Shedding the Trench Coat and Going Beneath the Dress, Frances Ruffelle Debuts at 54 Below
By Carey Purcell
Frances Ruffelle rose—or, rather, skyrocketed—to fame at 19 when she was cast as Eponine, the spunky street urchin in the musical Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil.
Ruffelle, who had already performed onstage in the West End productions of The Sleeping Prince and Starlight Express, created the role of the love-lorn and determined French waif who pines for her politically minded friend. Ruffelle transferred to New York with the show, opening on Broadway and winning the Helen Hayes Award, Theatre World Award, Outer Circle Critics Award and Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance, which included a moving rendition of Eponine's ballad of unrequited love, "On My Own."
Since Les Miserables, Ruffelle has continued performing, appearing in London productions of Children of Eden, Chicago, Pippin and, most recently, Piaf. She has also recorded four solo albums and made numerous television and film appearances, including the motion picture adaptation of Les Misérables, where she played one of the prostitutes who sang "Lovely Ladies."
Now Ruffelle can be seen in New York at 54 Below, giving a one-night performance of Beneath the Dress, a solo act about her life that celebrates "women who love to entertain." The show, Ruffelle's first in America in several years, sold out quickly.
"I'm quite surprised," Ruffelle said. "It's kind of crazy, isn't it? After all these years—26 years later—there's still an audience for me. It's a pleasant surprise."
Throughout those 26 years, both the character and song that Ruffelle originated have achieved iconic status, with "On My Own" becoming one of the most popular songs for both auditioning actors and lovelorn teens. Their longevity was a also surprise to Ruffelle.
"I don't think anyone expected that," she said. "Obviously, I took the role, and loved the music, but honestly, no one expected it to last this long. Even though I knew it was special, it's just outrageous how long it's lasted. It's really amazing to have had the opportunity to be the original Eponine."
An ironic twist in the history of Les Misérables is that "On My Own" was not originally written for Ruffelle's character. Instead, it was first sung by Fantine in the French version, and it was rewritten for Ruffelle during rehearsal—again and again.
"In the original rehearsals in London, they were giving me new lyrics every day throughout the previews," Ruffelle said. "Luckily, I was very young. I was like a sponge, and I was able to learn them and perform them that night. That went on and on. Even when we got to New York, there were some changes."
Once the song was finalized, the show continued to run on Broadway, closing in 2003 and opening for a limited revival in 2006. Following the success of the film adaptation, another revival is scheduled to open on Broadway in March 2014.
Despite Les Misérables' longevity, Ruffelle does not perform "On My Own" very often, preferring to sing material she thinks fits with her present-day life. Those are the songs that make up Beneath the Dress, which she describes as "a culmination of experiences, told in song." She has performed Beneath the Dress at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as well as the Menier Chocolate Factory and Garrick Theatre.
"It's really kind of like the real Frances," she said. "Everyone just thinks of me as this little waif, but actually I'm a 47-year-old woman now and I've had a life. I've had ups and I've had downs. The show's about the girl I was and the woman I am now."
The songs included in Beneath the Dress were chosen from people Ruffelle said she admires and people in her own life who she adores. Some of the former include Bette Midler, Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.
"They're all real big entertainers," she said. "I love people who entertain, not people that just stand there. I want to be entertained, and I want to have a laugh."
In order to provide the best entertainment she can, before her own performances, Ruffelle follows a routine of long, slow vocal warm-ups, a strict diet of no coffee, tea or dairy, and as little talking as possible.
"If I'm doing eight shows a week, I just don't speak to anybody," she said. "I'm really unsociable and quite lonely when I work, actually. But that's how I like it."
Even if Ruffelle is on her own before her performance, when she takes the stage for the sold-out show at 54 Below, she won't be alone for long.
Frances Ruffelle performs Beneath the Dress at 54 Below May 22 at 9:30 PM. More information can be found at 54below.com.
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