Why kids are Debra Byrne's 'top priority'

Sweeney Todd star Debra Byrne: Family comes first


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FOCUSED: Debra Byrne juggles her successful musical theatre and recording career with her role as full-time carer to her two grandsons. She is set to star in Sweeney Todd in Sydney and Melbourne.

FOCUSED: Debra Byrne juggles her successful musical theatre and recording career with her role as full-time carer to her two grandsons. She is set to star in Sweeney Todd in Sydney and Melbourne.

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Debra Byrne 'Singing Lady': Why family comes first for the Sweeney Todd star.

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WHEN Debra Byrne was asked to star in Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd, the first thing she thought of was her family.

The musical theatre icon - a household name since appearing on Young Talent Time in the '70s - is mother to three daughters (one who still lives with Debra) and full-time carer to two of her four grandchildren.

The 62-year-old, who describes herself as "a mother slash single grandparent" will play the beggar woman in the musical, alongside Anthony Warlow as the "demon barber" and Kath and Kim actress Gina Riley as pie-shop owner Mrs Lovett.

"It's a great piece and it is perfect for me as it is just 12 shows," said Debra, who most recently graced Australia's stages in 2017 with Vika Bull in Tapestry, a musical tribute to Carole King.

"My priority over the last 14 years has been raising my grandsons, aged 12 and 14," she told The Senior.

DOUBLE ACT: Debra Byrne with John Farnham in 1980 on the popular TV show Farnham and Byrne. Photo: Fairfax

DOUBLE ACT: Debra Byrne with John Farnham in 1980 on the popular TV show Farnham and Byrne. Photo: Fairfax

As such, when it comes to work and touring, family comes first. "My younger grandson has special needs so it is very important I'm around."

Debra has custody of the boys, the children of her second daughter Lauren, whose intellectual impairment leaves her unable to care for them. "We have a great relationship and she sees the boys often."

And while the boys haven't seen her on stage yet, the youngest loves music. "Sometimes he calls me Grandma. Sometimes he calls me Debra. Sometimes he calls me Debra Byrne Singing Lady."

Since taking custody of the pair and juggling a career as a musical theatre star and recording artist, Debra has met many other grandparents bringing up young children.

"There are an enormous amount of grandparents raising grandchildren, for many different reasons. Unfortunatey drugs, such as ice, play a huge part."

While this isn't the case for Debra's daughter, she knows personally the devastating toll drugs can take, having had her own battle with heroin addiction in the early '80s.

"My early childhood was very much harmed by my grandfather who was a paedophile," said Debra, who has also spoken out about her experience of abuse in the industry.

'King and Queen of Pop' Debbie Byrne and Daryl Braithwaite in 1975. Photo: Fairfax Photographic

'King and Queen of Pop' Debbie Byrne and Daryl Braithwaite in 1975. Photo: Fairfax Photographic

Debra's "battles" have been the source of many media reports (and the subject of her 2006 autobiography Not Quite Ripe) but she says it's not just a problem just for celebrities.

"People can have their battles working in a bank. It's about where that has grown from.

"I believe I missed out on a lot of opportunities because of my battles. I didn't have self-confidence and was so scared of spiralling back into that state."

But Debra did survive, and made a successful career comeback in 1985, starring with Matt Dillon in the highly-acclaimed film Rebel.

She went on to appear on TV in The Secret Life of Us, Home and Away, Police Rescue and The Flying Doctors, and as gangland matriarch Judy Moran in Fat Tony & Co.

She has starred in productions including Cats, Les Miserables and Mary Poppins and did a stint as Norma Desmond, opposite Hugh Jackman, in the first Aussie production of Sunset Boulevard.

"I'm very aware I've survived where some people haven't and I'm very thankful for that," said Debra.

Vika Bull and Debra Byrne got together for Tapestry, reimagining the songs of Carole King.

Vika Bull and Debra Byrne got together for Tapestry, reimagining the songs of Carole King.

It is with this, and family, in mind that she will approach her next project; writing an album with Cornerstone bandmate Dion Hiriri.

The pair formed the five-piece band last year, playing songs by the likes of The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Steely Dan and James Taylor.

"That's the music that sings to me," she said.

But the new album will be a more personal reflection. "It will be more about how I view the world; my life and my family."

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at ICC Sydney, June 13-16; Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, June 20-23. Tickets from $99, premier.ticketek.com.au

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