Interview with Lazarus and Kinky Boots star Amy Lennox


“Some journalist called it a jukebox musical and it made me want to be sick”.

West End leading lady Amy Lennox may be a performer than many associate primarily with musical comedy, following star turns in hits such as Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots, the latter of which saw her recently pick up an Olivier Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a musical, but she has certainly embraced her new challenging leading role in David Bowie's Lazarus.

“I would really struggle to call it a musical” she laughs. “I don't know what you'd call it, quite honestly, it's like a totally different animal to anything anyone will have ever seen before.” Having premiered in New York weeks before David Bowie's death in January 2016 this new musical is preparing to open in a bespoke theatre space near King's Cross Station. Billed as a collaboration between the late music and performance genius with Irish playwright Enda Walsh, critics struggled to categorise the show, but theatre fans and Bowie fans alike celebrated his unique final creative gift to the world.

“I've come to the conclusion that the only way to describe it is like a Bowie art installation” Amy continues. “It's so subjective, I think it's something you'd watch once and think one way about it, and watch it again and think another way – it's quite incredible and different.”

I meet Lennox directly following a rehearsal run through, the first time the London cast have performed the whole piece together in front of their wider creative team. “I'm quite exhausted” she admits. “Ivo [van Hove – the celebrated director] is something else, I don't know if it's a Belgian thing but he rehearses only between 11am and 4pm, that's his standard. He doesn't see the point of working any other time. I think he's on to something, he only works when you're at your best. You're really well rested, had plenty of sleep, he's so hands on and gives such good notes, he's such a wonderful guy to work for. You go away with all of these ideas and things to think about and you come back and it's all gone up another level.”

Van Hove is certainly the theatre creative of the moment, with recent Tony Award wins, Olivier nominations and a trail of sell-out re-inventions to his name that have propelled the role of director to an almost above the title position that's earning recognition from the general audience as well as theatre makers.


Lazarus (New York Production)

“He's absolutely honest but not in a nasty way,” Amy explains, “If he thinks you're shit he'll tell you. I was jumping into an unknown pool, I didn't get to know his style of direction in the audition – he was very quiet. The usual actor paranoia that I usually get, there's been no need for that.. He's so clear with his notes, and I just love notes. His notes are amazing and I can't wait to hear what he has to say when he's finished. He literally brings you up to the next level and I don't know how he does it... he loves actors and working with actors.”

Whilst some audiences will come to Lazarus expecting a more traditional musical structure akin to ABBA's Mamma Mia! Or Carole King's Beautiful, it's important to remember that Bowie himself created the production, and along with his last album “Blackstar”, it remains one of his final piece of his legacy.

“I don't feel daunted by that”, Amy says, “if anything it's really wonderful to be part of something that people won't have a clue what they're going to see. That's what Bowie did, he left this legacy of creating things that make you think - it could be ambiguous. He's always been ahead of the game in a way and I feel that's exactly what this is. No one will be able to pigeon hole him into anything and this is exactly the same. I'm sure there will be people who say they don't get it, maybe it will be Marmite, but I'd rather be part of a Marmite show than something dull.” The musical had an added poignancy as it coincided with the shock news that Bowie had been suffering a terminal illness, unknown to anyone outside of his close circle.

“The producers knew”, Amy tells me, “one of them was saying that he was there on opening night and got up for a bow but even to get up the stairs was hard, he was obviously in a lot of discomfort but he was the happiest man alive. From what they've told me he couldn't have been more happy with what they created and what was done with his material.”

Whilst the show was generally praised in New York the break has allowed the creative team to reassess certain elements of the show and look at ways of improving on their work ahead of a London run.


Amy Lennox in Kinky Boots

“They have made some relatively big changes” Amy explains, “there's been some cuts in it and the script has been made more efficient, it's got less frills. It's nice going into something knowing that the creatives have that knowledge. It's nice to know that they've had a reasonable gap and have come back to revisit it. I feel that my Elly is very different and I've been able to create a brand new character with Ivo's help.”

