Currently in Aspects of Love at Southwark Playhouse, Madalena Alberto discusses her sadness over Brexit, how the Time’s Up movement affected her Evita performances and how she made her UK debut in a pantomime with Ian McKellen. Matthew Hemley meets the Portuguese actor and musical theatre star
Madalena Alberto was just 16 years old when she bid farewell to her family in her native Portugal and boarded a plane to the UK, in the hope of becoming an actor.
It was a bold move for a teenager whose only experience of the performing arts until then had been extra-curricular dance and drama classes. But after the offer of a scholarship to a prestigious drama school came out of the blue, she felt she couldn’t refuse.
“I was part of a little dance school in Portugal as a hobby,” the actor says. “The lady who ran it at the time had met the then principal of Bird College in the UK and invited her over to do a week’s teaching with us.”
She adds: “Without me dreaming of it, at the end of the week, the principal came up to me and my parents and said she wanted me to study with them. I was offered a scholarship to do a three-year degree course and so, aged 16, I left Portugal for a new life in London.”
Since graduating, Alberto has played roles such as Carmen in a UK tour of Fame, Fantine in the 25th-anniversary tour of Les Miserables and Eva Peron in Evita – a production she has starred in on three different occasions.
But musical theatre was never on her radar as a child. Portugal, she says, doesn’t have a rich history of the genre. “I didn’t grow up with musicals. So I have a different relationship with them to a lot of the people I trained with. But I was aware of the most famous ones, such as Cats and Chicago.”
She continues: “I remember watching Chicago in a big arena once and crying. I was crying as I was thinking: ‘This is what I want to do.’ But I hadn’t dreamed of doing this, as I never thought I could afford to leave Portugal.”
Alberto’s core education was focused around science and she once entertained the idea of working in astronomy. But it was her passion for acting that finally won out – and prior to leaving for London, she thought she might end up working on the small screen in Portugal. Just before coming to the UK, she appeared in a Portuguese film. “If I hadn’t come to England I would have followed the road of film and soap operas,” she says.
She accepted her place at Bird College, however, and almost instantly found work on graduating, though it wasn’t musicals that came calling initially. Instead, it was pantomime – the 2005 Old Vic production of Aladdin, with a particularly starry cast.
“It was the only pantomime I have done in my life and Ian McKellen was in it,” she says. “I didn’t know what pantos were, so I was introduced to a very posh one, with amazing music written into it, and choreography by Wayne McGregor.”
She adds: “I spent most of the time in the wings, watching. I grew up watching movies, so working with Ian was massive.”
McKellen later saw Alberto performing in a gig in the Old Vic’s bar, and remarked that she would make a good Eva Peron. A new West End production of Evita was casting at the time, and, although Alberto wasn’t seen for it, McKellen’s words proved prophetic: she landed the role a few years later, after Bill Kenwright saw her in Piaf at Curve in Leicester.
Alberto had already auditioned for the producer at this point, but seeing her on stage cemented her casting as Eva in the tour of Evita that followed in 2013. She has since taken the role into the West End, and again on tour.
“I was lucky, because when I joined Evita they allowed me to find things in the role that even they had not found before,” she says. “I enjoy that. I love to work on new shows, but having the opportunity to work on old ones and to find a more contemporary way of looking at something is great.”
She adds: “The world is changing, and in between playing Eva the first and second time the Time’s Up movement happened. It’s fascinating to see how the same story can be told in different ways.”
Evita may be the role she has become most associated with, but because she didn’t grow up with musicals, she wasn’t aware of the responsibility of playing a part performed so memorably by the likes of Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone.
“I have learned to love the role so much I am not scared of doing what I want to do with it,” she says. “And I felt audiences, right from the beginning, really warmed to my interpretation.”
Not that every audience member has reacted well to her portrayal. Alberto recalls playing the part in Ireland, when – during a poignant scene at the end of Eva’s life – she was heckled.
“Someone shouted out: ‘Die, you Nazi bitch’,” she says. “So someone clearly had negative feelings towards her. But then, why would you come to see a musical about her?”
Alberto will be hoping her latest project – also an Andrew Lloyd Webber show – will be free from such audible audience interaction.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Panto at the Old Vic – it was Aladdin with Ian McKellen. In Portugal, I was in a film called Sweet Mother aged 15.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
If you imagine yourself doing something else, then do something else. You have to really want it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Growing up, influences were actors from movies I loved, such as Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer. Now being here, I do look at people such as Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and actors who approach work in a different way – Rosalie Craig, for example.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I am not superstitious, but when I am doing a show such as Evita my superstition is to make sure I warm up, warm down and rest. Sometimes when my voice is tired I don’t talk during the day. I don’t find it hard, it’s just part of the job for me.
She will play the part of Italian sculptor Giulietta and admits to be daunted by joining a cast that has already performed together. “This will be the first time I have been in a show where I am the only person who hasn’t done it before,” she says. “But I am more worried about doing justice to the work they have already done on it.”
Aspects’ casting director was Jane Deitch, who also cast Alberto in the play The Autumn Garden at the Jerymn Street Theatre. Prior to that, however, she appeared in James Graham’s The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse in 2015.
One of those in the audience was McKellen, and Alberto seized the opportunity to tell him that she had gone on to play Evita after all. “I told him I’d just played Evita at the Dominion and it felt lovely. There was this full circle from my first job with him, to meeting him again,” she says, and laughs: “I told him he could have been a casting director.”
The Vote, of course, was a political play, set as it was in a polling station on election night. Alberto herself becomes animated when talking about the current political situation, and how Brexit will impact the arts.
“It’s worse than anything we could imagine,” she says. “I am sad we are living through a moment where it feels like we haven’t learned from our mistakes.”
She adds: “I am sad that the politicians, especially those campaigning for Brexit, don’t have the interests of the people in their minds. They just lie to people.”
However, Alberto is trying to remain hopeful that the damage won’t be too far-reaching. “I have a 16-year-old brother and he wants to study here so I am hoping it won’t make much of a difference,” she says. “The sad thing is there are so many people crucial to this country who are leaving it. There are a lot of Portuguese people in the NHS, and other jobs, which many British people aren’t doing. That will be a blow we can’t even imagine.”
She adds: “And most audiences for West End theatre are foreign. So if people can’t come to the theatre as easily as they can now, we won’t even have an audience.”
Born: Lisbon, Portugal, 1984
• Piaf, Leicester Curve (2013)
• Evita, tour (2013), Dominion Theatre (2014), tour (2017)
• Les Miserables 25th anniversary tour
Agent: Olivia Bell