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Mark Shenton: I’ve watched the amazing theatrical journey of Sally Ann Triplett unfolding for 30 years

Sally Ann Triplett Sally Ann Triplett

It’s hardly surprising, given my passion for musicals, that I measure big chunks of my life by them – and inevitably, their frontline performers, the people who make them happen every night. No wonder, then, that I also love seeing favourite performers in cabaret, where they can get close up and personal with their audiences, and break free of the characters they are playing in shows to play someone closer to home: themselves. 

Of course, very often they measure themselves by the shows they’ve done along the way, too. This week Sally Ann Triplett is appearing at Crazy Coqs. Seeing her on Wednesday night, I felt that key parts of my musical theatre life were being replayed in front of me, too.

A veteran of West End musicals these past 30 years (as well as twice being part of groups that represented Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest – Prima Donna in 1980 and Bardo in 1982), I reckon I’ve seen almost all of her stage work – with the disappointing exception of Diana in Next to Normal, one of my all-time favourite musicals, that she did not in Britain but in Singapore, so I can be forgiven for missing (I bet she was brilliant in it, too – as a mother of a now adult son and a daughter who is still at school, she would have understood the character well).

I can hardly remember another musical actress being so honest

And this is where her story gets personal to me, too. In 2002, as she was about to open in Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre revival of Anything Goes, I went to interview her, and I can hardly remember another musical actress being so honest and open with me as she immediately was. When she told me her birth date – without a moment’s hesitation and no actorly prevarications – I realised that we were almost exactly the same age: she was born on April 15 1962, whereas I followed five months later on September 12.

When we met then, she told me her daughter Grace was just one and a half years old. The other night at Crazy Coqs, Grace – now a teenager – was assisting her. (At the time, I’d asked her if she had a favourite website, and she’d replied, “After my daughter Grace was born, I used to visit the website for the Active Birth Centre a lot – to find out if they had a cool new baby sling and things like that.”

Anything Goes was a significant headliner role, but I’d already seen her in numerous shows, including the original (and short-lived) London production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (which her mum, now 85, tells her is her favourite of her shows), Jolson (co-starring with Brian Conley, of whom her late father – who shared a similar accent with Brian – was a particular fan), and Rags at the Bridewell, among others. That run in Anything Goes, which subsequently transferred to Drury Lane, wasn’t the first time she’d been at the National either – she’d previously appeared there in a show called The Villain’s Opera, but told me frankly then, “The last time I was here I didn’t have a great time because we did The Villain’s Opera and that was dreadful. So I wanted to come back and see if I could have a good time, which I can and am.”

That’s something I’ve discovered in the years since – that there isn’t a dishonest bone in her body and she always speaks the truth. I’ve sometimes loved the shows she’s done more than she has. And she said at the time when I asked her about the state of modern musicals in London:

Over there in the West End, it’s the Mamma Mia!s and the Queens and the Madnesses, and that’s not what musical theatre is about. I don’t know what the answer is anymore. We’ve still got My Fair Lady which is fantastic, but we need young writers to be able to experiment.

A few years later she’d eat some of those words and appeared as Donna in Mamma Mia! – and was utterly brilliant. Even more exciting was that one of the three men that had been in her life was played by the one man in hers: her husband Gary Milner, who she’d met on Jolson. Earlier this year, after Triplett had closed on Broadway in The Last Ship, Milner followed in her footsteps there with a role in an even shorter-lived show Dr Zhivago. (A few weeks ago I was in New York having breakfast at an outdoor cafe on Ninth Avenue, and a cute guy on a bicycle shouted out my name from the other side of the street – I had no idea who it was, until a few hours later when he posted a comment to my Facebook page, and it turned out to be Milner.)

But that’s the way the dice sometimes fall in showbusiness, and Triplett and Milner both have the in-built resilience of people who pick themselves up, dust themselves down and start all over again. Triplett knows what Broadway failure feels like herself: she had, after all, made her own Broadway debut back in 1988 in the all-too-short lived Broadway transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Carrie.

Sally-Ann-Triplet-portraitWhen I met her in New York last year after a performance of The Last Ship, the Sting musical that brought her back to Broadway, she told me how it had played right across the street from the theatre where she was now, exactly 26 years previously. Carrie revolved around a mother and daughter named Margaret and Carrie White; in The Last Ship, her character was called Peggy White.

I saw the original Carrie both in Stratford and then on Broadway. When earlier this year the show finally received its London premiere at Southwark Playhouse, I hosted a post-show interview with its two leads, director and producer, and I invited Sally to join the panel, as well as Linzi Hateley, who had originated the title role (and coincidentally also went on to play Donna in Mamma Mia!).

She once again exhibited the honesty that’s her hallmark, itemising some of the show’s problems, but also some of its pleasures. (When I formally interviewed her in 2002, she’d named Carrie as one of her favourite shows she’d ever worked on: “Carrie was fantastic – not for the show, but for the experience of going to Stratford-upon-Avon and then Broadway. To tell people you’ve played on Broadway, they can’t believe it.”)

Another failure hurt more: In 2012 she was the star of the Spice Girls musical Viva Forever!, and a lot was riding on it – but the show never worked. I ran into her in New York again when she was on a holiday break from it, and she told me that it was one of the hardest things she’d done.

But if The Last Ship took her back to Broadway and also failed, it was a more honourable sort of failure: at least it was an original show, not a songbook retread of an old musical catalogue. I was a real champion of The Last Ship, and after running into Triplett in the street one day and telling her I was coming back to see it yet again, she told me I must come around after. When I did, she told me I had to meet Sting – she’d told him about me and how much I liked the show, and wanted us to meet. I’d actually been trying to set up an interview without success at that point, but after Sally opened the door for our meeting, it went ahead and I interviewed him in his apartment on Central Park West.

That, in turn, led me to suggesting to him that he speak to Rupert Goold at the Almeida about giving the show a further life in London – and would lead eventually to the two of them meeting soon after. Just before she went to Broadway for The Last Ship, she also did a play about Judy Garland called My Judy Garland Life at Nottingham Playhouse in 2013, based on the Susie Boyt memoir of the same name.

I went to see that, too, and revisiting my 2002 interview with her, I see that she named singing Garland in a Garland tribute show at the London Palladium as one of one of her career highlights up to then:

We had Larry Blank conducting, and a couple of the musicians that actually played for her in the orchestra. We had all the original Carnegie Hall arrangements, and I was asked to sing a medley of You Made Me Love You, The Bells Are Ringing and The Trolley Song, and I had the whole of the Palladium singing along with me – a la Judy Garland. I was on a complete and utter high. That doesn’t come along very often. You get used to doing eight shows a week and just doing the job. But then, all of a sudden, you do something and something happens where you just didn’t expect it was going to take you by surprise that much. I do love Judy Garland – and what I love about her more than anything else is her energy and her enthusiasm. I feel I have that in me, too. The guy who used to spotlight for Garland, and has been at the Palladium for 35 years, spotlit me as well.

That’s a theatre actress through and through: someone who understands and appreciates the continuity of it all. And she’s an indelible part of the continuity of the West End itself for me.

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