BWW Interview: Rachel Tucker On Her First Solo Tour
Actress and singer Rachel Tucker has starred in musicals like Wicked and The Last Ship, both on Broadway and in the West End, in plays like Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, and released an album. Now, she's embarking on her first solo tour, which travels the UK this summer and transfers to New York in September.
Did performing feel like going into the family business?
It really was. My father was quite literally singing for his supper back in the day, and he passed on that love of it to me. I was lucky that I didn't have to do it to support myself, but it always felt natural. I showed a lot of promise early on and I was excited about singing with my dad, so he'd take me around with him on the circuit and see what I had as a performer.
Were musicals an early love as well?
Oh yes. My mum and dad constantly had on Singin' in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, all of those - we used to argue on a Saturday morning about which tape to watch. There were always instruments around as well - someone playing guitar or piano.
When did you know you wanted to pursue it professionally?
It was always a given for me. My sister gave me the theatre bug when I was about 10. She was playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and she brought me along to rehearsal. I couldn't believe she got to wear the red slippers and everything - that what we'd seen on TV, she really got to do in the theatre. I then played Bugsy in Bugsy Malone, as the boys weren't good enough, and that gave me a lot of confidence from a very young age.
Was it a tough decision to try Andrew Lloyd Webber's TV competition I'd Do Anything?
My mum thought I shouldn't do it - I was happily working professionally, and it was a bit of a gamble. But I knew Lee Mead, we'd done Tommy together, and I thought if he could do it and have a good experience, maybe if the opportunity came up the next year I should. It depended on the role, like I wouldn't have gone for Maria von Trapp - I'm not a soprano and that probably wasn't my kind of part - but Nancy [in Oliver!] seemed like it was worth trying.
And it seemed to really pay off
It absolutely did. They treated us so well - it was such a great showcase for all these girls, and there was a nice mix of reality TV and searching for the actress to play this role. It was a really great platform and got me seen by loads of industry people.
Was it hard to balance being professional and 'relatable'?
There are a lot of layers to it, because there's the nerves and the courage to do this, and putting in all the work, and then having to hide some of it to perform. But that was one of the criticisms from the judging panel, that they couldn't see my vulnerability - probably because I was wanting to be strong and put on a good show to get through the rounds.
Do you think we might see more from The Last Ship?
Who knows, it might have a life in the West End - I do think it would fit really well. In some ways it might have been good to open it in London, but then there was a timing thing with the team they assembled and making it happen when we did.
It was an incredible experience for me - my first insight into originating a role, being able to approach this material and Sting's stunning score with fresh ears. He'd been working on this show for four or five years and he was very hands on, but open to ideas as well, so it was great to be able to have my own interpretation of his music. And being directed by him and Joe Mantello, I learned so much. That was a really special, golden bit of theatre. The people who got the show and understood its metaphors, that's it really about the bigger picture, they loved it.
What's it like working on Broadway compared to the UK?
Good theatre is good theatre regardless of where it's done. But that was new to me, working with American artists and performers, and it was literally my dream come true - I was living my dream every single day for months. It was surreal - I had keep pinching myself. It's definitely made me want to originate more roles, to stay in that new world, and to keep working in America.
My goal now is finding those new projects. It's all worked out so well with this solo show - I'm doing that while nothing's in the pipeline as such, but we've also got our green cards, my husband and I, so we can go out to America, do the show there and explore some of those opportunities.
You must have a strong international profile, with Wicked as well
Definitely, and it was so special playing that on Broadway and then coming back to it in the West End. I feel like I'm a very eclectic performer - I love standards, I love straight theatre, I love musicals, I love originating, I love being able to tap in and do a bit of everything. It just takes so long. I was thinking it's amazing that over the last four years it's been an album, originating a show, revisiting a role, doing plays, now the tour, but it took a long while to get to the point of being able to do all of that and fully become the performer that I am.
I try not to get pigeon-holed - people might see me overall as doing musicals, and I'm itching to break out of that. Particularly here, I do find they box you in. I'm just getting seen for TV now after 10 years, whereas in America I'm already getting that opportunity. Over there they don't call you musical theatre performers - they just accept you can do it all.
