Rachel Tucker, a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Music, shot to fame via the BBC reality show "I'd Do Anything," which sought to cast the role of Nancy in the most recent West End revival of Lionel Bart's Oliver! Although the singing actress did not win the competition — she placed fourth among a group of contestants that also featured Samantha Barks, Jessie Buckley and Jodie Prenger — the exposure led to leading roles in We Will Rock You, Farragut North and Wicked, where the singing actress went green to play the not-so-wicked Elphaba. And, now, the Belfast native is making her Broadway debut in the new musical at the Neil Simon Theatre, The Last Ship, which features a book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey and a score by 15-time Grammy Award winner Sting. Tucker, who possesses a smoky, lush alto, is cast as Meg Dawson, a barmaid in northeast England who must choose between two loves (played by Michael Esper and Aaron Lazar). A few weeks ago — prior to the announcement that Sting would step into his musical for a limited engagement — I had the pleasure of chatting with the multitalented Tucker, who spoke about her work on the London stage and her Broadway debut. My interview with the actress, who recently opened the new London fringe theatre, Bridge House Theatre SE20, with husband Guy Retallack, follows.
Question: How did the role in The Last Ship come about? Did you audition here or in London?
Rachel Tucker: I auditioned in both actually. I auditioned in London, and I had a couple of prep auditions with the casting agent Pippa Ailion. She gets you audition-ready for the creative panel. So that happened, and I auditioned first off in front of John Logan and Sting, which was probably the most nerve-racking audition of my life. I sang "River" by Joni Mitchell, which Sting adored, which was a big bonus, and then they got me to read two of the things and they recorded them to send them back to Joe Mantello, the director. Then I found out about three weeks later that they wanted to fly me over for a final [audition] in New York...I remember thinking, "Holy smoke. They mean business. This is quite serious if they're flying me to New York for a final." So they did, and I had an audition on the Friday in front of everyone and then a recall on Saturday and I read with Michael Esper. I more or less kind of thought, "Unless I really mess up, I'm in with a shot here, of getting this role."
Question: Was Broadway a goal of yours?
Rachel Tucker: Absolutely. My ultimate dream has come true. My ultimate dream. I did a reality TV show in London called "I'd Do Anything," and when I got put in the program they said, "What is your ultimate dream?" and I said, "Broadway." And now I'm actually doing it; it's really pretty phenomenal actually to think — to have goals, set them and actually achieve them. It's such a fulfilling thing.
Question: What was your first night on Broadway like for you? How did it live up to...
Rachel Tucker: Oh my God. ...The theatre, the stage is home to me, it's so normal and natural, so therefore, on one hand, it was so comfortable. It could have been any stage anywhere in the world, but yet you know, the hype and the expectations and the pressure and the people watching, the expectations of your creatives, everybody that's worked so hard to get you to the point where you're at. The fear of letting them down, it's real...it's kind of like, all or nothing. If I thought about it before I went on, I would have never went on. So, therefore, you don't think about it, you have to talk yourself then into, "Listen, this is it. This is the gig. Broadway or no Broadway, you've got to do your job." This is my job, it's what I do, and I've got to fulfill these expectations. So I had a real talking to myself before I went on because nerves can get the better of me sometimes, and I really wasn't letting this be a night where I was nervous — and I didn't. I really talked myself out of being nervous.
Question: Has your family come over to see the show?
Rachel Tucker: Yes, they were at the opening, all of them. My dad, my sister, my brother, my aunt, and then we had family friends of ours that were here for the opening.
Question: What was it like having them here?
Rachel Tucker: Oh, it was, again, wonderful but crazy. I had so little time for them and with them because of the show. They knew that, they were very understanding, but I saw them for a little bit briefly today and at the end of the evening, and they just absolutely loved it. They were so proud, just so proud.
Question: Tell me a little bit about rehearsals and how involved Sting was in the process.
Rachel Tucker: He was there first thing in the morning and last one out at night — he was pretty protective. He's incredible at his commitment. It's really his baby, it means so much to him. He's put his heart and his soul into it, and you know he cares so much about this show and its fate. He has been such a supportive guy. He really cares for us, the actors. He said one day, "I'm in the trenches with you. Anything you get hit by, I get hit by." He's just really one of the team.
Question: How much did the show change from Chicago to New York?
