Rachel Tucker on returning to theater with ‘Songs For a New World’

Rachel Tucker

Rachel Tucker can’t wait to get back on stage. In fact, she’s been dreaming about being back in the rehearsal room for Songs For a New World, Jason Robert Brown’s four-person song cycle which Tucker will star in at the London Palladium on 11 October.

“I love the freedom of the pace and the individual-ness of every song,” Tucker says of the show, which seems tailor-made for social distancing. “You can be a different character in each song. And I just, I love the freedom of that.”

Tucker was in New York starring in Come From Away on Broadway when theatres shut down in March and thought she’d be coming back home for a month. She chatted with London Theatre about what the period was like, how she’s been spending her time in lockdown, and why she can’t wait to perform for an audience again.

You were in New York doing Come From Away on Broadway when theatres shut down. What was that experience like?

Weird. Weird. I was there, and I was doing it on my own. My family was going to follow me out at Easter. Weirdly, I think I had, I was recovering from COVID-19 before it hit. I think I had it at the end of January. So I wasn't on top, peak condition when I started on Broadway. I was constantly coughing and complaining about my voice. So just as I was feeling better and felt like, "Oh, I'm just finding my feet again,” I got sent home. I broke Broadway. Or it broke me.

Did you think about staying for the initial four-week shutdown?

No. My agent called and said, "Pack your bags, see you in a month." I was like, "Really, a month?" Little did I know, six months later. In our lifetime who ever would have predicted something that would literally shut the world down? Not just an industry of the arts, or an industry, but the actual world stopped. You know that saying: the show must go on. The roof has to be falling in at a theatre for a theatre to give the ticket money back. We are the last business to stop operating, no matter what's gone on. And then it's just like, not only are you stopping, but you'll be the last to reopen.

What’s it like coming back to the stage after more than 6 months away?

Gosh, I had literally been dreaming about getting in a rehearsal room again, for the Songs for a New World. I was on the Palladium yesterday, and the Magic of the Musicals here. We have Magic FM, real big go-getters for musical theater over here. So this year we socially distanced with the 23-piece orchestra and they got four ex-Elphabas to sing “Defying Gravity” together yesterday. We were like schoolgirls.

So you’ve been back already!

But to no audience. It was a set rehearsal. It felt relaxed. It was lovely to find your feet again. And I mean, still a bit weird. Everybody's egg-shelling, and tiptoeing, and going, "Where's your mask?" A wee bit awkward compared to what we're used to, hugs and sharing drinks.      

Were you a fan of Songs for a New World?

I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Came from Belfast, did a one-year postgrad, and it was the first modern musical I was exposed to when I was there. I was like, "What is this?" Because I'm used to singing Annie and Singin’ in the Rain. The old movie musical, that's what I was brought up on. And then this new, modern musical that told fantastic stories. I said, "Who is this guy (Jason Robert Brown)?" Little did I know he'd become a friend, 10 years later, which is just blows my brains.

I actually remember singing “Stars and Moon.” I call it my “handbag song”; it comes everywhere with me. I take it to every audition, every cabaret. And actually in college, I couldn't sing it. It was too high for me. It's taken my life career experience and voice lessons to actually be able to sing Jason's stuff. But I've always loved it, so I've always sung it, whether I could sing it or not.

It almost feels like Songs for New World was made for social distancing.

Yeah, we're all isolated, we're in our own worlds. It's an isolated piece in a way, and there's no talking to each other, there's no kissing. It's perfect for it, actually.

In addition to being the perfect social distancing piece, it also feels topical. I mean, everything can feel topical.

Definitely with the Black Lives Matter movement and especially Cedric Neal's, his line and his character, I mean, we're staring it in the face now. And the world is really having to take accountability for ignoring the systemic racism that has just happened on just on a regular daily basis. And it's still happening but, so it's very reflective.

I think of that and my song, “The Flagmaker” that I'll be singing. The amount of Black parents that you've heard say, "I am fearful of when my sons go out, that they do not return home. I'm scared." And she's singing “one more star, one more stripe,” stitching that the American flag, but actually, she’s thinking, "I am fearful he will not come home." I think that's very, even though I'm not Black, I feel that.

When do you start rehearsals? Is it a different process with Covid precautions?

The week before we do it. We learned it at home, but I had a lot of help. We have stuff in our ear, with harmonies and stuff. We're all just kind of trying to be part of the team and make it work.

We're going to be in a room. [Director] Séimi [Campbell] decided to do is all individually. She's going to give us slots because we don't need to be around each other. It’ll be so nice to hear harmonies live with each other. So just to have some communication with the director about material is going to be enough.

We'll be there on the day before the band, and it is all merely sung through. And then on the day with each other we'll get to see each other's stuff, and Oh my God, I cannot wait.

How have you been spending your time in lockdown?

I've been learning the guitar. My husband bought me it for my 30th birthday, and then we moved and got pregnant, and you take it down and put it up. And then for this last birthday, he bought me another smaller one, and I had been taking lessons. Since lockdown started, I've been taking two 30-minute lessons with a band member friend of mine, who I use when I'm doing gigs, and it's being been fantastic. It's like learning a new language as well.

I’ve also done lots of master classes for kids. I've been really trying to get involved and get kids online just to keep up some singing and acting classes and lessons. I love teaching. I love teaching kids. I love inspiring them, especially Northern Irish kids who are just like, "Well, it would never happen to me." And I'm like, "It could, look at me."

Homeschooling has been actually a lot of fun, because the results that I saw [my son] Ben come up with was just incredible from when he started, like his spelling, his handwriting, his reading. He ended up wanting an hour's reading time, reading his Tin Tin books. Because I'm not a reader. Guy is, but just to see my son enjoying reading. It's like, "I've done something right."

The arts are really struggling around the world right now. What encouragement can you give to fellow artists in this time?

I'm in a privileged position as in where I've got myself in my career and my name and my reputation, and people ask me to do things. So I can make work happen. But for anybody that's just starting out, it's like, how do they make it happen? There were students there yesterday, just new grads that are just like, they can't believe their luck, they're singing backing vocals to “Defying Gravity.” But it's just not enough to go on. And what are you going to do for day jobs? Just keep the juice is flowing, like learning, like play script reading, getting friends to read scenes. Maybe do self-tape, like classes with each other. How you do a good self-tape? Maybe learn to play and read music and just stay and try to stay on point as much as they can for when they get that rare audition so that they're warmed up and good to go. But I mean, they have just got to get us more support. They really have — or open to full capacity again.

I sat beside two strangers on the plane last week with masks on. How do you get in and out of a narrow airplane, and we are now at the point where we're not keeping a meter apart, right? It's as much as you possibly can, but airports, restaurants, are at full capacity? There should be no excuse for the theaters. I just don't understand it.

There's going to be an upturn now, isn't there? That’s what's happening now. That’s a really hard call, anyway. I'm just so frustrated about it, and the government has got to protect society and go, "Well, we can't just open up because the curve's going up,” but then they've got to help the theaters more.

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