The tide is changing a bit, and there are fantastic actresses like Joanna Riding, Sally Ann Triplett, Anna-Jane Casey and Sheridan Smith who are able to bridge the gap and cross over. But it does seem easier for men, maybe because they have more choice of meaty musical theatre roles. That's the wonderful thing about Wicked, that it has these strong female parts where you can show your acting chops. And it's great for me planning this show where I can hopefully show a real range.
Was it always going to be a full tour?
No, it was just meant to be a few gigs at Zedel in London - Kris Rawlinson, my musical director, asked if I fancied doing some. Then it sold so well that the producer said he'd be happy to take this on tour and it all happened in a week. It definitely wasn't something we'd planned! But it's actually great timing off the back of Wicked.
How did you choose the venues?
It was partly what was available, what we could manage with the team for those dates, and trying to get a variety. I would have loved to go to Scotland, and actually we might still be able to get up there for the Edinburgh Festival - watch this space!
Is it particularly special opening in Belfast?
I really wanted to start or finish there. It's homier, cosier - it does feel very special. I played Belfast about a year and a half ago and there was such an incredible response. They were really rooting for their local girl. And if they'd phoned and voted when I was on the television show, there was a sense of ownership too - "I helped you"!
How hard was it choosing the set list?
We're still tweaking - I think we might be right up till the first show. It's taken four weeks to settle on 20-odd songs and to find the right key, the right arrangement - it's such a tricky, intricate job.
Are you choosing songs that have particular meaning to you?
Every song, I have a reason for singing it - there's no singing something just for the sake of it. There has to be a connection or a story I want to tell or something to get across. It's changed dramatically from our first idea of it to really turning it into a full show for this tour.
All the songs link in some way or go from one to another. The hard part was finding that flow - you can hear when something jumps out. And there's been lots of moving things from the first half to the second, finding the right place for each song. Rather than just lots of different numbers in a row, it's almost like putting together an album.
Are you doing a range of styles?
Absolutely. It's musical theatre - modern and old - plus some original stuff I've written with Kris, some stuff you might have heard me do before but in different arrangements, and jazz standards, like Sammy Davis Jr and a bit of Judy. It's just a three-piece band but they make a huge sound. It's a lot more stripped back musically, but the content is no less.
Is it harder singing as yourself?
It's much more nerve-wracking when it's me. I like to have a character to go through when I'm performing. The links are the hardest bit - just Rachel talking, rather than having someone else's story to tell.
My husband Guy [Retallack] is so brilliant. He won't just let me sing - he helps me get to the truth of everything. It's great having a director and that external set of eyes to really make it flow and suck people into each song.
Do you now have more life experience to bring to performing?
I've been lucky enough to have amazing experiences, like being a mother, working with the people I've worked with, going through all the ups and downs - you gather so much along the way. I'm in my mid-thirties and I feel I have enough to say now. Being brought up the way I was in Belfast also gave me a slightly different outlook on life - it was more sink or swim, failing is not an option. If I auditioned and didn't get a callback my mum would be there for me, but she'd also make me pick myself up and really focus on achieving what it is I want to achieve.
Are you looking forward to the tour bus experience?
It'll be more like a tour van! I did go round the UK with a few shows and I loved touring. This time it's more an intimate family affair, just me and my husband and the band, so it'll be nice and small. It's funny to think 10 years ago I was touring in a production and now I'm touring with my own show - that's a really great feeling.
What else are you hoping to do in future?
Now that I'm not in a musical, which does take over your life, I have the ability to try anything. I'm being seen for TV, which is great. Maybe originate another role in a play or musical.
Possibly! It's good to have the time to do all these things.
You've also founded a local theatre?
Yes, the Bridge House Theatre - it's a black box fringe space above a pub near us in Penge. It's doing really well. We have cabaret nights, comedy, all sorts, and our Christmas show sold out. That's been really rewarding.
Finally, any advice for budding performers?
It doesn't happen overnight, even with a reality TV show. If you're serious about a career in this business, you've got to be in it for the long game. There are definitely more lows than highs until you get to a certain standard, so you have to know it's the only thing you want to do. When you finish a show you're back to square one - you still have to audition again and again; you're never guaranteed work. But if it's your love and passion, it's worth it.