By Andrew Gans
09 Jan 2009
Although her work onstage has primarily been in non-musical roles — including Royal Shakespeare Company productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Peer Gynt and Merry Wives of Windsor — actress Haydn Gwynne's two Olivier Award nominations have been for her work on the musical stage: in the dual roles of Oolie and Donna in Cy Coleman's City of Angels and in the hit London production of Elton John and Lee Hall's Billy Elliot — The Musical. Gwynne, who is best known for her work in the U.K. television series "Peak Practice" and "Merseybeat," is now re-creating her role as dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson for Broadway audiences in the critically acclaimed Billy Elliot at the Imperial Theatre. Gwynne, who possesses a rangy alto, finds every bit of humor and drama in the sarcastic Wilkinson, who transforms both her own life and Billy's in the new musical that leaves no heartstring untugged. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with the English actress, who, along with her two young sons, is currently making New York City her home-away-from-home; that interview follows.
Question: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut?
Haydn Gwynne: It's funny. People are always asking me the differences between West End and Broadway. The disappointing answer [or] the true answer is that there are more similarities than differences. [Laughs.] But one of the differences is that people talk about your debut all the time. I think even when I was making my West End debut, I don't think anybody ever mentioned the word! The fact that it's the debut is it's just the fact it's Broadway. The word has such resonance from far away. On the one hand it's incredibly exciting. On the other hand the work is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. It's a mixture of familiar and strange.
Question: Had Broadway been something you had hoped to do?
Gwynne: I suppose so, yes. It wasn't something in my mind, "Oh, my God, I must go to Broadway." . . . Before you have a family is when you've got more time to talk about your career — you might have specific things in your mind that you want to do, but then when you have a family, your focus bogs down into somehow making your life work and making it work for the family, [and] you don't think in those particular ways anymore . . . But I suppose it would be true to say that when a friend would go off to do a play or something [on Broadway], I thought, "Oh, that would be fun," and would be quite jealous.
Question: Do you have children?
Gwynne: I have two boys. One just had his 11th birthday, and the other is eight. They're still quite young.
Gwynne: They are. It was for that reason quite a big deal to work out whether we could make it work or want to make it work. Their dad hasn't been able to come stay. So it had been a big wrench, really, to organize it and find schools and all of that. But yes, they're over here with me and living the New York life. I think they're living the New York life more than I am! [Laughs.]
Question: Do they like New York so far?
Gwynne: They do. They were quite apprehensive before they came. They were seven and ten then and were too young to project themselves into what the positive side of the experience would be. They had always been at the same school since kindergarten and had a lot of stability in that sense, so it was a big fat question mark for them. But actually, yes they are — they love their school and have made friends, and they are enjoying it.
|photo by David Scheinmann|
Gwynne: I just auditioned along with everybody else. . . . I hadn't worked with any of the [creative] people involved before. I didn't know [director] Stephen Daldry or [choreographer] Peter [Darling]. I didn't know any of the main creatives involved. I don't think, on the face of it, I was obvious in terms of casting. Certainly, if this had been done in England on telly or film, I think I would have struggled to get an interview. . . . In theatre one sometimes gets more scope to expand the character range of your work. In television in England, not to start with, but once people get to know you, one is more typecast. I think even I thought I was probably a bit of a long shot when I auditioned for it. But I did audition. I was quite busy. I was working a lot that year and was filming something or other. So, sometimes you do better when you're busy. [Laughs.]
Question: Did you know "Billy Elliot"? Had you been a fan of the film?
Gwynne: I knew the film, but … I hadn't seen it in the cinema. I think I probably had either one baby or a toddler and a baby, so I'd probably seen it once on video while I was breastfeeding. [Laughs.] It was quite a few years before. I thought about it, and I took the position not to watch it again, and I still haven't. Partly because I had a script there to read, and it seemed to me that the script was quite different. And even the character seemed a little different, to my memory of it. So I just, in the end, took the decision not to go back to the film. The joke is that I thought I would be able to once I had done [the musical] or was doing it, and I still can't. It's too weird because they're sort of overlapping universes, different universes. There was an Elton John program on the radio, and they were playing clips from various shows. They played a tiny clip from the film, which happens to be a scene which has a sort of parallel [to the stage version]. It freaked me out. It was just too weird, and it wasn't useful to have in my head. It's got to be our universe. I can't be thinking about this other thing, so it confirmed that, as long as I was doing it, I couldn't go there! [Laughs.]
Question: When you started out, was your goal to be an actor, or a singer, or a dancer?
