Tina Arena back on the musical stage

by Paul Majendie

London (Reuters) - Tina Arena raised the roof at a family wedding reception in Australia when she belted out the 60s classic You're My World. She was just six years old.

Now - four million albums and a quarter of a century later - she faces one of the most daunting challenges in a career that has spanned the world.

She is taking on the role of the gypsy girl Esmeralda in the musical Notre Dame de Paris which premieres in London in May, and could then take her on to Broadway.

The French language version of the musical has already smashed box office records across Europe and Canada. Victor Hugo's timeless tale of the hunchback Quasimodo's impossible love for Esmeralda has been seen by two million people.

"It is new, it is daunting but it is an incredibly exciting challenge," said the pint-sized singer who started off her career as a child star on the Australian TV series Young Talent Time at age of eight.

"It is one of the best theatrical addresses in the world," she says of her West End debut in London's theatreland.

"It is exciting to come into a calibre of audience that is so educated on a theatrical level," she said.

She confessed: "I would like to cross the Atlantic with it when the time is right but it is important for the show to be established first in London."

Arena waxes lyrical about the musical, written by French Canadian Luc Plamondon and Italian Ricardo Cocciante.

And judging by the plaudits it has received so far, the musical could even the challenge the worldwide success of Les Miserables, another sweeping Victor Hugo novel turned into a musical.

"What sold me on the show was the music. I couldn't get it out of my head. I was dreaming it. It is great music. This is the right thing to be a part of. It is very instinctive. It was almost made for me," Arena said.

Arena certainly boosts a varied career over the past 25 years.

The daughter of Sicilian immigrants backed Lionel Ritchie on tour while still at high school and won plaudits from British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber when playing in his first musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Her first two albums went platinum several times over. She recorded the title song from Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind and then set to work conquering the notoriously fickle and difficult French market with a one-year stint in Paris.

"My life changed a lot in Paris," she said of her time there which yielded two top ten hits, sales of over half a million for one album alone and a sell-out stint at the Olympia Theatre.

"France has been so good to me and really embraced me. I was passionate enough to commit myself. I am so pleased I trusted my instincts."

She also broke into the Italian market with a duet with Italian star Luc Barbarossa that made the top ten.

"I am very passionate about that place too. They have an amazing understanding of music and it is my culture and heritage," she said.

The ride has not been easy. Her marriage to her manager, Ralph Carr, broke down but she is quick to put a positive gloss on it.

"I am better than ever. I feel have a greater sense of self and I have been on an amazing journey. My character has been strengthened," she said.

As a singer, she refuses to be pigeon-holed. "I love to perform in films, make records and be on stage. Those are the three things I really love."

And, once the long haul in a London musical is over, she will be going back to her roots with her next solo album coming out next year in Australia. "At the end of the day I will always go back," she said.