Rachel Tucker: I feel the bulk of it, the best of it has been kept. We have bettered it, tweaked it, and definitely changed some lines that I think help the story and the information of the story. And, I think it made Gideon [Michael Esper] more accessible as a character, and it made the storytelling more informative, and I think it's really helped.
Question: Tell me about working with Joe Mantello.
Rachel Tucker: Joe is a man of his own kind. I'd worked briefly with Joe on Wicked, so Joe and I know each other from him coming over to London. He directed us over in London for a short time. He is very, quietly intense, and he is special at what he does. His oversight and his eye, his attention to detail is pretty ridiculous. I've never been pushed more as an actor than I have with Joe. He really pushed me to my limit, and I love it, I thrive on that. He speaks so passionately about the piece, and he was so informative. He's just wonderful to work with. He lives up to his expectations. [Laughs.]
Question: Now that you've been playing her for a while, how would you describe Meg?
Rachel Tucker: She is a salt-of-the-earth kind of girl. I definitely relate and connect to her. [Laughs.] I think that's what the creatives saw in me instantly. They saw in me, I think, a very down-to-earth, takes-no-nonsense, working-class gal who can sing and act. [Laughs.] I believe that that quality of me has not gotten me other roles in the past, so I think that's why this is so perfect for me. She's a northern, fiery, feisty, strong, warm-blooded woman who knows what she wants until she doesn't know what she wants, which is when Gideon comes back into her life and upsets all her things that she ever thought was okay in life. I have a family, I have a son, so I have got that connection with my son in the show. I've tried to make Meg as close to my reality as possible. But it's also enjoyable saying lines, saying things that I might normally say — like "after 15 years gone." I haven't had that in my life, and it's been a challenge finding those feelings and emotions and thoughts of a woman that has been scorned and left and promised something and it never, ever happening… All that...Joe's really, really had to get me to dig to find that.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her in the show? Is there anything that you look forward to each night?
Rachel Tucker: Yeah, I really enjoy singing "[If You Ever See Me Talking to a] Sailor," which is my big number in the first half. I love getting to shock myself and put Gideon back in his place, and it really is fun. I really enjoy it. As far as other maybe not-so-obvious moments, I love at the end of the show, on the bridge, "It's Not the Same Moon," when I tell Gideon it's "no for me." That changed quite a lot throughout the process, and we only just got what we wanted towards the very end of rehearsals and previews and just as we were opening. I'm really still finding how I am feeling about that and playing with a few different things, so that's all interesting, and I've tried to find it, be in the moment, make up my mind there and then. Really not knowing who I want to go with either...I love trying to find that moment.
Question: Do you think the show has a message or what does it say to you?
Rachel Tucker: It's community spirit, and us as a company, in our working environment, we have to have that. You don't have to have that in an office, but we really must have that as a cast and a team. We have to be great with each other, and that's what these people do in this small-town community. They have to form a community, they've got to show love for each other and care about each other — really about finding that community spirit. I think it's wonderful because it's very, very hard to get, it takes an awful lot for a community to come together like that.
Question: You had mentioned Wicked before. How do the demands of playing Meg compare to playing Elphaba?
Rachel Tucker: ...It's not to say that Wicked wasn't a big pressure … but everything had already been laid out for me. Everything had been set and so that's how you do it...you can absolutely do your own things as much as you possibly can bring to it but without stepping outside the lines. So this, even the creatives are pushing boundaries and changing lines and changing the rules and changing the borders of where you go with it and where you don't go with it. So that side of things has been much more enormous than ever standing on stage and singing Elphaba. But as far as vocally is concerned, obviously Elphaba is the role that you need to massively take care with, and it's exhausting. I have found because this is an original show and there's so much press and PR to be done during the day, it's almost more exhausting than Elphaba in Wicked — because of all the new stuff that comes along with a new show…
Question: Would you be interested at some point in doing Wicked on Broadway?
Rachel Tucker: Oh my goodness, at the drop of a hat! [Laughs.] Of course, I would. I would love to revisit Elphaba. I mean, I've been there and I've done it, [but] if the opportunity arose, of course, I would love a crack at Elphaba over here. [Visit Ticketmaster.com. Visit TheLastShipBroadway.com. The Neil Simon Theatre is located at 250 West 52 Street.]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.