What’s a leading lady to do when she’s in the middle of one of the biggest numbers in musical theatre and the small dog sitting right behind her is pulling focus, vigorously licking its private parts?
“It happened on opening night in Brisbane,” says Samantha Dodemaide, laughing. “I always have split focus during Somewhere Over the Rainbow. “I’m singing the most famous song in the show and I’m thinking ‘how can I stop him doing an indecent act in front of 2000 people?’ I mean, when he was licking, ‘the lipstick’ was really shining through, if you know what I mean. It was not his finest moment.”
Dodemaide is playing Dorothy in the production of Wizard of Oz at Capitol Theatre but concedes she’s often playing second fiddle. “The dog is the absolute star of the show,” she says. “I come out at the stage door and people say, ‘Oh hi, you played Dorothy … where’s the dog?’”
Dorothy’s beloved dog Toto is played by a chilled-out Australian Terrier called Trouble. He is three years old, has never been on stage before, but seems to be a natural. His understudy is Flick, a slightly more timid female.
Neither is a trained performer but they have been brought up to speed by Luke Hura, a film and theatrical dog trainer who has worked with the canine stars of Red Dog and Oddball, and the stage dogs in the musicals Annie and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
“Trouble is really a one-in-a-million dog,” Hura says. “He bonded with Sam straight away and has learned everything very quickly. Australian Terriers are highly intelligent dogs.”
Training a dog to sit on a hay bale is relatively easy, says Hura. It was harder to teach it to run across the stage and not get distracted by anything on the floor or any sounds the audience might make, including the inevitable “awwww”.
The hardest trick in the show is to get Toto lying down on Dorothy’s stomach after she’s been drugged by the poppies.
“That was just too weird for him at first, not a natural thing to do at all,” Dodemaide says. “Why does this human want me to lie on her? I had to guide him with my hands or give him extra treats. But now he just gets on and goes to sleep.”
Dodemaide adores both dogs but working with them has been challenging.
“It makes the job the best. He really keeps me present every night and makes every show different. But it’s been taxing on my body. I have to hold Trouble under my arm and do all that skipping up the Yellow Brick Road and he’s pretty heavy. I’ve seen a physio to even things out because he’s always under my left arm … sometimes I have to do a survival swap if my arm starts cramping.”
Trouble weighs about 7 kilos. “It feels like more when he’s relaxed and sometimes, when he falls asleep, he feels even heavier,” says Dodemaide.
Every morning Hura cooks up fresh meat treats for Trouble made of steak and kangaroo sausage. Dodemaide keeps them in pockets sewn into all of her costumes.
“I’m a vegetarian so I’ve had to get used to handling slimy meat treats,” she says. “My cast mates say I smell like sausage now so I’ve had to up the perfume.”
Hura says he’s never met an actor who has worked so closely with their animal co-stars before. “Sam is one of the most genuine dog lovers I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “She is so dedicated and she just loves them. She hangs out with them in the dressing room and has little naps with them. I don’t often get that with actors.”
Dodemaide says she accidentally bumped Trouble one night and she wanted to stop the show to check he was OK. “I couldn’t do that because the show just keeps on going but I’m checking him all the time. If something ever happened to him, I don’t think we’d have a show. It’s rare to be relying on one performer like this.”
Is she bothered by Trouble upstaging her in Somewhere Over the Rainbow?
“No, people come to the show with very high expectations around that song,” she says. “Having the dog there is a buffer and it reminds people that this is live theatre and not a film. I’m not Judy Garland and this is our own interpretation.”
Are there any practical problems to deal with?
“He does have some flatulence we have to deal with,” Dodemaide says. “Sometimes in the most inappropriate times when it’s meant to be really heartfelt. One night I was convinced he’d done a poo on me. I’m thinking, ‘yep, he’s absolutely pooed on me but what am I going to do?’ But it was just flatulence. It’s all that fresh meat.
“The grossest thing that happens is we tend to mix sweat. I get very sweaty and he starts licking me, and he gets sweaty and I end up covered in his saliva and fur.”
Any leg humping?
“I don’t think he fancies me in that way,” Dodemaide laughs.
Trouble and Flick are very intense around birds. Their hunting instinct rears up. This became a problem one night when a feather fell out of the Wicked Witch’s costume. Trouble became fixated by it.
“He wanted to jump out of my arms and I’m trying to get a Munchkin to pick up the feather but I’m miked so I can’t say anything. So I’m doing crazy eyes at everyone. I eventually walked over and picked up the feather and put it in my pocket and Trouble calmed down.”
Situations like that are the exceptions, not the rule. Usually Trouble is so calm he falls asleep on stage. Dodemaide assures me he is not sedated. “He’s just such an easy-going, totally relaxed dog. He yawns a bit on stage and sometimes falls asleep but when he hears his musical cue he jumps up.”
Hura says the cast has been amazed that Trouble has learned all his own cues. “Normally a dog responds just to treats and commands. But Trouble seems to have learned the music and the sound of Sam’s voice, he knows when his part is coming up and he starts to get ready.”
Hura has fallen in love with Trouble and will keep him when the show ends. He also kept the last dog on Red Dog and the two Maremma sheep dogs from the Oddball movie.
“I just get so attached to them,” he says. “I want to keep them all.”
The RSPCA is The Wizard of Oz tour’s national Charity Partner and ticket sale funds from the first performance in each state will go towards the care of rescue animals.