Actress and singer SALLY ANN TRIPLETT is currently starring in a major new stage version of A Damsel in Distress at Chichester Festival Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the musical comedy has songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and is based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and the play by Wodehouse and Ian Hay (also known through the 1937 Fred Astaire film). Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson have adapted the book.
Alongside her straight drama roles, Sally’s musical theatre credits make impressive reading: The Last Ship (Bank of America Theatre Chicago and Neil Simon Theatre, Broadway), My Judy Garland Life (Nottingham Playhouse), Viva Forever (Piccadilly), Mamma Mia! (Prince of Wales), Chicago (Adelphi), Acorn Antiques (Theatre Royal Haymarket), Anything Goes (Theatre Royal Drury Lane and National Theatre), Golden Boy (Greenwich Theatre), Rags (Bridewell), The Villain’s Opera (National Theatre), Guys and Dolls (Piccadilly), Cats (New London), Jolson (Victoria Palace/Toronto) Grease (Dominion), Cabaret (Sheffield Crucible), Follies (Shaftesbury), Carrie (RSC Stratford and Virginia Theatre, Broadway), Chess (Prince Edward) and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Theatre Royal Drury Lane).
She has also represented the UK twice in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland caught up with Sally during rehearsals at Chichester.
You have appeared in several iconic musicals that, to some extent, are creatively set in stone. What has it been like being part of this brand new adaptation?
What’s good, good, good about a new show is that no one knows the answer, everyone in the room is looking for the answer together. This process has been so collaborative. If you feel that something isn’t working for you, you can talk to colleagues about it. I’ve done other new shows where that hasn’t been the case at all, and those involved – whether it be the writers, creators, or directors – decide they want to do it a particular way, and there is no discussion.
After all the shows I have done, I can sniff it out now if that is the case, if there is a certain element that just isn’t giving. To be honest, there’s not much you can do about it, you just have to do the best job you can do. This process has been the complete opposite of that.
We’re in a business we all love. I wake up in the morning and I look forward to coming to work. When it’s at its best, like now, it’s brilliant.
Jeremy Sams and Robert Hudson have adapted the libretto, have there been many changes during the rehearsal period?
Oh yes! There were some changes in London, but after we arrived in Chichester, the full team was onboard. Jeremy, who is also directing The Rehearsal at the theatre, joined Robert, and we were chopping and changing things every minute. It was good but we certainly had to have our thinking caps on all day long.
Does A Damsel in Distress feel like a new show, even though its roots date back to 1919?
At the beginning of rehearsals it felt like there was a familiarity about the show, but then half an hour later you remember this is brand new, and it really is brand new, because the show doesn’t follow the same format as the book or the film.
The Gershwin songs – some of which you will know, some you might not have heard before – fit the book so well. Rob Ashford has done such a brilliant job. Every song has been choreographed in a slightly different style: whether it’s a march, a tango, jazz-inspired, an old-fashioned musical routine, a big tap number, etc.
If you’ve got any questions, you can just approach Rob, and that’s the best kind of director you need, someone you can talk to. Having spent life as a dancer before, he understands all the dance numbers and all the different genres.
Tell us about your character Billie Dore and how she fits into the show…
In the story there’s a show that’s been on Broadway for three years called ‘Kitty in the City’, and my character is the star. Billie’s been around for a while, shall we say (!), she’s not a young girl, but this is the first time she’s had a big hit, and the show was actually written for her by her friend George (played by Richard Fleeshman).
The show then transfers to the West End, but it’s just George and Billie who travel across the pond, all the rest of the new company are English. Once they’ve arrived, it turns out George is a frustrated writer and begins to think ‘what have I been doing all these years? I’ve been cocooned on Broadway’. He looks around and sees palaces, parks and history, and decides he wants something more in his life.
He also runs after a young ingénue, and Billie follows him, resulting in both characters ending up in this castle. It’s there Billie meets the Lord (Nicholas Farrell) and George meets Maude (Summer Strallen). Plus another couple are thrown into the mix too (played by Desmond Barrit and Isla Blair).
I get to perform wonderful Gershwin songs uch as ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, ‘I Can’t Be Bothered Now’, ‘Things Are Looking Up’, a lovely ballad called ‘Soon’ with Summer and Richard, and also the ballad ‘Mine’ which I perform with Nick as the Lord.
Have you worked at Chichester Festival Theatre before?
Not as part of a season, but I did perform in a Friday Night is Music Night at the theatre. I remember the night so vividly, because after the gig I was in the dressing room and I got a phone call from my agent saying that I had got a role in Acorn Antiques. I drove home with Simon Bowman (the original Chris in Miss Saigon) and I was calling everyone to tell them the news. My husband [actor/singer/dancer Gary Milner] has also played Chichester a couple of times, so I’ve visited quite a lot.
You recently appeared on Broadway in the new musical The Last Ship, with a score by Sting. What was that experience like?
That was one situation where it wasn’t a collaborative process. It was a pity, because you felt a desire to investigate other areas, or you wanted to try new things, but it felt like the powers-that-be – and I am not including Sting in that – had their own ideas. I felt that in our first few days.
However, I loved working with Jimmy Nail, it was heaven, and also with Sting, I even ended up playing his wife! I loved the people in it, the fight behind the story, but we never really got to show that fight enough.
I’ve read you are a big fan of Judy Garland and you were recently nominated for a TMA Award for your performance in My Judy Garland Life at Nottingham Playhouse. Is the central role in A Star is Born your dream part?
I had such a wonderful experience at Nottingham Playhouse and to get nominated for the award was just brilliant.
I do love A Star is Born, I actually tried to get the rights for it once. More than anything, I love the Garland character’s journey in the film, she never becomes a diva. So I don’t mind if you want to spread the word that I would love to do the stage version!
You represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest twice and fared far, far better than our recent entries. Any thoughts on what has changed?
I suppose it seemed to be more about the song back then. It was about English songwriters and it doesn’t seem to be about that anymore. Our song with Bardo was a jumpy, good song and well produced.
We should put more money into new writing. There are people out there who can really do it, but we don’t give them a chance because they can’t afford to sit around and write, they still have to earn a living.
So what next after Chichester?
I am performing my one-woman show at Crazy Coqs in London from 7 to 11 July, then it’s probably back to New York and to my husband, children and dog! New York is where I am currently based, my teenage daughter Grace goes to school there. My son Max is also busy with his music, he has worked so hard, he was on Radio 1 last night! [Max Milner appeared in the BBC talent show The Voice in 2012 and is now a recording artist in his own right].
* A Damsel in Distress continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre until 27 June (press night is 10 June).