Interview with Mamma Mia! star Linzi Hateley
Linzi Hateley is one of musical theatre's most recognisable names having played roles in iconic productions such as Les Miserables, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mary Poppins and of course, the RSC's fabled production of Carrie. Her astonishing voice and inimitable charm have allowed her to play roles as diverse as Mrs Banks and Roxy Hart and she has recently returned to the role of Donna Sheridan in the original West End production of Mamma Mia!, a role she has previously played twice before throughout her career.
“I have been unbelievably lucky – I've worked bloody hard” she laughs as we meet in her dressing room at the Novello Theatre before a weekend performance “If there's success in my career it's longevity. I've managed to keep going in an industry that's very inconsistent.” Despite having originated incredible roles in world premières, the role of Donna is one that Hateley is extremely pleased to be returning to. “I'm just so grateful to be in town doing Mamma Mia!, I love the part, I love the show. My dream was to just be in a musical, so I've more than exceeded expectations.”
The musical has been running in the West End for the past 17 years and continues to charm audiences from around the world night after night. It's fairly rare for performers to return so frequently to roles they have already enjoyed, but Linzi seems genuinely excited to be reprising the part. “This is the longest I've been away from it”, she explains, “I was surprised how much I had to re-learn. I didn't think I'd be back in Lycra at 46, but here I am! I'd almost put it to bed and thought that I'd said goodbye to my Mamma Mia! days, so I think my brain sort of removed it, but actually to revisit it was lovely.”
I'm interested to hear how the role has developed for Linzi, coming to it again after changes in her professional and private life. “It's different every time”, she answers. “I have to say it's a fantastic part, if I'm honest I think the first time I did it I was slightly on the young side. I feel as though I've come of age now and that I'm actually doing the part at a time where I can completely understand it. I have a 17-going-on-18-year-old daughter so I'm completely aware of how she's “slipping through my fingers”, so I feel very connected to how Donna is and how difficult her struggle is. I also have an only child and to see them grow up becoming a young woman and having their own life is quite a challenge as a parent and I think I can completely relate to that with this part.”
Whilst the stage musical has always been successful, it wasn't until the film adaptation in 2008 that the story of the show and the characters reached a much wider audience, with new expectations thanks to the celebrity driven performance of Meryl Streep in the role. “I do sometimes think there is the tenancy with people to expect someone like Meryl Streep to be playing Donna – someone tall with long blonde hair. I'm the complete opposite, I'm a shorty with short hair. I walk on and think people must look at me and say “well she's not Meryl, is she?” It's a pressure that I'm sure many in the stage production all around the world feel in relation to the film, and whilst the screen versions may not have been world class singers, the assembled star quality was certainly a first for a film musical. “The film only came from the stage show being such a success” says Hateley. “Credit to the casting of this show is that they never keep it exactly the same. Each cast is very different and I think that keeps the show fresh and allows you to bring yourself to it. I think people love it because they can relate to it in one way or another. You come out after having a good time and feel better for it.”
The feel-good appeal of Mamma Mia! Is not only part of its original success around the world, but also part of its longevity as repeat audiences continue to keep the show alive in the West End and beyond. On Broadway the show was the first major musical to open following the attacks on September 11 2001 at a time where Mayor Rudy Giuliani was demanding that New Yorkers supported Broadway to show the world that the city was open for business. The 'feel-good' factor helped boost the show during its initial run and has meant that people return time and again to lose themselves in the story and the music.
“Through a terrible situation art can actually try and find something to celebrate when things are so horrendous. The reason why people come back again to it is that real sense of escapism. With all the crap that's going on in the world they can sit there and laugh along, cry along and see people not taking themselves too seriously and having a bit of fun. I've been in the business for donkey's years now, and if I never did anything ever again I do feel blessed that I've been in an industry and a production where I can look out and see the pleasure that it's giving other people. There's not that many jobs that you can say do that.”
Aside from the obvious challenges of returning to the role, Linzi spoke about the changes in her voice and the physical demands that the role can take on a performer. “It's a big old sing Donna and if I'm honest some things were easier to sing when I was younger. It's a fascinating thing the voice and how it changes. I've been quite fortunate that I've still been able to use it in a way that I can manipulate whatever show I'm doing and make it work. With Donna it's such a journey that she goes on, she has songs like “The Winner Takes it All” and “Slipping Through My Fingers”, there's about 20 minutes in the second half where you think “here we go...let's get prepared for that!” I've learnt to approach it from an acting point of view rather than a vocal point of view. I'm not saying I don't sing it, but I think what I've learnt over the years, I think it was that great lesson of seeing Judi Dench do “Send In The Clowns” where she hardly sings a note but by the end of it you're completely moved by what she does. With “The Winner Takes it All” the impact seems greater not singing it all right from the off and letting the audience be drawn into this emotional roller coaster which she's on, and by the end of it when you get to the big stuff you can really let go and the audience is right behind you and very moved by it.”