Gwynne: I'm not a dancer at all. . . . My goal was to be an actress, and indeed I have been. [Laughs.] But the musical side hasn't been a huge part of my career. Before Billy Elliot, I hadn't done a musical since City of Angels in '93 or '94. And that was only my second-ever musical, so it's been a world I've visited occasionally. I think I hadn't really expected particularly to do musicals. I knew I could sing, and it was something I used when I started out my career. In those days — God, I'm making it sound like two centuries ago — but even a couple of decades ago, in England, the repertory theatres and the regional theatres — it doesn't happen so much now — they would cross-cast through several productions, which would perhaps include the Christmas show. If you could sing, you could perhaps get an audition . . . . you'd have a skill that they could use in more than one production. It was a way of starting out, but it wasn't really something that I expected to do much. And the truth is that I was cast in a musical quite early on in the West End called Ziegfeld, and it was a monumental, famous-at-the-time disaster.
Question: We have some of those here, too.
Gwynne: It was one of those that cost a fortune and . . . . although it failed, they tried. They recast and they poured more money into it. It sort of went on and on. It was all a bit traumatic, so that was it. I thought that was my first and last-ever [musical]. Although then, of course, some years later City of Angels came along, and because it was so wonderful and perfectly formed, I had to make an exception. But the truth is that that first musical taught me — it was a big journey for me about singing onstage. I was recommended to a well-known singing teacher in England, Mary Hamlin, who indeed I've worked with each time since. . . . Particularly on that first job, she taught me that I do have a voice. I learned a lot more about my voice because I had never used it in that way before. It started to give me some skills or to expand the skills that I didn't really know I had. I certainly didn't have much confidence in [my singing] at that time.
Question: You've done mostly theatre without singing. How do you compare the joys/demands of musical theatre versus non-musical theatre?
Gwynne: I always say that I think that musical theatre is pretty much — particularly if you've got a lot to do — the most demanding of the lot, just the amount of physical energy that you need to put out. I don't know quite why. I think you sort of have to perform right to your limit. Otherwise, [the performance is] just not getting out there, certainly in a big space. I'm finding that getting back into doing eight shows a week of a musical is really, really demanding. You have to be completely neurotic about looking after your voice. And if you get a cold… oh my God. [Laughs.] And then every blooming musical and certainly big shows in theatre I've done have been on raked stages. We work on a rake here, and I work in heels, so you're constantly struggling with back trouble, knee trouble, which you don't have in your normal life. And then presto, here you are again! You're in pain all of the time as well and spend half of your free time going to physio. All of the shows I did at the RSC, some people had done some musical work before, like Judi Dench, but other performers had only done leads at the RSC. Doing their first work with music and dancing, they were astonished at how exhausting it was. [Laughs.]
I do remember when I finished doing my run in Billy Elliot two-and-a-half years ago, it was just such a relief not to be getting up in the morning and going, "Oh, what do the vocal chords sound like? What are the joints feeling?" [Laughs.] That's one of the pleasures of stopping. One of the great pleasures of doing [musicals], of course, is working with a band. It is a unique experience. I do remember doing that first musical, Ziegfeld, which was on at the Palladium, which is one of the biggest houses in London. It seats 2,300…a beautiful theatre where Judy Garland has performed. You name it, they've performed there. And standing center stage in a dress which, even then, cost 10,000 pounds, in the spotlight singing a Gershwin solo, there was a bit of me that was going, "I can't believe…" You can't believe you're doing it. It's important not to also get blasé and think that it's just an everyday thing… that's the trouble, it does become an everyday thing when you have to turn up every day. [Laughs.] But you have to remember that it's not everyday for the people who are [seeing the show].
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
Gwynne: I've never gone back to a role like this, so I was a bit concerned about it. I was concerned not to quickly get to a space where it felt too easy after you've done something for a long time. . . . For me, one of the numbers choreographically was changed completely from scratch. I spent a lot of time working on that. And then, because you're working with different people… it did feel fresh enough. Also, the way Stephen [Daldry] and Peter [Darling] work, they weren't interested in just throwing something on that that they've done before. They did want to change stuff and try new stuff. Some of it was changed and changed for the good. Some of it they changed and then they changed back again. They didn't rest on their laurels, if you know what I mean.
Question: How did the rehearsal process work with having three different Billys? Do you rehearse on different days with different Billys?
