Actress ANNA-JANE CASEY is currently starring in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Forbidden Broadway at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. She also appeared in the 2009 production of the long-running satirical reuve at the Menier.
Having performed as a child in theatre, television and radio, Casey made her West End debut in the role of Rumpleteazer in Cats at the New London Theatre. Her extensive credits also include leading roles in Company, Piaf and the title role of Sweet Charity for Sheffield Crucible, the award-winning Sunday in the Park With George (Menier Chocolate Factory), Mack and Mabel for the Watermill Theatre (2005 TMA Award for Best Performance in a Musical), Chicago (Cambridge Theatre) and the West End productions of Children of Eden, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Starlight Express and West Side Story. Before joining the cast of Forbidden Broadway, she played Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot (Victoria Palace) and The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot (Playhouse).
Forbidden Broadway has been an unstoppable force in theatre since 1982, when Gerard Alessandrini created the first edition that lampooned the Broadway shows and stars of the day. The show has won numerous awards in its history and has racked up more than 9,000 performances in more than 200 US cities as well as engagements in London, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with Anna-Jane Casey backstage at the Vaudeville Theatre.
Forbidden Broadway is such a fast-paced show and the material often changes, what’s that like?
It’s hilarious, it was manic enough at the Chocolate Factory, but it seems crazier since we’ve arrived at the Vaudeville. Things are always changing and we are often learning different routines and lyrics. It’s hard not to have a meltdown, but as long as people are pointing and laughing at us, it’s okay.
The music and lyrics for one number we recently put in were given to us a few days beforehand, and then the song was cut down to a new version before we performed it. We all have to arrive with our brains switched on.
We’re knackered every night though – backstage we’re running off, changing, while singing backing vocals at the same time. I have to catch sleep where I can, especially as I am a mum as well, but I’ve discovered I can fall asleep on a razor blade in a hurricane if I have to, and luckily the Vaudeville has lovely dressing rooms too.
Forbidden Broadway has quite a following among fans of musical theatre who know the show well. Does that influence the sketches/songs included?
It’s like being a stand-up comedian, it’s important to change the act all the time. We are aware that the show has been going for a long time and there are a number of famous sections, like the iconic Les Mis one. There’s no room to be lazy, so while the content may not always change, we make a point of physically changing how those scenes are staged.
What is it like working with Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini and director-choreographer Phillip George?
Phillip George just wants to create laughter on top of laughter and a then a little bit more. He is one of the most hilarious people you will ever meet. We are in very good hands – having him around fills you with great joy.
Gerard has been over to London to help us out as well. Both of them have been very open about seeing what works in front of a West End audience. That might mean a tiny detail, like a lyric in one song being changed from ‘Tuledo’ to ‘Llandudno’. It’s fascinating because some lines that didn’t work at the Menier work at the Vaudeville and vice versa.
You must have been close to Sophie-Louise Dann, your co-star at the Menier, are you having fun with new addition Christina Bianco?
I regard Sophie as the Forbidden Broadway mamma, as she has done the show a couple of times before, so of course I miss her, but now we have gained a brilliant little niece who is also no stranger to the piece, having done it in the US. And it makes me the tallest girl on stage too!
Can an audience that isn’t obsessed with musical theatre enjoy the show?
Occasionally you see tourists coming into the Vaudeville with their shopping bags and when the show begins, they look as if they’re thinking ‘what the hell is this?’, but three numbers in and they’re hooked. So it’s not just entertaining to a specific audience of musical theatre fans.
I was on the school run the other day [Casey is married to actor Graham MacDuff and they have two daughters], and one of the other mums said they didn’t fancy the show because they hated musicals. I still encouraged her to come along because you’re not sitting through two hours of one musical, it’s three minutes of a show and then on to the next one, very much like the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
You did the show before in 2009, have you got some favourite new sections in the current production?
I love the Cats number, it’s brilliant, and the Once section as well. I have been working on my Czechoslovakian accent!
Is it hard not to corpse when performing the numbers?
Sometime one of us ends up coming onstage with their wig almost hanging off their ear, or their pants on backwards, but we have to hold it together. What’s wonderful is the way we can bounce off the audience and interact and respond to them, and that is different every night.
Are performers sometimes upset by the satire?
I think it’s a compliment. One song sees Robert Lindsay in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, being suave and attractive, but slightly sleazy as well. When he watched it [he was at the show on opening night] I was hoping he felt honoured by receiving the Forbidden Broadway treatment. I would be if it was done for me.
Having performed with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (and conductor John Wilson) at the summertime Proms concerts, you ended up doing the voice for Stewie’s British mum in an episode of the hugely popular US TV show. (Stewie has a fantasy in which he believes he is British – Julian Ovenden plays his dad!) What was that experience like?
Seth was appearing in a John Wilson Orchestra Christmas special when I first met him. At first I was like Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing when she says ‘I carried a watermelon’. He must have thought that I was insane. He’s actually a very quiet man, a writer and artist first and foremost, it’s been great to get to know him just a little bit.
Then there was a big concert in LA last year and we all went to Seth’s house and there were people like Sean Penn wandering around. But he’s just a normal guy, you would never know he is one of the richest men in American TV.
You were the original Dot/Marie in the Menier’s Sunday in the Park With George, but missed out on the West End and Broadway transfers as you were pregnant with your oldest daughter. How did you cope with that?
I think it was made easier by the fact that the role was taken over by the brilliant Jenna Russell who is a friend of mine. There are always rumours about bitchiness, but we’re very supportive of each and respectful. It was the same when Ruthie [Henshall] went into Billy Elliot after me. We ladies have to stick together!
Is there any particular role you would love to do next?
There have been whispers and rumours about the Broadway production of Pippin coming to London, I would love the chance to play Fastrada, which Charlotte d’Amboise has been playing in New York.
* Forbidden Broadway continues at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, until 24 November.
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Forbidden Broadway – Vaudeville Theatre – Review