Last year Carolyn Maitland won West End Frame’s Understudy of the Year Award for covering the role of Ellen in the West End revival of Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre.
Carolyn will depart the production next month to star as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain at the Kilworth House Theatre.
Carolyn received huge acclaim for understudying Hannah Waddingham in Kiss Me, Kate at the Chichester Festival Theatre and Old Vic. She has understudied countless roles including Karen Holmes in From Here To Eternity (Shaftesbury), Vivienne & Serena in Legally Blonde (Savoy), Lucy Harris in Jekyll & Hyde (UK Tour), Gabriella & Taylor in High School Musical 2 (UK Tour) and Serena, Mabel & Miss Bell in Fame (UK Tour).
I recently met with Carolyn to discuss her whirlwind year in Miss Saigon, going on as Ellen with no rehearsal and her experience in Kiss Me, Kate as well as why she was thrilled to win WEF’s Understudy of the Year Award plus much, much more…
How familiar were you with Miss Saigon before being cast in the show?
I had never, ever seen Miss Saigon! My fiancé had worked in the sound team in the original. When I was called in to be seen they had been auditioning for months and months. It was a last minute call in; when we found out From Here To Eternity was going to close they called me and a few other girls in for understudy Ellen, I think that they’d had trouble finding the fit for what they wanted. Everyone always goes on about Ellen but I had never seen it before so turned to YouTube and read about it. After my first audition – where I just did my own songs – they sent through the new song ‘Maybe’ which was actually in a different key to what they use in the show now. It was a very long and hard song to learn until you really broke down the text – I thought the song was just so beautiful. I fell in love with it and it was at that point I really started getting excited about the part.
So how did you react when you found out you had been cast?
I was literally beside myself! I was so excited because I had fallen in love with the part and song so much. I was cleaning and ‘Happy’ came on the radio and I started vacuuming while dancing around to Pharrell Williams [laughs] – seriously! I was ecstatic! It was like Mrs Doubtfire, that’s what I was doing around my lounge [laughs]. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody, but then I went out with some girlfriends and watched Frozen – it was a really exciting day!
West End revival of Miss Saigon / Photo Credit: Michael Le Poer Trench
There is so much buzz surrounding the show, the opening was huge and then you had the big gala before winning everything at the WhatsOnStage Awards. Can you feel that buzz on the inside too?
Absolutely! The anniversary gala was on my birthday too which made it extra special! The atmosphere has been brilliant, because there are so many different nationalities in the cast it is a different atmosphere to any show I’ve ever worked on before. It’s lovely! I think everybody feels very privileged to be a part of it because the last year has been very special, as you say the buzz was incredible and there was so much expectation before we opened. The creatives kept on saying they thought they had put together a really great cast and to be told that felt very special. I thought I would be speaking about six languages by now… but I’m not… I have picked up a few little things though.
Which languages have you been picking up?
I’ve been learning Swedish quite a lot recently because Marsha (Songcome) is the only Swedish cast member and sometimes when she gets really tired and a bit stressed I just want to be able to talk to her so she doesn’t have to think! I can’t even imagine people not speaking English around me! The opportunities have been amazing, obviously we also did the Royal Variety Show and we have the Oliviers coming up. I’ve done some great shows, but the opportunities that have come with Miss Saigon have just been amazing.
Soon it will be time to move on though, how do you feel about leaving?
I think I’ve gained everything I can from it. I’ve thrown myself into playing Ellen and I’ve thrown myself into playing my small little backstage plots I have as the Caucasian girl in the ensemble. I think in previous jobs I’ve been so used to being one of the ensemble members who’s quite near the front and used a lot, but in this case I couldn’t be. It has been a completely different experience and I have gained and learnt so much over the last year. For me I don’t think there will ever be another show quite like it.
What is the secret to Miss Saigon’s success? It has such a huge effect on audiences night after night.
I think the number one reason is that it is so real and so true to life. It refers to so much going on in the world and you can’t help but get swept along. It’s very, very emotional and then Jon Jon (Briones) who plays the Engineer puts a comedy edge on it – it’s such a fine balance. It’s continuous and keeps you attached all the way through. People don’t expect it to be so gut wrenching, funny and raunchy – a lot of people are like ‘oh my god’ when they see those girls at the beginning! There’s something for everyone!
And then of course there’s the music…
Yes – the music is stunning. It really is!
You first went on as Ellen very early on with almost no rehearsal and with the creative team in the audience. Did you take in what was happening?
I think I’m weird because I absolutely loved it! You’ve got no choice really; you just have to do it.
How much rehearsal had you actually had?
How much rehearsal had you actually had?
Nothing! I’d learnt the song for the audition but then they took they key down. I’d been watching Tamsin (Carroll, who plays Ellen) from the wings and from the audience a bit during tech; because I’ve been a swing before I made notes about where she sat and what she did. I was already quite on it, even though we hadn’t had the chance to go through the blocking. I’d been given the sheet music for the song and played it through with one of the assistant MDs during rehearsals. I’d put in the time and felt it was a brilliant opportunity because I’ve done quite a lot of jobs now and been an understudy… quite a lot and really, really do want to step up now. I didn’t believe I could be a lead before the last couple of years. I’ve learnt so much about myself and about acting and having that opportunity to have all the creatives there – which would never have happened when I went on for my scheduled performances later – was really exciting!
I think Ellen is quite a hard character to play because the audience are so behind Kim, but poor Ellen just gets caught up in it all! Perhaps ‘Maybe’ has helped people sympathise with Ellen more. How have you found exploring the character?