Gwynne: No, quite often it varies. I have to say it was even more difficult in London because the child working rules are much more strict. So the actual hours that you can work with them [are different]. Here we have three Billys, two Michaels, one Debbie, one set of Ballet Girls, and three swings. In London, we had three Billys, three Michaels, three Debbies, and three sets of Ballet Girls. I was rehearsing with many different children. . . . The children were fantastic, but the logistics were very difficult. The difference in London was, because we were making it up as we went along, with the Billys then, for a long period, one was doing different bits with different Billys. I would tend to do this number with this Billy, and I would tend to do that number with another Billy for quite a long period. And then the nightmare for everybody was getting each Billy up to speed on the stuff they hadn't done very much of. And that was quite scary, particularly just before previews. Our first Billy had his first try at getting through the whole thing and was sort of throwing up halfway through the first act, and we thought, "Oh, my God, we've created a completely unperformable role!" [Laughs.] Whereas here, the template was there, and the children had spent quite a lot of time rehearsing the numbers before we started working with them. So they were preparing the children, certainly choreographically, before we started, because it is such a huge role. But then when I was working with them… very often, if possible, all three would be called to the same rehearsal, and then you would go through it with one and then you'd go through it with the other…. [Laughs.] And that's how it works. . . . It is a challenge. It is incredibly challenging the amount of work that they have to do, and then they've got to get the tutoring around it as well. But it's been easier, I have to say. The fact that I have only one set of Ballet Girls, for me, was a huge boon. It completely terrifies me the idea that a child as young as seven is performing eight shows a week. I find that astonishing, but I can't pretend that it isn't nice for me. Whenever things come up, there's one team and I always know who is going to be there. . . . but it's hard work for them.
Question: How would you describe Mrs. Wilkinson?
Gwynne: She's a forceful, colorful personality. Mealy-mouthed she ain't! On the surface she's somebody who is essentially disappointed in life. She earns her money and she's running, as she describes it at the end, a sort of crappy little dance school in some God-forsaken corner of the country, which is going through tremendous upheaval and struggle. I think her father was probably a miner as well. Although [Billy's] brother sees her as a middle-class — that, she certainly isn't. Sort of a tough, loud exterior. But as we see through her journey with Billy, that when she accidentally stumbles across this child with this talent, she has it in her — she has enough of that spirit in her to respond to it and to inspire him and also be inspired by him and, for all her lack of technical expertise, to be an inspiring teacher and really commit herself to him.
Question: Do you have a favorite moment for her in the show?
Gwynne: I love the moment — I think it's a very important moment of the show for the audience — in "Solidarity" where . . . . she first sees in Billy something that could be really special. I think she's obviously seen he's unusual and encouraged him to come back. I think that's a great moment in the show. "Solidarity" is, anyway — I love that sequence. I do think the last scene is beautifully written as well, the last scene between Billy and Mrs. Wilkinson. . . . Since his mother is dead, there is inevitably a bit of a mother substitute thing going on. The way the scene is written, which I think is quite unsentimental, there's a lot going on under the surface. She's struggling with her maternal feelings toward Billy — as well as the whole teacher thing — as is he toward her. And that whole thing of him leaving now and not having turned up to tell her that he got into school in the first place. There's a lot of different stuff going on. There is just the resonance with mothers when they have to say goodbye to their children, when they send them off to university or whatever. . . . I think that's a really good complex and simple scene that works really well.
Question: Do you think having sons in real life makes it easier for you to play the character or gives you more to draw on?
Gwynne: Probably. . . . I wouldn't say, "Oh, if you're not a mother, you can't fully…" I would never say that to an actress who isn't a mother. You could do a hell of a lot of mothering without being a mother. I don't think you have to be a mother to understand those currencies. But at the same time, I think I draw on as most people do, certainly in the letter scene, it's not just my experience as a mother. One does draw on one's own experiences as [part of a] family, as a sibling, as a daughter… the themes of loss and bereavement. I draw on my experiences of all those things that I am.
Question: Do you know whether there will be a Broadway cast recording?
Gwynne: I don't! It's funny enough, I was just thinking about that last night. I'll have to ask [musical director] David Chase what the latest is on that. I absolutely don't know. I think it was something probably that they were so busy putting the show on that as a thought it was shelved, and they would think about once they'd seen how the show has been received. I absolutely don't know. I do know that in London we didn't do one for awhile. That's sort of typical of this piece. They haven't necessarily done what you would normally do very quickly. They didn't do their sort of lovely film thing for the advertising until after the original [London] cast left, so the film that you see when you book is not the first cast. Just because they haven't said anything doesn't mean that we won't do one. We didn't do one for quite a long time [in London], and then we did it. They must have spent a lot of money on it. We took a long time to do it, and Phil Ramone came over and produced it. That was probably the Elton John/David Furnish connection. Continued...