Olivier Award winner Ruthie Henshall first opened on the West End in Chicago
in 1997, winning raves as Roxie Hart and subsequently crossing over to New York to play Velma Kelly in the ongoing Broadway run of the Kander and Ebb revival. Now, she’s back in the show in London, once again playing Roxie but this time at the Cambridge Theatre (through April 24) and then crossing the Atlantic to take her Roxie back to Broadway. Age 43, Henshall may now be a more age-appropriate Roxie than she was before, while her career over the last decade has gathered in strength, including an extended take-over in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman In White
and an Olivier nomination for her taxing West End run in Marguerite
. Broadway.com caught up with the ever-gracious performer one Friday prior to a four-performance weekend to discuss growing into a role and growing apart from a partner (she and husband Tim Howar have split up after nine years together, five of them married). It must be fascinating returning to the same role in a production that is still going strong after 13 years or so.
It’s a big privilege, actually. I had remembered the show as being very brutal, very demanding in every way. And I don’t know why, but this time it doesn’t feel like hard work even though it is, physically and emotionally. It’s like the show fits, like somebody landed me in the right place at the right time. I imagine there’s an element of instant recall that you are able to draw upon.
It feels like there are some parts you play that are kind of part of you [where] you don’t really have to act to play them: there’s something about you and the character that just is
. The thing about Roxie is that I absolutely adore her. I’ve absolutely realized that this is my role, not Velma. Velma was a wonderful character for me to explore and to do but for me it doesn’t have the same attachment. Having played both roles must mean that you bring an unusual awareness of what your fellow leading lady is going through at every performance.
I know what they have to do physically. It’s one of those roles where you are shot out of a canon. I’m opposite Anna-Jane Casey [as Velma] at the moment, and I couldn’t do Velma like her. Velma needs to be an absolutely stupendous dancer with an attitude, a point of view. Roxie confesses at one point to being “older than I ever intended to be,” which must have been rather odd, to put it mildly, when you first played the part.
I was 30 and nobody even tittered: here was a young lady, basically, standing in front of them—a young broad—and the joke didn’t land. This time, people laugh because it is that thing of now I’m 43, and I never actually thought I’d be this old. [Laughs
.] You know how when you’re 20, you can’t ever imagine getting older, so when Roxie was 20 or 25, she thought by 43 she’d be a star and then she got there and she’s still in the chorus. Only then does she get her break—or what she considers to be her break. That’s what I love about this: that wonderful thing of, “It can happen at any time.” You can get your dream at any time—I mean, let’s talk Susan Boyle. At least she didn’t have to murder anybody.
]. She just sang a song. And presumably this isn’t the same Roxie you played in 1997 for the simple reason that your life has moved on.
Inherently, I am the same woman, but it’s absolutely fascinating because as you say the woman who played Roxie 13 years ago is not the same woman: I’ve had two children, various hard things like my sister dying and my break-up and those kinds of things and color you as an actress. So although this is a very funny, great, witty show, that monologue in the middle [the number “Roxie”] is such a platform for the colors of the rainbow that it’s not that I necessarily think about any of these things as much as they have simply added weight as to how I make my choices as an actress. It’s not just about the laughs anymore. That must up the dramatic stakes.
Velma and Roxie are personality parts, and you have to be a strong personality to play these parts, otherwise they don’t work. I think that’s why if you look at the women who have played them, a lot of them are very strong women. I remember when Sandy Duncan was Roxie to my Broadway Velma, and I used to just sit in the wings and watch her “Roxie” monologue every night. I just think she’s sublime, I really do. She has such talent, and she’s so funny and so heartfelt. Annie Reinking was in her mid-40s, at least, and when you think about Ann playing that part and her career and who she’s been lovers with, it was very moving to see her do [the role]. It’s a shame that you and Tim have split up, but I it seems as agreeable as these things can be.
Tim is a fabulous father and lives around the corner from us, and we share the children because, really, that’s the most important thing. What I’ve learned, though, is that I’m not dating any more actors: they all need looking after and I’m too strong, that’s my problem. I can’t marry Peter Pan. [Laughs.
] The other thing I’ve decided is that I’m going to let my friends set me up; I’m going to bypass my Ruthie radar. I need to be in control, and I obviously need to stop
being in control. In actual fact, I don’t think people think I need looking after, but you know what? I’d really like a little bit of that now. I’m done with doing the looking after, at least for now. This time, of course, your kids could see you in the show whereas they weren’t around in 1997.
Lily’s seen it all the way through, but she’s seven. Dolly [age five] managed the first half, but then she fell asleep—it was very late and she’d been in London all day. I remember saying to Lily, “There will be some rude words in it–you know, the words you’re not allowed to say, and she turned round to me and said, “What, you mean like ‘fucking?’” I nearly fell out of my seat. She wouldn’t tell me where she’d learned that word. I couldn’t get it out of her. Dolly loves the dancing and all of that but I doubt either of them really understands it. Do you see yourself returning to Roxie yet again, assuming this production continues indefinitely?
Absolutely, as long as they want me to play it. This is one role I understand and that I will come back to play. I don’t ever need to play Velma again, but if you brought me back in 10 years time, I think Roxie would be different again—although the kid inside her will always be there. What about graduating in time to Matron “Mama” Morton?
Oh, please, no! I need to stop at Velma and Roxie. If I end up coming back as Mama, that’s when you need to say, “Step away from the stage!”