This week has been all about the Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Funny Girl which has not only broken box office records at its current London home, the Menier Chocolate Factory, but has extended its West End run at the Savoy Theatre where it will transfer in April 2016. Actress and singer MARILYN CUTTS is a crucial part of that very production, playing Mrs Rose Brice opposite her rising star daughter Fanny (also known as Sheridan Smith).
A founding member of Fascinating Aïda, Marilyn recently played Madame Morrible in the first UK and Ireland tour of Wicked, following on from the role of Mother Lord in the UK tour of High Society.
Other credits include: Into the Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), Never Forget (Savoy Theatre), Oklahoma! and The Rose Tattoo (National Theatre), Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Sadler’s Wells/Japanese tour), Footloose and Beauty and the Beast (UK tours), Alice in Wonderland (RSC), Oliver! (London Palladium/Toronto), Sweeney Todd (Bristol Old Vic) and Show Boat (London Palladium). She also appeared in the movie adaptation of Les Misérables.
Marilyn has also played the title role in Piaf; appeared at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich as the Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods and Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet; and appeared as Mrs. Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: The Musical. She played a variety of roles in the original Stephen Joseph Theatre production of Honk! in Scarborough before reviving the characters for the RNT’s national tour. Other UK tours include Lady Raeburn in Salad Days and Conchita in Copacabana.
Other musicals include Godspell, Oliver!, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, What a Performance, Show Boat and in 2000 she played Queen Exilona in La Cava.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with Marilyn during Funny Girl previews:
I read that, before you became involved in Funny Girl at the Menier, you were thinking of retiring?
Yes I was. My mother was very unwell and I’m coming up to the time when most women of my age have retired or are about to. Plus the thought of standing at a wet bus stop for six days a week at 11 o’clock at night has become less and less enticing. I set everything up so I could do some personal development – I had actually started a history degree with the the Open University and my first assignment had gone in. I decided I was quite happy to do TV and film, but I needed to be there for my mum.
Sadly my mother passed away about a month ago, and then suddenly this job came up almost immediately afterwards. There’s nothing like work to make you refocus, to take your mind off things, so I thought that was ideal.
What was the particular attraction of joining the Funny Girl team?
I had done the tour of Wicked just before, I finished that in July, and had I wanted to go out on a high, so that was marvellous. But then this is something else, it’s a new project. I had worked with Sheridan Smith before – on a workshop of a musical that didn’t happen – and I had thoroughly enjoyed working with her on that. I also had always wanted to work at the Chocolate Factory. So it was all sorts of reasons that made me think this is really good, I really want to have a go at this.
By the time previews began on 20 November, were you and the other performers really keen to get the show before an audience?
Absolutely, we needed the audience. In his wonderful book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking, Alan Ayckbourn says when you perform a piece, especially comedy, you do the first performance for yourself, and then after that you do it for the audience. But during that first one you need the audience to teach you the nature of the beast that you’ve got, because you need to know where the jokes are, you need to feel the shape of the thing.
You know approximately where the emotional lows and highs are, but sometimes you have lost what is funny, you’ve said the lines so many times, or you’re just doing it technically, so we needed that first audience to teach us what it was that we were dealing with.
Funny Girl hasn’t been performed in the West End for 50 years, what are some of the revisions to the dialogue and libretto in general that you can tell us about?
In rehearsal we were very strict with Michael Mayer, our lovely director, because obviously American English and British English are two very different things. I think I had a line: ‘oh, wasn’t my Fanny wonderful last night?’, which thankfully was changed to ‘oh, wasn’t my daughter wonderful last night?’. There are some laughs that you try not to get!
Harvey Fierstein [who has been revising the book] was only in rehearsals ‘virutally’ because of being based in America. We got changes and amendments sent over, sometimes entirely new scenes. As we were exploring the piece, some elements needed a bit more explanation, but at other stages there were scenes that the audience were likely to pick up on very quickly, so they were cut back. Audiences are much quicker on the uptake these days, they can read situations, everyone is so much more used to handling information from different directions.
Can you give an example of the way a scene was improved during this process?
Michael is really good on editing. There was a scene towards the end, it was a stand off between Fanny and her mother, and it got cut to ribbons. Sheridan and I both felt the writers were chucking out the baby with the bath water because our characters needed that dialogue.
Michael relayed this back to Harvey, and we got fantastic rewrites. He had taken this bud that was there in the scene and had turned it into a flower. It was what we needed to finish our emotional journey, and to make sense of all those filaments that had been there before.
