Monday, 1 February 2016

Big Interview: Debbie Kurup

Debbie Kurup is currently reprising her performance in The World Goes Round: The Songs of Kander & Ebb which is transferring to the St James Studio following its run last year at the Pheasantry.

With the cast also including Oliver Tompsett, Steffan Lloyd-Evans, Alexandra Da Silva and Sally Samad, The World Goes Round runs between 2nd and 7th February 2016. Kander and Ebb are best known for writing musicals such as Cabaret, Chicago, Fosse and The Scottsboro Boys.

Having played Mimi in the West End production of RENT, Debbie recently starred in Seasons of Larson at the Lyric Theatre. Her West End credits also include: Nicki Marron in The Bodyguard (original West End cast), Velma Kelly in Chicago (Cambridge/Adelphi), understudy Deloris in Sister Act (Palladium) and Dee Dee in Tonight’s The Night (Victoria Palace).

A handful of Debbie’s other theatre credits include: title role in Jack And The Beanstalk (Hackney Empire), Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes (Sheffield/UK tour), Nancy in Oliver! (Cyprus), Chess In Concert (Royal Albert Hall), Diana in I Love You Because (Landor), Anita in West Side Story (Cyprus), Sylv in East (Leicester Curve), Carmen in Fame (UK tour), Guys And Dolls (Sheffield), Diane in Pal Joey (Chichester) and Jo-Anne in Poison (Tricycle).

Last week I sat down with Debbie during a break from The World Goes Round rehearsals to discuss why she loves performing Kander & Ebb’s music, her memories from starring in the West End production of RENT, dusting off her tap shoes for Anything Goes plus lots more… 

Recently you have been doing so many completely different things – from Whitney Houston to Cole Porter, Jonathan Larson and now Kander and Ebb!
[laughs] …and don’t forget I was climbing a beanstalk in-between!

That kind of variety is madness! What is going on inside your brain right now?
Oh my goodness! I have to say, it has been wonderful. As an actor, you strive to have variety and being cast in so many different contrasting roles. I’m on cloud nine right now! There has been no rest point, I’ve been jumping from one thing to the next. My brain is full, but at the same time it’s firing on all cylinders. It feels really good, I’m very inspired right now.

Debbie and the cast of The World Goes Round at the Pheasantry

So you’re currently reprising your performance in The World Goes Round. What initially drew you to the project last year?
Well my association with Kander and Ebb is through Chicago which I did twice, so I knew revisiting some of that material was going to be fun. I’ve never been in their musical Cabaret, but I love the music in the show – I think it’s really dark and edgy – and it features a lot in The World Goes Round. Kander and Ebb wrote so many amazing other musicals too like Kiss of a Spiderwoman, Flora the Red Menace… the list goes on.

When I first saw another production of The World Goes Round a couple of years ago I couldn’t believe how many surprises there were in the show!
I know! A lot of people don’t realise Kander and Ebb wrote ‘New York, New York’ which we do in the show too. When I saw how much amazing material was crammed into this revue I just thought ‘Oh my god I really want to be a part of this’! When we did it last year at the Pheasantry it was a very intimate, small affair which went down so well that obviously we had a lot of interest, so now it’s very nice to be transferring to the St James Theatre where we get a proper stage and full lighting – it has been taken up a notch. 

Debbie & Oliver Tompsett 
Has it been nice getting back together with everyone? Did it all come flooding back to you?
Getting back in the rehearsal room with everyone for the first time in seven months was so nice! Most of the harmonies really did come back straight away! They’re all so brilliant, I call them my crazy cats. We’ve been having such a laugh – I love everyone! Our musical director Kris (Rawlinson) is very talented and very enthusiastic and our producers are awesome – the whole team are great!

Which songs have you particularly enjoyed sinking your teeth into?
I didn’t know the number ‘My Coloring Book’ which is the most hauntingly beautiful, painful, touching song. When I first heard it I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was! Getting to do that song is so great. Because it’s such a personal song each actor who sings it can bring their own life experiences to it. Personally, I’ve been through exactly what the character has been through – it’s heartbreaking. As an actor I love exposing my heart and being raw and sharing my pain because I think the audience really appreciate it when you do. Getting to perform these sorts of songs is like therapy [laughs]! I think we need to do a cast album!

That would be amazing!
There hasn’t been one since like 1991! I think our group brings such a fresh approach to the material. Obviously we stay true to the Broadway style, but we have such a young, fresh, funky, talented cast so a new recording would be amazing. I think we should put it out there and I think everybody should buy it [laughs]!

What do you think audiences are going to go through?
They’re in for such a roller-coaster ride! We take them through highs with comedy and then there are really touching moments where everyone’s crying their eyes out. There are some really clever bits, our arrangement of ‘Cabaret’ is not what people will be expecting! There are loads of surprises in there.

Debbie and the cast of The World Goes Round at the Pheasantry

Are you looking forward to performing in the intimacy of the St James Studio? People sitting at the front are practically onstage!
I performed there last year so got to know the space and – you’re right – it’s very intimate! The audience will feel like they’re in our living room watching a private performance. It’s a beautiful space!

