InDepth InterView: Ruthie Henshall
The Dream I Dreamed
Earlier this month I had the privilege of conducting an InDepth InterView with British belting triple-threat diva Ruthie Henshall, currently lighting up Broadway as Roxie in CHICAGO. She previously has played Velma both in the original London revival cast as well as on Broadway opposite Sandy Duncan in a highly-praised run nearly ten years ago. In this revealing discussion, we discuss her experiences working on CHICAGO on Broadway and in the West End, playing ensemble roles in the original productions of CHILDREN OF EDEN and MISS SAIGON, working with Bob Avian, Matthew Bourne, Carol Burnett, Kelsey Grammer and John Barrowman, as well as what roles on Broadway she wants to do next (clue: "I Miss The Mountains") and her upcoming concerts in Australia and appearances at Feinstein's next year! Broadway has welcomed Ruthie back with open hearts and open arms - and why not? In her own words, she is the "real deal!"
When Ruthie Takes The Stand
Ruthie Henshall is admittedly most well-known for her irreproachable performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" in the LES MISERABLES 10th Anniversary Concert as Fantine in the Dream Cast - and she has nearly seven million YouTube hits to prove it! (Susan who?) Additionally, she is prominently featured in HEY! MR. PRODUCER, the spectacular one-night-only concert celebrating acclaimed super-producer (and Ms. Henshall's personal friend and career champion) Cameron Mackintosh. She can also be seen setting the stage ablaze in Stephen Sondheim's musical review PUTTING IT TOGETHER co-starring Carol Burnett, George Hearn, John Barrowman and Bronson Pinchot. All three of these unforgettable events are captured on DVD and available for purchase and if you have not see all three you have no idea the vast riches of entertainment you are passing up - run, don‘t walk! In addition to those remarkable performances - singing everything from "I Dreamed A Dream" to "You Gotta Get A Gimmick" from GYPSY and "Unworthy of Your Love" from ASSASSINS - she also has recorded a number of solo albums and participated in compilation recordings such as the absolutely wonderful UK-based I LOVE MUSICALS collections. She can also be seen alongside Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jane Krakowski, Jason Alexander and Jessie L. Martin in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL which is also available on DVD.
Before all of this, though, is Ruthie Henshall's command of a live audience in a live Broadway theatre and that electricity is simply indescribable. Her credits on the stage are so voluminous as to take up pages of text, but from Maggie in a UK Tour of A CHORUS LINE on to the original ensemble casts of MISS SAIGON and CHILDREN OF EDEN and up to the top-tier, triple-threat star-level she earned thanks to CRAZY FOR YOU and any number of other performances since then. Besides starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber's WOMAN IN WHITE in the West End - and CATS more than fifteen years prior - replacing Maria Friedman, opposite Michael Ball in 2007, this decade she created the lead roles in two original musicals: PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED by JERSEY BOYS composer Bob Gaudio and MARGEURITE by Michel Legrand and Boublil & Shonberg. From operetta ala MARGEURITE to Broadway burlesque ala Tessie Tura in GYPSY to cats and giraffes and zebras such as those in CATS and CHILDREN OF EDEN and everything else in-between, Ruthie Henshall can clearly do it all. She was kind enough to share some time with me and open up about working on all of these shows and all of her astounding collaborations in the West End and on Broadway over the course of her twenty-year-plus career. Enjoy!
PC: Could you tell me about your first time on Broadway in CHICAGO when you played Velma opposite Sandy Duncan's Roxie? I had the privilege of catching one of your performances together before she injured herself and had to leave.
RH: I have to say, it was devastating for me because from the moment we went into rehearsals Sandy and I just clicked. Our senses of humor, the way we interacted. Everything. I mean, since, she's told me she loved my performance but I loved her performance! I used to stand off-stage and watch her do "We Both Reached For the Gun".
PC: What was your relationship as performers like?
RH: One of the greatest privileges of my career was to work with her because she is the real deal, as far as I'm concerned. We just hit it off. We laughed a lot. She's my best friend now. I come over here three times a year to see her and she comes over to London three times a year to see me. We just found each other that year we worked together.
