To play Velma, the nightclub murderess, in Chicago you need to be a great actress, singer and dancer, have plenty of stamina, sex appeal and the longest legs in London. American Leigh Zimmerman has it all. She talks to us …
'What really makes Bob Fosse’s work so great' says Leigh Zimmerman “is that his characters are so rich. If you look at Chicago, Cabaret, Sweet Charity…just look at those women!.’ It is that depth of character that attracted Zimmerman to Velma in Chicago, the lead role she has been playing at the Adelphi Theatre since April. The show is based on a true story about the murderess Roxie Hart, who went on trial in the 1920s. Also in prison for murder, Velma forms a nightclub act with Roxie and the pair use their crimes and good looks to gain notoriety. Long before films such as Natural Born Killers and more recently, Fifteen Minutes, the 1976 show brilliantly satirises the link between crime and celebrity. In the first 15 minutes Velma is a pretty disagreeable character, which provides Zimmerman with a challenge to make the audience like her. But despite her sassy and sexy ways, Velma is still the underdog and Zimmerman finds that resonates in the audience’s lives.
With her ability to act, sing and dance, Zimmerman clearly relishes the role and is a great admirer of Bob Fosse, whose work she says ‘ is the classiest you can do’. She also says it is the hardest work and she should know, having trained to be a dancer as a child, winning a scholarship to perform as a soloist with the Boston Ballet at the age of 16. Unlike now, where she has to convey Velma’s character through dance, she says ballet taught her ‘how to dance from the neck down’ and ‘never even reached the depths’ of Fosse’s choreography. An experienced Fosse performer she starred as Go-To-Hell Kitty in the original Broadway production of this Chicago revival, a role she played for two and a half years.
When asked about the difference between American and British audiences Zimmerman feels that we are ‘more polite and just not as vocal’, which probably comes as no great surprise. However Zimmerman also suggests that the self-assurance of an all-American cast makes a subtle difference to the way the show has been presented on Broadway and in the West End. The Brits have proved to be more than capable in learning the accent and conveying the style of the show , but Zimmerman finds Americans are more direct in the way that they talk, dance and sing, although she is quick to point out that this doesn’t make either show better or worse, just different. Another interesting comparison is that she feels UK critics are more supportive towards theatre than US ones, and as there are more of them, shows in the West End are not as vulnerable to their opinions as they are on Broadway.
It is not the first time Zimmerman has appeared in the West End. Her debut, starring alongside another famous blonde, Daryl Hannah (who she describes as ‘really one of the girls’) was in The Seven Year Itch at The Queen’s last year. Her Broadway debut was in The Will Rogers Follies, hired by Tommy Tune, the 6ft 6’ choreographer who assured the statuesque dancer that being tall was a good thing. Since then her career has alternated between television (Spenser For Hire, Central Park West, The David Letterman Show) to film (Rear Window, Mr Jealousy).
She is contracted to appear in Chicago until the middle of October, but plans to stay working in London, particularly as her husband, Domenick Allen has written and produced a musical loosely based on the Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle, which is due to open at the Bridewell Theatre this autumn. Called A Sense of Freedom, it looks at the character Johnny Burns' rise, fall and redemption and promises to be a dramatic experience that is deeper than your average musical. Zimmerman may not be appearing but she has a list of future roles that she would like to do including Sally Bowles from Cabaret, Ula, the Swedish secretary in The Producers and Kate in Kiss Me Kate, as well as many people in the film industry that she would like to work with who include Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Altman. Zimmerman says her acting education came from working on Home Alone 2 during the day and appearing in The Will Rogers Follies at night. She has continued this interest in both screen and stage, and while she’s enjoying playing Velma she’s looking forward to her next challenge.