Jenna Russell: 'Everything was telling me that doing this role was wrong, wrong, wrong'
The West End may have produced bigger musical theatre stars than Jenna Russell, but few, I'd wager, who radiate more sincerity, both onstage and off, or whose performances elicit a warm glow of empathy in audiences.
In shows from Michael Grandage's revival of Guys and Dolls, for which she earned an Olivier nomination in 2006, and Sunday in the Park with George, for which she won the Olivier the following year, to Merrily We Roll Along (another Olivier-nominated performance), Urinetown and Fun Home, she's carved out a unique niche for doing musicals that matter, with performances that quietly break your heart with the depth of feeling she brings to them.
She has combined this with a busy career in television, including such successful series including a recent controversial stint in EastEnders, where she took over as the character Michelle Fowler from originator Susan Tully.
But theatre is a constant, to which she returns again and again, often at some personal and professional risk. She actually left EastEnders to be available for the London premiere of Fun Home at the Young Vic last summer, even before she had actually won the role.
"I knew Fun Home was coming, and who wouldn't want to be part of that?", she says, as we talk over coffee at a restaurant over the street from the Menier Chocolate Factory. "I got my agents to get the dates, and I negotiated my contract at EastEnders to finish two weeks before rehearsals for Fun Home started, with every fibre of my body crossed that I'd go to the audition and do well enough for them to give me the role and I'd have the job to do. Thank God it worked out!"
And if it hadn't? "Something else would have come along, because something always does!", she replies, breezily. She has the confidence of someone who knows her worth, yet takes nothing for granted.
Fun Home was expected to transfer to the West End after its run at the Young Vic, but it never materialised: "There's never a guarantee about anything," she replies. "Sometimes even with the best will in the world, these shows are only meant to be there for three months. That's the magic of theatre - a show is there, it's a tiny little jewel. You see it or you don't, and then it's gone."
She's now returning to the Menier Chocolate factory in another jewel-like show, the Jason Robert Brown-scored The Bridges of Madison County which ran for just three months when it premiered on Broadway in 2014 (but earned its composer two Tony awards, for best original score and best orchestrations).
She was first approached two years ago about playing the role of Francesca Johnson, a rural housewife in 1960s Iowa, who is married with two children and has a brief unplanned affair with a visiting National Geographic photographer when her husband and children go on a trip to visit a State Fair.
"Babs rang me up," she says, referring affectionately to Menier artistic director David Babani, and you know when you get a call from him that he wants something, or there's some good news, because he's terrible at getting in touch. I was in my dressing room, sweating hot in the middle of a really depressing storyline on EastEnders. He asked me if I knew The Bridges of Madison County. I knew a couple of the songs - I'd sobbed watching Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale singing “One Second and a Million Miles” online. So then I had a little dig around to find out more, and realised the role was very soprano, she was Italian and it was quite sad. I thought I can't see myself wandering around being Italian or singing like that - I'd not sung for a couple of years - and she was wearing a slip, and I thought I'm not confident enough in my body for that."
She is nothing if not honest, and comments: "Everything in me was saying ‘wrong wrong wrong’ - so I rang him and said, ‘I'd love to do it but I don't think it's the right fit for me, someone else will do it better’. So, we left it - but I kept listening to the album and it got into my soul."
Then she left EastEnders to do Fun Home, but kept thinking about The Bridges of Madison County and listening to it. Every day, I was coming in, listening to the album and sobbing. As I was singing along to it, too, my voice was getting stronger in those areas. I realised that I was scared of being a romantic lead at my age; I was scared of it vocally; and I was scared of the accent. I thought: ‘get over yourself, stop it’."
Cut to last year - and she was now doing a workshop for a new Stiles and Drewe musical called Becoming Nancy in New York. "David Babani was there at the same time, and we went to see the film A Star is Born. At dinner, I asked him if he was even remotely interested in still doing Bridges. He said he was desperate to do it. I told him I'd had a good talk with myself and I really wanted to do it now - but could we do it before I'm too old?"
Today, she says it's because she managed to conquer her own fears. "It's horrible - who wants to live in a state of fear; but the older I get, the more I realise that if you're not frightened of something, where's the challenge? You've got to challenge yourself. I'm so aware in the best possible way that I'm 51, and I'm tipping very happily into character roles, which is something I've always been comfortable with. But I can't imagine there'll be another opportunity in musical theatre to be the leading lady in a romantic heart-breaking story like this again.
“I told myself: ‘just do it, Jenna, because this is probably your last shot’."
It has brought her back to the intense musical world of Jason Robert Brown, whose first musical Songs for a New World she'd originally been due to star in at the Bridewell in 2001, but she'd had to drop out of. "That was all terrible and awful and horrible. I was on the poster, but I had to leave on the first day of rehearsals because I got a big telly job -- I felt really bad and it broke my heart. But what do you do? That television job was four years work in the end," she says, referring to the series Born and Bred.
Sometimes a career is led by pragmatic realities, too: "Theatre means a lot to me, but I also have to earn a living," she says. "Not every job is led by choice; ultimately my job is to look after my family and make sure we can live."
Her family is now central to her life, especially since it was so hard-earned. Again, her honesty comes to the fore as she tells of the long struggle she and her actor partner Raymond Coulthard had to conceive their daughter Betsy, who is now 10 years old. When starring in the West End transfer of the Menier's production of Sunday in the Park with George in 2006, she says, "I remember going to the doctor. He said, ‘you're never going to have children’. Then I went back to work - and when we got to the song “Children and Art”. I was on the floor."
Today the love of my life is 10. Oh my heart! I love you Ninja. Thank you ❤️ pic.twitter.com/gYl98R6ZbV
— Jenna Russell (@jennarusselluk) March 1, 2019
They embarked on a two-and-a-half-year process of undergoing unsuccessful IVF treatment - "the drugs are horrendous to bring on an early menopause that stops everything, then they boost everything. I stopped working for a year and a half. The transfer of Sunday to Broadway came up, and Julia McKenzie's words were ringing in my ears that you have to go to New York or you'll regret it all your life if you say no."
But the desire to have a child was still even stronger - and she was then 40. "It was now or never - I didn't want to lie on my deathbed and say I didn't try hard enough. So I went to New York and found an IVF doctor there. And two weeks before the Tony Awards [for which she was nominated], we found out I was pregnant and I got to walk down the red carpet with my baby in my tummy."
Children and art were now colliding. She didn't win the Tony - that went to Patti LuPone for Gypsy - but she was in fine company on the night, with fellow nominees that also included Faith Prince, Kerry Butler and Kelli O'Hara, the latter of whom originated the role she is now playing in Bridges. "Kelli was sitting behind me at the Tonys, and when the nominations were read, I turned around and said, 'I've so got this', and she said the same to me! But we both knew it wasn't going to stand up!"
Now she's wrestling with songs that Kelli first introduced - and she pays generous tribute to her: "She has the most beautiful voice I've ever heard in my life." But more importantly, this is a story that she feels needs to be told: "It's such a delicate thing - it's not cutting-edge or political, but I think there's room for a bit of love in the world at the moment."
She's experienced that unkindness first hand when the trolls attacked her for appearing in EastEnders - both for taking over from Sue Tully, and then for particular storylines. "Sue was asked but didn't want to be thrown back into the limelight. Me doing the role was always going to be a tough sell, I get that, but it has renovated our house, so hurrah!"
The choices she makes in theatre are something she does have greater control over. But she still can't control whether they run for a long time or close quickly: "I don't know why people expect musicals to be these massive commercial things in order to be a success. I don't agree; the finest things might run for two or three months only."
The Bridges of Madison County tickets are available now.