PC: How wonderful!
RH: Yeah, the thing that was so devastating actually is when we were in Sacramento. We rehearsed in Sacramento. You see, she had fallen off the ladder. She flipped off the ladder in rehearsals in London. And what she didn't realize then was that she had a hairline fracture. So, she just continued to dance on through the pain. Thinking she'd just hurt it. She's from the old school. Pain doesn't matter, really!
RH: She's probably used to it. (Laughs.)
PC: Of course.
RH: Then, of course, it went totally when we were in Sacramento the day before opening night.
PC: Oh, so that's what happened. That's the story.
RH: She came to opening night in Boston where we were supposed to open - in a plaster cast. It was Ann Reinking who stepped in to open in Boston with me.
PC: You couldn't ask for a better replacement, but what a horrible way for it to come to be.
RH: I managed to do about two months with Sandy which I was so upset about because I loved working with her. We were using Boston as our previews. So, basically, we had previews out-of-town before we came in to New York. I was devastated. But, I did eventually get two months with her on Broadway. That's the privilege. There are very few who has what she has.
PC: So true.
RH: Out of all the ones I've worked with... as a woman, she just does it for me.
PC: You had great chemistry onstage, it'd be great to see you two do a show together!
RH: I'd love it!
PC: What about the other actresses you've worked with in CHICAGO, whether as Roxie or Velma?
RH: I did it with Charlotte d'Amboise, who's absolutely fantastic. And, of course, Ann Reinking. I've worked with quite a few great actresses. The thing about these parts is that they are really personality parts. Everyone brings something different to it. It depends on a lot on who's playing it.
PC: Without question!
RH: As far as casting, it's a crap-shoot. (Pause.) I don't mean a "crap"-shoot. But, the ones that've lost it... you know, they do the celebrity casting and all that. You know, some are brilliant and some are ok. But, actually, I've had the opportunity to work with some who are bloody good.
PC: But, the true triple-threats are what Broadway is really about. It's wonderful to have you on Broadway during these creatively dire times.
RH: Yeah, it is. It's an odd time. You know, musical theatre goes through cycles. I came in when it was at the absolute height of musical theatre as I remember it. It was the age of the long-runners. I was in CATS and then I went in to MISS SAIGON. There was PHANTOM around. There was LES MISERABLES around. It was the long-running mega-musicals. Nobody ever thought that would ever end. And, now, we're going back to, "If it lasts a few years, it's a hit!" Before, if it didn't last ten years or more, it wasn't a hit!
RH: It's like years ago, just after the recession in the early nineties... we went through the revival stage. But, what we really need to do in this business is nurture new writers.
PC: It's paramount.
RH: You know, there's only Kander left out of Kander & Ebb. There needs to be more Kander & Ebbs and Rodgers & Harts and people like that out there. But, it's so hard to get something looked at and on.
PC: I know you worked with John Dempsey and Dana Rowe on THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK workshops. Are you a fan of theirs?
RH: Yes, I think they're quite good indeed. I hope they are still writing. Sandy did one of the workshops with me and she thought I was this proper British girl - it was the first time we met - and in rehearsals she found out I wasn't quite that. (Laughs.)
PC: I recently interviewed Bob Avian for this column, could you share some of your memories of working with him on MISS SAIGON and PUTTING IT TOGETHER?
RH: Bob is a joy. He's a legend in this business. But, he has a wonderful way with dancers. I think there's something about dancers, they never ever forget where they come from. They never get grand, no matter what success they have.
PC: A gypsy for life.
RH: I think for a lot of people that's true. And there's a lot that can be said for that. Bob was always one of the gang, but he always had respect for us.
RH: I'll never forget him when we were doing MISS SAIGON. John Napier had done the stage so there were craters - huge craters - in the stage, like it had been bombed out. I remember Bob saying, "OK everyone, you have to watch the stage - there's craters everywhere - watch so you don't get twisted ankles, I know someone's going to end up at the hoooooooooooospital," - and he fell right into one of the craters!
