Monday, 21 March 2016

Big Interview: Caroline Sheen

Caroline Sheen is currently preparing to play Joy in Matthew Brind, Steve Marmion and Rachel Wagstaff's musical Only The Brave at the Wales Millennium Centre.

Directed by Steve Marmion with the cast also including Emilie Fleming, David Thaxton and Neil McDermott, Only The Brave runs between 28th March and 2nd April marking the theatre's first full-scale original musical.

Caroline famously starred as the title role in the 2008 UK tour of Mary Poppins to tremendous acclaim. She later recreated the role for the musical’s first ever U.S. tour. Caroline most recently stepped in for Katherine Kelly and played Alaura/Carla in City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse with only a day’s rehearsal.

She made her West End debut as Marty/understudy Rizzo and Sandy in Grease at the Cambridge Theatre, later returning to the show five years later at the Victoria Palace to star as Sandy. Her theatre credits also include: Jennifer Gabriel in The Witches of Eastwick (Theatre Royal Drury Lane), Eponine in Les Misérables (Palace), Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (London Palladium), Philia in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum & Susan Walker in Once In A Lifetime (both National), Fantine in Les Misérables (Queens), Florinda in Into The Woods (Donmar), understudy Sophie Sheridan in the original West End cast of Mamma Mia! (Prince Edward), Putting It Together (St James) and Myths and Hymns & Three Sides (both Finborough). Caroline also appeared in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables.

I recently spoke to Caroline about why people are going to want to see Only The Brave more than once, what made performing City Of Angels with 28 hours rehearsal one of the most enjoyable moments of her career and why Mary Poppins feels like a lifetime ago...

There was so much excitement when this production of Only The Brave was announced – people are still raving about the album and Edinburgh production. When did the show first come onto your radar?
I saw it even before the Edinburgh try-out! I saw it in its very original form back in Cardiff in about 2004. Matt (Matthew Brind, music) and Steve (Marmion, lyrics) had written their first version and a lot of the music has been refined since then. The music has stayed with it but the story has changed around it. Even from the Edinburgh production, the story is now entirely different. Just a few things remain. We’re now basing the whole show on real characters and truthful events.

How have you found the rehearsal process?
It has actually really been a really difficult rehearsal period because we’ve had to get our heads around the fact that this actually happened. Sometimes people might think a World War II musical could be distasteful, but it’s honouring these people. The fact that we’re playing real people is at the heart of the piece. 

Caroline & David Thaxton

So as a cast have you all been doing lots of research?
Because it’s such a massive subject we’ve all had to become World War II geeks! Everybody is carrying around a book… David Thaxton has got a book about his character and so has Graham MacDuff... I've got a book about women in World War II. We have all been really getting into it. It’s a subject which is hard to leave at the rehearsal room door, I’ve been going home and forcing my husband to find the DVDs of Band of Brothers. We’ve been watching lots of World War II movies – it’s really compelling stuff. It’s mind-blowing!

What can people expect from the music? All I’ve heard is that it’s incredible!
It’s fascinating – the music is just beautiful. Some of it is really thrilling and some of it is really stunning. There are pastiches as well with the solders doing a ‘tap at your troubles’ kind-of-song and there’s an Andrews Sisters inspired song too. There’s something in it for everyone, I think this show is going to appeal to everybody. 

Have you enjoyed working on something so fresh and original?
Absolutely, we’ve all had to learn this music from scratch. It’s not like going into Les Mis and ‘kind of’ already knowing it. The music is so potent we’ve all been getting the same goosebump moments that you get when you’re in something like Les Mis. It’s really exciting, I’ve always loved working on new musicals so it’s wonderful. I can’t wait to have an audience now and see their reaction because in the rehearsal room at the moment it’s really striking a chord. We’ve all been getting teary every day! 

Throughout you career you’ve been in original casts, like Mamma Mia! when nobody had a clue what the reaction was going to be, and also taken over huge roles, like in Les Mis when so many people come with a preconceived opinion of the characters. How does originating compare to taking over? 
They’re both so different and exciting in their own ways. I think the challenge of doing Les Mis is keeping those characters fresh and alive, even though lots of people in the audience have seen it four or five times already [laughs]. And you’ve got to live up to those expectations – even your own expectations! When I played Éponine it was my dream, dream role and I couldn’t actually believe I was playing it. I almost made myself ill every night because I just imagined there was someone like me in the audience thinking ‘this girl playing Éponine better be good because it’s my favourite role’! So I went a bit crazy while playing Éponine [laughs], but I was a bit older and wiser when I got to play Fantine so I think I enjoyed that a hell of a lot more! When you do something new you have no idea what’s going to happen – like with Mamma Mia! we had no idea what to expect and neither did the audience. It was sort of the original jukebox musical, and in April will celebrate its seventeenth birthday! 

