Ruthie Henshall

Published April 17, 2008

Before the Hollywood starlets got their hands on the vampy dresses and heavy eye-make up, Ruthie Henshall, playing her initial-sake Roxie Hart, was the star who launched Chicago as an international success. Now, less then a year after having her first baby she is returning to the show to play the part of Velma at The Adelphi. Tom Bowtell popped into her dressing room to find out whether the show about the windy city is still blowing her away.

“So tell me Ruthie, is it eerie to be back in Chicago?” Ms Henshall kindly avoids the obvious joke about actually being in London and says “no it’s not really. I’ve never been back to a show before and I thought it might be a little strange but it has actually just been a joy.” Henshall is seated at her dressing table applying improbably large false eyelashes with dextrous delicacy – (throughout the course of the interview she gradually turns from a petite brunette into the vampish glam-girl Velma). 18-inch eyelashes secured, she continues “it’s also been a joy doing a show without all the hassle of a first night and things like that – with this show you don’t have the usual worries about whether or not it’s going to run.”

The fact that Ruthie’s daughter Lily was born only five months ago may be behind the fact that she is suddenly embracing stability where previously she may have shunned it. She admits that her family is her main priority, but feels that “doing the baby thing” has helped renew her love of the theatre. After over a decade of none-stop work, showbiz had lost its “buzz”. “For a while it just wasn’t doing it for me, I was just thinking I’d lost my drive and that I didn’t feel the same about it. Then I realised why it was: nothing is more important that having a child.” Now however, with Lily coming along nicely she is revelling in being back with the musical which made her name. “I’m glad to say that all the old magic is still there! I was worried because if a show has been going for a while you sometimes find that, because they haven’t been part of the creative process from the beginning, the people who take over sometimes aren’t quite as committed – but that’s just not the case here. The cast is amazing and the show is in brilliant nick."

"Doing Chicago is a great way to get back in shape!"

While she says the new cast has brought “a completely different energy” to Chicago, Ruthie feels that it hasn’t become at all stale: “that was why I took the part, it’s still so fresh – it’s selling out every night here and selling out 98% of seats on Broadway, obviously the film helped our profile enormously and ensured that we are still the hottest show about.” Though she looks spectacularly trim from where I’m sitting, Ruthie also confesses that she took the role for “very selfish reasons – it was a great way of getting back in shape.” Denise Van Outen was the first to highlight the boobs-and-bum busting nature of Chicago, claiming that her stint in the show flattened her celebrated curves, and Henshall confirms that the Chicago diet is second to none “when the part came up I must admit that I was thinking ‘well that’ll help me get back in shape and lose the baby fat!”

Throughout proceedings thus far, Ruthie has been positively gushing about her return to Chicago, but isn’t there a small part of her which feels a little miffed that she hasn’t been brought back as Roxie – generally recognised as the main part? “I think it is Roxie’s show – she does the bulk of everything and it’s her story, she holds everything together and everyone else weaves in and out of her. But you can’t argue with the fact that Velma has won a Tony, an Olivier, a BAFTA and an Oscar – there’s something about the role that tends to stands out – it’s a much more showbizzy part.” She pauses for a moment and diplomatically applies some blood-red lipstick. “I would probably say that for personal satisfaction, Roxie is definitely the part but I prefer Velma because it really lets me do the showbiz thing.”

Having made her name as Roxie, has Ruthie (as Velma) ever found herself launching into a Roxie number? “Thankfully that hasn’t happened – in fact, I’m that far away from it, I can’t really remember her lines – it’s four and half years since I finished the show on Broadway. It’s probably better that way – you’re not pre-programmed with a set way of doing something, it stays fresh.” While Henshall has managed to avoid leaping into Roxie’s lines mid-performance she admits that both she and Linzi Hately were “concerned that, because I’d played Roxie before, Roxie and Velma would end up being too similar. Luckily we were able to chuck those worries out of the window as not only is my Velma very different from my Roxie, but her Roxie is very different from my Roxie!” Well, that’s cleared that up…

While she is obviously getting great pleasure from Velma, Ruthie struggles to suppress her (understandable) affinity with the role of Roxie, and for a while it seems as if she has forgotten which part she is actually playing. “All the Roxies I’ve seen have been different. People always bring something of their own personality to the part, but the essence is always there: you have to get that absolute joy with Roxie – she’s got what she always wanted – her name in the papers [Roxie’s lawyer sells her salacious story of sex and murder to the gutter press] – she’s also got an edge, she thinks on her feet. You have to see the darker side of her. She’s not a fluffy bit of fluff – she’s not a dumb blonde.”

"It's a wonderful business – sometimes it's hard, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it's the most joyful thing."