PC: No way!
RH: He fell down into a crater! They took him away in an ambulance, I'm not sure what he got.
PC: Poor Bob - but, what a great story! I've never heard that before!
RH: He was an absolute joy. And, of course working with him on PUTTING IT TOGETHER... I was in the ensemble of MISS SAIGON, but I was a principal in PUTTING IT TOGETHER. There were only five of us and a few understudies so we got to be very close.
PC: And it lives on forever on DVD! It's like it never closed!
RH: I know! Once again, I've come across some wonderful stars in this business. Most people you come across in this business are wonderful.
PC: What about your co-stars in HEY! MR. PRODUCER and the LES MISTERABLES 10th Anniversary?
RH: Oh, the LES MIZ, that show has done more for my career than any other. And it was only one night! It's gone on for so long, so many people write to me about seeing it. Then, Susan Boyle goes on BRITAIN'S GOT TALENT and sings "I Dreamed A Dream" and got 43 million hits on YouTube!
PC: I love A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Have you seen Kelsey Grammer at any events this season since you're both on Broadway?
RH: The Weisslers had a party and got both casts together for LA CAGE and CHICAGO.
PC: They just won Best Revival for LA CAGE.
RH: Yes, that's right! So, at the party, I went up to Kelsey and I said to him, "You probably don't remember, but we did a film together and I played your mother." And he said, "I do remember you! You're the one with the beautiful voice!" I was just blown away by what he said because he was working with me, literally, for a few days in, you know, Budapest of all places. Why would you remember that?
PC: Would you do GLEE or any other TV work? I loved you in A CHRISTMAS CAROL and on LAW & ORDER: SVU.
RH: I would absolutely love to. I hope that our theatre people get more of a chance to do more things like that. The sad thing is - I mean, I love the stage, it's my first love - but, it's gone. You do your performance, then it's a memory. It only lives in the moment.
PC: Very fleeting, even by it's very nature.
RH: So, when you have something like the LES MIZ concert or something on film, it's nice to have something you've done that's there. Forever. You know, every other show besides those two are gone.
PC: It's very fleeting.
RH: Poof! Gone.
PC: Could you tell me about working with Michel Legrand and Boublil & Shonberg on MARGEURITE? Was it a blessing or a curse?
RH: It was an absolutely wonderful experience.
PC: A lot of critics gave it a hard time.
RH: Yeah, I don't get that, to be quite honest. We fixed a couple of the problems after opening. It was a very moving piece. I think part the problem is that people don't like things that don't have a happy ending. So, that was some of it. I think, also, the critics and some of the audience - before we rewrote some of the scenes - there was very little that was redeemable about her [Marguerite, the character]. It's sort of this mistress out for money. They couldn't really embrace that story. It was filled with angst.
PC: That doesn't seem to sell very well these days, really. How was it as a working experience compared to big hits like MISS SAIGON, which Boublil & Shonberg also wrote?
RH: Working with the creative team was phenomenal. And to work that closely... Yes, I was in the original MISS SAIGON, I was in the tenth anniversary LES MIZ: it's a very, very different experience as a principal when you are creating a role. Especially when it's changing and being rewritten everyday in rehearsals. That creative team were stunning. They put their heart and soul into this piece. That's what breaks my heart about these things; someone puts their heart and soul into something and it's worthy and wonderful - and it's gone in an instant.
PC: Heartbreaking. Completely heartbreaking. It's a beautiful score.
PC: Speaking of another troubled show with a gorgeous score, would you ever consider doing THE BAKER'S WIFE? You seem so ideal for the lead in that. You, of course, worked with Stephen Schwartz before on CHILDREN OF EDEN...
RH: I am familiar with it. I love it. I'd love to do that part.
PC: What about Stephen Schwartz's CHILDREN OF EDEN? It was such a unique production.
RH: It was so innovative. Everything in it came from nature, it was organic. You know, we were all playing animals - and, as actors, playing instruments. It was so unique.
