Frances Ruffelle’s new cabaret, Paris Original, will be a celebration of French singers and songs. The show premieres at the Crazy Coqs from 8–12 October and represents something of a golden Gallic thread that has run through her career. This began when, at the age of 19, she originated the role of Eponine in Les Miserables. The musical transferred to Broadway and she went with it, winning a Tony Award for her performance. More recently she has played a French cabaret singer in Songs From a Hotel Bedroom and Edith Piaf in Pam Gems’ biographical play Piaf at the Curve, Leicester.
And, it seems, she’s always been a Francophile.
“As a kid it was the only country we holidayed in. France meant a lot to me, Paris meant a lot to me… and I love fashion. Paris is the home of fashion. So it all seemed to fit together.”
As for Paris Original, she is enjoying the creative freedom that cabaret affords and isn’t afraid to do things a little differently. She has just returned from New York where she has been performing her previous show, Beneath the Dress, at the top venue 54 Below after selling out there in May. The evening included plenty of audience interaction: “I always say to my audiences, if you like that kind of thing, come sit near the front.” And her song choices are always interesting. She is devising the show with her long-time friend and collaborator Matthew Ryan.
“I call him ‘my brain’. He has this incredible head of musical knowledge. Much better than me. He always comes up with some fantastic songs. He’s the one who conjures up the really interesting and obscure things that no one else will have heard of.”
There’s certainly plenty of good material to choose from. The French tradition of songwriting is a strong and distinctive one, as she explains: “There is something about the French writers, the way they write the melodies. There’s a similarity between the composers. It’s to do with the fact that the words lend themselves to longer recitative.”
It’s a style that is perhaps most closely associated with Edith Piaf and Ruffelle will be drawing on her previous experience of portraying the French singer in Gems’ play: “I didn’t imitate her at all when I did the show, but I do have a similar quality on certain notes. I just have something that works and is like her.” And, even though most songs will be translated, she’s planning to perform some numbers in the original French. It’s something that she’s done before and works well with her voice.
“It helps me support my voice in the right way. We don’t really like singing down our nose in English. But in French there are certain nasal sounds that are used and it’s quite useful for the resonance of the voice.”
In fact the Piaf connection goes all the way back to Les Miserables. The character of Eponine was based on a young Piaf and Ruffelle won the role by auditioning with the classic song ‘Hymne a l’amour’ (Hymn to Love). You can hear the same sentiment of tragic devotion in Ruffelle’s original recording of Eponine’s big number ‘On My Own’. Indeed she places the composer of Les Miserables, Claude-Michel Schonberg, firmly in the French tradition.
“I thought that straight away when I first heard his music when I was 19. I hear his style and the way he writes in a number of French composers.”
So she’s planning to include his music in the new cabaret show, but isn’t revealing all of the details just yet: “I didn’t say I was doing Les Mis. I said I was doing Claude-Michel Schonberg!” No doubt it will be one of the highlights of a show which promises to be, as Ruffelle puts it, “chic and unique”.
Paris Original plays at The Crazy Coqs (8–12 October)
Did you know that Frances Ruffelle…
…took part in the original workshop of Starlight Express and subsequently played the role of Dinah for Trevor Nunn in the show’s first ever cast. She also created the role of Yonah in the original West End production of Children of Eden, directed by John Caird.
…also played Frastrada in Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Louisa in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince (Chichester Festival Theatre and West End), Roxie Hart in Chicago (Adelphi and Cambridge Theatres), the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Tour) and Delilah in Ian Dury’s Apples (Royal Court).
…is also a film and TV actress. Her latest films are Devil’s Tower and Hide, both due to be released in 2014.
…has recorded four solo album: Fragile, Frances Ruffelle, Showgirl and her latest, Imperfectly Me.
…is part of a showbiz family, with her mother being the founder and principal of the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and her daughter being recording artist Eliza Doolitte.