BWW Interview: Frances Ruffelle Talks THE WILD PARTY at Lloyd Webber's The Other Palace
Frances Ruffelle is perhaps best known for originating the role of Eponine in Les Miserables. She's since done numerous other stage roles, produced several albums and represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, and will soon star as Queenie in The Wild Party, the opening musical of Andrew Lloyd Webber's revamped The Other Palace; the show begins previews on 13 February.
What was the first musical you saw?
The ones I really remember from early on are more movies, although I was really lucky and my parents took me to the theatre a lot. I loved things like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But also my mum worked in the theatre, so I was often backstage - I was born in a trunk really! I remember my mum telling me she was going to show me the wings, and as a child I imaged big fairy wings, so I was disappointed it was just a corridor. But I was definitely in that whole world early on.
And you did some child modelling?
Embarrassingly yes! Someone just said to Mum "Frances should do some modelling", and it helped pay school fees and stuff - my parents didn't have much money, we definitely weren't wealthy. Then I watched my mum performing and I used to know all her words and shout them out from the audience, so it happened quite naturally - Mum didn't plan for me to go on stage.
Your mother set up the now renowned Sylvia Young Theatre School. Is it true you only lasted a term?
Yes, my poor mum had to put up with a bolshy 15-year-old daughter when she was the head. I know I couldn't do that with my kids. When I first started doing all this stuff she didn't have the school - then she noticed kids were bored, so she used to hire the local hall and charged just 10p a class.
I was very lazy with school work - I just wasn't interested. I had no doubt I wanted to do something in the arts and I wanted to get on with it. Acting was my first love - I didn't know I was a good singer. Actually I think that's still debatable! But I like acting when I sing. That's what I bring into my singing - being inside the words.
What was your first paid acting job?
I was very lucky, because it was the Eighties and there was a lot of money around. I got my first job at 16, weirdly at the same theatre I'm performing at now - it was then the Westminster Theatre, and it paid £150 a week, which was huge, though I still ran out of every penny by the time it came to payday. There were loads of paying jobs around then - music videos, commercials. It was a great time to come into the industry.
Did you have any inkling that the musicals you did would become such major hits?
With Starlight Express, I did realise that was a big opportunity, because Andrew Lloyd Webber had such a big hit with Cats - I was blown away when I got the job. Les Mis I knew it was great to be working with Trevor Nunn and the RSC, and I felt very lucky, but nobody knew it would become so big. In the rehearsal room we knew we were in something good, something that felt really special, but the reaction was just amazing - that's rare.
Actually working on The Wild Party, this is the first time since then that I've had that same feeling. You never know whether something will be successful, but sometimes it's not such a positive experience - you know the director's not so good or the piece isn't working. With this, everybody feels like a real team and we're all so happy to be here.
Have you developed a strategy for choosing work?
I'm lucky enough to be able to plan things a bit, and I really want to do something exciting and fun and have a good time. I like to be challenged too. But when you've been around a long time, you know you don't want to be stuck in a room where you're unhappy. The theatre world can be difficult sometimes, there's a lot of politics, so I'm really lucky to be able to choose things that excite me and give me a great experience.
Do you create those opportunities when they're not available?
Yes, that's part of why I like writing and directing too, plus I get bored so easily that I have to keep my brain alive. I'd love to do more of that, and produce more work too.
What's it like opening The Other Palace?
I feel very lucky that we're the first show here, and it's really nice that Andrew has taken this venue and given it to the musical theatre world. It'll be great to help new talent, have a place to workshop - hopefully make it a start-up home for us! They're doing some work to the building as well, which is exciting. The whole feel of the place is going to be much more organic and relaxed. It's important to be welcoming to all audiences, and keep young people involved.
Did you know The Wild Party already, either version of the musical?
I knew both versions - they're both really good, but very different. I knew this score better. I heard it about 10 years ago, when my friend sent it to me to listen to and said "You ought to play Queenie, you are Queenie", so I've been in love with that role and this musical for a long time.
A producer I know tried to get the rights twice and wanted me to play Queenie, but he couldn't. Then I was in New York - I half live there and I was doing cabaret - and Michael John LaChiusa was in the audience. I sang some of his songs in the show and I was so nervous I ended up making up most of his words! But he was incredible, he called me his sister, and I asked why The Wild Party wasn't in London. He said "You want to be Queenie?" and I said "Yeah!" - it was obviously meant to be.
I then took it to Paul Taylor-Mills, and we thought about who could direct it - Drew McOnie seemed like the absolute perfect person. It's really a dream team. Having Donna McKechnie involved is unbelievable. She's my idol - she's everyone's idol.
What made you so passionate about the show?
The first thing I fell in love with was the music. It's incredible material - very raunchy, very rich, almost jazz opera, very clever. I appreciate that - it's not the sort of material you could take to an audition, it's tricky, intricate stuff.
The show's based on this poem that was banned in most countries, and it's set in the Twenties in New York when there was a lot of debauchery, probably more than people realise. Free love, sex, drugs, and the only way to drink liquor was at these wild parties because of Prohibition, so you're not in a club, you're in people's houses. Queenie's a vaudeville showgirl and this party shows you the seedy side of that whole world, the booze and violence. It's intimate, dark and dangerous.
What's it like taking on Queenie?
I definitely identify with Queenie in some ways - a lot of actresses probably do. But there's a lot in this character to get across and that's not always easy, as I've discovered in rehearsal. I watched quite a lot of movies and read a lot about that period, and I'm a very visual person, so I looked at how people then moved and dressed and talked. It's a lot about putting on a show or playing a role, even offstage.
Did you know much about that vaudeville era?
I absolutely love the Ziegfeld Follies and all of that. It wasn't clean - it's all a bit naughty and vulgar. It's really great stuff to dig into, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people react.
What else is coming up for you?
I'm going to be doing a play soon - either this year or the next, and either in New York or London! We're working out the details.
Finally, any advice for budding performers?
If you're getting pigeonholed, challenge yourself to take on material - even if you're not performing it - that's against what you would normally do. Don't just act, write as well and find your own work - I've done that a lot. You get so much back from writing a song or a scene, so much pleasure and contentment. Even if no one likes it or even sees it, I don't want to just sit around waiting for the phone to ring. Keep working and exploring and then you're more in control of where you're going.