When New Year's rolls around, and all is said and done, perhaps no other musical star in America will have made a greater impact in 1999 than Ruthie Henshall. The British expatriate musical star -- who made her name in London in such Yankee-born shows as Crazy for You and She Loves Me -- made her American debut last spring in the Encores! presentation of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, singing the Gertrude Niesen numbers. Currently, she is playing Velma Kelly in the Broadway production of Chicago (she played Roxie for a year in London). And this fall, she will star with Carol Burnett in the much-anticipated Sondheim review, Putting It Together. Henshall took a few moments (via cell phone, while strolling through Central Park) to talk about her new-found, New World fame.
Playbill On-Line: You've played both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly. What is the difference?
Ruthie Henshall: I think they're poles apart, actually. Roxie's much more manipulative. Roxie just falls on her feet each time -- whatever comes to her, you know, she's goes with it. So, the boyfriend is walking out on her - `Oh, I'll shoot him.' She watches Velma Kelly and thinks `I can do that. I can steal from this woman.' I think she thinks on her feet so quickly and Velma, who has been queen of the castle, is now usurped by this woman who is just that much quicker than her.
PBOL: Do you prefer playing one role over the other?
RH: At the moment, I'm thoroughly enjoying doing Velma much more than Roxie, only because I've done Roxie for a year. I am loving doing Velma. Also, Roxie's got such an emotional journey throughout the show -- I think it's Roxie's show. Velma kind of comes on every so often and does this turn and then buggers off again to her dressing room. Velma's the more show biz part of the show. There's not such an acting journey with her.
PBOL: You've starred in several American musicals -- Crazy for You, She Love Me and now Chicago.
RH: I've actually only played an English person twice in my own country.
PBOL: Some English performers muck up their American roles by going too broad. How to you go about mastering American accents and characterizations?
RH: Normally, in everything we've done there's been a coach who comes in and gives us pointers, but I seem to find the American accent very easy. But, saying that, I do tend to roll around the country a bit without thinking about it. I go from the East Coast to the West and sometimes in-between. I think, as English people, we find the Southern accent much easier and we slip into that. PBOL: This year, you've sung the music of Vernon Duke in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, Kander and Ebb in Chicago, and later this fall you'll be singing Sondheim in Putting It Together. That about runs the gamut of American musical writing. How do you approach the various styles?
RH: Instinct, I think. I don't think about them being different styles. Whatever the music tells me to do, I do.
PBOL: You don't think singing Sondheim requires different skills?
RH: I don't know. I'm going to find out. It's the first time I've ever sung Sondheim. I'm a virgin.
PBOL: Are there any projects you completely regret having done?
RH: There is nothing that I regret, and the reason is I don't think anything is a wrong decision. Everything teaches you something. The only time that I've ever done something -- not that I've regretted, but that I've learned a great lesson from -- is when I chose to do a job because I thought it would be an easy way to go abroad for a few days. And it was one of the hardest and more horrible jobs I've ever done. It taught me that I never want to be in the ensemble. A lot of the times, the ensemble gets a rough deal. They're holding up the show and they don't get the thanks for it. So, I learned very early on that I wanted to be the star of the show. (Laughs.)
PBOL: Do you have a dream role?
RH: Now, this is like putting me in a candy shop and saying I can have anything I like. There is one part that people keep talking about, `Oh, I hear you're doing it," and I know nothing about it. But there was talk at one stage of someone doing My Fair Lady, and [Eliza Doolittle] is a wonderful role. That's got the colors of the rainbow in it.
PBOL: On the other end, what would you say is the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to you on stage?
RH: I had to stop the show in She Loves Me, because I had completely come in at the wrong time in a number. I made completely the wrong entrance. I was going one way, the orchestra was going the other. It was a complete and utter mess and I knew it was. I just had to shout at the orchestra to stop and go to the front of the stage and say `I'm terribly sorry' and put all the props back in place. And I thought, `Oh, this is awful,' and this gentleman who was in the show, this old timer, came up to me and said, `Darling, don't you worry. You've walking the highest tightrope in the world -- musical live theatre!' And the way he said it was so British, so "chin-up." But I never felt that fear after that night. I lost a little piece of stage fright that we so often have in our gut. Because I realized that, no matter what happens, you don't die.
--By Robert Simonson