Can you hint at what the scene was about?
I am making the point that I don’t want my daughter to repeat my mistakes. Fanny’s mum is separated from her husband, and she has brought up the family pretty much on her own, because her husband wasn’t, shall we say, a provider.
Mrs Brice is really trying to coax Fanny and Nick into a more collaborative relationship, unlike the one she had. She never comes out and says ‘I don’t want you to make the same mistakes’, but she does talk about the foolishness that her husband got in to, and the fact that doesn’t matter – what does matter is that you can’t make people feel that small. She is saying that is what she did to her husband and she doesn’t want Fanny to do the same.
I think that is why it is such an engaging piece, and people will come. The show does ask the question: can a woman have it all? There is substance there, it isn’t just showbiz gloss, there is the substance of what these lives mean.
The show ends rather differently to the movie version…
The film ended with Fanny staring into the distance singing the song ‘My Man’ at Barbra Streisand’s insistence, but Fanny’s life didn’t end with the close of that marriage. She married again and her career went on until the 1960s, our narrative arc takes a dip, but then it looks forward to the future.
I feel I can identify with that at the moment – one part of life has ended and now I have to move on to the next part. That’s exactly what happened with Fanny, that part of her life has come to a close, but she has her career, that will sustain her. It’s that thing about the business, you don’t choose theatre, it chooses you, you go with that and it will nourish you. It’s like that saying: ‘find a job you love and you will never have to work again’.
How are you enjoying playing Fanny’s mother, Rose?
From an actress’ point of view it’s got everything, it’s got comedy, it’s got a lovely number with the character Eddie Ryan, played by Joel Montague (‘Who Taught Her Everything?’), it’s got a big old dramatic scene at the end. Apart from dying, getting kissed or fainting on stage – those three things an actress always like to have in a show! – it’s absolutely marvellous.
From my point of view as a shiksa from South London, playing the ultimate Jewish mother, with a accent I’ve realised was originally inspired by the cartoon character Tweetie Pie, I just love it, she’s so different from me. She’s so dry, acerbic – there’s none of this British reserve and irony – and the humour is wonderful.
And how is it working with Sheridan Smith again?
She’s wonderful, I just want to give her everything I can in order for her to do what she needs to do.
When you were part of Fascinating Aida, and of course on tour, you must have performed at several intimate theatres, how does the Menier compare?
Backstage conditions aren’t that dissimilar to the King’s in Glasgow, it’s pretty cramped there as well. And when I did my post-graduate diploma in drama, I worked at a place called the Stables in Manchester (Julie Walters, Peter Flannery and Tim Albery were also on the course) and that was a very small venue too.
Like the Menier, we made a decision at those theatres, or the designers did, about the relationship between the audience and the performers. We tried to mix it up, so we sometimes did end stage, in the round, traverse, and that is exactly what they can do at the Menier.
I have always loved coming to the Menier, because once you sit the audience somewhere, you’ve already made a statement about how they are going to engage with the play or musical. It’s absolutely right that Funny Girl should be end stage, with a pseudo pros arch, as it’s a backstage musical. You want that picture frame around things.
You have had a long and successful career in the theatre industry, how difficult do you think it is for young people heading for drama training now?
The situation now is so completely different, not just in the venues that you may be able to perform in, but also in relation to opportunities for work.
But education wasn’t an industry when I was starting out. I would say don’t go to drama school unless you want to do it, otherwise you’re wasting your money, or the funding supplied by whoever is sponsoring you, by taking up a place. Some schools, not all of course, are out there just to make money – if someone’s offering to pay them £9,000 a year, they’re not going to tell students-in-waiting that they may not have a future in the industy.
You have to be absolutely truthful with yourself – ‘would I die if I don’t do this and am I being realistic in my expectations of having a job?’ I never thought I was going to be Miss World, and no one was going to foster me in that delusion, so don’t delude yourself. If you can see there is a gap in the market for what you can offer and that you are marketable, and you cannot think of doing anything else, then it’s worth going forward.
You still seem to have that passion for ‘doctor theatre’, and beyond the Menier you have a West End transfer to look forward to…
Yes we do, and another thing Michael Mayer has done is choose an absolutely gorgeous company. It’s a very cuddly company so that always helps.
Tickets for the West End run of Funny Girl can be bought here: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/funny-girl
Readers may also be interested in:
Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory – Review
Funny Girl extends run at the Savoy Theatre until 10 September – News