Vale Grant Smith – celebrating the life of a legend

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Helpmann Award winning actor and singer Grant Smith died peacefully of cancer in July after more than four decades working in Opera and Musical Theatre. He is remembered by some of Australia’s greatest stars including Marina Prior, Robyn Arthur and Rachael Beck, just to name a few.

Smith trained in music and dance in Western Australia before being accepted into the Royal College of Music’s Opera School in London. He performed extensively in Gilbert and Sullivan before landing roles in ‘Sweeney Todd’, ‘Barnum’ and ‘Nightingale’ on the West End.

Returning to Australia he was cast in the Original Australian production of ‘Cats’ giving standout performances for three years as Gus / Growltiger   followed by roles in ‘Man of La Mancha’ and the smash hit comedy ‘Lend Me a Tenor.’

He moved seamlessly back and forth between Musical Theatre and Opera, his talent transcending different genres of the arts and entertainment industry. His return to Opera came in the 1990’s when he appeared in productions of ‘Greek’, ‘Sweet Death’, ‘The Cars that Ate Paris’, ‘Dr Forbes Will See You Now’ and ‘Medea’ at the Kennedy Centre in  Washington DC. His CV is packed with dynamite roles which audiences and critics alike admired and adored. From Lumiere in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to his Helpmann award winning performance as the Architect in Opera Australia’s ‘The Eighth Wonder.’

Marina Prior is driving to the Victorian Arts Centre for a five-show weekend of ‘9 to 5’ the Musical, still bereft with the news of Smith’s passing. She takes a moment to recall her personal and professional relationship with Smith. “A great bright light has gone out,” she mourns. They performed opposite each other in ‘Cats’, Prior as Jellylorum.

Initially I was a bit intimidated by him because I was only 22 and Grant was a well read, well versed, seriously accomplished artist. There didn’t seem to be anything he didn’t know about. But it became like a plutonic romance. He took me under his wing, we spoke French together, he was a constant source of inspiration and knowledge and he adored women. He would bring me fashion magazines and say, This would look fabulous on you for an opening night.

Prior remembers how he’d use the word lunch as a verb. “Let’s lunch,” he’d say and they would end up talking for hours about travel and reading but he was also endlessly fascinated with other people and so curious about other cultures.” In addition to speaking four languages fluently he reclaimed his Jewish roots and studied Hebrew on a visit to Israel.

The most profound thing about him:

Prior was the way he was navigating his last few weeks of life. On his death bed he even suggested a great French Rose’ to me. It was astonishing how calm he was. Completely lucid, he knew he was leaving the earth and he was still that refined gorgeous human being I met almost forty years ago.

Smith had beaten cancer a few years before but sadly it returned. He flew back to Perth with a private nurse at hand because he decided this was where he wanted to be laid to rest.

Messages of love came pouring in from industry greats. Anne Wood, recent star of ‘An American In Paris’ spoke of the shock she felt about his passing.

I ran into him at the theatre last year and he was as magnificent as ever. He had this ageless quality, timelessly handsome and he had so many plans for the future. Wood recounts how when she first played opposite him she was the understudy to Jelly lorum in ‘Cats’ and he was so grounded for her. I knew I was in great hands because of the time and care he took with me backstage and onstage in my first few performances.

Geraldine Turner, one of Australia’s most renowned stars of the stage concurs that:

Smith was Such a great colleague and a wonderful person. I had known of him for many years so I was thrilled to finally work with him on ‘Call Me Madam’ I expected to cross paths with him professionally again so I was shocked to hear of him passing.

Star of stage and screen Rachael Beck feels lucky enough to have worked with him on ‘Cats’, ‘Lend Me a Tenor’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast. He was such an intriguing character,” Beck exclaims. “Witty and bolshy, so artistic and a lover of everything creative. He always stood up for other people particularly during the difficult times.

Michael McCormick remembers him as a:

True gentleman, always considerate and elegant. There was always a wicked glint in his eye and a cheeky smile which made him such a joy to be around. He was incredibly talented and respected by his peers.

Veteran theatre actress Robyn Arthur appeared with Grant in half a dozen productions and she recalls the first day of rehearsal as part of the original cast of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne. Arthur played Mrs Potts alongside Smith’s Lumiere.

We met on the first day of rehearsal and we just bonded when he said to me:

Where should we lunch? As rehearsals progressed it became a very trying time for the cast because of a breakdown in communication with the American creative team. “Grant had this fabulous humour which cheered us up to no end,” Arthur recalls. “He was so refined and cultured but he could muck around and just be one of the gang. A brilliant double-edged sword.

His Jewish roots, Arthur adds:

Gave him this incredible sense of inclusion and amazing tolerance. He’d always give you time to express a view whether it was about the show or religion or politics. His knowledge of art and culture and in particular indigenous art was astonishing having turned his hand at managing the Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi on Collins Street for the last ten years.

Stefanie Jones, in the title role of ‘Mary Poppins’ takes a moment from the Lyric Theatre, Sydney to note:

Grant brought a wealth of experience and expertise to everything he did. As well as sharing his beautiful voice he would relish the opportunity to share stories and memories of his illustrious career. It was an honour to perform alongside him – a legend of the stage. Vale, Grant Smith.

Smith died peacefully at home in Perth surrounded by his family. He was 74 years old.

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