Apparently nobody knew it was a comedy until the audience started laughing during previews?
Yes! When we opened we were playing it straight and then the audience were finding it hilarious so after a few previews the director Phyllida (Lloyd) said, “they think this is really funny so let’s go with it and make it as funny as we can” and from then on it worked. That show was re-shaped and wisely so; they really listened and responded to the audience.

We have to discuss City Of Angels! Just over a year ago the show was running at the Donmar and you stepped in and saved the day at the last minute when Katherine Kelly was unable to perform due to illness. How on earth is it possible to play a role with such little rehearsal?! How much notice did you actually have?
I had about 28 hours’ notice. 

Caroline as Fantine in Les Miserables

What was your reaction? Did you know the show?
I had been to see it and sat in front of the director and casting director who I knew vaguely. During previews the actress (Katherine Kelly) got sick and they contacted me and said, “If she’s off tomorrow, you’ve seen the show so would you be interested in going on with the book?” I was a little bit sick in my mouth [laughs]… but said “Yes, ok!” However, that time she got better so I just thought no more of it. But then six weeks later the same phone call came through and suddenly I was there onstage! I was actually working with loads of lovely friends – I knew most of the cast which is what made it so great. They were so incredibly supportive of this slightly terrified, wide eyed actress in the wings [laughs]. When I look back now, I can’t actually believe that I did it. It recently came up on my Facebook as happening a year ago and I really couldn’t believe it happened. I hadn’t worked for a little while so threw myself into it and thought ‘sod it, let’s have a laugh’ and really enjoyed it! You would think something like that would be a nightmare, but it was actually one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done!

Oh my goodness! I guess you had no time to be nervous.
Exactly – I didn’t. Afterwards everybody said I was as cool as a cucumber. I feel sick thinking about it! I still can’t believe it. It was such a great experience, and I’m very proud to have been a very tiny part of that production.

Caroline as Mary Poppins
I’m sure people must still ask you about Mary Poppins all the time. What’s it like to look back at your journey with the show? Does it feel real?
The America part in particular feels like a dream because there’s nothing here to relate it to – it feels like I did that in another life. I’m still friends with everyone I worked with over there on Facebook and see what they’re up to. I know it did happen, it was such a great experience to go over there and have such a big adventure. 

It was really hard to be away from home, my husband and my family for all that time – I was out there for thirteen months! The longer ago it gets the more I remember the good times rather than the difficult times. Mary was such an amazing role to play and it was lovely to take it out to so many people in places like Plymouth and Edinburgh… and then Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Some of the smaller places we went to, especially in the States, people were so grateful that we were there. It was a lovely feeling to feel so welcomed!

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?
[laughs] Can I take albums?

I’m afraid not! We’re hardcore!
That is really hardcore!! Ok… I’m going to take 'Say It Somehow' from The Light in the Piazza. I did the show over here (at Leicester Curve) and out of all the songs in the show that’s the one I would sing along to the most. It would keep me alive on the desert island! Then… ooo… I think I would take ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park With George and I would try and learn all the harmonies while I was stranded [laughs]. Finally it’s got to be the stagiest choice of all, hasn’t it?! ‘One Day More’ from Les Mis. I couldn’t not pick that, could I? How could anyone not have ‘One Day More’ with them on their desert island?

You are sorted! Finally, what’s it like to have so much support behind you from the dedicated theatre world?
It’s amazing! I mean… I’m really interested in theatre and musical theatre myself and love other people who are, so whenever I do cabarets and concerts and meet people afterwards I’m more than happy to chat away about Sondheim and Adam Guettel and so on. I’m just as much into it as the people in the audience – it’s such a passion for me! I’ve already told people that they need to come and see Only The Brave more than once. I know we’re only on for a week and obviously there are hopes for the show to come to the West End, but when people tell me they’ve booked to come and see it I say, “Are you sure you only want to see it once because I think you’re going to want to see it again!” I really do think it’s going to be ‘that’ good that people will regret not seeing it more than once. I’m from a family of people who are massively into theatre and when I meet people who are as passionate about it as I am, we have a lot in common to chat about! I love it!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Only The Brave runs at the Wales Millennium Centre between 28th March and 2nd April 2016.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2&3: Shaun Webb
Photo Credit 4: Michael Le Poer Trench

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