as a midwife so I had asked her to be there.

She was just incredible.

Sime was an amazing support both times, during and after. We felt like a team and that was so important.

And what’s it been like watching these two cherubs developed into gorgeous humans?

They’re just awesome. They both enjoy singing and performing.

Molly has aspirations to follow in our footsteps, but all we want for them is to be happy in what they do and find joy in their work, which is what we’ve been lucky enough to do.

They’re great kids, they’re observant, resilient, very patient (laughs) and they make us laugh.

We have really enjoyed the last few years of parenting the most, where they’ve really come into their own and started to form their own world views.

As Molly has become a teenager it’s been a really rich thing for us to observe how she’s changing and thinking. She is super clever and we learn so much from her.

Raff is such a dreamer. He has a really strong imagination and really just wants to connect and play with us which is so special.

How would you describe your parenting philosophy?

We believe strongly in boundaries. We feel they actually allow the kids to thrive.

I guess we also try to lead by example, in terms of the way you work in the world, just practicing kindness, respect and empathy is really important.

We also try to encourage them to think about different perspectives on life.

But honestly, sometimes I feel like they survive despite us (laughs). So we’re pretty lucky.

What is the reality of juggling two music theatre careers with family life? How do you make it work?

Juggle is the perfect word. A few years ago we just realised we needed to sit down and talk through the pros and cons of every job and the benefit it would be for the family and then us as individuals. That’s how we decide whether it’s worth doing.

And then like most families, it’s just clever planning and scheduling.

Balance is super important. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it really wrong (laughs). Most of all we are lucky enough to have incredible parents who are so supportive and have helped us out so much.

Any career goals you’d still like to meet?

In our twenties, we had clear ideas of what we wanted, for example, landing lead roles.

Whereas these days we just want to work with great people, create fantastic art and tell great stories. And what I’ve learned is that sometimes I don’t know what’s best for me in terms of my career.

So we both really like staying open to new opportunities and I think that that also means looking at what there is off stage as well. That’s been a really rich experience for us both in the past couple of years – exploring the skill set we have beyond performing.

Simon, aside from starring on stage and screen, I saw on your CV that you were Creative Consultant for the Greatest Showman. What a thrill that must have been! What does a creative consultant do?

Well, the director of The Greatest Showman Michael Gracey and I have been friends since we were teenagers and he asked me to come over to Brooklyn and assist him.

Because the movie was essentially a musical, we had to rehearse it like a musical.

We shot the whole film in the rehearsal room as an exercise and then cut it all together to see how the film felt and what we needed to change before principal photography started.

I also had to go into all the recording sessions to help keep the story flowing.

I had little bits of input over seven years. It was a wonderful time for me.

Do you have any advice for young performers?

Simon: Um, I don’t know, marry rich? Just joking … sort of! I would say the best thing is to remain curious. It’s very easy to not be curious when you have so much information thrown at you. But as storytellers, to remain curious about all forms of life and not just the ones you know, intimately. Be passionate, work hard, and try to have something else in your life that you love as much or nearly as much as performing, something that fuels you so that your self-worth isn’t entirely wrapped up in your work.

To keep an eye on Simon & Nat’s upcoming performances, you can follow them on Instagram at @natjodonnell and @simongleeson

Simon and Nat in a snapshot

Describe your partner in three words:

Simon: My best friend.

Nat: What Simon said!

Daughter Molly, aged 11, in three words: Vibrant, vivacious, kind.

Son Rafferty (Raff), aged 9, in three words: Gentle, hilarious, considered.

Favourite musical?

Nat: I have a few! Top three would be Once, Come from Away, and I’ve just seen Fangirls which is incredible!

Simon: Whatever I’m doing at the time.

Most annoying habit?

Nat: I am prone to be untidy.

Simon: I am prone to be obsessive about tidiness.

Guilty pleasure?

Simon: Having the chance to sit and watch the Bombers play on the tele with a quiet whisky in hand.

Nat: A beautiful facial and a cheeky gin.

Song that makes you cry?

Nat: Simon singing Billy Joel’s Lullaby.

Simon: Blowers Daughter – Damien Rice.

Song you love to belt out?

Nat: It Must have been Love – Roxette.

Simon: Jon Bon Jovi – Bed of Roses!

Most embarrassing stage moment?

Nat: Taking a tumble centre stage on my professional debut in Les Miserables was pretty up there!

Simon: I once went on stage with my sideburns on upside down. I couldn’t work out what was making my colleagues break into hysterics until I realised I was the joke – I looked like a sad werewolf.