DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony-Winning Les Miz Star Frances Ruffelle Plus News of Buckley and Paige

DIVA TALK: Chatting with Tony-Winning Les Miz Star Frances Ruffelle Plus News of Buckley and Paige News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Frances Ruffelle; Ruffelle as Eponine in Les Mis
Frances Ruffelle; Ruffelle as Eponine in Les Mis

FRANCES RUFFELLE

British favorite Frances Ruffelle, who created the role of Eponine in the London and Broadway productions of Les Misérables, will make a rare New York City concert appearance this summer, playing July 10 at The Supper Club on West 47th Street. Backed by the George Gee Big Band, the diminutive diva with the over-sized voice will offer an evening of Big Band favorites, show tunes, pop songs and standards, including several from her upcoming CD, "Frances Ruffelle: Live at Ronnie Scott's." Concertgoers can expect to hear Ruffelle wrap her powerful dark alto around such tunes as "Slap That Bass," "It's All Right with Me," "Do It Again," William Finn's "Love Me for What I Am" and Rusty Magee's "New York Romance." It's an especially busy time for the actress, who won a Tony Award, a Helen Hayes Award, a Theatre World Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for her Broadway bow in Les Miz: Ruffelle will return to the London stage this fall in the West End debut of the 1974 Andrews Sisters musical Over Here!, which will also feature Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie. Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the humorous, overly modest actress about her upcoming projects, including her long-awaited return to New York City. That brief interview follows.

Q: What type of material will you be performing at The Supper Club?
Ruffelle: I'll be doing a lot of old jazz classics and some show songs.

Q: Who would you say were your musical influences as a child?
Ruffelle: I come from a quite show-bizzy family, so I used to listen to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. On the jazz side [I'd listen to] Ella Fitzgerald. I used to love all the old Hollywood movies and used to watch "Singin' in the Rain" over and over and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" [with] Julie Andrews.

Q: You mentioned your family was in show business.
Ruffelle: My mom is in show business. She runs a big theatre school in London, and my mom and dad were so into theatre that when I was a kid, I used to be taken to [the theatre] pretty much every week. Q: Do you remember the first West End show you attended?
Ruffelle: You know what, I actually don't remember because I went to so many. [Laughs.] I was in [a show in] the West End myself when I was eight years old — in The King and I.

Q: When did you start singing?
Ruffelle: I kind of sang all my life, but I really started out being an actress. When I was an adult and I first went into theatre, I did plays and TV work as an actress because I really wasn't actually aware that my singing voice was any good. I didn't particularly think it was that good. I'm still not sure about that either! [Laughs.]

Q: When did you realize that you could sing?
Ruffelle: I always wanted to be a singer. I just didn't think I could cut it. . . . [I] went for an audition for Starlight Express. I remember when I actually got the job . . . saying to my mom, "Oh my God, they think I can sing!" I just thought it was a fluke. I was really worried that they would realize I really wasn't that good. Even now, it's funny, I don't really know why people like my voice to be honest — I've got quite a husky voice. I don't feel that my range is as big as a lot of people's. I'm always jealous of people with amazing big ranges. But somehow something happened, and people seem to like it.

Q: Your most recent London theatre credit was Chicago. What was the experience like playing Roxie Hart?
Ruffelle: I absolutely loved it. I loved all the comedy, the dancing. I was so happy doing that show, just bubbly and happy. It really was fantastic.

Q: Was there ever any thought or talk about you playing Roxie on Broadway?
Ruffelle: Well, there was thought . . . and talk. [Laughs.] I hope so — that would be really nice.

Q: This fall, we're going to have a revival of Les Misérables on Broadway. How did you originally get involved with the London production?
Ruffelle: When I was in Starlight Express, it was directed by Trevor Nunn. And, Trevor Nunn had decided that he would like to use me for the role of Eponine — I just had to sing for the composers and for the other director. That was on a Friday evening, and on Monday morning they told me I'd got the job. I was the first person cast.

Q: What are your memories of playing the show in London and then bringing it to Broadway?
Ruffelle: That's kind of quite a highlight in my life. The show itself was amazing, and I was so lucky to be that age and to be given that role. . . . Trevor was really into making it [a great role]. . . I basically worked with [the creative team] before we even started rehearsals because he wanted to make sure that my role had the big number opening Act Two. I was not only given that amazing role, but they made it as best they could. . . God, how grateful [I was.] . . .

[Then] the Broadway [production] came about, and I really didn't expect that. Of course, everybody's dream is to go to Broadway. And I knew that Colm Wilkinson was going, and everybody in the cast wanted to go — we all did. But [producer] Cameron [Mackintosh] said that we [couldn't] do it because [of] American Equity [rules] — in those days it was a lot harder. And I really got quite lucky because I believe the role was given to Anne Marie Bobby. She was given the role, and she turned it down to do something else. I'm not quite sure what the other thing that she did was — she did a lead in something else at the time. They got into rehearsal and they still didn't have anyone [to play Eponine], so Cameron walked into Equity and said, "I have offered this role to someone. We have tried. Please, can we bring Frances over?" Last minute, they flew me over. That was amazing. I spent about eight months in the States.

