FRANCES RUFFELLE has one of the most idiosyncratic voices of any singer in the West End or Broadway. Hers is a husky, sultry sound, with an unmistakeable rawness and vulnerability that is sure to make her the perfect fit for the role of Queenie in composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa’s version of The Wild Party, which opens at The Other Palace on 20 February.
The hedonistic, seven-time Tony-nominated musical – with a book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe – recounts the events of one fateful night in the life of Queenie and Burrs, fading vaudeville stars who throw an outrageously decadent and gin-fuelled party in order to save their relationship.
This is a show of firsts: it’s the UK premiere, the first production for the former St James Theatre under its new guise as The Other Theatre, and the first for artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills (Carrie, In The Heights). Directing and choreographing the show is Drew McOnie (In The Heights, Strictly Ballroom).
The daughter of Sylvia Young – she of the famous acting school – and the mother of pop star Eliza Doolittle, the waif-like ‘Frankie Ruff’ is enjoying a long, glittering career as a performer and creative. She most famously originated the English-speaking role of Eponine in Les Misérables, which she took to Broadway, winning the 1987 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and now lives between London and New York, performing regularly in both cities.
Back in London, during a break in rehearsals in a space above the refitted Union Theatre, ‘Frankie’ took 20 minutes out to speak to Musical Theatre Review’s Craig Glenday about her excitement at bringing Queenie to life in the capital.
How have rehearsals been going?
Well, it’s exhausting, but it’s really, really exciting in the room. I haven’t actually been so excited in a rehearsal room for a long, long time. It’s lovely.
Did you know score before you started?
I know the piece really well, yes. But only from listening to it. I came across it about 12 years ago, I think, and fell in love with the music. When I heard the album, I was thinking ‘Wow, this is not just a musical, I would almost say a jazz opera’. It’s got jazz and classical influences, and the way it’s written is very challenging. It’s an amazing score. Now, with Drew’s touches – and I don’t want to give away too much – but my gosh! There’s so much incredible choreography now. I was mesmerised by the album and now I’m mesmerised by Drew’s vision.
So what’s the story then?
It came from a poem [Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem of 1928], which was banned because it was very naughty. It’s about a wild party, and it’s wilder than any I’ve been to…
I’m sure that’s not true!
…and that’s saying something! Basically, it’s 24 hours in the life of Queenie, a vaudeville queen in 1929. She would rather she wasn’t a vaudeville queen – life didn’t quite go as she wanted it – so she gives herself a bit of excitement. She likes sex, she likes drugs, she likes alcohol, she likes partying. It’s really just taking her away from a life that she really feels unsatisfied about.
The characters in the piece were a big part of what drew me to this show. The characters are so dynamic, and a bit unsafe, really. Vulgar. Everything that could happen, happens. An incestuous relationship between two brothers, and then there’s gay love triangles, straight love triangles, partner swapping, drug taking, guns, misogamy. It even touches on paedophilia. It’s quite dark.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but do you feel an affinity with this character?!
I do in a way. The reality is, sometimes life doesn’t always go the way you plan it. I can’t say I’ve had a bad life… I’ve had a lovely life, and am having a lovely life. There were disappointments, and I know the feeling sometimes when you just get to the end of the day and you’re having a bit of a low. You know, you get the lows sometimes in this business, and you do just want to do something that makes you feel happy. Opening a bottle of wine, going out…whatever it is.
I do have a lot of friends as well that suffer it in a very big way. I’m sure a lot of people identify with this character. I’m sure most people in the world aren’t doing what they really would like to do.
But you are? Is your career going where you want it to?
To be honest, I noticed at quite a young age that when things weren’t going my way, I got pretty low. I found a way out of that, and that was to be creative. I write, I put my own shows together, I direct now. Just keep creativity going, and it’s not just in showbusiness – I’m pretty obsessed with property and interiors: I do up houses and people ask me to do theirs for them even.
I have other obsessions to do with art and creativity, and I keep myself going. Actually, I don’t really just rely on acting as an income any more. I’ve made other things work in my life. I would love to be able to just do the most challenging roles all the time, but they don’t always come along. I’m quite good at choosing things that challenge me. Otherwise I know I have a low boredom threshold! I get bored very easily, so I have to challenge myself all the time.
