Sunday, 1 May 2016

Big Interview: Frances Ruffelle

Frances Ruffelle is bringing her new solo show I Say Yeh-Yeh to the London Hippodrome on 5th May.

Having premiered I Say Yeh-Yeh at Crazy Coqs last year, Frances recently took the show to the Kennedy Center in Washinton D.C. The show takes the same name as Frances’ most recent album. 

Frances famously created the role of Eponine in the West End production of Les Miserables. She reprised her performance for the musical’s Broadway premiere, winning the 1987 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical.

Her additional West End credits include: Roxie Hart in Chicago (Adelphi), Yonah in Children of Eden (Prince Edward), Dinah in Starlight Express (Apollo Victoria) and Princess Louisa in The Sleeping Prince (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Frances’ theatre credits also include: title role in Piaf (Curve), Fastrada in Pippin (Menier Chocolate Factory), Narrator in Joseph (UK Tour), Candy in Whistle Down The Wind & Betty Shaefer in Sunset Boulevard (both at Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton Festival), Delilah in Apples (Royal Court), Paula in Bend it like Beckham (workshop) and The A-Z of Mrs P (Southwark Playhouse).

Her previous solo shows include Paris Original and Beneath The Dress whilst her previous albums include Imperfectly Me, Showgirl, Frances Ruffelle and Fragile. On screen Frances has appeared in Birds of a Feather, The Road to Ithaca, The Invitation, Secrets and Lies, Long Forgotten Fields, Devil's Tower and Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Miserables. She represented the UK in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest with the song 'Lonely Symphony (We Will Be Free)', finishing 10th.

I recently spoke to Frances about bringing I Say Yeh-Yeh to the Hippodrome, her upcoming return to the West End and why she’s learnt to embrace Les Mis…

You have so much going on at the moment! You’ve just been performing in America, you have a new album out, your London solo show is coming up and you just directed Evelyn Hoskins’ concert. How do you manage it all?!
[laughs] Well the show I’m doing at the Hippodrome I just did in Washington D.C., so I’m pretty confident with that which is good. When I was directing Evie’s show I was waking up in the night going through her show rather than my own! It has been quite nice in a way. Although I still have a bit of anxiety, it’s just nice to have been able to focus on something else. When you’re directing someone else’s show you feel very responsible in a different way. I always like to keep busy – last week I recorded a new track for an EP which is coming out in a few weeks.

So there’s never a dull moment?
I don’t really like having dull moments [laughs]. I’m always either writing or performing. I’ve got a new show coming out next year in the West End.

That’s ridiculously exciting! Can you give away any teasers?
It’s not going to be announced for a few weeks, but do you know what’s nice in this business? It’s when you’ve got something in the pipeline which you know is happening later on. If you haven’t got anything around the corner that’s always a bit scary. 

But you’re constantly creating your own opportunities. It must be nice to dip in and out of shows, and in-between work on albums and perform in various concerts in the UK and America. Does that keep it alive?
Yes, I do like that. I don’t take everything that comes my way because I also think it’s really important to keep everything fresh – I think for audiences it’s nice for you not to be shoved in their face all the time. Then it’s more exciting when you’re doing something. I have to say, I have been lucky that I’ve been able to be diverse and do TV and film as well. I’m so lucky to do different things! It keeps me challenged. 

Frances & her daughter Eliza Doolittle
It’s so easy to become pigeonholed!
Well I think I was pigeonholed for quite a long time, a lot of people just thought I sang heart wrenching ballads [laughs], but actually my favourite thing to do is comedy. I don’t think a lot of people realised that and it has taken me quite a long time to get that across. It is easy to be pigeonholed, for sure. 

On 5th May you’re bringing your new solo show I Say Yeh-Yeh to the Hippodrome for the first time. Have you mixed things up? What can we expect?
Basically, when I do a show I don’t really believe I do a cabaret as such. I actually looked up the word cabaret, and it means small room. So I think what I try and do is perform a theatrical piece in a cabaret space. It’s really intimate; all my solo shows have their unique themes. I’ve used my own life experiences, and this one is from heartbreak to empowerment. I’ve written some things with Gwyneth Herbert based on some French poetry. It’s all about my life and my experiences, my ex-boyfriend, my dog and his new girlfriend [laughs]… my new love… everything! I always have a lot of women come up to me afterwards saying, “Thank you, you’ve really inspired me because I’ve been through that too!” I pull fun at my own life and some of the ups and downs – I like sharing stuff like that. We all go through the same s**t!

Is it hard to put together when everything is so personal?
When I started working on this one I wanted something completely new because it’s a different concept, so I did find it hard at first because I had to think about how I was going to stylise it. You always wonder if it’s going to work. I don’t do the chat which is expected like, ‘I chose this song because…’ or ‘I’m singing this song because I was in this show…’ At first it was really hard to make it work, because the very first time I speak to the audience I talk in verse. I didn’t know if people were going to get it, so the first time I performed it I was really scared! But the first time they laughed I realised it all worked. I feel quite brave about how stylised it is, since I did it at Crazy Coqs I’ve written more so it’s a longer piece. When I took it to Washington D.C. I wasn’t sure if they would get my jokes there.

