Back Over Here!: An Interview with Frances Ruffelle

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In 1987, a British actress with a dirt-smudged face, clad in a shabby brown trenchcoat and newsboy cap, sang of her solitude. Breaking all but the stoniest hearts of the Imperial Theatre's audiences, she won numerous awards--including the Tony--before returning to the UK. Two decades later, Frances Ruffelle has come back to New York to perform a cabaret show.

This time, though, she's not breaking hearts, but making pulses race. Backed by the George Gee Swing Orchestra, Ruffelle will play two engagements at the Supper Club on July 10th and July 17th. The actress, who since Les Miserables has continued a successful performing career on the West End, will treat audiences to a program of standards and musical theatre songs set to smoky jazz and brassy big band arrangements.

Ruffelle says that her new show--which was a hit with both critics and audiences when it premiered as "Frances Ruffelle and Her Boys" at Ronnie Scott's in London--is a sort of return to her roots. "A lot of the music is the kind of thing I grew up with, listening to it with my parents. So there was a band in London called the BBC Big Band, and I sang with them. And I had never done a big band before, and it was just so fantastic and I had such a good time…so that's how it all came about," explains Ruffelle, who will perform numbers ranging from "Slap That Bass" and "It's Alright with Me" to "Nowadays."

When she first opened the show in London, Ruffelle found this new triangle of singer, band and audience a little nerve-wracking. Yet now, she feels quite differently. "It's fun! Just fun…I don't think of it as a cabaret act per se, I call it more of a gig, if that makes any sense," she says, conjuring images of laid-back "girl singers" such as Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney. "But it's certainly relaxing and I just enjoy myself. I think all the songs are interesting and I hope the audiences here will agree as well!"

Indeed, a BWW video preview reveals a show in which an unabashedly sexy Ruffelle is having a great time. She thinks that the show will offer a chance for fans to see a side of her that she hasn't always expressed on stage. She's also quick to acknowledge that her "Boys" were a big part of the London show's success, and is looking forward to working with the George Gee Orchestra--her new band that she will meet for the first time this week. "I definitely love to talk to my men...I want to see how I feel, how they feel." Ruffelle jokes that she'd be pleasantly surprised if there were a few women in the band this time around. The Ronnie Scott's concert has already been recorded, and will soon be released on CD (check her website for more information).

Her gigs at Ronnie Scott's and at the Supper Club will be terrific practice for her next musical--it was recently announced that Ruffelle will join Donna McKechnie and Diane Langton in the first West End production of Over Here!, a WW2-set musical with songs by the Sherman Brothers that originally starred two out of three Andrews Sisters when it opened on Broadway in 1974.

One might be excused for having first
thought that Ruffelle's Ronnie Scott show led to her being cast in the upcoming boogie woogie musical, but Ruffelle laughs that the two aren't related. "It's a coincidence, actually, because I've been aware that I would be doing this role for about 2 years now! It's just something that happened."

In Over Here!--which will open at a West End theatre to be announced in November--Ruffelle will take on a role quite different from any she's played before. She'll portray a dastardly Nazi who weaves spy codes into the musical arrangements of Over Here!'s singing DePaul Sisters. Ruffelle--who says that she wasn't familiar with the rarely-produced musical prior to landing the part--never imagined herself playing such a character. "It's going to be fun for me…and I get to do a Marlene Dietrich type thing," she says, adding that the evilly seductive role will allow her to be blonde onstage for the first time.

Ruffelle also can't wait to work with Broadway legend McKechnie and Langton, who while little-known on these shores, is a big musical theatre star in London. "I've never worked with Diane Langton before, but when I was younger, I watched her show so many times…there was a show that she did called I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road….I went to see it about 10 times. And obviously, Donna McKechnie is fantastic…I've never actually worked with her, but we did do a song together in a charity gig here," she says. Over Here! will also feature 19 year-old Richard Fleeshman. "He's a soap star...he won a reality TV show over here, she says, referring to "Soapstar Superstar." "He has an amazing voice, and everybody loves him….he's being raved about!"

Certainly the same held true for Ruffelle in both the London and Broadway productions of Les Miserables. In the Boublil-Schonberg show (which is returning to Broadway in the fall), she gave a breakthrough performance as Eponine, the luckless, large-hearted urchin hit by an unrequited love--and later shot down on the barricades. Wringing tears with "On My Own" and the duet "A Little Fall of Rain," Ruffelle won Olivier, Theatre World and Tony Awards, among others.

Ruffelle was only twenty years old at the time of the London production, and remembers the early success with almost a sense of wonderment. When asked about the effect Eponine had on her career, Ruffelle responded, "I haven't really thought about how it's affected my career, actually It helped me, and it gave me such opportunity—it's very difficult to become well-known from performing in theatre, and that was an amazing situation for me, to be taken to Broadway, to win the awards….that was just a dream come true for me."

