Ruthie Henshall is embarking on her first solo tour of Australia, bringing her new show to Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide this month. For those unfamiliar with this West End name, she’s a five time Olivier Award nominee, made her West End debut in Cats, played Velma, Roxy and Matron Mama Morton from Chicago across the West End and Broadway, and has appeared in a myriad of major shows over the years – she’s one of the hardest working actresses I’ve ever encountered.
I spoke to the West End star late one night in London about her career and her work, her tour plans in Australia and what it is like to be a working mother on the West End and in this business.
“Because I’m new to Australia, I will be singing songs from my career, from shows I’ve been in. There will also be a smattering of ones I have never done, the ones you have always wanted to do. For me, I have to have something to say about the song; If it doesn’t move me, I can’t move you,” Henshall said, on putting together her new show.
“I’m just really enjoying putting something different together, a walk through my career with stories from my career, and a walk through my life. Life is full of ups and downs and rollercoasters, and the lovely thing about doing your own show is I’m not playing a character, I’m not part of a show, so I can really have a chat, and hopefully they get to know me. I am known an awful lot for Chicago, so people say “Sing All That Jazz!”… it will be a bit more of a medley, seeing as I’ve done all three of the women’s parts now, we’ll have some fun with it. I do like to do a good comedy number!” she laughs.
She was last seen on our shores in 2012, as part of the gala performance on Side by Side by Sondheim, where she was the headline performer at Theatre Royal. She greatly enjoyed her introduction to Australia and can’t wait to come back.
“The tour is quite a bucket list tick, because I only spent a few days in Sydney before, coming over to do a couple of numbers in a show and I loved it. I really loved it, honestly I was the biggest tourist, I did the bridge climb, I stroked a Koala … and I went to the Blue Mountains, I had a baptism by fire of Sydney and I loved it,” she laughed about her first time in Australia.
We talked about fun facts about koalas for a while, and Australia’s status as the only country in the world to eat both it’s national animals, before moving onto more serious topics.
“This tour is dipping the toe in the water and seeing how it all goes; it’s a very, very new show, I had a rehearsal yesterday, I had one tomorrow, and we’re doing lots of “Nope, that doesn’t feel right” and “no, that’s not working” and trying new things. There’s been so much stuff that I am asked to sing a lot, I’m doing a core of those, but the rest is all stuff I’ve never done before … if you sing things too many times you’ll just about scream if somebody asks you to sing it again! So this is a tour of not wanting to scream.”
Henshall mentions her career highlights as being on stage in Les Miserables, Crazy for You, Chicago, Cats, Miss Saigon, and more across the West End and Broadway.
“I very much came into the musical business when it was the day of the juggernaut, the Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera and Cats and all these long running shows had burst onto the scene. It was a very exciting time to be coming into the business, and it wasn’t about the person selling the show, the show was the star … it was a very exciting time. I was part of the world premiere of Miss Saigon, I was in the ensemble but to have been part of creating something like that was incredible, just incredible,” Henshall said.
Henshall has been lucky enough to perform all three leading female roles in Chicago across her career, from her Broadway debut as Velma in 1999, playing Roxie twice and recently playing Matron Mama Morton in the recently closed West End production.
“It’s a real honour, we opened Chicago and I was around 30, and I opened as Roxie. 10 years later I went back and played it again, and the Roxie I played at 30 was not the Roxie I played at 40. You realise that life experience changes the way you interpret a piece of script, so it was fascinating to me. I had the same experience with Miss Saigon, where I was 21 when I played Ellen in London, and then I was 31 or 32 when I played it on Broadway; once again, you realise how much you’ve changed as a person when you get that luxury and that honour of being able to revisit a role,” she says about her luck in revisiting some of her major roles.
The other major role she plays every day is as a working single mum, with two daughters, one who is doing her GSCEs (the UK equivalent of VCE or IB studies).
“I would definitely say it’s difficult – I am a single mum and it’s very difficult to split yourself like that. Eight shows a week is really full on, and they feel it when you are not putting them to bed six nights a week. They want their mum. It’s hard for me because I’ve missed a lot of things, but it is the business that I am in. If I had a significant other who had been able to have been at home, I think things would have been a lot easier,” she reflects.
“I’d love to see producers job share for mothers, to have mothers be able to do four shows each while their children are young, because I can definitely tell you it has not been easy.”
She had a few quieter years to focus on her kids, and she says she has made different decisions about the types of jobs she takes over the last few years, as her daughters’ progress through their studies.
“Recently as my daughter is taking her GSCEs, I’ve just said no, no, no to a lot of things, but the bottom line is I also have to pay the mortgage, it’s the way I earn my money. You end up doing a job, and living off that money as long as you can – you can’t not earn. When that runs out, you’ve got to do something! It’s been a lot of juggling and robbing Peter to pay Paul, you do what you have to do to earn but also be there for them as well. I’ve gotten it right sometimes and wrong other times,” Henshall said.
“I haven’t made life particularly easy for myself, I do still feel blessed that I do what I do, and it’s either full on our nothing – this business is feast or famine. As you get older in this business, roles change, and I’m not the young lead anymore. There are all sorts of decisions to be made, and I have definitely felt I have missed out on my children. If I had a significant other who wasn’t in the business, or who was but could hold the fort down, things would have been different,” she reflects.
In the last few years, she’s started a production company, written a book, and still had time to star on the West End.
“Who knows where my life is going to take me, and whether I will still be or want to still be performing in years to come – you think you want to and you think you will be, but who knows. I need to have something to leave my children, something that will get us through. I find it very exciting to lift up new talent, and I’d love to find new writing talent and new talent in general. The company is at the stage now where what we have been doing is a brand new 45 minute book musicals, that we put on PNO and cruise ships, but we’re now looking to do stuff on land, so we’re writing hard! It’s all at the embryonic stage, but ultimately we want to put on new musicals,” Henshall says on her future projects.
You can catch this hard working actress on her live and intimate tour across Australia at the Sydney Opera House on 13 June, at QPAC on 18 and 19 June, and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on 21 and 22 June. More info: https://www.ruthiehenshall.com
Venue: The Studio, Sydney Opera House
Date: Thursday 13 June, 8:00pm
Price: $75-85 plus booking fees
Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Date: Wednesday 19 June, 8:00pm
Price: $79 plus booking fees
Bookings: qpac.com.au or 136 246
ADELAIDE CABARET FESTIVAL
Venue: The Famous Spiegeltent, Adelaide Festival Centre
Date: Friday 21 June 21 6pm, Saturday 22 June at 7.30pm
Price: $69.90 plus booking fees