You’ve had some big roles early on in your career: Dinah in Starlight Express, Eponine in Les Mis…
Yeah, with Starlight Express I worked Trevor Nunn, so that’s what got me Les Mis. Actually, I had a really busy early career. I did my first West End show when I was 16, in the same theatre that I’m doing The Wild Party; before they knocked it down and it became what it is now, it was called the Westminster Theatre. I was 16, and I did a children’s musical there called Gavin and the Monster. When I was 17, I did a play [Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince] with Omar Sharif at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and then while I was doing that, I was rehearsing for Starlight Express.
Were in you training at this time too?
No. My mum was running her school, so I did some part-time classes there, but I didn’t really go to drama school or do proper training. I left school at 15 and went straight into it. So then I did Starlight Express and then straight to Les Misérables, so it was a very, very busy period. It was just amazing!
And off to Broadway…
Straight to Broadway! You know when you’re that age and that happens to you, you don’t realise how lucky you are. I knew I was lucky, but I guess it became a job at that point. I was working really hard.
You’ve gone on to do a lot of challenging and interesting work. I particularly enjoyed the chance to see The A-Z of Mrs P staged at Southwark.
Yeah, that was a great role [as Bella, Mrs P’s mother]. An unusual and really interesting character. It was a strange, quirky piece as well, brilliantly written and actually a very challenging score. Very challenging! And the words! Oh my gosh.
You had a lot of words to get out…
Do you remember that galloping song? My god! Every night just before I went on, I had to literally go through the words just quickly to impress them into my brain because they were so difficult to get in.
Do you find it more difficult to get work as you get older?
I’m not sure, really. Well, there probably aren’t as many roles available for a woman of my age, but the reality is, for me, I probably haven’t had more or less work opportunities throughout my life than anyone else. I have slow periods and fast periods, but it hasn’t really changed. I’ve never been an obvious ingenue anyway because I don’t have that sort of soprano voice. Mine is sort of husky, and I don’t really like to belt too high.
I love your voice. I think it’s so interesting and very recognisable… in a good way! Where does your voice come from?
Thank you. I always had this sort of husky, foghorn type of voice. I was desperate to be in the choir when I was a kid but I never got in. I realised I do have quite an unusual voice, and certain vowel sounds I don’t sing in a good way. I know I have to work my voice in a certain way that maybe other people don’t.
Most people love to sing ‘Ah’ sounds, and when I do my scales, my warm-up, I can’t do ‘Ah’. I do ‘E’. It’s really bizarre. I remember once I got scared that maybe there’s something wrong with me. I went to see a voice doctor, and he took photographs of my vocal cords and said they were the prettiest, nicest and straightest vocal cords he’d ever seen! I kept the photograph for quite a long time. It actually looked a little bit disgusting, so I threw it away a few months ago.
I just have a very unusual voice. It’s just the way it is. I think that it’s helped me in some ways, because it makes me more interesting, and I use that to my advantage. It also means that every time I get a new piece, some songs just sit in my voice brilliantly and other songs challenge me. I’ve done roles that challenged me a great deal.
I did a Kurt Weill piece [Songs From a Hotel Bedroom in 2010] that went to the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House, and I had to sing soprano. That’s the only time I’ve ever done it. Maybe the last time I’ll ever do it as well, to be honest, because it was a massive challenge. It was incredible, the role. The soprano is like her natural self, and then when she became her, she was a cabaret singer; when she became a cabaret singer she went into a dark jazz voice. So quite interesting, but very difficult.
I imagine that, as the daughter of Sylvia Young, you were surrounded with actors and showbiz types growing up. Was this the case?
Sort of, yes. My mum worked in the theatre when I was very, very young, but she gave that up. She couldn’t deal with work and motherhood and we didn’t have much money. I used to go to watch her perform, and would learn all my mother’s words. I would stand in the wings – although the wings, I was told, were like fairy wings but they weren’t! I was so disappointed! So yes, it’s true, I was born in a trunk. I wasn’t really surrounded by a lot of theatre people in the real world, but my friends Matt Ryan, Clare Burt and Nick Berry, we all grew up together. We used to put shows on in the garden. “Let’s do the show right here!” Very, very Judy Garland orientated!