And did they?
Yes – more than in England! So now I’m on a roll and enjoy writing in this style… but in a couple of years I’ll have to think up something new for the next one and that’s going to be hard!

Frances in Piaf

Do you get nervous?
Erm… when I walk onto a stage and do whatever I’m doing, I’m never scared because there’s part of me that thinks ‘it’s only a show’ and if anything goes wrong I just embrace it, because I somehow think audiences love it even more if you have little scary moments. My nerves happen before a show when I’m preparing. I’m probably not the nicest, most relaxed person to be around [laughs]. 

How do you find the intimacy with the audience?
I do like it and I’m used to it. I really like it when I can see their faces, but sometimes even in a small space you’re blinded by the light and can’t see many people at all. When I performed as a guest as Scott Alan’s show at the Hippodrome I remember looking for Mark Shenton because it was his birthday, he was in the front row and I still couldn’t see him! I actually pointed at someone else [laughs]. 

Frances in Les Mis
Tell me about the support you have behind you, I’m sure you have lots of people who have been coming to all your shows for years and years!
It always surprises me! It’s incredible that there are so many people who are supportive of me and know me through Les Miserables… and I’m so grateful for that show [laughs]. Not many people get that sort of opportunity to create a role in such a mega-hit. I’m really lucky to have lots of lovely fans. What I also love is that I get new ones who discover me, it’s lovely at my age to have so many young fans… and quite a lot of old ones too [laughs]. 

I’m sure every journalist or fan you speak to wants to discuss Les Mis, does that ever feel strange? It was such a long time ago now!
To be honest I embrace it because it’s a lovely thing and I’m proud of it. There was quite a long time when I refused to sing ‘On My Own’ – I just couldn’t. I didn’t feel like I could do it justice anymore and, in a way, I felt challenged by it because I felt everyone was expecting me to be amazing, but it was a song I sang when I was twenty! Now I sing it again. Michael Ball told me off for not singing it, he said “You’ve got to give your fans what they want”. We did a new arrangement and I sing it now like the woman I am now rather than the little girl I was then. It’s a different take on it and most of the reaction has been pretty good. I guess it’s nice to have a change! Out of anyone wanting to try a new arrangement, I guess I get that privilege to do what I want to do with it because I look upon it as my song! I’m glad to be singing it again, I’ll be doing it at the Hippodrome which will be good.

Have you enjoyed working with Gwyneth Herbert?
I did a musical with her, The A–Z of Mrs P, which she wrote and during that time I discovered how brilliant this woman is. She’s just a genius! I know the musical was a bit marmite, not everybody liked it, but working with her was incredible. I asked her to produce my album for me and was really surprised when she said yes! Since then we’ve had a really strong working relationship. She’s written things for me – we were back in the studio a couple of weeks ago. It’s so nice! The A–Z of Mrs P was a hard job because we didn’t get particularly great reviews – it can be so hard to turn up every night to do something which you’re not necessarily getting a great reaction for, but you have to take the positives from things and meeting Gwyneth Herbert was a massive positive! She’s going to be playing and also singing at my gig. She plays the role of ‘best mate’ basically [laughs]. A lot of people don’t realise how amazing she is before coming to my shows, so hopefully she will gain a new audience after doing the Hippodrome with me!

I don’t usually ask about dream roles… but I was just doing my research and saw you said in a recent interview that you would like to play Mama Rose in Gypsy..!
[laughs] That was just a spur of the moment thing… I was put on the spot! To be honest… yeah… I think that’s a really, really challenging role. How do you love her and yet she’s awful? I basically want to do anything that challenges me, so Mama Rose is one of many things. I don’t wake up every morning wishing I could play a certain role. I just wait and see whatever happens that day, and if I get offered something I want to do then great! I wouldn’t say I’m highly ambitious, I’m not like that. 

Frances with Cameron Mackintosh & Patti LuPone at Les Mis' 30th Birthday Gala

Well now it’s my turn to put you on the spot! I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Oh my god [laughs]! What would I take?! I don’t need to take ‘On My Own’ because that would be in my head anyway. I would probably choose something by Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli. I would take Stephen Sondheim, ‘The Miller's Son’ from A Little Night Music. Then what else? Maybe a beautiful ballad. I can’t even think, otherwise I’ll end up just saying Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and the same old people!

Nobody is going to judge you for going for songs by Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Judy Garland or Liza Minnelli!
[laughs]. I can never think of titles! Do you know what? I’m going to take something really off the wall which you probably won’t know. Do you know the musical Mardi Gras? I’m going to take a song called ‘Everybody's Moving’. That’s one of my favourite songs, I still sing it around the house. It’s groovy! ‘Rhythm Of Life’ from Sweet Charity is also one of my all-time favourites. When I was younger I just wanted to be a dancer, I wasn’t a very good singer. All my life was just about dance, and I made up a dance for ‘Everybody’s Moving’ [laughs]. ‘Rhythm Of Life’ was one of my favourites pieces that I would do at dance classes. There are too many to choose from!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins

Frances Ruffelle plays the London Hippodrome with her latest solo show I Say Yeh-Yeh on Thursday 5th May 2016. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 3&6: Dan Wooller
Photo Credit 4: Pamela Raith

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