Although he grew up half the world away from Brooklyn, musical theatre star Mike Snell can relate to his current role as Tony Manero in StageArt’s revival of Saturday Night Fever, bringing the flashing dance floor at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel in February.
Made famous by John Travolta’s Oscar-nominated performance in the original John Badham movie, Manero escaped a rough upbringing and an alcoholic father in recession-era New York by losing himself to disco tunes at 2001 Odyssey nightclub every weekend.
“That made him feel free, empowered and sexy, like a king,” Snell said.
"The disco has been that place for me in the past.”
Snell’s single mum Julie had to work hard to put dinners on the table for him and sister Stacey, prompting him to take up a paper round at 11 and then a part-time job at McDonald’s. Not that he’s complaining.
“I feel blessed that I wasn’t spoon fed,” he said.
“My mum and I are best friends and have always been. Through tough times brings closeness. My sister, my mum and I were an unbreakable team growing up because we were doing it so tough and we had to support each other.”
They also found a common respite in devouring musical theatre videos on repeat.
“I’m sure mum’s watched Grease over 200 times because of me, but she also strapped me down and made me watch The Sound of Music, which I hated as a kid, but I still watched it 50,000 times, which I’m grateful for now.”
“I grew up watching Singin’ in the Rain and Dirty Dancing, all the classics, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, so I was definitely a closeted musical theatre boy from an early age"
In Year 10, Snell landed his first major musical gig as Curly in Oklahoma. At around 17, a girlfriend suggested he join her in ballet class as they were short of boys for the pas de deux. That’s when Snell’s addiction kicked in big time.
“I grew up watching Singin’ in the Rain and Dirty Dancing, all the classics, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, so I was definitely a closeted musical theatre boy from an early age, but once I got into dance class, I became obsessed.”
Accepted for an arts degree at La Trobe University, Snell ditched the offer in favour of pursuing a full-time dance course at The Edge Performers School in northeast Melbourne. He has hasn’t looked back.
In what he admits was a world-shaking scenario, Snell’s first professional job saw him relocate to Los Angeles for a two-month training course before joining an intense jazz show on board a Caribbean cruise. Then there was a Cirque du Soleil-style show at Tokyo’s Disneyland.
As exciting as these gigs were, Snell returned to Melbourne to pursue musical theatre specifically, falling into dancing gigs at queer clubs the Market and the Greyhound in the interim, where he was taken under the wing by some of Melbourne’s most treasured drag acts.
“I danced with Paris, Laura Gravity and Vivian St James when she was alive,” Snell said.
“That was my initiation into gay culture. Now, as an established musical theatre performer, I really take pride in keeping connected to the community.”
That included a recent charity event at the Greyhound in support of Beyond Blue.
“I really believe in supporting that cause because we’ve all been affect by suicide, anxiety or depression.”
His dedication paid off, scoring a dream gig performing in Hugh Jackman’s Australian stadium spectacular The Boy From Oz.
“I went from dancing in gay bars to dancing alongside Jackman in Rod Laver to 15-20,000 people,” he said.
“I remember pinching myself, ‘what the bloody hell is happening in my life?’”
That led to roles in Miss Saigon, Wicked and Hairspray, before chancing his arm entering Network Ten reality show I Will Survive, competing with 12 actors, singers and dancers for the chance to star in the Broadway run of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of The Desert musical. Though Snell went on to win the $250,000 prize following the grand finale staged at the Hudson Theatre in New York’s Times Square, he never got to don the Priscilla sequins, with the show closing before the program went to air.
No, that hasn't hindered his stellar musical career in any way. Nominated for a Helpmann Award for his supporting role in the Legally Blonde musical, Snell also appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s multi-million dollar staging of Strictly Ballroom, but it’s his turn as Tony Manero that’s the most physically challenging yet.
“I have 105 pages of dialogue and I leave the stage once in act one for a quick sip of water and then once more in act two for an intense quick change, so I’m really focusing on health, fitness and sleep at the moment,” he said.
His sheer joy at scoring a dream role is abundantly evident.
“I wouldn’t call it luck, because I worked my arse off, I’m still in weekly singing lessons and I still take dance class every week, but I have led a very blessed life.”
Snell’s number one fan has been with him through it all.
“Mum really does support me wholeheartedly in every single endeavour. She lives and breathes my nervousness and anxiety in audition prep, my woes and my successes.”
He has a message for all young queer folk looking to follow their dreams too.
“I got bullied and really went against the grain to become a dancer. Sometimes there’s a feeling, as a young gay man, that you might be limited by your sexuality in the entertainment, or any industry really, but if you focus on being yourself and authentic, just following your passion, you kind of can’t go wrong.”