West End interview with Show Boat's Gina Beck

The Sheffield Crucible's highly acclaimed production of the classic 1927 musical Show Boat officially opens at the New London Theatre this evening, 25 April 2016. Directed by Daniel Evans with designs by Lez Brotherson and choreography by Alistair David, it's the first time the West End has seen a full production of the show in almost 20 years.

Leading lady Gina Beck plays the role of Magnolia Hawks, reprising her role from the Sheffield Crucible run. No stranger to the West End stage, Beck has starred in long running hit musicals such as Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera as well as the First National US tour of Wicked. We caught up with her before a performance of Show Boat to hear about the experience of originating a role in a revival and transferring with the hit musical to the West End:

DO: Dom O'Hanlon
GB: Gina Beck

GB: I know – it was almost better when we didn't know how it was going to go in Sheffield and it was more of a surprise! Now it's too much – people are coming and almost saying “come on then – be brilliant!” Not much has changed since the first run apart from having a lot more wing space which is great. The orchestra now are in the stage right wing rather than down below us, as there's no pit. It's taken a lot of reworking as obviously we can't see our conductor and he can't see us. It makes it tough for all the underscoring moments and we have to get used to it. It feels really intimate – you can see everyone really across the whole auditorium.

DOH: Have you had more time to dig deeper into the role of Magnolia?

GB: It's actually been a luxury to have two rehearsal periods for this role – this time around it's been lovely and more relaxed – you're not so bothered about learning your lines or where you're moving, you can really focus on what you're saying and how to get through to the character. And we have a new leading man so that has changed everything! It's a little bit different but it's good in a way as it keeps your brain active. Chris has a lot of different qualities to Michael Xavier which instantly make a different relationship. He's not a lot younger but he has a younger look and physicality – it's a more earnest portrayal of the role.

DOH: Show Boat is such a classic show - how familiar were you with it before you got the job?

GB: I was not familiar with the role at all! I had never seen any of the films or on stage – the only songs I knew were the two big ones, “Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "Ol' Man River" so I didn't know anything about it. I got told to learn a couple of scenes and "After the Ball" – the big song at the end. I didn't actually read it until I got the script two weeks before the rehearsal period began, which was amazing as I then realised it spans 40 years...shows like this don't really come up that often, it's such an interesting story with such great roles for women.

DOH: What struck you about the show on a first reading?

GB: I was amazed by how good the dialogue was. I think sometimes with musicals the songs can be great, but the book can make it fall down, but you need that story to hold it together. To think that it is nearly 90 years old it reads so fresh off the page – it's like reading a story about today. That's what first struck me. There are big scenes that are just dialogue – sections without music and you sort of feel like you're in a play.

DOH: Why do you think it works in London in 2016?

GB: Obviously it deals with issues of racial segregation. We're getting to a good place now and moving away from that, but it's important that we have Show Boat to remind people where we've come from and what it was like 100 years ago. It's shocking that the segregation continued into the 1970s and even 1980s in the Deep South. I've just been reading 'The Help' and it's so similar – they're basically still slaves and they're not allowed to use the same facilities – it's shocking.

DOH: As a show it's had numerous re-writes to address the race question - was this something Daniel was really open about talking about?

GB: We had a massive discussion about it on the first day of rehearsals in Sheffield because it's a very sensitive subject. There's parts of the show where you have to say “this is where the black folk sing” and our poor musical director was finding it very awkward, sort of white man's guilt, to keep saying “black people sing now” or “only the white people sing”, so we had to talk about whether that was okay. And obviously the use of the 'N' word litters the show. Daniel had a conversation with Sandra Marvin who plays Queenie before we started rehearsals about what her thoughts were and should we try and avoid it or embrace it, and I think that her thoughts were definitely - it was of the time and we shouldn't shy away from it. There are versions where they use that word in the very first song – but we thought that was maybe going a step too far. I think the audience would have been quite shocked.

DOH: Do you think it's a show that younger audience, and your younger fans may come to? What's the audience been like in London so far?

GB: It's not what I expected – I sort of thought it would be a sea of white hair like it was in Sheffield for a lot of the matinees. It's not been like that at all. Our PR team have been doing a really good job to get a buzz about it which has meant people within our industry and drama school students want to have a look. It is a history lesson, and I can't really believe that no one has thought about doing it before in the last twenty years. I really hope that younger audiences do come and be amazed at the fact it's 90 years old and can't believe it has been around for so long. It is lucky that we have this version because I think longer and older versions might not have had the same impact. This version was used at the Goodspeed originally in America, and you just can't keep everything. Some people have said that the transition to 27 years later and the ending is rather abrupt – but the trouble is you don't want a three hour show.

DOH: Magnolia's arc has to grow and develop over the course of 40 years - how do you address that as an actor?

GB: It's sort of in the writing really. I don't consciously think about how to act older. The way that Magnolia is in the first act is easy because she's so young and excitable and then in the second half she just gets scenes where everything has gone horribly wrong, and it's quite sobering. You try and portray it as a wiser, more burdened character. Right at the end I get to have a few moments when I'm 56 – I'm not sure if I pull that off! Gaylord looks much older than I do...

DOH: Do you have a particular favourite moment in your track?

GB: I love the scene when I audition for the Trocodero – it's super fun, to sing that song that's quite low in my register – it's so lovely to play. After the Ball is brilliant too – but it's quite hard to sing with people just shouting at you!

DOH: I loved the scenes between you and Parthy - it's so rare to get a great mother-daughter relationship in a musical...

GB: Those scenes were so good – Lucy Briers is such a fantastic actress and I've admired her for years. It's wonderful to have a person of such calibre in the show, and we're such good friends off stage. We used to meet each other randomly in Sheffield in shops, and I'd just go up to her and say 'mother' and she'd look and me and reply 'Magnolia...' - all the people in the Post Office queue would look at us like we were crazy.

DOH: Have you found this experience to be quite different to playing an already established role in a takeover?

GB: I've been lucky enough to be in long running West End shows but I haven't done any brand new musicals or even revivals, so getting to do a show in the West End that I sort of helped create is really exciting and a real honour. It feels so different from stepping into the shoes of someone else and being told where to go and “she does this” - it's not quite that bad, but you do have to stick to a formula. This is the opposite and so great – I've just had the best time rehearsing with Daniel, he's just so wonderful patient as a director and encouraging. He says every day no question is a bad question or a silly question – because of his acting career himself he's just so switched on about how to get the best out of actors – we've had such a lovely time! I just feel so lucky that he was doing Show Boat and that I was free to do it, and could audition to do it. It's such a great fit for me, it's brilliant

DOH: Are there any roles that you'd just love to get the opportunity to do?

GB: I always wanted to play Maria in West Side Story although I think those days might have gone...I'd love to do My Fair Lady, I love a book musical – I think I'll stick to the old school musicals now, they suit me!

Looking for the best seats...