Growing… glowing… going… Brother Michael Burke, a close friend and confidant who is also writing her memoirs, pays tribute to one of our legendary stage divas, Joan Brickhill, who died on January 15:
A sparkling dynamo in a sailor-suit, being tossed in the air by minstrel-faced sailors in the slickest dance routine I’d seen beyond ballet – that’s my first memory of Joan Brickhill, leading the company in the groundbreaking Minstrel Scandals that wowed South Africa in 1966-7.
I saw it three times, as I did the exquisitely detailed 1969 production of Robert and Elizabeth, which Joan and her partner, Louis Burke, directed.
By the 1970-1 Minstrel sequel, I had become a fan of this versatile leading lady who powered on to the stage in jazz idiom, was waltzed down a line of betailed Minstrels, winked her witty way through a feathered Mame cake-walk, belted musical-hall ditties, and sashayed around with top hat and cane.
In the Follies Spectacular of 1972-3, Joan’s wigs and false eyelashes became even more pronounced, and her range extended – from the elegance of the canary-yellow Style trio, to the sincerity with which she put across What the World Needs Now is Love.
Joan’s performance in this show defined stardom for me, and the 1975-6 Brickhill-Burke production of Gypsy set a new high water mark for musicals.
Our paths crossed with The Sound of Music. I noted both the care with which she took notes out front and the concern with which she attended to an injured former stage-hand seeking her aid backstage – it was June 1976.
Later that year, in Follies Fantastique, she made the most theatrical entrance yet, an 18-stair-path lighting underfoot as she alighted. Backstage I witnessed the private pain from which she often stepped on stage to radiate such joy to audiences.
I watched her sheer determination pull Brickhill-Burke out of deep debt with a trio of hit Broadway musicals, my special memory being her two entrances on the opening night of Annie: up on the stage as the dowdy Miss Hannigan, and later down below in the Cellar party as her glowing, glamorous self.
She would ask me to pray with her in her Cape Town dressing-room as she tried to muster the strength to do a performance after an exhausting day of filming on the back stage of the Opera House.
Yet her door remained open as always to countless company members in need of her compassionate ear. Cut to a montage of Joan and Louis as hosts at lavish Christmas parties for hundreds; serving trays to intimate fireside gatherings in their den after winter performances; energising and complementing each other, in the rehearsal room and at home; Joan’s pain when this was eclipsed in the 1980s; her nightmare illness during Mame; her contentment in returning home after the culminating achievement of a Broadway production; her being introduced to students at Pretoria’s Breytie Theatre by Johann Swart, saying she was the reason he was in theatre; people coming up to her in foyers, excitedly sharing how much she had meant to them in Hello Dolly! and other shows; the joy she took in others’ excelling; loud theatrical gatherings on her landmark birthdays; quiet teas in her summer house as she shared with me the inside of her story; the day she received her honorary doctorate from the Tshwane University of Technology, acknowledging the path she had paved for others to acquire degrees in musical theatre.
And the lonely last slope – visiting her in hospital as she braved a series of spinal operations; reading Louis’s memoirs to her, propped up on the divan in her conservatory, and recording her teacher’s red-pen feedback to him; accompanying her as Frans “walked” her around her beloved garden; keeping her company when she became confined to her bed; calling at the frail care and reading her the story of her life (“This is so good for me,” she would say); visiting her when she was too weak to manage more than a smile or a few loving words; increasingly finding her asleep; and paying a final visit minutes after she breathed her last in the presence of two of her intimate friends, Carolyn and David.
She often acknowledged, “I’ve had such a wonderful life” – and in the process she brought wonder and colour and care to countless other lives.
May she be at peace now in the loving God she so brightly reflected to us.
• There will be a private cremation this week. Details of an “end of long successful run party and memorial service” will be announced soon.