She also factors in motherhood. Ruffelle became pregnant during the run of Les Miz on Broadway and soon took time off to concentrate on her husband and family. She continues, "It's hard to completely work out how it affected my career, because, you know, I'm a mum, and I've got three children…I haven't always taken the work I might have if I was a bit more ambitious. I was so young, and I didn't realize what an amazing life I had, to have been offered all those roles…I don't think I was as grateful as I should have been...I look back and go 'My God, you were so lucky!'" She would also return to the role in London in 1997.

Ruffelle speaks with pride and love of her three children, and notes happily that eldest daughter Eliza has followed in her mother's footsteps as a performer. She says of the 18 year-old, "She's a singer/songwriter. I'm going to see her do a gig tonight, she's just earning her publishing deal with Universal, and is doing very well!" Ruffelle also feels that now that her children are older, she can devote more time to her own performing career. "I'm enjoying it again, and I have more time to give to it now…it was so difficult when the children were little to give 100%," she explains.

Ruffelle, the daughter of a famous theatre and dance school's founder, was herself a child performer (though "not a very successful child performer," she jokes). Ruffelle made her West End debut in The King and I at the age of 8. At 17, she was in a production of Terrence Rattigan's play The Prince and the Showgirl at the Chichester Festival Theatre (although she was too young to have played the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe in the movie version). Starring in the production was no less an actor than Omar Sharif. Her recollections of the star reveal that he wasn't very different from Nicky Arnstein, the role he famously played in the film version of Funny Girl. "We played backgammon!...He was an infamous gambler…he was really delightful to me, really charming…he loved the women. But I was only 17, a very young 17 year old, and I was playing the part of a 14 year old; he probably didn't even know my age in it!"

Her next show--the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express--found an 18 year-old Ruffelle sliding around the Apollo Victoria Theatre on a pair of roller skates. She played dining car train Dinah in the show, which she had landed on the heels of The Prince and the Showgirl. The latter show "was a play, and I really didn't see myself as being a singer. Although I always wanted to be a singer, I didn't believe I could. But it led to offers of singing auditions, and I went to one, and I got Starlight. It was funny actually, because when I got the job, I said to myself 'Ohmigod, I somehow convinced them I can sing…what happens when they found out?' Because even now, really, I don't see myself as a singer. I've always been surprised that people like my voice!" admits a genuinely modest Ruffelle, whose distinctive voice is known for its blend of girlish vulnerability and assured, adult power.

Trevor Nunn directed Starlight Express, and it was he who was primarily responsible for Ruffelle's casting in Les Miserables, which Nunn also staged (and won a Tony for doing so). "Basically, he just wanted me to play the role in Les Miz. And then I had to sing for the rest of the artistic team, and he told me it was mine…and I sang for them on a Friday and on Monday morning I was cast. It was amazing, it was so easy to get," she recalls.

After Les Miserables, Ruffelle may have devoted time to her family, but she also didn't neglect her performing career in London. Among her roles were Yonah in the original London cast of Children of Eden, Betty Shaefer in Sunset Boulevard and Candy in Whistle Down the Wind (both at Andrew Lloyd Webber's private arts festival, the Sydmonton Festival) and Roxie Hart in Chicago at the Adelphi Theatre (where she had first toddled across the stage in The King and I). Ruffelle particularly enjoyed playing Roxie. "I think she's my favorite…I just loved it, I absolutely couldn't wait to get to the theatre every night, I just had a ball. I loved doing all the dancing and the comedy, I'd never had the chance to show that part of me before." Ruffelle played the homocidal chorine in two stints, for a total of 11 months.

She's also found time to release a number of successful pop albums--including a self-titled one, "Fragile," and "Showgirl." Although she now primarly writes her own songs, she's also had collaborators in the past. She admits that it hasn't always been easy to juggle her careers as mother, musical theatre star and pop artist: "Well, I think it's difficult actually, because I was signed to a record label, and then I got asked to do a couple of shows. The record label wasn't too happy about me not being available, so it was tricky to get the right balance and I think I didn't always make the right choices sometimes….but you just don't know, you've gotta go with the flow…"

Ruffelle, in fact, helped to compose the soundtrack for the British TV cult hit "Headless"--in which she also played one of the starring roles. When asked if she would ever consider composing a musical, she responded " I haven't thought about it! I don't think my lyrics are strong enough for a musical, but it's a possibility!" As an actress, Ruffelle has also appeared in TV shows such as "Dream Team" and in films such as Secrets & Lies. Yet she's honest about the fact that she prefers doing theatre. "I like the live audience. I like…especially when it's comedy...getting that response, or trying things out with the audience. With the TV work I've done myself, I kind of felt like the directors didn't spend much time; the budgets are always quite low nowadays, and you never feel quite as confident as when you've had 6 weeks of rehearsal with a theatre show. But when you do TV, you really get hardly any rehearsal at all, and I just didn't feel as confident doing that as I do theatre."

Confidence, as well as talent, will surely be on display when Ruffelle takes the stage of the Supper Club. "I'm playing a character…so I'm being myself really," she laughs.

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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)