BWW Interview: Debbie Kurup Talks SWEET CHARITY at Donmar Warehouse
Debbie Kurup's extensive musical theatre experience ranges from Chicago, West Side Story and Sister Act to originating roles in Girl from the North Country and The Bodyguard.
Did you know Sweet Charity well beforehand?
I'd seen the film of course, and I also saw a production at the Theatre Royal Haymarket about 10 years ago. So I did know the show and the material, but our version feels so unbelievably new and fresh.
The Donmar is a very different space for musicals, and the production is so intimate, raw and visceral. Anyone who comes along will see the show in a very new way.
Does your approach change when it's a smaller space like this?
I've done fringe venues in the past, but this is a very particular challenge - fitting this huge musical into the space and making sure all of our elements are as big and bold as they need to be. But then, having this closeness, we really hope the audience connects to the individual characters.
Tell us about developing your character Helene
During the whole rehearsal process, Josie [Rourke] has made us feel safe to explore and find our own way through. Helene is a brash kind of character - I've played a few of those in my time, so as soon as I read the script, I knew what I was doing there!
I'm one of the older members of the cast, and that's translated well, because Helene's one of the Fandango Ballroom taxi dancers with more experience. She runs the place, she has all the wisecracks and sizes people up - she doesn't suffer fools. I get some great lines.
How did you find the chemistry as a group?
With any rehearsal period, you're working together so closely that you naturally get to know each other inside out. That lends itself quite nicely to producing that group chemistry and putting the show on its feet.
Does learning the dancing together aid that process?
First, I've got to say Wayne McGregor's choreography is just out of this world. The show is synonymous with Bob Fosse, but Wayne's given it a new lease of life - it's so fresh, so quirky, and very challenging for us. We're working really hard to perfect it!
It's lovely for me to be dancing again, but this is work where we're really putting our thinking caps on. That does bond you as a group, going through the frustrations, drilling routines together, all working our butts off.
How was does it compare with dancing you've done in past shows?
The last big dance show I did was Anything Goes, and I've done other dance-heavy roles like Chicago, West Side Story, Fame. This is very different. The thing I love about working with Wayne is he looks at the individual artist and sees what you're good at, then pulls from your strengths - it feels like we're working together.
He comes to the room prepared but he's also flexible - so if you do a move your way, he might like that more. It's disciplined work, but we're individuals, not like a chorus line. We all bring something different to the table, and Wayne really capitalises on that - it should be real and raw.
Especially in "Big Spender" - it's been stripped back. We think of the Shirley Bassey cover, or people in cabarets singing it in sparkly dresses, but the actual thrust of the number is really dark: these girls doing something they don't want to do, selling their time and even their bodies as dance hostesses, if they go further with a client.
So it's a pretty dire situation, and we're pulling away from what people know as "Big Spender" to get to real core of it. Wayne's choreography is punctuated with darkness - you feel the pain they endure.
Have you built a backstory for Helene?
Definitely, that's an important element for me. She's a single mother, so the stakes are much higher - she has to earn money, whereas some of the younger characters have their own choices. There's a necessity to what Helene's doing; although it's hideous, she's got to get as many of those clients to dance with her.
There's a key scene after "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This", when the manager tells the girls to get their arses back inside. They'd love to protest, but Helene is the first character to comply - because she has to. They dream of escape, particularly Charity, but Helene lives more in the real world. That's definitely relatable - a lot of people do jobs they don't want to do to put food on the table.
Is the production period New York?
Yes, there's a real Sixties New York vibe, and also a very stylised industrial feel - kind of Andy Warhol-esque Pop Art. Visually, it's going to be stunning.
How did you approach the gender politics?
We're definitely staying true to the piece and the time period - you have to be accurate. But these women are also tough survivors. There's no doubt they're in a dire situation, having to let themselves be objectified, but we find moments in the text where we're empowering ourselves too, finding that inner strength and making a choice. It's not a choice you'd want to make, but they do this job for a reason.
There's no shying away from the fact that they're selling their time for the gratification of men - that's the story. But we then see the lure of the escapist dreams - and the audacity of "I'm going to dream up a new life".
What's it like being part of Josie Rourke's final show?
We can feel it's very special to Josie, as her swansong, and we all want to create the best piece we can for her. It's amazing how much attention the production's got already - selling out in two hours!
But it's brilliant that the Donmar are doing Sweet Fridays, [with the support of Susie Sainsbury and the Backstage Trust,] offering free tickets for those aged 25 and under throughout the run. That's a great incentive to get young people coming along, and for them to witness this incredible piece of theatre, you really hope that sparks a passion.
You've done an incredible range of musicals, from classic shows to creating roles. Do you have any preference?
I do love putting my stamp on things - every actor loves creating a role. But re-creating a role can be just as special, as you bring your thoughts and ideas to the table, and remake it in your image.
It's been fascinating seeing Wayne's work on this show, which was so locked into the Fosse style. But he's a genius too, and my jaw is on the floor watching him bring it to life in his own way. The attention to detail is just mind-blowing.
There's nowhere to hide in the Donmar, so I appreciate how he's helped us really make these characters live. For me, it's about simplicity, and for Wayne as well. It's about stripping this back as far as we dare - going from razzle dazzle down to the nitty-gritty. There's beauty in simplicity. It's a real, human connection with the audience; no smoke and mirrors.
I have no idea how you've found the time, but you're also doing a concert at Zedel this weekend?
Yes, I'm doing Music for Mother's Day. It's been so crazy - rehearsing six days a week for Sweet Charity, and also training for the London Marathon! I've been snatching moments of rehearsal for the concert whenever I can. It'll be a mix of music - all lovely songs that I know my mother would like to listen to!
Any dream roles still on your wish list?
I would love to play Heidi in Dear Evan Hanson. I was a single mum for a few years, so I know how tough that is. I read the script and thought, "I really get this woman" - how difficult her plight is, doing everything you can to be a good role model, but as a working mother missing the mark sometimes. Life is hard, and you don't get an instruction manual.
I'm really interested in work that tackles tough subject matter like that. It's very important - the more we can challenge audiences and open a dialogue the better; it's great to get people thinking, as well as providing entertainment.
You're also very generous interacting with fans on social media
Absolutely - at the end of the day, fans buy the tickets, and if someone is kind enough to reach out and say they enjoyed the show, I think it's polite to respond and say thank you. I really like having that contact.
I think in that case, it does show you have to be careful before you put out views that are inflammatory like that. I don't know the girl, so it's hard to say. I'm not a judgemental person - each to their own. But equally, I do think you should be respectful of everybody. Especially in our industry, there's no place for that kind of intolerance.
I was shocked to read that post. It was from a long time ago, so if she'd come out and said "I don't feel like that anymore", that might have been different, but it sounds like those views still stand. So the decision Curve and the Hippodrome reached was the right one.
Finally, for those lucky enough to nab a ticket, why should people be excited about seeing your Sweet Charity?
Well, first of all, Anne-Marie Duff in the title role is just incredible - she will melt your heart. She's the real deal. Josie's work is just amazing. And you must come and see Wayne's choreography!
Plus there's Cy Coleman's music. We've got an incredible band, with Gareth Valentine at the helm - it's the sitzprobe on Saturday, and I'm so excited to hear this iconic score. We're a small company, but we make a big noise!
So come along and join in the fun - you'll be grinning from ear to ear, and I guarantee you'll also shed a tear...
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan