It was the audition that made comedian Chris Parker want to cry.

There he was, in front of veteran television director and producer Simon Bennett and Shortland Street the Musical creator Guy Langford, trying to convince them he should be in the show but technology was failing him.

The Christchurch-born and Wellington-trained actor/writer was busy preparing for his comedy, Camp Binch, and given his head was full of that, decided to use as his audition song a piece from his own show with music he'd downloaded to his mobile phone.

But the phone wouldn't work and Parker left Auckland Theatre Company feeling as if he'd stuffed up. Little did he know, Bennett, who spent years working on Shortland Street the TV series, and Langford thought the fail was a triumph.

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They decided it made him perfect for to portray one of New Zealand television's most loved characters, the teen version of Nick Harrison in SSTM. Can't see the similarity between young Nick — originally played by Karl Burnett — and the lanky 26-year-old Parker, a dancer and actor who's appeared on 7 Days, Funny Girls and Jono and Ben?

"You haven't seen me in my long blond wig," he quips.

He looks quite the sulky teenager as he arrives at the New Zealand Herald, accompanied by SSTM co-star Comfrey Sanders who plays a young Rachel McKenna, in full school uniforms. Both could pass for teenagers wagging school on a Friday before a long weekend rather than jobbing actors making names for themselves in theatre and television.

"Yup, we're the cool kids of Ferndale," says Parker, with Sanders nodding in agreement.

Playing another iconic NZ telly star, TV cook David Halls in the comedy Hudson & Halls Live has been Parker's biggest role to date; Sanders has recently returned from performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with theatre company A Slightly Isolated Dog.

They were still in nappies when Shortland Street debuted — in fact, Sanders wasn't even born — but they're getting ready to play characters from the early days of the TV soap. They join an all-star cast for SSTM, dreamed up by Langford whose father, Peter, designed the original Shortland Street set.

Guy Langford (Dr Chris Warner), Ailis Oliver-Kirby (Nurse Alison Raynor) and Justin Rogers (Dr Hone Ropata) in Shortland Street the Musical. Photo/Sacha Stejko
Guy Langford (Dr Chris Warner), Ailis Oliver-Kirby (Nurse Alison Raynor) and Justin Rogers (Dr Hone Ropata) in Shortland Street the Musical. Photo/Sacha Stejko

Mark Hadlow plays Sir Bruce Warner and Dr Michael McKenna, Lisa Chappell is nurse Carrie "you're not in Guatemala now" Burton, Bronwyn Turei is nurse Jackie Manu and, in another genius piece of casting, Katherine McRae plays receptionist Marge — the role made famous by her own mother, Elizabeth.

The special connection Langford, who plays Dr Chris "Love" Warner, has to the 26-year-old TV soap means turning it into a musical has long been a passion project for him. He wells up when he thinks about the story finally making it to the stage.

"We've turned it into a spectacular and epic musical; if we'd been given the opportunity to do it earlier, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as good a show as it is now. There's 18 songs, two cliff-hangers and, well, Shortland Street is New Zealand so that makes it the perfect New Zealand musical."

It takes fans back to the show's early days in the 1990s when rival doctors Chris Warner and Hone Ropata (Justin Rogers in the musical), are forced to put aside their differences and treat a busload of injured ruby players, defend a murder charge, rescue the clinic from Chris' evil father and treat Marj who's had a stroke, Rachel who's been struck by lightning and muffin man Lionel, who is hit by a truck.

Sanders admits she had no idea Rachel McKenna had a whole other life as a spirited teen rather than the all-business CEO of the Shortland Street medical centre: "I like that she's really sassy and that Shortland Street has always had teen characters struggling with teen issues."

Likewise, Parker was unaware of Nick Harrison's teen years; both he and Sanders became fans of the week-nightly soap when Nurse Toni Thompson (Laura Hill) was becoming one of Dr Chris Warner's quintet of wives and nurses Maia (Anna Jullienne) and Jay (Jaime Passier-Armstrong) were getting hitched.

"So I remember Nick but not his journey from the beginning," says Parker, "but I'm loving this kind of dorky teen who's actually quite smart but always sort of in the way and whose limbs have just sort of grown overnight so he's never sure how to stand or where to put himself."

All three say if the musical mocks the TV show, it does so in a gentle and loving manner.
"It's always been progressive and tackled a huge range of issues in a format that board enough for wider New Zealand to be able to talk about and there's a real skill in being able to talk about something in a way that everyone can access."

Now Langford hopes all — or at least a sizeable chunk — of the country will soon hum songs from the show like Stuck in a Love Triangle, Cliffhanger, The Five Wives of Doctor Warner and Not in Guatemala.

Lowdown
What: Shortland Street the Musical
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, November 14-December 9; nationwide tour March & April 2019