The sound of musicals
Fifty years ago this month, Julie Andrews opened in My Fair Lady on Broadway in New York and was an instant hit. Ruthie Henshall, one of today's brightest musical stars, talks to Wil Marlow about the stage scene now, her career and the shows which inspired her.
Ruthie Henshall fell in love with musicals as a child watching the MGM classics on TV. Now 39 and starring in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Woman In White in London's West End, Ruthie was encouraged in her singing by her English teacher mother (her father was a newspaper editor), who used to show her the MGM films as part of her education.
"We were very lucky to be one of the first families to get a video recorder, a big old clunky thing," recalls Ruthie, "and I just wore it out watching these musicals. I knew from then that's what I wanted to do.
"My ballet teacher said to me, because I started ballet quite late, that she thought I ought to think about something that's not as disciplined. And I loved musicals because I have a really short attention span, and for me, in musicals, it's coming at you all the time. I find most plays utterly dull, which is really closed-minded of me, I know, but it's just not my thing."
Despite issues of now balancing motherhood and a stage career (Ruthie is married to actor Tim Howar and the couple have two daughters Lily and Dolly) Ruthie is still passionate about musical theatre. She found it impossible to turn down the role of Marian in the Woman In White and says she will always work in the West End and on Broadway, where she and the family are heading as Tim appears in Rent. "Musical theatre will always be my first love," says Ruthie. "But I'm not sure how much of doing eight shows a week the future holds. Life could have taken a very different path for Ruthie. Two years ago the actress auditioned for the role of Chrissie Watts in EastEnders and got down to the last two. Of course the part eventually went to Tracy-Ann Oberman, but for Ruthie it was just the beginning of a concerted attempt to make the move from theatre to television and film. "I don't know whether EastEnders would have been right for me or not," she says. "Who knows? But if I was them I probably would have gone with Tracy-Ann. Regardless of her being hugely talented, she also has quite a background in TV, and her character hit the road running.
"For me, in musicals, it's coming at you all the time. I find most plays utterly dull, which is really closed-minded of me, I know, but it's just not my thing."
"The difficult thing for me is I'm known for musical theatre, so I don't think I'm immediately thought of for straight things. So I have to stick my hand up occasionally to get them to notice."
After a hugely successful theatre career that's lasted nearly 20 years, Ruthie's sudden interest in working in television might seem surprising. But factor in her young family and that sudden interest begins to make plenty of sense. Ruthie and Tim became parents to daughter Lily nearly two years ago, followed by second daughter Dolly about a year ago. Since then she's struggled with a career that demands energy and commitment for eight shows a week as well as all the rehearsals and publicity that goes with them.
Ruthie is the first to admit it's not an ideal job for a new mother to hold down. "So far it's worked out that when I work, my husband doesn't," says Ruthie. "And when he works, I don't. So there's always one of us around, most of the time. But working in the West End is full on, and I just don't see my children as much as I want to. That I find really hard. I feel completely guilty all the time about not being there. Normally the most I will do in a show now is six months, so I'm always looking forward to the time off when I'll get some quality time with them."
Ruthie's steady transition from theatre star to TV star is in full flow. She's already chalked up an appearance in a TV version of A Christmas Carol with Frasier star Kelsey Grammer for US television and earlier this year UK TV audiences saw her in the BBC's new entertainment show The Sound Of Musicals.
Doing exactly what the title suggested, Ruthie and a star cast, including Doctor Who's John Barrowman, singer Mica Paris, former S Club singer Jon Lee and voice coaches David and Carrie Grant, performed classic numbers from hit musicals of the past 75 years. Each week they were joined by a guest presenter, who also performed their favourite musical songs, while backstage John Barrowman interviewed the stars of the show as well as big names in musical theatre such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cameron Macintosh.
"Everyone loves a musical," said Ruthie at the time. "Even if they don't know they do. I know lots of people will discover musicals through this show. Most of us grew up on Mary Poppins and other musical films, which are really coming back around now.
"Of course we sing songs that are well known because that's what people want to hear. And they were very keen for me to sing songs from musicals I'd done so I could talk about them as well. It's a lovely format, a lovely hour spent in musical theatre."
The compilation album I Love Musicals, which accompanies The Sound Of Musicals on BBC1, and features Ruthie Henshall, is out now.
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