Ruthie Henshall is the reason I can’t speak French. From the ages of 11 to 15-years-old, woefully dull French lessons were bunked off – Je suis vraiment désolé Madame Rendell – in exchange for “music practise” in our beloved scuzzy music block, where a group of us bonded by our idolisation of Henshall would accompany each other on the piano as we took turns singing with the utmost sincerity from the Andrew Lloyd Webber bumper songbook. This was before I discovered boys and when the internet still made that crunchy dial up noise.
If there is a West End leading lady role Henshall hasn’t played – or originated in many cases – it pretty much ain’t worth mentioning. From making her professional debut in Cats more than 25 years ago to playing Roxie Hart on Broadway, she is an undisputed West End legend and, if her prediction was correct when Official London Theatre interviewed her more than 10 years ago, “the last real star musical theatre created”.
Speaking to her on the phone before an evening performance – she kindly turns down the tannoy in her dressing room, even after we’ve gone way over the allocated time and she should be pulling on her leg warmers to transform into dance teacher Miss Wilkinson – I ask her if a decade on, she has changed her mind. In her characteristic disarmingly frank fashion, it’s a resounding no.
“I think it’s terribly sad, they’re not created in the same way anymore. It’s difficult to create stars because, if you take Les Mis for a start, they turn it into a film and understandably they use lots of Hollywood people,” she explains, a hint of her native South London accent detectable. “There’s still not the same respect as there is for straight acting. We do revere our straight actors over here [as opposed to Broadway]. That’s what Great Britain does, we put on a really good play.”
“It gives you such a lift… the Oliviers is the theatre’s Oscars”
It’s true, we do do a good play. But I imagine many would disagree with Henshall on the lack of love for the art form that requires its performers to be a triple threat; acting, dancing and singing to demandingly high standards. This year’s This Morning Audience Award shortlist certainly reflects the immense public respect for that, with Billy Elliot The Musical one of four musicals to make it to the shortlist of the only Olivier Award to be voted for by the public.
“It gives you such a lift… the Oliviers is the theatre’s Oscars,” Henshall tells me, when I ask how the news went down that Billy Elliot had earned a place on the coveted list. “We know we’re in a hit because we see the people stand every night. But when you are considered, by the people who come to see the shows, one of the top West End shows after ten years, that’s insane.”
It comes in an important year for the show that, with its gritty and poignant tale of a family struggling to find their way against the backdrop of the miners’ strike, has quite rightly earned a reputation for wowing even those who would normally shy away from the musical theatre genre, as it turns a decade old. While Henshall can only claim to be part of its history for a year, as a West End veteran she has a clear handle on what she believes to be the secret of its success; the continual changing energy that comes courtesy of a cast led primarily by, in her both protective and affectionate words, “down to earth and gorgeous” children, and a creative team that have never stopped caring.
“They are very hands on here,” she impresses. “When something has been running for ten years, a lot of creative teams are on to the next thing and they’re hoping somebody is just keeping the show in good nick. For some reason this creative team make the time. We had Peter Darling [the show’s Olivier Award-winning choreographer] in the other night, watching the show and giving notes. That’s ten years later. People care.”
Henshall clearly deeply cares too. Not just for the show, which she could clearly happily wax lyrical about for the entire interview, but of the industry too.
While she may bemoan the lack of support for her “very talented leading lady friends who can’t be seen for certain roles because they’re not going to put bums on seats”, Henshall is overwhelmingly positive to be in the company of, even over a phone line. She peppers our conversation with numerous references to her “privileged” experiences and will name just one career regret – losing out on the role of Mary Poppins in favour of a younger actress – but is quick to point out it directly led to her decision to have a second child, thereby “it doesn’t even figure in my disappointments now”. She only has good things to say about living life in the public eye, both as a result of being a high-profile actress and her glossy magazine-followed former relationship with a certain member of the Royal family.
“I love it and I’m passionate about it but [my career] is not what happens to everybody. It’s a tough business”
But while her enthusiasm is certainly infectious, what makes Henshall such a refreshing interviewee is her aforementioned frankness. When I ask her, as the single mother of two children, how she manages to juggle parenthood with a career that currently requires her to be on stage eight times a week, she doesn’t attempt to sugar coat the fact it’s as tough as you’d expect, both emotionally and physically.
“I get on the train and all of a sudden I’m going to a different life. I’m a mummy on the one hand and a performer on the other,” she tells me. “I take them to school in the morning and I see them on Sunday, and apart form that they don’t get to see mummy… I think it’s very hard for them and they do make it known every so often that they don’t get to see me enough… by the time I get to Sunday, all I want is to be with them.”
I ask whether that conflict will mean audiences may have a limited time in which to catch Henshall in the role, but, other than the recent arrival of her own production company – “When the face falls, women’s careers often get stalled and I wanted to have something to fall back on” – there are no signs of her stepping off the boards for the time being. “I don’t know that I could leave yet,” Henshall says, sounding distressed even at the thought of it. “The part is so wonderful and the audiences are so incredible. We’re still that hit show and that is a very, very seductive combination for any performer.”
With one daughter firmly resisting the allure of the stage – “she will find the tallest person to stand behind” – and the youngest already showing signs of the theatrical bug, I tell her I wonder how she’d feel if the latter suddenly hears Matilda calling and announces a desire to follow in her footsteps. First up the voice of Henshall’s words of experience and admirable pragmatism: “I love it and I’m passionate about it but [my career] is not what happens to everybody. It’s a tough business, there’s nothing stable about it.” But then there is a clear “But…” and you hear that infectious bubble of excitement that is the Henshall vocal equivalent of twinkle in an eye, “When you’ve the bug, nothing else will do. And when you love it, you love it, and there’s no way on earth I’d stop her.”
My two pennies worth? Whether it’s a mini Henshall, or one of those under five foot tall performers sharing the spotlight in Billy Elliot who are no doubt what has made many a theatre enthusiast head to the Olivier Awards website to vote, I wouldn’t call the age of the musical theatre star extinct just yet…