The Over The Rainbow winner has left Oz behind for Revolutionary France and Les Misérables. Matthew Amer meets the star who brings the reality to TV casting while living her dream.
Think back two years. A fresh-faced 18-year-old has just triumphed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s televised search for a Dorothy, Over The Rainbow. Danielle Hope’s life has changed forever.
Immediately, aptly enough, she was thrown into a whirlwind. From a life of worrying about A-levels in Manchester, she had already lived through the pressures and pains of starring in a publicly voted reality casting show. Now she had won, had a weight of expectation stacked on her young shoulders, was tossed into a world of interviews and press, given a three month crash course at Arts Educational then asked to lead a cast of musical theatre professionals including Michael Crawford and Hannah Waddingham on the stage of the London Palladium.
As life-changing events go, she may as well have been whisked away by a cyclone and deposited in a strange world. She isn’t in Manchester any more, but, pleasingly, she doesn’t want to go home.
She may have left the yellow brick road behind and said goodbye to the Scarecrow for the last time, but Hope is still very much thriving in the West End. She joined the cast of London theatre stalwart Les Misérables last month to play grubby street urchin Eponine who, short of a sex change, probably couldn’t be further away from the prim and proper Dorothy Gale.
“Eponine is probably closer to me,” says Hope as we chat backstage at the Queen’s theatre, the venue that has been home to London’s longest running musical since 2004. “I can relate to the unrequited love thing she’s going through; there was always one person that I would help and be best friends with, but they never looked at me that way.”
The young actress, who was “always one of the boys at school,” has a touch of that about her. Despite her long ebony locks that would have Rapunzel tugging her hair out with jealousy and a bubbly personality that is effortlessly effervescent, she is so amiable that you could easily miss the signals that slip from friendliness into something more.
“Every time I sang On My Own, I just cried”
She’s also remarkably honest and happy to admit her own faults. During the live rounds of Over The Rainbow, she sang On My Own, the iconic Les Mis tune that she now sings eight times a week and recently performed to a packed Trafalgar Square at West End LIVE. That first time, though, she was criticised by judges Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charlotte Church. She doesn’t remember the judges’ criticism, she says, because she was already criticising herself. Back then, she “didn’t have a big voice. I have it now because I retrained everything.”
When she auditioned for Les Mis, she took the heartbreaking song to her singing teacher: “Every time I sang it, I just cried. I got half way through and that was it. Something subconsciously was telling me ‘You can’t do this. It’s not in you.’ But I worked on it and worked on it and now the joy that I feel getting to sing this song eight shows a week, I love it and feel like I’ve progressed so much with it.”
Sitting opposite Hope as she tosses that unbelievably long hair and lounges back in wellies, it’s hard not to smile. She has an irrepressible enthusiasm that dissolves cynicism like cheery bleach on hardened lime scale.
“I love being here,” she says. “There’s so many things every day that puts it into perspective. I do this as a job. I’m 20 years old and I get to go and sing and play characters for a job. That’s what I make my living from!”
But don’t let that cheeriness fool you. She’s not the type of actress who puts it all down to being in the right place at the right time. “I don’t know what the word is; I want to say I’m grateful or thankful, but I know I’ve worked hard to be here.”
There are some who would say that, in fact, Hope had her chance delivered to her the easy way. She didn’t have to slog her way through university or drama school or work her way up through the ranks to get her first leading role. She just had to audition in front of millions of watching TV viewers week after week, constantly being judged by a nation of theatre fans. If, in fact, TV auditions are a fast track to success, it could have been the only way Hope’s talent would have been discovered. “I was auditioning for drama school as well,” she explains, “but if I hadn’t got a scholarship I just wouldn’t have been able to afford to go. Without that opportunity, without Andrew and the show, I wouldn’t be here and I’d still be a waitress somewhere hoping to move to London. That’s the reality of it.”
Despite the pressure that knowledge must have piled upon her and the unblinking glare of the spotlight focused on her, she still describes choosing to enter Over The Rainbow as “the best decision I’ve ever made. The TV show was amazing. There was no room for nerves. We were so busy and if you weren’t in hair and make up or doing a tech run or doing an interview for a VT, you were performing, so there wasn’t five minutes to sit on your own and think. I think you psyche yourself out if you do that. By the time you stood on the stairs, the credits were rolling and you were on.”
“I want to say I’m grateful or thankful, but I know I’ve worked hard to be here”
Had she looked at the other casting show winners and taken note of their decisions – Connie Fisher’s long association with The Sound Of Music, Jodie Prenger’s dabbling in presenting – I ask. She had, she answers, but not to the extent that it shaped any of hers. “I just thought ‘whatever comes my way, I’ll take it and roll with it. That’s the way I live life really, just see what door opens and be really honest.”
This is where it becomes clear that Hope was not your average 17-year-old when she first auditioned for Over The Rainbow, or your average 18-year-old when she won. She’s not in it for the fame, nor is she floundering in the world trying to find her path. She knows exactly what she wants her path, her own yellow brick road, to be. “I am an actress. That’s what I want to focus on. I can’t do Dorothy for five years; I’d be 23, 24 and there’s only so much they can do with make up. I knew that when I went in I would want to do Dorothy for a year and then move on.”
That is, of course, exactly what she did, leaving the show in February along with original co-star Crawford. It was then she got her first taste of ‘normal’ auditions, attending five or six, but knowing instinctively when the call came from Cameron Mackintosh and this year’s BBC Radio 2 Olivier Audience Award winner Les Misérables that this was the right choice for her. “I think it’s a rite of passage,” she tells me. “To be part of this or Phantom [Of The Opera], longest running shows, if you’re in musical theatre and you get the opportunity I think you’d be daft not to take it.”
Fun and lively Hope might be, daft she surely isn’t. She’s all too aware that even though she has led a cast on one of London’s most prestigious stages, refers to Lord Lloyd Webber as Andrew and can now count Mackintosh among her list of admirers, she still has much to learn and is learning it from those experienced performers around her.
“I’m the youngest in this cast bar the children, but I don’t feel it because I take things on life experience and the things you’ve dealt with and the way you’ve dealt with them. I’ve always been like that. I grew up very quickly. I’m very lucky to be in the position I am, working so young, but I don’t take that lightly either. I learn so much more about characters and people and myself by learning on the job. I thrive on working.”
With that attitude, her reality show-winning talent and two of the West End’s most powerful producers supporting her along with the public, Hope won’t need the help of any wizards from now on.
"There’s so many things every day that puts it into perspective. I’m 20 years old and I get to go and sing and play characters for a job."