Interview with Vanities and Wicked star Ashleigh Gray

Vanities the Musical has its London debut this September as the show celebrates its 10th anniversary. Described as a "hilarious and heartfelt story about three best friends growing up in Dallas at a time when image and style were more important than brains and ambition", Vanities explores how these women’s warped view of the world shaped them, for better and worse, through a rich original score that blends girl group harmonies of the 60s and 70s with a contemporary musical theatre score. 

With a score by David Kirshenbaum and book by Jack Heifner this new production is directed and choreographed by Racky Plews and features an exciting cast of West End regulars Lauren Samuels, Ashleigh Gray and Lizzy Connolly.

As the production begins rehearsals this week ahead of an early September opening, we caught up with former Wicked star Ashleigh Gray who plays Kathy in the West End premiere to hear more about the musical.

Ashleigh Gray

Dom O'Hanlon: What excites you most about being apart of Vanities the Musical?

Ashleigh Gray: I think what's exciting about it is the transformation. People may know of the original play by Jack Heifner but obviously as this is a musical version, never been seen in London before, that's always nice to bring something to the theatrical audience over here. I think it's a really great piece – it's lots of fun, the other two girls that I'm playing opposite are such a laugh and we're having such a great time in the rehearsal period so we're excited to get it in front of people.

DOH: What are you enjoying most about discovering your character?

AG: What's great about these three characters is that they're so diverse in their beliefs, their actions and their general ways but they have a real unity and are a really close friendship group so that's lovely to play and to find the similar aspects of them. As much as we're all in the same scenes we also exist in our own little world and they come together at really prominent moments so it's really fun to explore. What's making it even more hilarious is that we three actresses are very similar to our characters, so during the lunch break I'm still the organizing one, making lists of what we have to do...Lizzy has her script flying everywhere and Lauren's too cool for school really! So it's life imitating art. I think what I love about her is that of the three girls she goes on the most diverse journey in the entire piece, so that's a really great thing to play. It goes across a wide spectrum from the beginning to the end of the show so I'm really looking forward to that. She's got some really excellent songs to sing – Kathy's solo “Cute Boys with Short Hair Cuts” is a really great number so I'm looking forward to performing that.

DOH: Do you feel the importance of being in a strong female-led musical?

AG: Yes – and what's great as well is that we have a female director and choreographer now in the room with us and a female MD so we're having a real 'girl power' moment. I think there's something really unique about friendships, particularly all female friendships – we're there for each other and we get each other through situations, so I think putting that on stage there will be a lot that people can actually relate to. People will go “oh, I wish I had a friendship like that”, so that's really exciting to get on the stage.

DOH: Does it feel different because it's written by a man?

AG: He writes women very well though I have to say. It's all very natural, there's nothing that we're having to think about changing. It's written really well and the songs are the extensions of the characters' thoughts and storyline, it's a really solid piece. I think he must have had a lot of consultation with his female friends as he's got them down. As of yet we haven't come to any hurdles!

DOH: Has the show been adapted at all to suit a 2016 audience?

AG: Yes I think it has. All three of us read the original play but the musical is very different – the ending of the musical is very different and there's a whole new scene. Personally I think it works really well, even in incarnations before, the musical has gone through Seattle, off-Broadway and it's been updated a fair few times. We're enjoying putting our own spin on it, and because we feel so close to these characters we can actually put a bit of Ashleigh and Lauren and Lizzy into them and make it even more rounded and even more of a natural progression than it is written down. I mean there's aspects that are progressive – we start in the 60s and end up in 1990, so we're hitting across different decades there. There's references to political events and genuine events so it's interesting for people to pick up on those events and how those significant events can make people go down different journeys, so I think it's very transferable to today. We get to the stage at the end of the show where it's all about unity and being together, and I think that with all the terrible things that are happening in the world it's really important that we stick by each other and embrace our friends and work as a team – it's definitely going to speak to a 2016 audience as well.

DOH: How do you deal with the demands of consistently shifting time frames and a character that goes through such a long and varied life?

AG: Obviously I make sure I've done as much research as to what's on the page and Jack's got a really solid book here so all the clues are in the script or the lyrics of the songs. You can own that character so you can envisage how they are when they end up so he's done a lot of the work for us. It is very difficult, and what makes it more difficult is rehearsing out of sequence, so you have to remember how old you are and there's a lot of jumping about – but it's good for the brain! We've done a lot of work together trying to keep that real vibrant youth in the beginning and how that goes. Whilst we might rehearse out of sequence the play does run in sequence, there's a great arc to the piece so we can get into that groove and journey with our character each night.

DOH: Are you intimidated or excited for the intimate nature of Trafalgar 2?

AG: I love it – I've played it before with a musical back in 2011 called Betwixt. Since then I've done big arena tours, 3000 seat theatres, but I really love that intimacy and being able to see and feed off an audience. I think that's really exciting as an actor, the sense of a live audience and when they're right there there is no escaping – it's lovely and I'm looking forward to that. There's dancing, there's all sorts of stuff going on. The people on the front row will have to keep their legs in, you might get a pom-pom in the face if you're sitting too close, but that's what's great about it! If the audience feel like they're part of the sorority group of the cheer-leading team then that's great for them.

Ashleigh Gray in Wicked


DOH: You've had so many fantastic roles throughout your career – is there a particular moment that you're most proud of?

AG: I mean Wicked obviously was my dream role, I think it is for many women in musical theatre, so I count myself very lucky to have had Elphaba as part of my life for eight years now. Being able to play that role in my home town of Edinburgh on the tour, performing in the very theatre where I grew up and used to go and see shows and wish I was one of the people up there. Being from Scotland originally it's very rare that my friends and family up there get to see me, so playing such an iconic venue in such an amazing role in an incredible show with all my family and friends there is definitely my proudest moment to date.

DOH: Elphaba is such a dream role for female performers, do you think there are enough strong central female characters being written in new musicals?

AG: I think it's definitely getting better. I was very lucky with Wicked because it has two cracking female leads which were so fun to play and Vanities is a real extension of that. When you think back to the kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows where the women were the nice serene female leads who dreamed about being married to perfect men to Vanities where we want to be who we are, striving for careers and such, it's moving with the times. I hope that musical theatre writers are getting voices to get heard. There's so many great platforms out there – one of our co-Producers Katy Lipson who works with Aria Entertainment runs a thing called From Page to Stage every year and it's about getting new writers to get their stuff heard. If we don't hear it it just stays in a file somewhere on a shelf. I've always been a champion of new musical theatre writing and if you get someone like me who's a bit opinionated than you can get people to put their stamp on it on that's how new trends develop, but I do think we're traveling in the right direction.

DOH: Finally – what can audiences look forward to with Vanities the Musical?

AG: I think it's going to be a fun night out but also an emotional roller-coaster. You'll laugh with us, cry with us and come out humming some of the tunes, and hopefully go away not too bruised from all the props flying in your face. It's lots of fun and its got a real universal story, so come and have some fun with us!

Vanities the Musical runs at Trafalgar Studios 2 from 1 September to 1 October 2016.

Looking for the best seats...