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BWW Feature: WE SAW THEM FIRST / THE MUSICAL ACTRESSES - Five Musicals Whose Female Performers Later Became Stars

We look back to Judi Dench's heartstopping Desiree, a teenage Sheridan Smith's Little Red, and Cynthia Erivo's intimate Celie - and more

BWW Feature: WE SAW THEM FIRST / THE MUSICAL ACTRESSES - 
Five Musicals Whose Female Performers Later Became Stars

Our monthlong series culling some of the early London theatrical triumphs of stars before they became known to the world at large draws to a close with our look back at a brilliant quintet of actresses who commanded attention in one musical (sometimes several) before broader renown came to call.

One could add to this list the amazing magpie talent that is Imelda Staunton, except that we included her amongst a separate lineup several weeks ago, and it can surely be just a matter of time before the likes of Rosalie Craig (Company), T'Shan Williams (the current Color Purple - at Home) and Molly Lynch (The Last Five Years), to name just a few, get the role to catapult their careers yet further. In the meantime, here are five performances for the memory books.

Emma Thompson, Me and My Girl, Adelphi Theatre 1985

Emma Thompson wasn't long out of the University of Cambridge when she was "doing the Lambeth walk" (see below) as Sally Smith in the barnstorming 1985 revival of Me and My Girl, opposite Robert Lindsay. Mike Ockrent's high-spirited production transferred in triumph to Broadway with Lindsay, who won a 1987 Tony Award for his performance. Thompson was replaced for the New York run by Maryann Plunkett (who nabbed a Tony of her own) and was soon blazing her own celluloid trail which has led to two Oscars and international acclaim. Oh, and the promise of a film musical en route when Dame Emma, as she now is, plays "the Trunch" in the screen version of Matilda - the Musical.

Judi Dench, A Little Night Music, National Theatre 1995

Those whose London playgoing extends far further back than mine speak in hushed tones of Judi Dench's Sally Bowles in the West End debut of Cabaret as one of the finest renderings ever of that defining role. I am pleased to be able to report the same of her Olivier-winning star turn (one of many for the Dame) as Desirée Armfeldt in Sean Mathias' wistful and elegant revival of A Little Night Music, in which Dench's "Send in the Clowns" sounded fresh notes of longing and regret. Amusingly, Sian Phillips played Dench's mother in the production despite being a scant 18 months older than her co-star: the result mattered not a jot, and Dench's ravishing portrayal is, thank heavens, preserved on disc and via such concert performances as the Proms (see below). In the years since, one hardly need reminding that Dench, now 86, has won an Oscar (for Shakespeare in Love, pictured above) and become a beloved A-list movie star whose heart now and forever (spot the Cats reference?) belongs to the stage.

Sheridan Smith, Into the Woods, Donmar Warehouse 1998

A scant eight years after the London premiere of Into the Woods, with a starry cast headed by Julia McKenzie and Imelda Staunton, the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical turned up again within the comparatively confined environs of The Donmar Warehouse as part of a run of Sondheim shows over time at that address that has included Assassins, Company, Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion. Fitfully effective overall, this production boasted a breakout supporting turn by a then-teenage Sheridan Smith as a spry, wry Little Red Riding Hood who landed every laugh and let loose the singing voice later deployed in shows as varied as Legally Blonde (see below) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Smith has by now become a semi-regular at the Baftas and holds out the promise of infinitely more to come. (A pre-Homeland Damian Lewis, by the way, played a prince in this same Into the Woods production.)

Jessie Buckley, A Little Night Music, Menier Chocolate Factory 2008

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1973 musical adapted from Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night offers numerous choice roles. Among them is the child-bride, Anne, whose far-older husband, Fredrik, still harbours feelings for the heartsick and knowing Desirée. Anne has on occasion been played by performers (like Joanna Riding) who later graduate to other roles in the same show; the part was taken in Trevor Nunn's aptly Chekhovian version for south London's Menier Chocolate Factory by the Irish talent Jessie Buckley, who has since gone on to shine onscreen in Judy and Wild Rose (see below) and on TV in Chernobyl, War and Peace and Fargo, amongst many other titles. It's merely a matter of time, presumably, before Buckley proves a formidable Desirée all her own.

Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple, Menier Chocolate Factory 2013

The Menier, much like the Donmar, is a small Off West End auditorium that consistently punches above its weight, rarely more so than with numerous musicals (like A Little Night Music) that aren't so much revived as reappraised. And so it was with director John Doyle's elemental, stripped-back revival of The Color Purple whose crescendo of acclaim led to a Broadway transfer and seismic applause (see below) for its Celie, Cynthia Erivo, who genuinely did arrive in New York an unknown only to emerge a Tony-winning star. Since then Erivo has nabbed an Oscar nod for Harriet and played Aretha Franklin in a film not yet released, but few who saw it will ever forget the overpowering power of her delivery of this musical's 11 o'clock number, "I'm Here".

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From This Author Matt Wolf