Songs from my life
WEST END legend and Broadway star Ruthie Henshall is in the midst of a big change at the moment: 2012 has turned out to be a momentous year.
Following hot-on-the-heels of her success in Blithe Spirit last year and her break-through TV role as the prosecution barrister in BBC1 drama The Case, she starred in a new production of the revue Side By Side With Sondheim in Sydney, Australia, has formed her own production company, Three Pin Productions, with Bury St Edmunds-based producer Polly Ingham, created a new cabaret show, which she performed last month at the newly re-opened Hippodrome off Leicester Square, and has just published a new book – a practical self-help guide to getting started in the world of musical theatre.
And if that wasn’t enough she is planning a nationwide tour next year and is road-testing that show at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds later this month.
Oh, and she has also just moved house.
“It’s been a crazy year,” she says, sitting comfortably in her new home near Hadleigh. “It’s been one thing after another but it’s good to keep busy.”
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The writing of the book and the creation of her new production company are both designed to help take control of her career and help others to do the same.
“As you get more experienced you realise that you don’t want to be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, or waiting for someone else to offer you a role; you need to take charge of your career and make things happen – not only for you but for others.
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“I see that as a producer I can create work for myself and others. I have been in this industry for many years now. I know how things work and I can help get things on stage.”
This desire to pass on knowledge and provide a helping hand is also present in her annual summer school for youngsters and was the driving force for her book So You Want To Be In Musicals? which she co-wrote with musical director Daniel Bowling.
She said the process of writing the book proved to be an elaborate adventure in itself. They were originally going to write it together but then Daniel landed himself a job which took him to America while Ruthie was working here.
In the end they wrote their contributions separately and delivered them to Ruthie’s father, EADT theatre writer David Henshall, who wove the text into a coherent whole.
What the book provides is a perceptive first- person guide to life in the theatre – highlighting the highs and lows, the rewards and the dangers, and most importantly providing an experienced guide through the potential pitfalls of training.
Ruthie is delighted with the way the book has turned out. She says it was important that the book was written by theatre professionals rather than by tutors or by academic writers. “It’s full of advice gained by experience. It’s written by two people who actually work in the theatre. It became very obvious early on that it needed to be written in my voice because I was passing on very personal stories – I am illustrating my points with real incidents that either I was involved in or witnessed during my career working in the West End, on Broadway, in regional theatre or on television. Also, it delivers advice from both sides of the audition process.
“I’m usually the one auditioning for a part and Daniel is usually sat on the other side of the desk, trying to cast a show – so we’re giving the reader both sides of the story.”
She said it was important for the authority of the book for it to be a first-person guide to getting started in musical theatre – that it be written from practical experience.
“It took a year and a half to write the book, with both of us working away at opposite ends of the Earth, but you would never know that by reading the book – so thanks Dad.”
The one point that comes across very clearly in the book is that you don’t enter musical theatre if you want to get rich or become a star overnight.
Ruthie stresses the point that even on TV shows auditioning people for starring roles in the West End virtually everyone who has won has already had some formal theatrical training and those who haven’t, like Danielle Hope, is currently being trained.
“There are no short-cuts. There can’t be. You simply can’t walk straight in and do eight shows a week. Your body and your voice couldn’t stand it. You have to develop stamina, you have to learn control, you have to learn how to protect your voice while giving it your all very single night. It takes time and it takes training.
“You simply can’t walk in off the street and just do it.”
She regards the book as one of her finest achievements. “I had never thought of myself as a writer before and it was really lovely working with my father as well. It was something we could do together.”
She had the idea of writing the book after running her summer schools and from receiving a sack-load of letter and emails over the years asking for advice on the best way to get into theatre.
“I looked around and was amazed to see that there wasn’t a practical guide about getting into the business – a book which tells you what is involved. It has to be honest. People have to know what they are letting themselves in for.
“As wonderful as the business is and as lucky as I have been, I don’t know of anyone who has had an easy ride, because it is such an unstable business. You never know where your next job is coming from or when it will be.
“Also, you can be given two weeks’ notice and you can be out of a job, and you will spend an awful lot of your career resting.”
