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42nd Street took the West End by storm when it moved into the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with a flurry of four and five-star reviews. Much of the praise was for Clare Halse, who plays Peggy Sawyer, a dance virtuoso waiting to be discovered,is forced to step in and save Julian Marsh’s Broadway show Pretty Lady. We chatted to Halse about her previous experiences as an understudy opposite Imelda Staunton, how she is helping to inspire a generation of young dancers, and performing for Royalty on the show’s opening night.
How much of 42nd Street did you know before you auditioned for the part?
I didn’t know the show that well. I’d seen the tour of it about eight years ago, and that was all I really knew about it. It wasn’t a role I ever thought I’d be able to play, I never really had it on my radar. Even though I love to dance, I thought I might be a bit short for the part. From what I knew of the show it was about a chorus line of dancers, so when I saw pictures of other productions it always seemed like taller girls got the parts. So when the audition came in I thought, ‘yes I’ll definitely give it a go’.
It was a big surprise when I got the part. It was a huge opportunity and I’ve really tried not to take it for granted really. I love the music, I love the dancing... I love everything about the show really. I’m having a great time.
What have your experiences of being a cover in other shows been like?
I’ve had lots of different experiences being an understudy in the past, but none of them bad really. My most recent covering experience was in Gypsy covering Gemma Sutton - who is amazing. I remember going on and it was all quite scary because I was on stage with Imelda Staunton who I thought the world of. It’s quite a lot of pressure because you want to do well for everyone around you. It’s moments like that which allow me to feel how Peggy might be feeling when she has to give it her all.
Because I’ve had a little experience in the industry over the last 10 years, I know a little bit about how she might have felt. I think it adds to how grateful I am for the part. It wasn’t handed to me on a plate straight out of college, I’ve built up to it.
What are some of your favourite dance-centric musicals?
I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Mear for a long time and Drew McOnie, who’s just seemed to burst onto the scene. I went to see one of Drew McOnie’s earlier shows, Drunk. The characters were all different names of drinks, and it was amazing because he told all these different stories through dance. And it’s the same with Stephen Mear when he did Mary Poppins [with Matthew Bourne], he brought all these amazing things to the table, like the “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” dance which incorporated sign language.
What was it like performing for the Duchess of Cambridge on opening night of 42nd Street?
It was one of the best nights of my life. We had all these amazing people in the audience and everyone was buzzing, but to top it off we had the Duchess in the Royal Box. At the end, she was waiting in the wings to come on and do a bow, but I came off stage to do a quick change. So in my head I was thinking: ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to have to strip down to my undies in front of the Princess!’ Hopefully she wasn’t looking my way!
But she was really nice and we were chatting away. She was commenting on the athleticism of the show, I imagine she picked up on that because she’s quite sporty herself. It was cool that she got that aspect of the show.
And what’s it been like acting alongside Sheena Easton?
Sheena’s an absolute pro. She has a hefty show and six massive ballads, but she’s lots of fun backstage. It is nice watching her in the rehearsal room because she has an amazing confidence to just say “I don’t really understand that” or “could you make that clearer for me?” It taught me that it’s okay to be a bit more like that.
At the end of the show, you see lots of kids (and just as many adults) tapping their way up the aisle – it’s a show that does inspire people to dance. Where did you learn to tap like that?
It’s lovely because I quite often meet little girls at stage door and who say “what do I do because I haven’t started tap yet?” Well I was the same. Even though I’m quite indecisive in everyday life, I know I’ve always wanted to do this. I didn’t start tap until I was 12, I went to a normal school and then had singing or dancing lessons in the evening. I had really good teachers. I remember when I was 16, my dance teacher said “look, you’re 5 foot 2, you don’t have the body of a ballerina”. But it means that when I go into a room, I have an extra fire in my belly because I’m not necessarily a dancer on a plate. I want to really show them what I can do.
42nd Street Tickets are available now.