Actress and singer TIFFANY GRAVES is playing Ulla in the new UK tour of The Producers (based on Mel Brooks’ beloved movie), alongside comedian Jason Manford, as timid accountant Leo Bloom, and Cory English (reprising his role as Max Bialystock). Also in a high profile cast are David Bedella, Louie Spence, Ross Noble and Phill Jupitus (the latter two share a role at different stages of the tour).
Tiffany made her stage debut at the age of 11 in The Nutcracker with the English National Ballet at the Royal Festival Hall. While studying, she performed with the National Youth Music Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. At 19, she played the role of Judy Turner in a touring production of A Chorus Line with the late Adam Faith. Following this, she went directly to Germany to perform in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Returning to England, she joined the cast of Chicago, playing Mona, and then went on to understudy and perform the role of Roxie Hart. As a member of the final cast of Cats at the New London Theatre, Tiffany appeared in a variety of roles including Cassandra, Bombalurina, Jellyorum and Griddlebone.
Other selected credits include Follies at the Royal Festival Hall, returning to Chicago at the Adelphi (this time playing the role of Velma Kelly), A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum at the National Theatre, Tonight’s the Night (UK tour), Godspell (UK tour), Chess at the Royal Albert Hall, Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Royal Haymarket, Wonderful Town (UK tour), We Will Rock You (UK tour), Piaf at Curve Leicester, The Witches of Eastwick (Watermill) and Tonight’s the Night (UK tour).
Now Tiffany is getting ready to ‘flaunt it’ as Swedish actress Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen-Hallen Svaden-Swanson! Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland catches up with her during rehearsals.
Have you been enjoying the rehearsal period for The Producers tour?
Rehearsals have been going swimmingly well. Mel Brooks’ script is hilarious, but on top of that so is working on the piece in the rehearsal room and sitting around talking to such talented people. I have never smiled so much in a rehearsal period before. I’m still grinning when I go home in the evening, I look like ‘The Joker’. It has been a neverending gigglefest.
The impressive cast for the show is a mix of experienced musical theatre performers and successful comedians. Has that worked well?
It certainly has. The mix of musical theatre people and those new to the genre seems to cement everything together. Cory English, who has played the lead role of Max Bialystock before, is such a lynchpin for the whole show, and then of course Olivier Award winner David Bedella is with us too. From the comedians, I knew Jason Manford could sing [he had appeared as Pirelli in Sweeney Todd opposite Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton], but I didn’t know what a great actor he is. Not surprisingly, the comedians can be so quick picking up the material, they have such great timing. They don’t feel like newbies.
When were you first approached about the role of Ulla?
The director Matthew White contacted me early last year to ask if I was interested in the part – that was very flattering. I leapt at the chance, it’s such a fun, silly role to play, and when Ulla appears towards the end of Act I, she is the only female principal character in a cast full of men.
For my first number choreographer Lee Proud is making me do ridiculous things, I think I am going to need an oxygen tank! At the end of the song I will be seen playing the bugle and jumping on tables, amongst other things!
I grew up with The Producers film and my dad is a big Mel Brooks fan. A while back I was up for the first tour of the musical, Susan Stroman just wanted to meet me, but I was unable to go as I was in tech rehearsals for another show. So to be able to have this opportunity is wonderful.
You have described this production as an entirely different staging of The Producers musical, can you hint at how it is different?
It is more true to the original film and therefore has been set in the 1960s. That decision influences several aspects of the show, not least the set and the choreography, there are lots of homages to different shows. Some of choreographer Lee Proud’s visual ideas are incredible. There is no copying of what has come before, we have all come to the the show with fresh eyes.
Your character enjoys a romance with timid accountant Leo Bloom, as played by Jason Manford. Has it been fun creating those scenes together?
I’ve had a lot of rehearsals with Jason, especially for the number ‘That Face’. In some ways, it’s been a little bit like the rehearsals for Strictly Come Dancing, as Jason said he couldn’t dance and he didn’t know what he was doing. So we have been doing lots of ballroom partner work. The results have been astonishing, he has come on in leaps and bounds, it’s been a real giggle, and we have really bonded through that.
Why do you think The Producers is still so popular?
I think it’s down to the fact that there is a joke against every single type of person and no one is left unscathed. It’s as if the book is so offensive, it crosses the line so much, that it becomes inoffensive. Everyone is insulted in some way.
You are about to embark on a long tour, do you enjoy such a busy schedule?
Touring is a double-edged sword. I really enjoy visiting different parts of the country, and when I am away from London, it really makes me appreciate the city when I return. Fortunately my husband [Tiffany recently got married] is very understanding as both his parents were actors!
You recently appeared in your cabaret The Desperate Divas at the St James Studio with actress Anita Louise Combe and musical director Tom Wakeley. The show has been described as a ‘classy, sassy and tongue-in-cheek look at dating in your thirties and how it has dramatically changed with advancing technology’. How did the show come about?
A couple of years ago, Anita Louise Combe [also a previous star of Chicago] and I were at Tom Wakeley’s birthday party, and at that time we were both trying out internet dating. It was so bizarre because we were using different websites, going through different stages, and yet we still ended up dating the same person! What were the chances of that happening?
We thought there must be many people in the same situation as us, and that was where the show was born. The show at the St James was the first time for two years we have both been available, (Anita will be playing Tessie Tura in Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre). I am hoping we can sort another couple of dates in the summer.
You have an impressive list of credits on your CV, what are some of the highlights so far?
My time in the London production of Chicago was incredible for me. I started off in the ensemble, it was my first West End job in town back in 1999. I took over from the original person who played the part of Mona. It was ridiculously exciting to then go back in a leading role. The show has a special place in my heart.
The last night of Cats at the New London Theatre was a magical moment. When you experience an evening like that, you have to bottle that feeling. All of the original cast members came along and there was a specially invited audience only. My character often went out into the audience, and on one occasion that evening I found myself rubbing up against a lovely leather jacket, until I realised it belonged to Andrew Lloyd Webber!
I also have to mention playing Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Brian May came along when the show opened in different venues, and singing alongside him playing the guitar made me feel like a rock god. I had been regarded as so musical theatre, I never imagined in a million years that I would be cast as the rocky and bold Killer Queen. It was an absolute treat.
What kind of advice would you give up and coming musical theatre performers who would love to follow in your footsteps?
When you are in the early stages of your career, keep the faith with what you’re doing. There are going to be times when it’s a struggle, but keep your focus, you’ve got to persevere, things will get easier. Eventually you will find out what your strengths are, and what direction to go in, where you are going to fit in. You will develop that vital confidence in yourself and keeping going.
Have you got a dream musical theatre role you would love to play?
A little while ago, I think it was when the Spice Girls musical was happening, Jennifer Saunders said something about an Ab Fab musical. I would absolutely love to play the Patsy/Joanna Lumley role if that was ever to happen.
I am a real fan girl when it comes to Wicked, the songs are so uplifting, have such heart, and are also clever musically. It would have been great to have played Glinda, but unfortunately I would have been too tall for the bubble, so I crossed that one of the list.
The delight of doing this job is that often roles call for completely different looks and talents. Some jobs are never going to happen because of that and instead you get to enjoy watching your friends doing those parts instead.
* The Producers UK tour opens at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley on 7 March and continues until 11 July 2015.
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Mel Brooks Live in London for one night only at the Prince of Wales Theatre – News