Scarlett Strallen: ‘I’ve suffered a lot with stage fright’
It’s not unusual for people to follow into the professions of their parents: it happens in all walks of life, and actors are no different. “I suppose it’s like being born into a family of doctors or mathematicians. It’s just so in your world,” says Scarlett Strallen, who has followed her parents Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, both of whom were West End dancers, on to the theatrical stage. But what is slightly unusual in her case is that every one of her younger siblings has followed suit, too.
These days, the Strallen sisters are the reigning family of West End musicals and plays. Her second sister, Zizi, is following in Scarlett’s own footsteps, having taken over the title role of Mary Poppins in its UK tour. Scarlett played the role in the West End, on Broadway and in Australia. Zizi was also part of the 2015 cast of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man. Meanwhile, her first sister, Summer, will star in a tour of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria from February, and previously appeared in the West End stage version of Top Hat in 2012. Her youngest sister, Saskia (known as Sasi), is about to appear in Nick Drake’s All the Angels at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe.
It is partly an attempt to carve her own space in the world that has led the eldest Strallen to relocate to New York, which she now calls home. When we talk about her part in an informal theatrical dynasty, she replies: “That’s what’s quite refreshing about being in America. No one knows about that there. Not that I’m ashamed of it or anything. But there it’s just me, as opposed to being part of a tribe.”
She has had a number of jobs in the US. As well as Mary Poppins, she’s also appeared in the transfer of the Manchester International Festival production of Macbeth starring Kenneth Branagh to the Park Avenue Armory in 2014, and as a takeover in the Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder last year. Last summer, she also starred in a production of The Pirates of Penzance at the regional Barrington Stage in Massachusetts. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Charles Isherwood asked: “Where has the fabulous Scarlett Strallen, who plays the ingenue, Mabel, been hiding herself?”
Strallen doesn’t, as a rule, search out her reviews, but her mum sent her this one, and she quips: “I’ve only been working for 28 years of my life.”
Isherwood answered his own question by declaring: “She hasn’t really been pining in obscurity, but has been performing mostly in her native Britain, although she also appeared in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on Broadway.” He added: “A lyric soprano with a voice as flexible as it is rich, she is also a fine actress whose instinctive feel for the Gilbert and Sullivan ingenue idiom – play it straight with just a sly wink peeking out from the batting eyelashes – makes her every scene and song a joy.”
She applied for a green card in 2015, and was in the middle of having her application processed when an invitation came to appear at the BBC Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra, to perform Glitter and Be Gay, the great coloratura soprano aria from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Royal Albert Hall.
“It was in that hiatus when you can’t leave the country, or you have to start your application all over again. But luckily they granted me a leave to come back to do it.” She had played the role of Cunegonde in a full revival of Candide in 2013 at the Menier Chocolate Factory, about which Michael Billington wrote in his Guardian review of her rendition of Glitter and Be Gay: “She wittily turns the high notes into a mark of Cunegonde’s rapacity as she avidly seizes on jewels, tiaras and even shards of an overhanging chandelier.”
Strallen seems to have a similar rapacity to seize on whatever opportunities her career brings her. “I’m trying to straddle the Atlantic and have it all ways if I can,” she admits. She’s recently found herself a home base in New York at last, renting an apartment on the Upper West Side. “I so desperately wanted to find somewhere to put all my stuff and not live a gypsy life for a minute. And then I found it, but this came up,” she says, referring to the show that has now brought her back to Britain.
It is She Loves Me, a perfect, miniature gem of a musical originally premiered on Broadway in 1963, and which was last seen on the West End stage in 1994. She’s playing Amelia Balish, a shop assistant in a Budapest perfumerie, who is exchanging letters with a blind date not realising that she already happens to work alongside her suitor, who doesn’t know it either.
Q&A: Scarlett Strallen
What was your first job? When I was four I was the little boy in Madam Butterfly at Holland Park, and at eight I was Young Jenny in Aspects of Love in the West End. After I trained, my first adult role was in the original ensemble for Mamma Mia!.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Stop worrying so much. I have a huge fear of disappointing people, but actually it’s my own expectations. You have to enjoy it for yourself as opposed to fearing you’re not going to be good for anybody else. Just lighten up.
