FRANCES RUFFELLE’s cabaret show Paris Original – running for three nights between 1–3 October at London’s St James Studio – is a celebration of French singers and songs, ranging from Françoise Hardy and Edith Piaf to Francis Lai and Claude-Michel Schönberg. The show, which premiered at the Crazy Coqs in October last year, 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 Misérables. The musical transferred to Broadway and she went with it, winning a Tony Award for her performance. She has also played a French cabaret singer in Songs From a Hotel Bedroom and the title role in Pam Gems’ biographical play Piaf at Curve, Leicester.
Ruffelle has enjoyed great success with her one-woman shows in recent years. When she performed her previous piece, Beneath the Dress, in New York, it was named one of Playbill’s ‘Unforgettable Theatre Experiences of 2013’.
The actress, singer and songwriter devised Paris Original with her long-time friend and collaborator Matt Ryan (who recently directed Dogfight at the Southwark Playhouse) and it’s produced by Danielle Tarento. Audiences will not just be treated to a previously unheard song from Les Misérables (Schönberg’s original composition for Eponine), but special guests will be appearing each evening: Ruffelle’s daughter, pop star Eliza Doolittle (1 October) and West End stars Sabrina Aloueche (2 October) and Helen Woolf (3 October).
Below, she chats to Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland.
When did the love affair with France begin?
I think I was as young as three when I first went there, and then a few years later when my parents wanted to go off on a trip from Paris for a few days, I decided to stayed in the city with my dad’s godchild’s grandmother who didn’t speak a word of English! Although I was lonely, just looking out of the big windows of the apartment seemed magical to me.
I just loved everything – the fashion, architecture, pop music. I used to drive my mum mad because I didn’t want to shop in regular places. I wanted to go to Selfridges and we couldn’t afford it, so we only went shopping in the sales! People always think I’m French too because of my name, which I’m not complaining about.
Tell us a bit about the process of putting the show together, I know you have written several of the English song lyrics yourself.
It takes Matt [Matt Ryan] and I a long time to put a show together, taking care with all the detail, but we have so many laughs along the way. I grew up with Matt, our parents met when we were zero, so it literally feels like he is my brother.
I have written English lyrics for a number of the songs, including some by Francoise Hardy (I had to stop myself from making every other song one of hers). I know musical theatre lovers will pick up on a lot of the references, but the show is equally enjoyable if you come fresh to the material.
When I performed as Eponine, I became known for performing big ballads, but one of my biggest loves is comedy. In my one-woman shows the audience can actually see what else I can do.
When did you first hear the song written for Eponine in Les Misérables that was eventually cut from the show?
It must have been at some point during the audition process. Claude-Michel Schönberg played it to me and it was one of the things that won me over and made me really want to be in the show. I think eventually they wanted Eponine to have more of a showstopping number. The track is on the French concept album, and I am keeping it in French, it’s just so beautiful as it is (even though that is harder for me to learn!).
When I was nine, I watched the French children’s TV series Belle and Sebastian. The theme song was so pretty in French, so I tried to write it down phonetically, I think it was the first French I learnt. Later I challenged myself to learn ‘On My Own’ in French, and I really got into Piaf. Then I played cabaret singer Angélique Picard in Songs From a Hotel Bedroom and of course there was Piaf.
Piaf was probably my most challenging role to date. The learning of the French lyrics did take me a long time, and for a few months I studied the songs every day. I’m not always the fastest of thinker, my dyslexia makes it very difficult, but it’s been great to challenge my brain. It was amazing to have the role of Piaf. I was so happy with how it was received, it was a wonderful experience.
I believe you have a new album in development with British singer/songwriter Gwyneth Herbert who also wrote the score for The A–Z of Mrs P at the Southwark Playhouse in which you appeared.
Yes, I am working with Gwyneth on a new recording and we’ve already done five sessions. It’s a French-ish album, and she has written a couple of songs for me, about me and my life and my experiences, and I have collaborated on some of them. Gwyneth is such a genius, when I asked if she would also produce my album, I couldn’t believe it when she said yes straight away.
Do you ever get nervous anymore?
Cameron Mackintosh came to the first night of Paris Original’s second season at Crazy Coqs and even at my age he can still make me feel nervous. It took me at least 15 minutes to settle down. Matt said he had never seen me perform that way before and that I looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. So the next solo show is going to be called ‘Rabbit in Headlights’!
I was going to take Paris Original to New York (plus there is hope of a tour next year), but I have had to change the dates around as I’m filming three episodes of the TV series Birds of a Feather. The show is filmed like an old-fashioned sitcom in front of a live audience, it’s wonderful.
* Frances Ruffelle performs Paris Original at the St James Studio Theatre, London from 1-3 October. Special guests will be: Eliza Doolittle (1 October), Sabrina Aloueche (2 October) and Helen Woolf (3 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.
…has recorded four solo albums: Fragile, Frances Ruffelle, Showgirl and 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.