I got my notes from the director and watched people working with Tamsin and Alistair (Brammer, who plays Chris). I had never seen the show before, but with (Ellen’s previous songs) ‘Now That I’ve Seen Her’ and ‘It's Her or Me’ she was very much saying “I love him so I’m going to fight for him!” But I only really associate Ellen with ‘Maybe’ which is softer. I think I can relate to her quite a lot because I like the people around me to be happy and I feel extremely sorry for Ellen because she wants to be happy and she wants the people around her to be happy. She only has an intense chunk of stage time so I find myself totally immersed in it.
"I just can’t wait to be given a role and make it mine from the beginning."
Have you had any other crazy understudy experiences over the years?
Oh yes – absolutely! It is crazy! One of the most fun, amazing experiences for me was when I did Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. Hannah Waddingham was very ill. I went on once in Chichester and could not tell you one second of the show because there is so much going on and you just have to keep moving forward. I came off and realised I had done it! I managed to remember what to do but couldn’t remember any of what I had just done – does that make sense [laughs]? The first few times are always a blur because you have so much adrenaline. You have to trust your instincts, as soon as you start thinking ‘What’s coming up next?’ that’s when you forget. When I was a swing I’ve gone on in the middle of a show which actually happens a lot in Miss Saigon and in all shows! At the end of the day we’re only human – it happens! Being thrown on is completely different because you don’t get a chance to be nervous.
Kiss Me, Kate was such a big show for you, what was that whole experience like? Roles don’t come bigger than Lilli Vanessi / Katherine! And, like you said, you went on a lot…
It’s definitely the most challenging big role I’ve ever done. I got to do stage fighting, operatic singing – which I’m not trained in – as well as jazz and then kind of playing two characters is challenging anyway! It was the most fun… ever! If you got angry you could literally scream… it was amazing! It’s definitely the longest I’ve ever had on, I almost did an entire two month period. Hannah had really bad flu, bless her. I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity, but at the same time very sorry she was so ill. The nicest thing was going to the bar afterwards and people not even realising that it hadn’t been Hannah performing. It meant I was doing my job correctly and wasn’t doing anything to make people think, ‘oh she’s an understudy and not up to scratch’. Sometimes when you’re an understudy you hear sighs if they make an announcement at the beginning of the show, but I just think ‘bring it on, I’m going to prove to you that I’m just as good!’ I just can’t wait to be given a role and make it mine from the beginning.
The cast of Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic / Photo Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Another show I wanted to mention is Legally Blonde. Did you all have as much fun onstage as it looked like you were having?
Legally Blonde was insane! I didn’t get much opportunity other than after the show to be social with the cast because I swung. As well as covering all the ensemble tracks – which all contain different little characters – I understudied Vivienne which was the first time I ever really got to play a bitch, I absolutely loved it! I was like, ‘How can it be so much fun to be mean?’ I think it was because she was the complete opposite to me. I also covered Enid Hoopes, who is brilliant with her quirky little song/rap, as well as Serena. They were all completely different so I think it was a good set up for me going into Kiss Me, Kate because she was so bipolar and in Legally Blonde I was pretty much playing a different character every day.
Right, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you… which three are you going to take and why?
That’s really hard! I actually think I would have to take ‘Maybe’ from Miss Saigon. But, controversially I would take the one I learnt for the audition which Stephanie J. Block sang for the Do You Hear The People Sing concert. The words are slightly different and it’s much higher, I just fell in love with it. Then I’d have to have something really fun… this is so hard! Oh it’s not happy, but I would take 'The Man That Got Away' from A Star Is Born – that’s always quite nice, it’s a bit intense [laughs]. I definitely need something happy now! Oh my goodness! I would take ‘What You Don't Know About Women’ from City of Angels. It’s feisty with a woman putting a man in his place… and I quite like that [laughs].
Do you have dream roles or is that something you try not to think about?
I’m very much open minded, just as long as it’s a challenge. I would love to go back and do Kiss Me, Kate as the lead just because it’s such an amazing role. Something like Elphaba would be an amazing sing, if I was Asian I would love to play Kim and if I was a man and Asian I would love to do the Engineer [laughs]. I would love to play Mary Poppins, and even getting to play Kathy Selden is going to be brilliant! I love that era of music and I think I would like to do some more legit musical theatre; Miss Saigon is the closest I have been to a legit musical. I did do Jekyll and Hyde but that’s almost pop-py as well.
A lot of people say they want to do something new and be a part of an original cast, so what was it like doing exactly that with From Here To Eternity?
It was really special. I think you unify a lot more as a team when you’re doing something new because it’s not just the creatives sharing with the cast what they want you to do, it becomes a unified process and you learn and create together. I would love the chance to do something totally new again. I’m all up for new writing and singing new stuff and doing read-throughs, I love getting behind things like that.
Finally we obviously have to mention West End Frame’s Understudy of the Year Award! What was the whole process like for you?
It was incredibly exciting! Being nominated was brilliant because I don’t think I really thought many people knew who I was. Even though I’ve been in the business eleven years I still feel like I’m just getting started. When I saw the percentage going up on the voting page I couldn’t believe it! I wasn’t messing around, every time I got to go on I was really giving my everything. I’ve been more determined to be active on Twitter, so it was a good opportunity to connect with people who were being supportive. I was so happy – I was really, really happy! I couldn’t share my gratitude enough in the little quote I wrote for you – I didn’t know what to say! I was overwhelmed that so many people voted. I was very humbled and very, very touched.
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Miss Saigon is currently booking at the Prince Edward Theatre until Saturday 29th December 2015. Carolyn's final confirmed Ellen performances are scheduled between 23rd and 25th April. Please visit www.miss-saigon.com for further information and tickets.
Singin' in the Rain runs at the Kilworth House Theatre between Wednesday 3rd June and Sunday 29th July 2015. Click here to book tickets.