She said that what the TV talent shows were ultimately offering was just 15 minutes of fame. “Once that show finishes you have got to get that next job and the job after that, and you have got to have the tools to do that. You pay for the privilege of being in this wonderful profession.”
She said that in order to get work, being a good actor or a good singer or dancer is no longer enough – you have to do all three.
“There is the term Triple Threat. In order to make it into a show these days you have to be able to sing, act and dance, and as shows at the [Ipswich] New Wolsey prove, it helps if you can play a musical instrument or two.
“As budgets get tighter, you are going to see more and more of these actor/musician shows.”
An increasingly commercial focus on casting famous names off television or from pop music makes the competition for roles even greater.
“I was talking to a friend the other day and said that a particular part was coming up and asked if she was going for it, and she said that the producers won’t see me because they wanted a ‘name’ for the part – by that they meant someone who had a following from television.
“I do understand the commercial realities and that showbusiness is a business, but you have to balance that with casting the right people for the role. It’s no good casting a name if they’re not right for the part or, worse still, can’t do what’s required.”
Understanding the business side of theatre is what Ruthie will be doing with her new company, Three Pin Productions, with Polly Ingham and musical director Paul Schofield.
“We set up the company because I want to find and nurture new talent, new writing, get new shows on stage and be part of the producing side of things.
“I am looking to the future. When the face falls, and it will fall, then work will change – it’s a fact of life; tt’s a fact of the business – and I would love to have something else that I can do. Also, I am really passionate about new talent, which is why I do these summer schools.
“Polly is a great person to have on board. She’s very sharp; nothing gets past her. She’s very good on detail, but she’s also very creative. Her show won an award at Edinburgh and they’re bringing it into London; and Paul Schofield, my MD, I met through Suffolk Family Carers, for the shows I did for them. He’s fantastic, really talented – so thanks Suffolk Family Carers – and together we make a good team.”
Ruthie is also really excited about her new show, which she unveiled at the Matcham Room at the refurbished Hippodrome, and which she put together with Paul.
“It’s a lovely place to perform. It’s the old Talk of the Town and I loved it. It’s an intimate space and, again, because it’s a cabaret, it allows you to do something different. I just loved the whole experience.”
She said that performing with a trio was a new step for her. She usually sings with a full orchestra behind her but relished the freedom that performing with a jazz trio offered. “It allows you to digress, to go off in new directions when you feel like it. It’s much looser and there is fair bit of jazz in there.
“I love the fact you can take well-known songs and give them new arrangements and present them in a whole new light. Steve and Lewis, on bass and drums, have played with Paul for years and they work very well together, so it is as if I have inherited a fully-formed band.”
The new jazz trio format allowed her to shape the evening by the audience’s response. “It’s very much about taking the temperature every night: seeing who’s there and judging what they like and just following their lead. Also, I enjoy injecting some comedy into the show.
“We got a four-star review in The Times, so we must have been doing something right.”
She said that she planned the evening as a musical autobiography, choosing songs that she likes but has never sung; songs from her past shows that are given new arrangements; and songs that have a special meaning for her. “The intimate setting means that I can speak to the audience – really have a conversation with them – and that too is part of the show.”
So does she feel exposed appearing as herself, rather than as a character? “When I was younger I was terrified going on a stage as me, because you couldn’t hide behind a character. I was up there as me and if people didn’t like it then it was quite personal. But, now I’m older, I absolutely love it because I am much more comfortable in my own skin now. In fact, I find it rather liberating – particularly when you realise that when the audience is with you, you can do anything you want.”
She is so thrilled with the new format that she is planning to take it on tour in the New Year, but wants to give Suffolk audiences a preview.
“The Apex is the perfect venue to test out an intimate show. It’s got great sound, it’s a great space, it allows you to get close to your audience.
“Also, we have got a fantastic trio, which allows you a lot of musical freedom. It allows you space to be relaxed and try something new.” She says the song choices are being refined but are likely to include some Gershwin, some Kander and Ebb, a couple of “surprising” Chicago numbers, some Billy Elliot and some Lennon and McCartney.
“It’s a real mixture but all the songs have a connection to me and my life.”
n So You Want To Be in Musicals?, by Ruthie Henshall and Daniel Bowling, is published by Nick Hern Books, priced �9.99
n Ruthie Henshall is at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on October 26.