While everything is going swimmingly on the performance-side of things, Ruthie admits that she is finding it hard to juggle looking after a six-month old baby with eight shows a week: “I can’t say it isn’t hard: I’m still breast-feeding Lily so she’s up three or four times a night and sleep deprivation is one of the hardest things to cope with. I’m lucky that I’ve got my fella [fellow actor Tim Howard] to help me.” It may be early days, but would she encourage her daughter to take up the acting lark? “Yes I would – but only if I thought she was passionate about it. if I thought she was doing it to please, or just because we’re in the business then I’d talk to her – but if somebody’s passionate about it, there’s nothing you can do to stop them! I wouldn’t stop my child, because I think this is a wonderful business. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s the most joyful thing. It’s colours of the rainbow really, because you’re up there. But I’ve had a wonderful life in this business.”

Henshall whole-heartedly admits that her “wonderful life” in theatre has been indirectly helped by the positive publicity created for Chicago by the Oscar-winning Hollywood movie starring Rene Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere, but is she a fan of the movie itself? “I thought it was great because they stuck very closely to the script. I sort of knew it’d be a success – it’s the sort of sexy fabulous show which is perfect for cinema. My only gripe is all the MTV-style video cutting for all the dance scenes. It almost makes me feel sick while I’m watching – I want to see people dancing – but they had lots of images and flashes all the time. Was Ruthie ever in line for a role in the film? “Oh no, can you imagine? Let’s just be really honest here, they’ve got a choice between Ruthie Henshall and Hollywood stars and I think they’re going to for the Hollywood stars! Perhaps that’s why they cut corners on the dance routines? “Perhaps…It’s a shame, because I’d love to do a musical film but I’m not box office and you have to do one to be box office, so it’s a sort of vicious circle.”

Ruthie may not be quite a box office name, but along with her husband Tim Howard, she makes one of the more high-profile couples in the West End world. The two met on the set of Peggy Sue Got Married in 2001 and soon after that it was Ruthie H who was tying the knot. Tim Howard is soon to be seen starring as the ingeniously named Stewart Rodderick in Tonight’s The Night, the Rod Stewart Musical which Ruthie promises is going to be “fabulous”. While she now seems very happily married, one of Ruthie’s previous liaisons, her brief relationship with Prince Edward, earned her numerous column-inches in the 1990s. She doesn’t seem overly keen to dwell on the Edward business, and in light of the intruder at Prince William’s 21st Birthday, I decide against discussing the possibility that, had things worked out differently, I could now have been sitting opposite Queen Ruthie. Rather disappointingly, she also claims that nobody made any sarcastic remarks when she appeared in Crazy For You at the Prince Edward Theatre.

In recent months, Ruthie became reacquainted with the tabloids when she agreed (along with six other celebrities) to be body-painted with a map of the world. “I thought it sounded quite exciting but it was actually one of the dullest things I’ve done,” she sighs “four hours standing there while someone paints you, it was just deathly dull and I wasn’t impressed at all. I walked in and saw Sharon Davies waiting there to be photographed, and she just looked stunning. I told her and she said ‘just you wait – she was as minty as hell about it too!’” Having the Netherlands daubed on your nether regions is clearly not as exciting as it sounds, although judging by some of the comments in the guestbook on www.ruthiehenshall.com, her male fans were rather chuffed that she endured the boredom.

"That's how I got to the States – I just thought 'sod it, I'll go' and I ended up staying two years!"

What with dating royalty and dabbling in nude body-painting, does Ruthie pride herself on doing the unusual? “I don’t put any limitations on myself and as a result I think that everything is possible and I tend to just go for it in life and that lands me in places which are pretty surreal. That’s how I got to America really, I just thought ‘sod it, I’ll go, and I ended up staying there for two years”.

At this point, and for about the only time in the interview, Ruthie’s (by now spectacularly made-up) face becomes more serious as she talks of how, in her opinion, musical theatre is treated with far more respect in America than it is in UK. “In the US, musical theatre is held up as high as straight acting and movies, but over here there’s a hierarchy and it’s movies, TV, plays and then musical theatre. And it’s getting worse – I think I was the last real star musical theatre created, and that was ten or fifteen years ago. I find it sad, very sad to admit that.” Ruthie is hinting at the increasing crossover of TV and film stars into West End shows. She doesn’t resent these celebrities being given a chance “as long as they can do it! I was glad they gave Martine the Olivier Award because she did give a fabulous performance.” Henshall feels that the influx of celebrities (who “don’t know what they are letting themselves in for”) is a result of a more general malaise in theatre culture “the producers want to make money and to make discoveries – that’s exciting for them – and obviously TV stars provide a guaranteed audience.”

However, Ruthie feels that she isn’t really in a position to complain. As she has pointed out, she was one of the last performers to have made it to the top without playing a bit-part in Brookie, and she is in as much demand as ever: “after finishing in Chicago in September I’m going to go and do Fossie in Edinburgh and Manchester, then I'm doing Proms in the Park with Bryn Terfel, things keep coming up, which is lovely, but I’m going to have Christmas off. It will be Lily’s first and nothing will stop me from spending it with her.”

Musical Theatre may have been Ruthie Henshall’s life for over a decade, but it is now quite clear that her ultimate allegiance now lies with her family – and all those hand-wringing producers out there are just going to have to deal with it….