DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Olivier Award Winner and Chicago Star Ruthie Henshall

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Olivier Award Winner and Chicago Star Ruthie Henshall
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Ruthie Henshall
Ruthie Henshall Photo by Joe Gaffney

Olivier Award winner Ruthie Henshall, who created the role of Roxie Hart in the original cast of the London revival of Chicago, is currently repeating her acclaimed performance for New York audiences. Originally scheduled to stay with the long-running and Tony-winning revival of the Kander and Ebb musical through June 13, Henshall's engagement has been extended twice; audiences can now enjoy the triple threat, who has also played the role of Velma Kelly on Broadway, through Aug. 29 at the Ambassador Theatre. Henshall, one of the leading lights in London musical theatre, boasts an especially impressive resume: Crazy for You (Olivier nomination), She Loves Me (Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical), Chicago (Olivier nomination), Marguerite (Olivier nomination), Peggy Sue Got Married (Olivier nomination), Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Oliver! and The Woman in White. I recently had the chance to pose a few questions to the multitalented performer, who has also been seen on Broadway in Miss Saigon and Putting It Together; that brief interview with actress and mom (to daughters Lily, age 7, and Dolly, age 5) Henshall follows.

Question: How did this return engagement in Chicago come about?
Ruthie Henshall: I suppose I really felt that to revisit it, I could do something different with it this time. Because it's 13 years later, and I have 13 years more life that I can now bring to this character.

Henshall as Roxie (left) and Velma (right)

Question: How does it feel to be back on Broadway? Do you notice any difference in reactions to the show between London and New York audiences?
Henshall: Well, I'm always asked the question because there are huge differences. Americans audiences are much louder and much more vocal about their enjoyment – and that's just a cultural thing, I think. We're a lot more reserved in England. I think for me it's always a big, huge honor to come to Broadway because this is where musical theatre started. And, the theatre community here is so tight and so huge that it's a real honor. You know, very few people get to work both sides, and I value it very highly.

Question: This year we celebrated Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. What are your memories of performing in the earlier Sondheim revue, Putting It Together?
Henshall: It was the first time I've done Sondheim, and to be quite honest, it was baptism by fire. [Laughs.] Learning Sondheim is very hard, because it doesn't always go where you expect it to go, but that was when I really got why people think he's brilliant. And, until I'd actually done it myself, it was kind of an unknown thing to me. I knew a few of his tunes, but I was such a heathen. I do think he's a genius. Lyrically, I was completely knocked out by him.

Question: Do you have a favorite Sondheim song?
Henshall: "Children Will Listen." Question: In the fall you will be launching a new concert tour. Can you tell me a little bit about what concertgoers can expect?
Henshall: Yes! Sounds of Hollywood. It's basically a lot of the songs from that golden Hollywood era – the tunes that made those women famous, and the women that made those tunes famous. It's got a lot of those great showbiz numbers, and we've got four singer/dancers and a pretty huge orchestra, so I think it'll be a good one.

Question: How does singing in the concert format compare to performing a role in a show for you?
Henshall: Well, you don't have to deal with just one character in a concert. You can interpret each song exactly as you want to, as opposed to having to tell the story of whatever show you're in. There's more freedom to interpret – and that's kind of fun, really!!

Question: You've been in so many musicals in the West End. Is there any one that stands out as a favorite?
Henshall: Crazy for You, without a doubt. And then Chicago is second. Crazy for You, because it's everything that I got into the business for. I loved those MGM musicals, and that was an MGM musical onstage, and it was sort of my "breakout" show. Chicago, because I think it's just an unbelievable piece, and there's always something new to do with it – which is why I keep coming back! And, Les Miz because it resonates on quite a deep level for me.

Question: Marguerite didn't have a very long run. Why do you think critics didn't embrace the production?
Henshall: Well, it was very hard for them to sympathize with a woman who basically stayed with the rich guy. [Laughs.] There was very little sympathy for the character, and we actually did some rewrites after opening night to make her more sympathetic. But those who loved it really loved it, because even though it was a very sad and very tragic story, it was also brilliant. And, the timing was bad too. It was the start of this huge economic recession. All of the banks here in the U.S. were in trouble, and people everywhere weren't going to the theatre as much. But in spite of all that, I believe it was a brilliant piece.

Question: Since you have played both Velma and Roxie, can you answer each of the following with a simple "Velma" or "Roxie"?

Which role is more demanding to play? Roxie
Which role is more fun to play? Roxie
Who gets the better songs? Velma
Who gets the better dances? Velma
With whom would you rather go out on the town? Roxie
With which character do you empathize more? Roxie
Which character deserves a sequel? Roxie. Velma has got the Tony, the Olivier, the Oscar and the BAFTA. And that's because she gets all of the money numbers – the songs that make you go "wow!" But Roxie's the heart of the piece. It's her story, so I think she deserves the sequel, so we can see what happens to her. Does she get on with Velma? Does she not? Does she get her own show in the end? Does she get back with Amos? Or does she meet Mr. Fabulous? Question: How has it been combining motherhood and working?
Henshall: It's been interesting. I haven't noticed any difference in the work, but the work has become a little secondary. Now, it's like, if you're children are okay, life's okay. I find it difficult to leave the house at night, especially since they've just come home from school when it's time for me to leave for work, so I find that difficult. It means not seeing my girls as much, but it's the way Mommy earns her living. But I'm lucky. I still get to do a job that I'm passionate about.

[Chicago plays the Ambassador Theatre, located at 219 West 49th Street. Visit www.ChicagoTheMusical.com for more information.]

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