Interview by Lizz Brain
Jodie Prenger shot to musical theatre fame after being crowned the winner of TV's I'd Do Anything, winning the role of Nancy in Oliver!
She went on to enjoy success in a long list of box office and critical hits, from comedy One Man, Two Guv'nors to classic musical Calamity Jane.
After a three-week run in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black's Tell Me On A Sunday at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, she now takes the one-woman show on a 54-venue UK tour which will play at VENUE DETAILS. She plays Emma, a young woman who heads off to New York in search of life and love. Her story is told through song in a series of conversations with friends and letters to her Mum.
Q: How was the Watermill experience?
A: Beautiful. It's the most gorgeous chocolate box theatre, but this has been by far the most daunting thing I've ever done. We had just started rehearsals when I got a really bad cold and sounded like Barry White, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black have been really involved throughout, writing and re-writing and adapting to really make the piece work again.
Q: Tell Me On A Sunday has had many incarnations since 1979, from a song cycle to the first half of Song and Dance to a self-contained one-act show in itself. What can audiences expect this time?
A: We thought about doing it as Song and Dance again but the world wasn't ready for me in head to toe Lycra (laughs). What we do this time is the one-act show, and then have a second act which is me singing at the piano, and then we have a question and answer session. It's been fantastic, the audiences get really engaged with it. We're hoping to find a way to work Twitter into it too so people can Tweet their questions in.
Q: What do audiences want to know in the Q&A sessions?
A: Mostly they like to find out behind-the-scenes stuff and ask questions about the lighting or scene changes. I do get the occasional odd question like "will you come skiing with me?" (I said I thought we'd peak too soon!) or "why aren't there more DVDs of musicals?" (how should I know?). But generally they're really interested and really lovely.
Q: What drew you to the show?
A: The songs are beautiful, little gems. Years and years ago I had a "best of the musicals" double cassette and it had Take That Look Off Your Face and Tell Me On A Sunday on it. I loved it and played it over and over. But all the songs together create a journey that every woman has gone through at some point in her life. Tell Me On A Sunday is a song that really affects people - I can hear them sniffing!
Q: So you can empathise with Emma then?
A: Absolutely. We've all gone through what she goes through, bought the t-shirt, got the scars. And I really understand her. It's so brilliantly written and we've gone through the lyrics with a fine toothcomb. They aren't just lyrics, it's a script set to music. She's got the guy who cheats on her, then the man whose pink mansion should have told her something, then the younger man (who I call Brad) that she pins her hopes on but it crumbles, and then the married man (who I call George). It's all familiar stuff. I've been cheated on, lied to, I've had horrible things said to me but I think women have a certain strength, a fight in them which makes them get up again and carry on despite the knockbacks. We're survivors, we've all been in relationships that we keep trying to make work even though we know it's not quite right, and the wonderful thing about Emma is that when she reaches the point where she wants to run back to the safety of her Mum, she finds a new strength. And it's lovely that it isn't a happily ever after ending where she runs off into the sunset with a man.
Q: You named your characters Brad and George?
A: Oh yes, but I'd swap them out for Gerard Butler (laughs).
Q: The early part of your career involved a lot of club gigs and cabaret shows. Now you're performing solo again, albeit in character. How much pressure does that add?
A: There's no-one else, no-one to fill in if you forget a line, of course that's daunting. But even when I was doing the clubs I was always singing musical theatre songs so I've probably always sung in character. There was one song during rehearsals for Tell Me On A Sunday where I just couldn't get the lyrics right, although fortunately I've not got it wrong on stage yet. It is a huge amount of pressure when it's just you though, you're incredibly exposed, and it's physically and emotionally draining. Apart from getting bludgeoned to death as Nancy, I've never come off stage so ready to sit down. You have to go through those emotions for real, so you draw on what you've been through yourself. Emma's experiences chip away at her but she is strong and wants to do some good with her life. I find myself willing her on. She deserves a port and some cheese by the end of it!
Q: The show was written in the late 1970s. Would Emma's story still be true now, with social media, email and Skype?
A: There was a production with Denise Van Outen which included speed dating and tried to bring it up to date in that way, but I think there's a certain old-fashioned romantic element to the way Emma sits down and writes to her Mum and waits for her response. If she was emailing or chatting on Skype it wouldn't have the same effect. Communication is so instant nowadays, but it was so different for Emma to be out in New York, without a mobile phone, not able to call her Mum for advice as soon as she has a problem. That element of being out there and having to fend for herself really adds a heightened sense of emotion to the piece.
Q: Have you managed to get a break between the Watermill and the tour?
A: No, Simon and I have moved house to this little piece of heaven, part of an old farm. There was an elderly couple who use to have lambs there. Everyone needs a bit of heaven in a busy schedule, but this one does need doing up completely, which is a different kind of hell! It's felt a bit like Carry On Moving, but it's amazing although I won't see it for a while. I met my new neighbours and just yelled: "See you in June".
Q: So the whole menagerie is moving then?
A: Yes, there's 4 dogs, 7 chickens, 3 tortoises, 3 degus called W, T and F - I love odd names, I used to have a one-eared rabbit and called it Pardon!
QUICK FIRE ROUND
Q: If you could play any role in musical theatre, what's still on your wish list?
A: Mama Rose in Gypsy, Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!
Q: And if you were a man, what roles would you want to play?
A: I went to an all girl school. I've already played all the male roles - Phantom, Thenardier, you name it! I left because I wanted the chance to be a leading lady instead! I'd love to do the drag parts though - Priscilla, La Cage, Victor/Victoria.
Q: If you weren't on stage, what would you be doing?
A: Running an animal sanctuary for sheep with one eye and goats with alopecia.
Q: What's your guilty pleasure?
A: Dark chocolate and a free bar.
Q: Favourite drink?
A: Espresso martini although two is my limit before things get blurry.
Q: Favourite TV show?
A: I've just watched The Affair with Dominic West which was brilliant.
Q: Last film you saw at the cinema?
A: Despicable Me 2. I'm slightly obsessed with minions.
Jodie Prenger stars in Tell Me On A Sunday, touring from March 3 to June 8, 2016. Dates and details can be found at www.tellmeontour.co.uk