Were you a big musical theatre fan growing up?
Yeah, mainly when I was younger. But it was the movies… Judy Garland, Singin’ in the Rain… we had all the videos of that sort of stuff. I really did like musical theatre. I also liked pop music, and when I was young I listened to the Top 40 every week and recorded it on my tape recorder and learned every word.
With The Wild Party, you’ve got what looks like a dream creative team and an incredible cast. How is it working with Theo Jamieson as MD?
Oh, he’s a dream. We get on so well and we have a bit of a laugh, the two of us. I met him before briefly, because he did a one-day rehearsal for me for something, but that’s the only time, so it was only one day. He’s great to work with because it’s very challenging music.
How would you describe the style?
Well, it’s sort of jazz age mixed with classical. When I say classical, it’s, you know, where the tempos and the time signatures are very, very sporadic, they change so quickly. You have to really use your brain. It’s very, very difficult. But it’s brilliant. That’s what I loved about it when I first heard it.
And the dancing? I’m assuming that with Drew McOnie directing that there’s going to be a lot of movement.
Yeah, there’s a lot of dancing. I’m doing way more dancing than I was expecting. Actually, I can’t believe I’m doing it, because I snapped my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament, in the knee]. The footballer’s injury!
What happened? Were you at a particularly wild party somewhere?!
If only it was that exciting. I broke my ACL, so I had to have that rebuilt, and then I broke my ankle a year later. It’s amazing that I’m dancing at all. I’m actually really clumsy. I played Roxie in Chicago, but everyone said to me, “Why don’t you do Velma?” I said: “No, because if I did Velma I’d fall off the chair!”
But I’m really working hard on this. I’ve been doing lots of yoga and lots of physio to get myself back to physical fitness. I can’t believe that I’m really doing it, I’m really delighted.
What’s it like working with Drew?
Drew McOnie is just divine to work with. I’ve actually never worked with somebody who bounds around a rehearsal room as he does, like a yo-yo. He’s all over the place, jumping on sofas, rolling around. He’s a very, very physical director, and that’s really exciting.
I loved In The Heights. Are we going to be seeing you move like one of the dancers in the barrio?! I guess Drew’s adapted his style to suit the 1920s?
[Laughs] Yeah, of course. What I love about Drew is that, alright so it’s the 1920s, but he doesn’t just go: “Oh yeah, let’s just do that dance style from the 1920s, the obvious thing.” Nothing is like the obvious movement – it’s always got a bit of Drew in it, and that’s what I love about it.
With Drew, it’s like something new is starting… It’s like seeing Fosse do his thing for the first time [tips her head back, pinching an imaginary bowler hat, Fosse-style]. My body is starting to know what Drew is going to be doing. So that’s really exciting, seeing a new style being born.
Is it true that Michael John LaChuisa was only happy to back a London staging of The Wild Party if you agreed to be in it?
Yeah, what happened was, I was performing in New York, doing my one-woman show, Beneath the Dress, and I sing a couple of Michael John LaChiusa songs in that show. Maury Yeston – he is an absolute sweetheart, comes to all my shows in New York – he brought Michael John along one night. So I had the two composers in the audience, which was quite nervewracking.
I didn’t know Michael John was coming until about half an hour before. It was the worst time to hear this: I was about to go on and my first song is one of his! I ended up making up all the words. I thought: “He’s going to hate me!” But at the end of the show, he just came up to me and said: “You are my sister.”
I said to him: “Do you mind me asking why The Wild Party hasn’t been done in London?” He said: “Do you want to be my Queenie?” I went: “Yeah!” and it went from there. So there you go. Just luck, isn’t it?
So why hasn’t it been done?
I actually don’t really know if I know the right answer to that. You’d have to ask Michael John. He has come over for the previews. I can‘t believe Michael John and I are friends now, I love him. So that’s really nice! We meet for cocktails. He’s so sweet. He gave me an original Wild Party shot glass, from the original production, which I have on my shelf.
You can use it on the opening night…
Well, I don’t think I ought to be drinking. Even if it is a wild party!
* Tickets for The Wild Party are available HERE.