BWW Interview: Janie Dee Talks New Musical THE HAPPY PRINCE
Renowned actress Janie Dee is currently playing Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre. Next month, she takes a break to be part of Hal Cazalet's new musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince.
Who inspired you growing up?
Oh, there are lots of people. I'm going to give you a list as long as my arm: Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Shirley Ballas, Liza Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Wayne Sleep, Monica Mason... My performing life started as a dancer, as you might be able to tell.
I was inspired by triple threats, people who could do it all. People who can display singing, dancing, and acting and give full-bodied performances.
Why did you want to become a performer?
I remember lying in my bunk bed thinking "How can I get from this bunk bed to the Royal Opera House, on stage with Nureyev?". I didn't quite manage to share the stage with him in the end, but you could say Wayne Sleep "discovered" me when I was doing cabaret.
He plucked me from the chorus and took me on tour to sing the songs in his show. I was very lucky for that to happen and we've remained friends ever since. Gillian Lynne was also a person who's been a great guardian. There were these little moments when she would check in to see how things were, but also just to say "Well done".
Also, more generally, I like sharing stories and changing into something or someone completely different.
What is The Happy Prince about?
The Happy Prince is about compassion and the joy that comes from the pain that causes you to withstand compassion. This can be seen in the young girl who becomes a swallow and gets a bird's-eye view in the story. We see the story through her eyes, as well as beyond that. I love how Hal [Cazalet] and [director Michael] Barry have embellished this story in their adaption.
Who do you play?
I play a rather unsavoury woman. I haven't worked out exactly why she is this way, but I'm sure I will. She has opted not to be compassionate, which is making her crave more money, more power and more from the mayor and those who work for her. The more she gets, the more she wants. She is all of the worst things you could want in a character.
What made you want to get involved with the project?
I wanted to do it because I know Hal, who wrote it, and I had heard the beginning of it. I love Hal's writing. I think he's just the most wonderful composer. I would have played anything and anyone. I've never played anyone this nasty before, so it's a great opportunity to dig deep and find the moment in that.
I've luckily been given a month off Follies and given permission to take part in this.
Were you familiar with the story before this project?
No, but I did read it a long time ago, although I think it was probably in French! I was only really "spiritually" aware of it. I really want to read it again to really immerse myself in the story as I continue with the rehearsal process. It's such a wonderful story.
Why do you think this is an important story to tell on stage today?
It's a very special story. There's a lot in this life to be grateful for. Of all the plays I've done, what the best ones have in common is that they deal with how it is perfectly human to always want something more. It happens to all of us.
I have a friend who runs a charity that looks after actors. I asked her once, "You've seen all sorts of people in your work. People going from rags to riches, riches to rags and more. What have you learned from it all?. And she said, "It's so important to not have too much".
The Happy Prince is a journey for someone to deal with the realisation of that. There are people who go through that in real life. If everyone in the audience is listening and engaged in the silence as we tell it, it will be a really special moment. Much like the audience, the characters also have the option to listen to a message or not.
It's also timely. It's a good story to listen to for many reasons, but I feel as an actor I should just tell the story well and leave the audience to decide that for themselves.
Any advice for aspiring performers?
Keep working, even if you don't have a performing job. Keep a schedule, keep studying - always have a class you can take; have a routine that involves a daily warm-up - be it singing in the shower or doing some yoga to warm your body. Get ready for each day, whether you're performing on stage or not. Have a go at everything and believe in yourself.
How was it being part of the 2019 Olivier Awards performances?
It was a very funny and enjoyable rehearsal process. I loved getting to sing with Ruthie [Henshall]. I see her around, but we haven't sung together in a while. It was wonderful to hear her tone at the opening of "Razzle Dazzle". I had never met Jason [Manford] before, but he was a total gentleman and a scholar. He's the most intelligent, humorous and generous performer and I'm so glad to have met him.
What people watching the televised broadcast might not be aware of was that we had a false start! There was a tricky transition where Jason really had to pick up the tempo and he didn't quite get it.
He decided to stop and have us start again, which I think was the right decision. The audience went with us and their cheers grew tenfold, and it was so exciting to be part of!
People listening to the radio would have heard it, so I suppose there is some advantage to listening to it that way, however they didn't get to see the gorgeous costumes. There really is nothing quite like being at the Oliviers.
When I saw the Lion King cast leave to go onstage for the opening, there was a real spirit of generosity of audience to performer and performer to audience. It was so moving.
You seem very busy at the moment! Anything else you want to tell us about?
I must confess, I think at the moment, I've bitten off more than I can chew. During the month I have off Follies I'm rehearsing The Happy Prince during the day, and in the evening I'm rehearsing the Follies cast contribution to Eurovision West End and also for the Follies cabaret that will be at the Underbelly Spiegeltent on 13-16 May.
The cabaret series is called On Reflection. Each performer will tell a story and have a song to go with it. We will also be doing some of the unsung songs from Follies.
Jo [Riding] and I will also be doing Carousel soon. Alex Parker, the musical director, wanted to hear us sing it because he wasn't alive when we did it before, so he's booked Cadogan Hall. I'm hoping some of the other originals will be around and free to be part of it as well...
I'm also doing a show with Joe Stilgoe on 20 May at Zedel and some shows at the Pheasantry on 30 and 31 May, so that will all keep me busy.
What makes you happy in life?
I love being in a rehearsal room. I love warming up my body and my voice. I love forming a character. I love going through notes with the cast and creatives. I love the work that goes on in the rehearsal process.
Still being a dancer at 56 is a real treat, because I am able to move my body in the way I always have for a bit longer than others can and there's a power in that.
Why should people come to see The Happy Prince?
I believe we should support all up-and-coming writers. We are blessed in this production to have the Matthew Bourne dancers adding to the beautiful story. It's wonderful to be performing it at The Place - which is a fabulous space.
We also have only three chances to tell the story, so I'm hoping people will take advantage of this moment to let us know whether they like it or not and if we need to refine it. These performances are to whet people's appetite and to find out what's still needed, and hopefully it will allow us to go back into the rehearsal room and extend the moment.
The Happy Prince at The Place on 3-4 May