Last week you were back in the West End for one night only performing Seasons Of Larson. It must have been such an incredible evening, and so special to revisit some of that material?
Anything RENT is really emotional for me because I have such history with the show; fifteen years ago I was cast as Mimi, I was a young impressionable twenty-one year old. To re-visit the material which means so, so much to me for the twentieth anniversary of Jonathan’s death was so poignant and so touching. To have so many RENT fans and fans of Jonathan’s other work – we did stuff from Superbia and Tick, Tick... Boom! too – was amazing. He was the most incredible songwriter, every single song sticks out. Three of us had been in RENT, and our personal experiences with it brought so much to the show. It was a beautiful evening!

Debbie & Damien Flood in RENT
What are your memories of being in RENT? What was the whole experience like?
We did the show twice in the West End at the Prince of Wales Theatre; we were there one Christmas and came back the following year because we did so well, but we also did a year’s tour. Taking a show which is so risqué like RENT on the road was a risk… but we were sold out at every venue and the audiences went crazy! I’ve never seen a response like it. Everybody would be crying their eyes out! Each character is so brilliantly written, Jonathan lived and breathed through each and every one of them. The message ‘No Day But Today’ has never been stronger or more relevant and that will never change because there’s only now and there is only this moment – there is no future, there is no past, I live each moment like my last. That’s what Mimi and all the characters say and to get that message across was Jonathan’s job. You have to grab each moment! 

We need a big new production, don’t we?
We do! After doing the gig last week I’m like ‘we need this show back in town’. 

So this time last year you were…
Tapping my troubles away!

[laughs] You certainly were! Did you love your time as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes?
I did! It was wonderful. Reno Sweeney as a role was never on my radar because I’d never seen anyone like me representing that character so I just didn’t think it was possible. Daniel Evans, who directed the show, is so open minded and up for diverse casting. And do you know what? Why hasn’t there been a black or ethnic Reno before? I’m Anglo-Indian so brought what I have to the table. I was a tap dancer… for years and years tap was my thing. However, then I went into musical theatre and the roles I played didn’t require much dancing. I mean, I danced in Chicago but there was no tap dancing…

Debbie as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes

And sadly Rachel and Nikki don’t have a tap number in The Bodyguard!
[laughs] There’s definitely no tapping in The Bodyguard! For me there was no dance at all in The Bodyguard! So I had to dust off my tap shoes after about twenty years and for the first couple of days of rehearsals it was like I had two left feet. I had forgotten how to do it! It wasn’t the technique, it was my brain. The rhythms weren’t sinking in! It was like riding a bike and after a while I just got back into it. Being able to tap eight shows a week was glorious, I was on a high! 

What was it like to perform the title number at the end of act one each night? I was exhausted just watching it!
Ours was ten minutes long… it was marathon! It got faster and faster and faster. During rehearsals we needed oxygen by the end of it [laughs]. At the very end of the routine Reno had to kick in and start singing again and in rehearsals I was so out of breath that I didn’t think I was going to be able to sing it… but once I was on stage the adrenaline kicked in and I got through it. I guess my stamina really improved whilst doing that show [laughs]! 

Right, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Oh god! Ok… firstly I would need a West Side Story song. I think it’s the greatest musical ever written - Leonard Bernstein’s music, the book and Jerome Robbins’ original choreography was just perfection. I’m going to pick 'A Boy Like That' going into 'I Have a Love' because every single emotion you could possibly have is exercised in those songs [laughs]! 

Debbie in The Bodyguard
There would of course have to be a RENT song in there because RENT is my favourite show and favourite job that I’ve ever done. Ummm… this is so hard because every single song in RENT is amazing! I’m going for ‘Without You’ because of the memories; it’s so evocative. The minute I hear the guitar start I am taken back to the emotions we went through every night fifteen years ago. This is really, really tough! My last one is going to be 'Heaven on Their Minds' from Jesus Christ Superstar because I think Judas is a kick-ass character! You can’t beat that song – I love to rock out!

Looking ahead is there anything you’re itching to do?
I’m really open! I would love to work at the National, as I’m sure most other actors probably would as well. I love creating new work which is why doing The Bodyguard was brilliant. Obviously it was adapted from the film, but our piece was fresh and new. Creating a role isn’t something you get to do all the time in musical theatre. They’re constantly creating new work at the National so I would love to head in that direction! I would also like to move into TV and film. There are different options – I love singing, it is the best therapy you can ever get [laughs]. To be able to let your soul fly through song is the best.

Well it sounds like you need to do some sort of cabaret soon!
Everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to do a one woman show! I did one years ago, but more recently I’ve always gone from show to show and have never had the time. After The World Goes Round I’ll have a bit of time so maybe I’ll sit down with an MD and let you know about it..!

Finally, what’s it like to have so much support behind you from theatre fans?
It means a lot actually, especially when you see people from years ago who still come and support every show you do. That’s real dedication! It’s touching when you come out of stage door and see the same faces there – they’ve watched me grow up! The RENT fans have known me since I was twenty-one! They saw me coming out of my teen years and now I’m a mother with a child who is ten! They watched me grow up, get pregnant, jump straight back into work after giving birth and go from show to show. It means a lot! They’re all like part of my family as well, and because of Twitter everybody can stay in touch which is brilliant. 

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The World Goes Round runs between 2nd and 7th February 2016 at the St James Studio.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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