Who or what was your biggest influence? The 1940s and 1950s MGM films. I couldn’t sleep as a child – the timings were off as my parents came in late and I’d want to be with them, and then I wouldn’t want to go to sleep – the only way they could do so was to put on those films.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Try to bake it fresh in the room – don’t come in with too many ideas and try to be very present. Go in to see as opposed to be seen – turn the camera out, and be excited by what you’re going to see, rather than thinking of all the eyes on you. Try to enjoy it then and there, and then walk out and go back to your wonderful life and don’t dwell on it.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I ask myself this quite a lot. I’m into alternative health, so maybe a holistic healer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I try not to have superstitions, as they take you out of yourself. As for rituals, I have to do my particular warm-up tape to know everything is there in terms of my voice and movement; and I have to eat properly, or the blood sugars will only make the panics worse. And I have to be in early, so I can relax and not be stressed in any way.
It’s yet another in a growing number of roles originated by the great Barbara Cook that Strallen has also played. It was Cook who first played the role of Cunegonde, too, as she did Marian Paroo in The Music Man, another role Strallen has played, in a Chichester Festival Theatre revival in 2008.
“I had a moment where I was supposed to be doing another show in Washington, but I thought: ‘I can’t not play Amelia.’ It’s been done this year on Broadway, too, so it’s not going to come around again in my time. And these Barbara Cook scores are just so perfect,” says Strallen.
There definitely seems to be a special affinity between the roles both are suited to, and even an amazing coincidence. “My vocal coach in New York lives in the same building as her. He was going to ask her to come and coach me for this, but she’s been very unwell. I’m hoping that one day I will meet her. I have studied her so religiously. When you listen to Candide, the way she can phrase things is pure acting through song.” So Strallen is jealously looking at what other roles Cook did that may be possible: “I’m looking through the catalogue wondering what I can do next.” ( The Grass Harp, anyone? This show is virtually unknown in Britain.)
Cook began her career as one of Broadway’s brightest and most enchanting ingenues; but if Strallen inherited some of that mantle, she served an even longer apprenticeship. She started acting on stage at the age of just four: “My very first job was at Opera Holland Park as little boy in Madam Butterfly. I can still remember the woman spitting all over me as her diaphragm went up and down as she sang.”
Her first West End role followed when she was eight, when her father was in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love.
“I’d go in every weekend and sit in his dressing room. Then I asked if I could audition to play Young Jenny. He was there anyway – it beat childcare.” She got the job. A few years later, when her father was working as a resident choreographer on Sunset Boulevard, she’d go in, and she remembers how the followspot operator would take her up to that position and she’d watch it all the time from up there.
She went to Arts Educational Schools’ junior school from the age of nine, hoping to become a ballerina. “I was so into ballet at Arts Ed. I was in a class full of bunheads [ballerinas] and really wanted to go to the Royal Ballet, because that is where they all go. I was devastated when I didn’t get in, but I went to the Studio Centre instead. My singing teacher there was the one who gave me all the Barbara Cook stuff to sing when he realised I’d got this high voice.”
After she finished her training, she got her first full-time professional job at the age of 16, as one of the original ensemble of Mamma Mia! in 1999. It was followed by ensemble roles in the original productions of The Witches of Eastwick (in 2000) and Peggy Sue Got Married (in 2001).
“I was painfully shy and could barely sing. But I never stopped training, and my aunt sent me to the singing teacher Ian Adam. He gave me these arias to sing, and from there I trained with Mark Meylan, a teacher who helps you to develop your own voice as opposed to moulding it into a voice that is the sort that everyone requires. All the singers I love, like Barbara Cook and Audra McDonald, have their own sound.”
The aunt she mentions is Bonnie Langford, her mother’s sister who had also first trod the boards as a child actor, appearing as Baby June in the original 1973 London production of Gypsy, before going on to become an accomplished leading dancer in West End shows that included the original London cast of Cats. “Bonnie’s been a huge influence. My sister Summer and I were obsessed with the Hot Shoe Show that she did with Wayne Sleep.”
