As the award-winning musical returns to the West End for a 50th anniversary revival, Nick Smurthwaite catches up with Ruth Silvestre, the last surviving lead cast member from the 1968 production, who shares indelible memories of her most famous role
This month’s 50th-anniversary revival of the musical Man of La Mancha at the London Coliseum has a particular resonance for the former actor and singer Ruth Silvestre, the last surviving lead cast member from the 1968 production. Silvestre, who turns 90 later this month, took over the female lead, Aldonza, from the American actor Joan Diener, playing opposite both Keith Michell in 1968, and then Richard Kiley the following year, in the original West End productions of the hit Broadway show, based on Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote.
“It was a fabulous part to play,” she recalls at home in south London. “You started off as Aldonza, a real tough street girl, then you were transformed by Don Quixote into the much softer and more sensitive Dulcinea. It required a great range of emotions and great stamina. It was a real challenge for someone who started out as a singer.”
The famous story of a deluded would-be knight is presented as a play within a play performed by the novel’s author, Cervantes, and his fellow prisoners as he awaits trial during the Spanish Inquisition.
Man of La Mancha started out at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1965, before moving to Off-Broadway and from there to the Martin Beck Theatre; where it became one of the biggest hits on Broadway, running for 2,328 performances. It is probably best known for the stirring anthem The Impossible Dream.
When the show transferred to London in 1968, Silvestre had only appeared in two musicals – Kismet and Flower Drum Song. She started out understudying Diener as Aldonza but quickly stepped into the role when Diener, who was married to the director Albert Marre, announced that she wasn’t doing matinees.
There were two separate productions of Man of La Mancha within a few months of each other, because producer Donald Albery unexpectedly closed the first one at short notice.
Silvestre takes up the story: “A televised extract from the show featured the rape scene, which is pretty crude and physical, causing a lot of the coach party trade from the provinces to cancel their bookings. Not surprisingly, this affected the box office takings and Albery asked the American backers to take a cut. They refused, so he closed the show down. The cast was devastated. In the death scene at that evening’s performance we were all crying real tears.”
Albery brought the show back a few months later, this time with the Tony award-winning Broadway star Kiley in the title role. Kiley had created the dual roles of Quixote and Cervantes on Broadway in 1965, and appeared in the hit show continuously for six years. He always regarded himself as an actor who could sing, whereas Silvestre considered herself a singer who could act.
Silvestre says that while she was full of admiration for Kiley’s performance, she preferred working with Michell because “he was lovely, very gentlemanly and sweet to me”. Kiley died in 1999, Diener in 2006, and Michell four years ago.
Though Silvestre originally trained as a teacher, she always dreamed of being a singer. In her early 20s, she gave up teaching, answered an advertisement in The Stage and became a cabaret singer at a fashionable Soho restaurant, Balsam’s, in the mid-1950s.
She says: “My cabaret spots didn’t start until midnight, so my husband used to come and pick me up at the restaurant and we’d walk back through Soho, running the gauntlet of all the prostitutes plying their trade. They all had different costumes and specialities. I got to know some of them. They’d say: ‘How did it go tonight, love?’”
Silvestre had always had a flair for languages, and her repertoire included many foreign songs. At one point she even pretended to be from overseas. She says: “Everybody thought I was foreign because of my looks, so I used to put on a foreign accent because I thought it would be good for business. I remember Clement Freud saying to me, after I’d sung at his club at the Royal Court: ‘You sing beautifully in all these different languages, and yet you talk like a guttersnipe.’ Rather rude, I thought, but that was Clement.”
Though she gave up singing professionally in her 60s, Silvestre still sings with the South London Choir – “my voice has gone, really, but we have a lot of fun” – and she says she is the oldest member of the choir by far. She has also written several books, including Final Performance, published by Matador in 2009, investigating the murder of the popular Victorian actor William Terriss, and its aftermath.
She will celebrate her 90th birthday with family and friends at the Club for Acts and Actors (formerly the Concert Artists Club) in Covent Garden at the end of the month.
Man of La Mancha is at the London Coliseum from April 26 to June 8
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