Q: What was it like then winning the Tony?
Ruffelle: That was another weird one! [Laughs.] We used to watch the Tonys every year [in London], and it didn't even occur to me that I would ever be up for one. Even when I was working on Broadway, I just didn't think [it would happen]. That's what happens on the TV — it's not what happens to you. And then other people kept saying to me, "You're going to be up for a Tony." It was exciting, but I thought, "Oh gosh, I don't want to do my performances every night thinking that I'm up for a Tony. I don't want to think about that." It was beyond my thoughts. Then I noticed a lot of people in the theatre get incredibly stressed around that time, worried about it. . . . So I just tried and tried not to think about it . . . and then, eventually, I was up for it. And even then I thought, "Well, that's amazing, but they're not going to give it to an English girl." When it actually happened and I got it, I just couldn't believe it.

Q: You're also going to be in a production of Over Here! in London in the fall. Tell me about the show and the role you'll be playing.
Ruffelle: It's set in the Second World War on a train. It's mainly about these two women who are in a singing group together. They're sisters. At the time, they realize it's more fashionable to have three singers rather than two, like the Andrews Sisters. I think it was originally written for the Andrews Sisters. So, they're on the lookout for a third singer. I play a German spy — it's a wonderful role, very Marlene Dietrich. They hear my voice, and they ask me to join the group. And, I use the music as code for my spying. [Laughs.] It's a fun piece. It's old-fashioned and fun and funny. And, it's a big-band piece, which is quite fun, because that's what I'm working with at the moment.

Q: Is this the first time it's being mounted in London?
Ruffelle: Yes, it is. Tony Stevens is directing.

Q: You also have children. How old are they?
Ruffelle: I have three children — 18, 16 and 11.

Q: How do you find the demands of combining motherhood and working in the theatre?
Ruffelle: It's been really hard actually, and that's why I haven't done a lot of theatre. Now my children are a lot older, and it's easier. And, actually, my oldest son goes to boarding school, and my youngest son is going to boarding school in September. So things do get easier, but it's difficult to combine both, and I do feel I haven't really concentrated 100% on either really. It's very difficult to do 100% on both.

Q: Tell me about the demands of performing in concert versus in theatre.
Ruffelle: I like both, but my concerts I just have fun with. I don't have what you might call a cabaret show. I just do it! [Laughs.] I don't plan what I'm going to say or talk about. I just get up there, and I'm me. Q: Will you be doing your concert in other places after New York?
Ruffelle: I probably will next year because I have an album coming out, so I guess my manager will be organizing things like that for next year.

Q: What's the name of the album?
Ruffelle: It's called "Frances Ruffelle: Live at Ronnie Scott's," which is a famous jazz club in London.

Q: What are some of the songs on the recording?
Ruffelle: Well, all the ones I'll probably be doing at the concert: "Slap That Bass," "It's All Right With Me," "Do It Again," "Love Me for What I Am," "New York Romance." I might do something from Chicago.

Q: Will you be performing "On My Own" from Les Miz in your New York concerts?
Ruffelle: I might. [Laughs.] I don't always do it, but having not been to New York for so long, I might have to do it!

[Frances Ruffelle will play The Supper Club, located in Manhattan at 240 West 47th Street, July 10 at 8:45 PM. Tickets, priced at $65, are available by calling (212) 352-3101.]

DIVA TIDBITS

I was sorry to hear that the Kennedy Center production of Mame — starring Christine Baranski in the title role — will not make its way to Broadway after all. It seems the weekly production costs would just be too high for a D.C.-to-Broadway transfer of the Jerry Herman musical. However, I was thrilled to learn that the Really Useful Group is planning to bring the current, critically acclaimed West End revival of Evita — directed by Michael Grandage and starring Argentine actress Elena Roger as Eva Peron — to Broadway some time in 2007. Evita was the musical that started my passion for musical theatre, and through the years I've caught the Evas of Tony Award winner Patti LuPone, Nancy Opel, Derin Altay, Donna Marie Elio, Judy McLane, Natalie Toro and Felicia Finley, and I'm anxious to add Roger to that list.

Tony Award winner Betty Buckley — who recently made her debut at New York's premiere jazz club, The Blue Note — will perform in concert in San Francisco Sept. 30. The award-winning singing actress will play one evening only at the Herbst Theatre. Buckley will be backed by Clifford Carter on piano, Alan Hall on drums and Jon Evans on bass. Show time is 8 PM. The Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, CA. Tickets, priced $45-$75, are available by calling (415) 392-4400 or by visiting www.cityboxoffice.com. . . . Buckley will also play the Cerritos Performing Arts Center Aug. 19 at 8 PM and 20 at 7 PM, sharing the stage with another Tony winner, original Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford. At Cerritos, Buckley will be backed by her long-time musical director Kenny Werner on piano and her band Quintessence. Visit www.cerritoscenter.com for details.

Liz McCartney, who created the role of Big Sue in the Broadway production of Taboo, will go it solo at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. On July 16 McCartney will bring her new cabaret show to the intimate theatre on West 42nd Street. Show time is 9:30 PM. The Laurie Beechman Theatre is located in Manhattan at 407 West 42nd Street. There is a $20 cover charge and a $15 food/drink minimum. Call (212) 695-6909 for reservations between the hours of 12 noon and 8 PM.

And, Britain's leading musical theatre actress, Elaine Paige, who made her long-awaited Broadway debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, is planning to record a new album this summer. Paige's official website says the singing actress will record a new album of theatre songs featuring tunes from "the nation's favorite musicals." Mike Moran will produce the disc for the Universal label. The CD is scheduled for an October release.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.