Lennox joins a cast that also includes three members of the original New York company, including 'Dexter''s Michael C. Hall, and I wonder if it has proven difficult to slot into a cast that have already become comfortable with the material.

“It was quite daunting in week one as we were the beginners and I have to keep reminding myself that they've done it before and I'm going through the process, just like they would have had to do last year”, she replies. “They've been so great and encouraging, they're all brilliant, I can see why they were brought over.”

Whilst Lazarus in New York was situated in a 300 seater venue, the London production has commanded a 960 bespoke performance space to house the production. “It's an expansive space, it's pretty massive” Amy laughs. “It's all new to everyone, we're all kind of guinea pigs really. From day one we've been in costume. They've given us a really good idea of the set, we've had all of our props, all of our costumes. My blue wig is coming shortly – then I'll be complete.”


Amy Lennox (Centre) in 9 to 5

Lennox plays the lead role of Elly, a character she described as being a “very unhappy soul who is in a very unhappy marriage, on medication and isn't in a good place.” Whilst Lazarus is non-traditional and non-linear in form, the characters are well defined and exist solidly within the world that Bowie has created. “It's a relatively surreal piece and it doesn't follow a linear storyline, that can be quite difficult to plot your journey”, she explains. “A lot of it is in Thomas Newton's head and it moves between that and reality, it's all very confused in a wonderful way.”

The confusion adds to the meatiness of the role, and whilst her character Elly becomes mesmerized and besotted by Newton's former lover, Mary Lou, the challenges have delighted Amy rather than daunt her. “I've waited for a role like this for ages – it's fucking awesome” she exclaims. “I can't tell you, I can't wait to get my teeth stuck into a role like this. You get to go to a really dark place with it, this awful place which is quite exhausting. I finish and need a lie down”.

The role couldn't be further away from her previous West End turns and she explains how her ideal scenario is to move from one job to the next with as much variation as possible. “In an ideal world that would be the thing you would do every time, but obviously you have to eat. It's nice to be challenged and be taken out of what you're used to. You stop thinking and can get brain rot if you're not careful, that's why I like to leave a show because you have to wake your brain up again. If I could do something different every time that would be ideal. I certainly sing but I don't think of it as singing. Everything else going on around the singing tells the singing what the singing is, it doesn't need to be anything more than that, it's kind of secondary in this.”


Lazarus (New York Production)

Her role in Kinky Boots brought the house down each evening and she often found herself with the audience in the palm of her hands. “It was a ball, we had standing ovations every night,” she explains, “We had to remind ourselves that that isn't the norm, the way that that show brings about that reaction. What I love most about Kinky Boots is the relationship with the audience. When you're playing a comic role like that you have to listen to the audience and they tell you what works and what doesn't. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks, when you get on the stage they tell you everything you need to know. The role of Lauren could never bore me because you always have to be alert and responsive to it. You couldn't rest on your laurels. You could have a three day streak where you feel you've brought the house down and then you could have audiences that aren't as responsive, it's the sort of never ending mystery of the audience, trying to crack them. It's always an ongoing challenge.”

Will the shift in audience reaction with Lazarus therefore be unsettling, I wonder?

“I'm getting the impression that there won't be much applause” she responds. “I think it's going to be silent throughout, there's no interval! It's going to be an interesting mix of theatre goers – I'm sure it's going to bring a new audience who have never seen me in anything before, so that's cool. I just can't wait to see the response. I'm really interested to know.”

For all its differences and uniqueness, Lazarus will certainly test audience's reactions and will offer a completely different experience to anything else they might have seen.

“It's the kind of thing that you'll ponder on for a few days afterwards” Amy confirms. “I obviously haven't watched the entire thing, but the ending I've seen a couple of times and each time I've felt differently. The first time I cried. The songs take on a new life within the piece, they're not carbon copies of his version, they work within the realm of where they are.”

Amy Lennox stars in Lazarus at the King's Cross Theatre from 25 October 2016 to 22 January 2017.

 

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