Like any theatre fan I am fascinated by the RSC's original production of Carrie, and I'm keen to hear from Linzi about how that experience, at the age of just 17, has stayed with her as a performer. “I've come full circle with it, I'm actually now very proud to have been part of it” she explains. “It's the one that does amaze me after all these years that people are more interested in it than anything else I've ever done. It was very difficult as a 17 year old, having never done anything like that before, to be, not me personally, but to be so crucified in a way, to have such an amazing opportunity – to go to New York, win an award and have it all pulled away so harshly was quite cruel. It was a massive learning curve for me and it's stuck with me all my life, it's made me the person that I am, which is always slightly fearful that things are going to always go wrong. It's not necessarily a bad thing to feel in this industry, but I think that when I do have real high I don't ever allow myself to enjoy them as much as they should because I've got this slight thing that's always been with me since that amazing, but slightly traumatic experience.”
Despite being one of the biggest ever Broadway flops and spawning an entire cultural movement, the show itself has gone on to be successfully revived in both New York and London and has enjoyed a number of high profile productions. “I'm not proud to say it, but when they first started reviving it I must say I didn't want it to happen.” Linzi says. “Part of me thought I'd be really gutted if it turned out to be a great success for someone else at the cost of my suffering. I'm not proud to say that, but that's how I felt. All the productions that have gone on, they've all wanted to embrace what me and Betty did in New York, wanting us to be part of it and almost get our seal of approval, it's been quite cathartic and it's made me go actually – now we can be proud of the work that we've done. Had it ran it would have been a cult thing, but it didn't. It's gone full circle and I feel I can now hold my head high and say yes, I was Carrie and it put me on the map.”
Another production that put Hateley firmly on the musical theatre map was Andrew Lloyd Webber's high profile revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which opened at the London Palladium in 1991. As a child who grew up with that production and indeed the cast recording, I sheepishly tell Linzi how important that production was to me as a musical theatre fan, and how her performance has stuck with me all these years.
“I have a lot of people who I've worked with who were ten years younger than me who are now in the business and say like you, it meant so much to them” she laughs. “But I think it was because it was a lovely production of it. Yes, it was Andrew Lloyd Webber and you sort of think that's going to work, but it was also Jason Donovan, who, yes he's a big star but at the time the press were completely ready to kill it.” Donovan's performance went on to be highly praised and the production ran at the Palladium for 1095 performances, breaking records for the venue. “It had the first ever mega-mix”, Linzi remembers. “I can still see Andrew coming into rehearsals waving a tap saying “this is what we're going to do at the end of the finale” and then he stuck on the tape. It was the whole show done again but with a pop beat and we just looked at each other and thought – what the hell is he thinking? We got to the end of the first preview, the show had gone really well and we thought wow, it was like a dream come true. Then it was the Mega-mix and we just thought...this is where it's going to go tits up. I've never seen anything like it – the audience erupted. There's a few moments for me that I won't ever forget and that's one of them. Something that just triggers and audience to just go wild.”
It's a similar response with current audiences at the Novello who find themselves up on their feet night after night, partying along with the entire cast of Mamma Mia! With that similar Mega-Mix vibe that ends the show. “It's something I've learnt over time” Linzi explains, “I do think as a performer, without sounding too cliché that there's something about less is more. Being able to draw an audience in, not overpower them, allowing them time to settle and come in to you. Trevor Nunn gave me that note when I did Les Mis, my first West End job, how lucky was I? I'd done Carrie and I'd been loud – I've got a throat like a foghorn but not an ounce of subtly – I was young. He gave me a really great piece of advice, he said “you are interesting enough. You are a very interesting person to watch, and when you open your mouth you become even more interesting.” It's about not feeling that you have to tell everybody everything, let them come into you. If you do that little bit less, it will have much more impact. I use that in “The Winner Takes It All”. It starts almost out of nowhere and catches the audience by surprise. Then when it does kick in they go mental...”
You can see Linzi Hateley perform as Donna in Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre in London's West End until June 2017.