PC: What was that like, playing an animal and an instrument?
RH: The choreographer, of course, was Matthew Bourne...
PC: The most successful ballet choreographer in the world, now.
RH: He was just up-and-coming back then. 1991.
PC: Was that his first show?
RH: Yes. I think so - don't hold me to that - but I believe it was.
PC: Did he require a lot of you?
RH: We all had to audition. He auditioned us as dancers when we first auditioned for it.
PC: What was the rehearsal and preparation process like, playing animals and such?
RH: We had numerous visits to the frickin' London Zoo. I didn't want to see another frickin' meercat as long as I live! (Laughs.)
RH: We were on and off with costumes and puppets all night. You know, they now have this show called WARHOUSE in England. Have you seen it?
PC: No, I haven't.
RH: Well, Steven Spielberg is going to do a film of it [WARHORSE]. It's basically puppets, really. These men are inside these puppet horses. But, in the end, you forget they are puppets because of how they move them and so on. So, with CHILDREN OF EDEN, we were very groundbreaking because that's what we did. I remember being inside giraffe puppets and all sorts of things. It was well before its time.
PC: And that set! That three-tiered globe! Wow!
RH: It was amazing. It definitely should have run. But, unfortunately, it was right when there was foot & mouth and then the Gulf War. The bottom dropped out of the theatre audience then.
PC: You lost CHILDREN OF EDEN on the West End and we lost ASSASSINS on Broadway during that time - but, of course, you were eventually the first to sing "Unworthy of Your Love" on Broadway! I hope CHILDREN OF EDEN has a new life.
RH: Me too. It's a wonderful show.
PC: I love your albums, solo and compilations, particularly the Gershwin album and the I LOVE MUSICALS. Are you planning to do any more?
RH: I should do one. The problem is, it's very hard. You know, record companies now, they don't do musical theatre albums because as far as they're concerned they don't sell. So, it's difficult finding someone willing to record you.
PC: GLEE is the only musical theatre music that seems to have any pop-culture relevance whatsoever, particularly in the recording industry. So, you'd like to do more pop stuff?
RH: Yes, absolutely.
PC: What about concerts and solo shows?
RH: It's funny you ask that, because right at the moment I'm planning to do some concerts in Australia. Also, I'm thinking of doing a couple of nights at Feinstein's next year.
PC: Oh, Elaine Paige is, too! We're going to have the best of British belting divas at Feinstein‘s!
RH: (Laughs.) She's wonderful.
PC: So, we have some cabaret to look forward to, too!
RH: Definitely. For me, there needs to be an arc to the evening.
PC: What are some of your recent shows?
RH: I'd love to do NEXT TO NORMAL. I've heard the score and read it. It's really my cup of tea and everything. Everything about it.
PC: Define collaboration.
RH: Collaboration is when you find somebody who, literally, complements and gets you that you can work with. Collaboration is when you really, really want to work with somebody.
PC: Which do you prefer playing: Roxie or Velma?
PC: Do you feel you've grown into her since ten years ago when you were Velma?
RH: Yeah, I've grown into her. Also, there's so much to her. She gets that wonderful relationship with the audience that they never forget.
PC: Yes, that monologue! Bob Fosse wrote that himself.
RH: It's one of my favorite moments. If you think about it, how many other shows are there where you get that time and space with the audience in a musical? And the time to play the audience. That fourth wall is gone.
PC: Do you get off on the energy from the audience?
RH: Yes. Without a question.
PC: What's your favorite part of working in the theatre?
RH: My favorite part of theatre? My favorite part of theatre is that I get paid for it! (Laughs.) I get paid to do my passion. I mean, how many people get to do their passion for their living and someone gives you a paycheck at the end of the day? I've always said the theatre is my church. It's where I feel God the most. It's where I know there's a God.
PC: If theatre is a church, you are one of our patron saints.
RH: Aww, thanks so much. It's been so lovely!
From This Author Pat Cerasaro