As Dominic Cooke's hugely-anticipated production of the Stephen Sondheim musical begins previews, we take a brief look at the musical theatre careers of the three brilliant actresses who will play the Follies.
Imelda Staunton is a multi-Olivier Award-winning West End theatre legend. It all started with numerous seasons at the Northcott Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, and she has since been nominated for a massive 11 Olivier Awards, winning four - three of which were for performances in Sondheim musicals, (great news if you have a ticket for Follies).
The first of these came in 1991 following the UK premiere of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. After a successful run on Broadway, the musical, which intertwines the plots of several fairy tales, transferred to the Phoenix Theatre. Staunton played the Baker’s Wife, and won the award for Best Actress in a Musical.
It would be 22 years until her next win in the category, this time for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, in which she played the pie shop owner Mrs Lovett, alongside Michael Ball as the Demon Barber. The third win came in 2016 when she played Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother in the musical based on the striptease artist’s memoirs. Gypsy, which has music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sondheim, was a huge hit and Staunton was undoubtedly the star – Mark Shenton described Staunton’s performance as “one of the greatest I've ever seen on any stage, ever, in any role”.
Now, she takes on the role of Sally in Follies. Last month, Staunton told the Telegraphthat it has been “a much bigger challenge than I thought”, but it will be “very nice to get back on that stage - once I’ve got my tap dancing sorted…” We are certainly looking forward to seeing her grace the Olivier stage.
Janie Dee’s first foray into West End musicals came in 1986 when she appeared in Gillian Lynne’s production of Cabaret. During her time in the show, she impressed Wayne Sleep (who played the Emcee) who invited her to join his UK tour. From here, she went on to numerous roles in musicals: Bombalurina in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Ado Annie in a tour of Oklahoma!, Ellie May Chipley in the RSC’s Show Boat.
But it was in the National Theatre’s 1993 production of Carousel where Dee really made a name for herself. She played Carrie Pipperidge, a millworker who falls for fisherman Enoch Snow, and won the Olivier for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. This led to Richard Eyre inviting her to play Julie in Johnny on a Spot – her first major straight role.
After success acting in plays (her part in the 1999 play Comic Potential being a stage career highlight), she took on the role of Edythe Herbert in George and Ira Gershwin’s musical My One and Only. The musical is about aviator Billy Buck Chandler whose plan to be the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic is derailed by his infatuation with former English Channel swimmer Herbert. Dee was nominated for the 2003 Olivier for Best Actress in a Musical for the original West End run.
She recently appeared in Putting it Together at the St James Theatre, a revue of Stephen Sondheim numbers in which she performed “Could I Leave You?” from Follies. Now, she will perform the song in a full-scale production as she plays Phyllis in this London revival of the musical.
Many people may recognise Tracie Bennett for her television work, but she is probably best-known for her work in musical theatre. In 1994, she appeared in She Loves Me playing Ilona Ritter, a shop worker who was having an affair with ladies’ man Stephen Kodaly. Her performance at the Savoy earned her an Olivier win, and a number of critically acclaimed roles followed.
She appeared in the London production of High Society in 2003, and played the role of Madame Thénardier in the West End production of Les Miserables for 18 months. She played Velma in the London premiere of Hairspray at the Shaftesbury, and won her second Olivier for the role. Despite a nomination for her “brassy” performance in Mrs Henderson Presents, she lost out on the 2016 award to one Imelda Staunton.
A highlight in Bennett’s stage career was arguably her performance in Peter Quilter’s 2010 play End of the Rainbow. Bennett played Judy Garland in the play, which transferred from the Royal Theatre in Northampton to the West End and then on to Broadway. She won the Olivier for Best Actress, and following the transfer, received a Tony nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Play.
In 2015, she appeared at a one-off tribute gala paying tribute to Sondheim on his 85th birthday, performing the Follies show tune “Broadway Baby”. She won’t get to perform the song when she plays Carlotta at the National, but she will get to belt out the classic “I’m Still Here”.
Follies runs in the Olivier at the National Theatre until 3rd January 2018.