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Sheena Easton: ‘I’d sing with snot coming out of my nose and tears in my eyes’

Sheena Easton has had quite some professional life, spanning a recording career, live concert artist, TV actor and the Broadway stage. But now, on the eve of turning 58 next month, she’s about to make her West End debut [1] as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street, the star of a Broadway-bound show who has to pull out dramatically when she suffers a leg injury and whose understudy replaces her.

When I meet Easton in a bar beside the dress circle at Drury Lane, the orchestra and cast are doing a run-through. Her voice enters the room before she does, as I can hear her joining in with what is being sung on stage. She is in ebullient form, and regularly breaks into song during the course of our time together. Partly, she’s filled with the joy of the show; but she’s also proving that she can still do it.

“There’s a lot of miles on these babies,” she says, referring to her vocal cords. “I’ve put some miles on these tyres, and you’ve got to kick them to get them going.”

I’ve just had them take the bed out of my dressing room and put in a treadmill

Musicals require stamina and discipline. She’s used to both: “I’ve just had them take the bed out of my dressing room and put in a treadmill. On a two-show day, the worst thing I think you can do is recline between shows – everything gathers in your sinuses, so I’d rather get on the treadmill and do a little stroll and watch TV, keep the body warmed up and limber, and keep my energy up for the next show.”

But if a treadmill features in her life today, she specifically took herself off the career treadmill to raise a family.

When I ask her why it has taken her so long to come to the West End, she says: “It’s not a complicated answer: it’s really a case of timing. I did Broadway back in the day twice, but I chose to be a mother, and made a very definite commitment to do it. I adopted my kids, so it’s not like they came along and I had to adjust my life. I knew that if I was going to do it, I was going to commit to it as I had committed to my career.

“You can’t commit to both things equally, so I put my children first. I made a point of telling everyone involved in my work that I would not be taking on things that would involve my kids’ worlds being turned upside down.

“I knew what I was doing, that I was taking myself out of the A league, but I’d been doing it since I was 17 and I was 30 at this point. By the time I went through the whole adoption process and my son came along, I was 36; I didn’t retire, but I trimmed my work back so I could be a mother first.”

She adopted first a son, then a daughter. “When they were babies, I took them with me, and would take 16 pieces of luggage with everything they needed in it. But by the time they hit five years old, I decided to pick a place and stick to it. I chose to go to Las Vegas.

“I did two and a half years of eight [shows] a week there. It was fine at first, but when they got a bit older they were missing mommy being there for bedtimes and wanted me to be there for homework. So I changed it to working a couple of weekends a month, and I maintained that until now.

“When you work just a couple of weekends a month and your kids are there, they are your whole world, but afterwards I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I had to do something – I was three quarters through a new show I was putting together to perform with symphony orchestras, and I told my agent to put me out more, and that when the calls came in, I was prepared to do something different and new. And that’s when the call came out of the blue for this.”


Q&A: Sheena Easton

What was your first non-theatre job? A Saturday job in Motherwell. I got the bus in every Saturday and sold shoes.

What was your first professional theatre job? It was while I was still at college, I’d sing every night in a band called Something Else, doing lounges and gigs. That’s what supported me.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Take a moment to stop and take it all in. Stay focused on your goals, but take it in, too.

Who or what was your biggest influence? People who risk things inspire me. I love hearing stories of transformation and determination from people who reinvent themselves. You have to scare yourself constantly.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Come prepared. I can’t stress that enough. And believe that you are worthy. I have talked to so many young actors and dancers and singers who’ll say things like, ‘My agent wanted to put me up, but the character description says, ‘Luscious and blonde Yvette enters the room’, and I’m 5ft 2in and I’ve got dark hair and there’s nothing luscious about me.’ I go: ‘Honey, if you go knock their socks off, luscious and blonde won’t come into it – it’ll be petite and dark-haired Yvette!’ Believe that you are enough.

If you hadn’t been a singer and actor, what would you have been? When I was at drama school, I was also doing the academic side so I could have gone on to teach. There was never another fallback. I love sci-fi – if I had a time machine and could go back and take an alternative path, I’d love to be a wildlife and landscape photographer. That would be a fabulous way to live your life.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always say a prayer to myself before I go on stage. And before I enter I have to take my power posture: even if I’m terrified and butterflies and nerves are jumping all over the place, I need to collect myself and bring the full-centred thing on to the stage, no matter what.

But the West End is a long way from Vegas. Easton says: “My first answer was ‘No, I’m not going away’. My daughter’s at college and can be home within a couple of hours, so I knew I was a hop and a step away from her. But your kids become so grown up, and her first reaction was: ‘Hey mommy, if I called you up and said I have a chance to go to study in Australia, you’d be the first one to say, ‘Baby, go do it’. So what do you think I’m going to say to you? I’ll miss you, but you know what, you’re going to be paying for a lot of plane tickets because I’m going to be coming over on all my breaks.’