Meanwhile Strallen’s mother Cherida, she says, went back to work in Song and Dance in the West End only two weeks after she was born. Strallen adds: “She’d take me into the Palace Theatre in her dance bag, so they didn’t see. And I didn’t know this story until I did it, but when I was at the same theatre in Singin’ in the Rain, it was very weird for her to visit me, because she said it was exactly the same as it was when she had been there with me as a baby. Nothing had changed since the 1980s.”
While Strallen was in Singin’ in the Rain, she was cast in the 2013 London Palladium revival of A Chorus Line, playing the lead role of Cassie. “The dancers were in their early 20s, but I was 31 when I did it. And the Michael Bennett choreography did my hip in. The choreography is all turned in, and we had a specialist 40-minute warm-up for it every day. They called it bootcamp. I had to rehearse that every day for four weeks while I was still doing Singin’ in the Rain in the evening. It absolutely killed my body.” The role is about a former chorus dancer who has tried, and failed, to make it as a film actor in Los Angeles, and returns to audition for the chorus.
“I could definitely relate to her in terms of not having work. I’ve had big periods out of work, and I also tried Los Angeles myself. It was not hard to access the fact that she had to go back to the ensemble as she just had to have a job.”
Being in a position where you can choose what work you do is the actor’s eternal wish, but waiting to get chosen is the usual reality. Strallen actively embraces it: “It’s very humbling. This business is such a leveller – it doesn’t matter who you are and what you’ve done, you are always having to go back to prove yourself, and it’s wonderful in a way, really. There’s no resting on your laurels.”
Going to the US has been eye opening, too. “When you’re not known for anything, you are completely fresh.” It sounds like she has confidence in spades, but in fact she admits: “I’ve suffered with stage fright and panic quite a lot, so I’ve been trying that mind-body thing to bring it under control, and I love the Alexander technique and NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] work.”
And returning to the Menier, three years after she last appeared there in 2013, shows where her priorities lie. “When I did Candide, I’d just done A Chorus Line so was okay financially and had a bit of a cushion. And I’m still paying now for my time in Candide. But what you have here is an enormous sense of fulfilment as an artist. Your soul is full, as cheesy as that may sound. We are all in this room because we really want to be here. We are determined to have a lovely time, because there are no extras.”
Scarlett Strallen’s top tips for an aspiring actor
• Celebrate you and all you are.
• Make sure you have a really rich life outside of acting as well, and other interests to serve the work you are trying to do, or you can’t connect to normal characters. I love literature, healing, yoga and travelling.
There may be no financial extras, but there are artistic bonuses to working there that you get nowhere else. “At the Chocolate Factory it’s all about bringing it back to its truth and authenticity, because you’re so close.” There’s also a big technical challenge built into the show: “You have to be so connected emotionally. There’s so much book, and you have to go from speaking straight into singing long legato stuff and make that completely seamless. We’re right in the thrust of that now, trying to get that muscle working.”
It’s often remarked how musical theatre actors have to be like athletes in terms of their fitness and preparedness for a role, and when Strallen appeared in Macbeth in New York, she found it comparatively easier: “The amazing thing about doing a play is the lack of responsibility you have when there’s no singing. You are able to have a night out and have a drink; not having to live like a nun is so wonderful.”
But right now she is also keen to be in front of an audience again. “We’ve got to the point now where we have to put it in front of people, scary as that is. It’s a comedy and you forget that after a while – once they’ve heard the jokes in the rehearsal room a couple of times, people stop laughing, so you start to wonder if it is funny.”
CV: Scarlett Strallen
Born: 1982, London
Training: Arts Educational Schools London; London Studio Centre
Landmark productions: Mary Poppins, West End (2005, 2007-08); Broadway (2008-09); Sydney (2011), The Music Man, Chichester Festival Theatre (2008), Singin’ in the Rain, Chichester Festival Theatre (2011); Palace Theatre, London (2012-13), A Chorus Line, London Palladium (2013), Candide, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2013-14), A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Broadway (2015)
Agents: Simon Beresford (UK), Innovative Artists (US)
She Loves Me runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, until March 4
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