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Hayden Thomas interviews Billy Elliot's Ruthie Henshall
Today marks the 10th Anniversary of the Olivier and Tony Award-winning Billy Elliot - The Musical, which is still going strong at the West End's Victoria Palace Theatre. Fit for the occasion, we decided to get our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) to have a chin-wag with Olivier Award winner and Billy's current leading lady Ruthie Henshall.
Read on to find out about her views on the secret of Billy's success, as well as cinema screenings of West End shows, the lack of West End stars in today's multimedia-dominated world, Roxie Hart vs. Velma Kelly, her dream role and the one that got away...
Hayden Thomas: It must be a very busy time for you, what with the 10th Anniversary celebrations, so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
Ruthie Henshall: No worries at all.
HT: My first question is a two-pronged one really. Firstly, in your opinion, what makes Billy Elliot special enough to survive for ten years in an unpredictable West End market? And secondly, in the last twenty years, there have only been three British musicals I can think of - Billy Elliot, We Will Rock You, and Mamma Mia! - that have reached that tenth year anniversary mark, so why don't more British musicals enjoy that same kind of longevity?
RH: Well, saying that, of course you've got 'Les Misérables' and 'The Phantom of the Opera' and so on, but they all opened long before that. I think in the case of Billy, it's just such a beautiful, uplifting story about hope, about a family coming together again, about choices in life and how you can change your destiny, if you're just given an opportunity. It's about a little boy who's lost and finds dancing and finds a teacher who believes in him and it changes his life. He has just lost his mother, his father is grieving, and his brother is actively pushing the minor's strike. They are all at sea and all at war in that family. He turns his father around in the end. His father doesn't want his boy to do ballet because 'ballet is for poofs,' in his own words. And the minor's strike actually happened and devastated lives, so as far as the story goes, I think it's a complete winner.
HT: Audiences all over the world were able to see Billy Elliot as it was broadcast live in cinemas last September. What was that experience like for you?
RH: It was an incredible opportunity because we never get any of our work immortalised by film. It was exciting from that point of view. But it was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time because we knew it was going out live. If anything went wrong, it would be there for all eternity. But I was so proud to be in it.
HT: Do you think there might be more cinema screenings of West End shows in the future or was it more of a one-off for Billy Eliot?
RH: Yes, I do think there will be more. I think there will be a lot of people who follow suit. I think it's a brilliant way for people who can't afford it, or who can't get to London, to be able to enjoy this and to enjoy theatre.
HT: Especially from countries further afield.
RH: Yes, absolutely!
HT: Now, to me, you are one of the true 'West End Stars' of theatre. Do you believe that in this multimedia-dominated generation - where everyone is obsessed with TV, Film and the Internet - it is becoming more and more difficult to establish West End Stars simply through the medium of theatre?
RH: I do. We're just not creating Stars anymore. I think that there are some amazing performances going on at the moment. Katie Brayben, who won for Beautiful - The Carole King Musical at the Olivier Awards, for example. I think maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, she might have emerged. But there's so much media now and there's so much stuff on the computer that it's almost like people get lost, as there are so may ways how people can be seen. I know that sounds bizarre.
HT: Yes, it seems like a sign of the times. I'm not sure if we can ever get that back now - the time when theatre could catapult people like yourself, Elaine Paige or Michael Ball into stardom.
RH: Absolutely! It's the age of television and if you can't get on television... There used to be loads of chat shows as well and variety shows for theatre actors. They've all gone tits-up too.
HT: Looking back on your long career in the spotlight, is there a role you have already played that you might describe as a career-defining role and is there a dream role you've yet to play, but would love to have a go at?
RH: I think my career-defining roles were definitely Polly Baker in 'Crazy For You' - that definitely shot me to fame as my breakthrough show. I think 'Chicago' definitely changed people's perceptions because I had always done the pinafore parts really. That was what people knew me for. And finally, the 10th Anniversary of Les Misérables - more people have seen me do that than anything else because, of course, it was on DVD, and I became associated with Fantine. So I would definitely say those three roles.
HT: And your dream role?
RH: Do you know what, I don't have one. I would have loved to have done 'Mary Poppins,' but I'm probably considered too old for it. They definitely went much younger on that. That's fine too. But I can't think of anything else I'd like to do. Perhaps 'Gypsy' when I'm older. I don't think that will be revived for a while. I think Imelda Staunton will remain in people's minds forever doing that, because she's so phenomenal. I'm such a fan of hers anyway.
HT: You mentioned 'Chicago' as one of your career highlights. The production is still running on Broadway. Having played both roles in the past, if you could go into the Broadway production, but you had to choose between the roles of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who would you play?
RH: It would definitely be Roxy.
HT: Did you enjoy playing that role more?
RH: Yes I did, because it's her story really and there's more acting involved with her. Definitely.
HT: And what's next for you, Ruthie? How long is your current contract with 'Billy Elliot'?
RH: For another year! I just can't leave the children, that's what it is. We're just all having a ball. It's such an incredible show. That's why I'm not moving on from it. I'm loving every single minute.
HT: Well, I wish you all the best with the 10th Anniversary celebrations and thank you again for talking to us.
RH: Thank you for talking to me.
Billy Elliot - The Musical is currently booking through to 19 December 2015 at the Victoria Palace Theatre.