“When I heard her say that, something lifted and freed me up – so there’s no excuse now, I can do stuff now. If they’d come to me with this when she was still in high school, I would have said no without hesitation, I wouldn’t have even considered it. But there were no reasonable ‘nos’ left in the jar.”

She realised this was an opportunity to play a part she’d always hankered after. “This is one of the shows and roles that I’ve said I’ve always wanted to do. At my age, the role of Dorothy Brock is right in that sweet spot. If I didn’t do her now, I’d be too old for her; a few years ago, I was too young for her. I’m right where she needs to be. It’s such a great role and such a fun show.”

There was another reason she was drawn to it: she is good friends with another British performer, Millicent Martin, also a long-time resident in the US. Martin had played the same role both on Broadway (when she took over from original star Tammy Grimes) and a US tour.

“I saw it in the 1980s when [Martin] did it at the Pantages in LA,” says Easton. “We then met in London doing a Royal Variety, and we’ve become family now. I even call her Mom. I called Mom and said I’d been offered it and she said, ‘Darling, go do it, you’ll have a blast.’ ”

Martin is a great dancer as well as singer. Easton says: “The description of Dorothy is that she can’t dance to save her life, and that when the ingenue comes to replace her they can put the dancing back in. I said to Mom: ‘You’re such a great dancer this must have been easy for you, you could leap rings around them and do the dancing numbers.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I wish there was more for her to do, but she’s not written that way.’ And I said, ‘They’re going to get a real Dorothy in me, because this one can’t dance, that’s for sure.’ ”

But if dancing is a challenge for Easton, the acting is not. She trained as an actor at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “It’s very much part of my roots,” she says. “When I was at drama school I always hoped that someday I’d do a musical. I didn’t know how I’d get to it. My ambition was to have hit records, do a musical, a film, have a TV show and a variety show. I wanted to do it all. But it was the 1970s and Andrew Lloyd Webber was the big, hottest thing on the block then, and I pictured myself doing Evita. Now I could play her mother, perhaps, if they wrote a mother’s part in!”


Sheena Easton’s top tips for an aspiring actor/singer

• Don’t listen to the naysayers, who will tell you it can never happen. But believe the ones who tell you there’s a good chance you will be broke your whole life and not have enough money to live comfortably and support a family. I have many friends who love this industry but have never made enough to live in a decent way. Jobs are few and far between – you may be in West End or Broadway for a year, but it could be another two years before you get a job that pays the same. So if having a middle-class lifestyle is important to you, this is not a great way to bank on it.

• But if after all that, you say, ‘I’ll sleep in my car if need be, I’m going to go do it’, Keep yourself open to learning. We’re not always as smart as we think we are. Be confident, not arrogant. A strong belief in yourself is important, but if you get to the place where you don’t need to be told anything, you shouldn’t be here.

• As you get older and experience setbacks, you tend to wrap a little bit of bubble wrap around you and don’t attack it as hard. But screw that: what’s the worst that could happen? They say you suck? Well, they say you suck. Keep doing it till they send you home.

She did get to play another iconic role on Broadway, that of Aldonza in a 1992 revival of Man of La Mancha, opposite Raul Julia as Don Quixote. She remembers how, during the death bed scene, she’d become deeply moved: “If the moment was right and the emotions got going, I’d be singing with snot coming out of my nose and tears coming out of my eyes. But you still have to hit that pure note to make the moment work for the audience. It didn’t always happen – some nights you can’t get there – but it was definitely good training for this.”

She came prepared to rehearsals for 42nd Street. “I tend to be someone who prepares for everything, so I came in off book, felt like I knew my character and was prepared. But it’s been a little while since I’ve done any acting, and as we started in on the scenes, everything I had brought to them just vanished, because now there’s a real live person in front of me and I had to respond to what they’re giving me. When I thought she was going to be indignant, she was amused; when I thought she would fluff something off, she was pissed off.”

And she’s making sure of something else: truly to appreciate the gift she’s been given. “Being on stage is a wonderful blast, but standing in the wings watching the kids go through their stuff is the really enjoyable thing, taking in the moments that lead to it. I was so focused in my youth on my goals and how I was going to get there. If you run a marathon in Hawaii, you can complete the marathon, but did you notice the beautiful surroundings? I am making sure now that I stay focused on the goal, but take it all in, too.”

CV: Sheena Easton

Born: 1959, Bellshill, Scotland
Training: Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama
Landmark productions: Man of La Mancha, Broadway (1992), Grease, Broadway (1996)
Awards: Grammy for best new artist (1982), Grammy for best Mexican-American performance, Me Gustas Tal Como Eres (with Luis Miguel) (1985)
Agent: Michael Pick, MPI Talent Agency

42nd Street is running at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London [2]