By Luke Voogt
Rolling Thunder Vietnam brings back memories of a tumultuous time – even for those who were not alive to experience it, according to one the musical’s lead actors.
The play’s songs like Fortunate Son “perfectly distill” the anti-war sentiment of the Vietnam War era, according Toby Francis, who plays a soldier conscripted in the national ballot.
“I wasn’t even born when that was happening,” he said.
“But these songs are imbued with that sense of nostalgia. I’m remembering something I’ve never experienced.”
The latest production of Rolling Thunder Vietnam debuts at Geelong Arts Centre next Friday (March 13) before embarking on a national tour.
The show will also be Francis’s own debut in the Australian-written play, which previously toured the country in 2014 and 2016.
“I can’t wait,” he told the Independent during a break in rehearsal.
“You get something you feel passionate about and it feels great in rehearsals… I’m champing at the bit and I haven’t even got my script off the page yet.”
Francis’s grandfather served in the Korean War, while his great-grandfather fought in the Somme during World War I, he said.
“I remember marching on Anzac Day with my grandfather and other Korean War veterans.”
Francis described himself as “anti-war”. But as he grew older, he began to understand “how you could oppose a war but not the warrior”, he said.
Many protesters failed to make that distinction during the Vietnam War, resulting in the notoriously poor treatment of veterans at the time.
“People were very passionate and they took that out on the people that came home, many who didn’t even want to go in the first place,” Francis said.
He also came close to Long Tan while travelling from Ho Chi Minh City across Vietnam a few years ago for a singing gig.
Stopping near the famous battle site, where heavily-outnumbered Australian soldiers held off Viet Cong forces, he remembered men younger than himself who fought and died there.
Francis channelled all those experiences into playing Andy, a soldier conscripted into the National Service due to his date of birth.
“His main focus when you first see him is he’s incredulous he’s been sent,” he said.
“But he sees some atrocities.
“By the end – it’s quite beautifully written – he has an opinion on whether you should be sending people to war, for a reason they don’t understand, to kill people they don’t know.”
Francis, who has played lead roles in Australian productions of We Will Rock You and Jesus Christ Superstar, auditioned after seeing promo videos from previous tours.
“It looked incredible,” he said.
“I grew up on rock and roll, so I love the material and I love singing the songs.”
The 32-year-old was also passionate about veterans and their families, he said.
“They have been living the war for decades.”
Rolling Thunder Vietnam brings the world’s first televised war to life onstage through songs like All Along the Watchtower and Born To Be Wild.
Francis described himself as “privileged” after hearing stories from long-time cast members about the number veterans and their families who had seen the show.
“They say, ‘just you wait until you get up in front of these people, for who these songs are part of their soul’,” he said.
“That comes with a responsibility.”
Rolling Thunder Vietnam comes to Geelong Arts Centre for three shows next Friday and Saturday (March 13 to 14).