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Mark Shenton: My top 10 musical theatre actresses

Imelda Staunton in Gypsy. Photo: Johan Persson
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At a conference last week, jointly organised by Musical Theatre Matters and Mercury Musical Development, director Rupert Goold was on the opening panel on the current state and challenges of musicals and said some bold, contentious things. I enjoyed in particular his acknowledgement: “Musicals require psychopaths to run them – someone has to be in charge.”

Putting aside the fact that the psychopath could very well be the director – and we all know a few of those — he was referring to strong producers, whose domination of commercial musicals he also cited as the main challenge of the form to grow and change. Musicals, he said, should originate from creative places with directors and writers that have stories to tell, rather than the urge to simply put bums on seats by drawing on the widest possible demographic.

Amplifying further, he said: “I have a lot of friends working on the Bend It Like Beckham musical and, I know the way it is being talked about [by producers] that it appeals to girls, boys and an Asian audience too. I heard the workshops are great, but when I look at musicals like Spring Awakening or Hamilton [in the US] you feel that they are only made by artists because they had to make them. Not all of them worked financially, but with any creative enterprise, it has to begin with the need of the artist to make that work.”

I’m curious if Rupert felt that the artists behind Made in Dagenham that he’s currently directed in the West End (where it ends on April 11) felt similarly compelled; this was surely a producer-led musical in every way, since none of the team had previously worked together.

Another issue that came up was star casting, and Goold pointed out that the theatre is starting to make its own again, and he cited the examples of Kerry Ellis and Beverley Knight as having more box office appeal than “so-called TV or film names in certain roles”. His own production of Made in Dagenham, of course, has Gemma Arterton headlining; I trust he’s not referring to her (lack of) box office clout.

But it’s a striking fact that the Oliviers have rewarded her with a nomination for best actress in a musical, over theatre-only stars like Natalie Mendoza (so sensational in Here Lies Love at the National), Eva Noblezada (Miss Saigon) and Katherine Kingsley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), so perhaps celebrity clout still matters in the memories of Olivier voters.

I would like to nominate my own regularly appearing top 10 leading ladies today — the ones that I would never miss in any musical. But would they sell tickets?

1. Imelda Staunton

In my interview with Imelda Staunton about her imminent West End return in Gypsy in last week’s Stage, she told me that the show should have happened a year before it did, but was postponed. The reason? ““I don’t think I was famous enough. I’m not a big enough name to open in the West End.” It was only after the rave reviews at Chichester that it is being taken there now.

Cynthia Erivo in I Can't Sing. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Cynthia Erivo in I Can’t Sing. Photo: Tristram Kenton

2. Cynthia Erivo

I saw Cynthia Erivo in her solo concert debut at King’s Place last week, and it was one of those electrifying nights when you knew a star was being born in front of your eyes. I’ve loved her in just about everything I’ve seen her in — even in I Can’t Sing, where she was one of the show’s few saving graces — and in 2013 she amazed in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory with her rare combination of true vulnerability and yet utter strength. There are rumours that this production is headed to Broadway next year, and that she will be going with it; assuming it comes off, I predict she’ll become an overnight star there.

3. Rosalie Craig

When I saw Rosalie Craig in Ragtime at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park in 2012, I declared in my review for The Stage that she “arrives now in the top league of leading ladies”, and so it has proved since: she led the cast of The Light Princess at the National and most recently starred in City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse and was ravishing in both.

Julie Atherton in Therese Raquin at the Finborough. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Julie Atherton in Therese Raquin at the Finborough. Photo: Tristram Kenton

4. Julie Atherton

Julie Atherton is one of the most unsung but most amazing talents in all of British musical theatre. She was in the original cast of Avenue Q, but apart from that mostly does smaller-scale, mostly new work, like Therese Raquin at the Finborough last year. Next up, she’s in Shock Treatment at the King’s Head.

5. Emma Williams

Emma Williams has one of the most extraordinarily beautiful voices in London theatre, and is   great actress too. She was terrific in the tour of Annie Get Your Gun last year, and just wonderful in Howard Goodall’s Love Story at Chichester and in the West End.

6. Jenna Russell

Jenna Russell is one of the British musical’s most treasured and treasurable possessions, superb in everything she does from Sondheim (Sunday in the Park with George, for which she won the Olivier Award in 2006 and was subsequently Tony nominated when it transferred to Broadway, and Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier) to Urinetown. And she’s great in plays, too — she has just ended a West End run in Di and Viv and Rose at the Vaudeville.

Laura Jane Matthewson in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Darren Bell
Laura Jane Matthewson in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Darren Bell

7. Laura Jane Matthewson

Laura Jane Matthewson is a newcomer to the London stage, but she was so breathtakingly and heartbreakingly true in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse last year that I just know a major star has been born.

8. Laura Pitt-Pulford

Laura Pitt-Pulford has been carving out a steady path through regional and fringe musicals, from Salisbury’s A Man of No Importance and Leicester’s Hello, Dolly! and The Sound of Music, to Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse and The Return of the Soldier at Jermyn Street Theatre; a major West End career is just a step away.

9. Beverley Knight

Beverley Knight has gone straight into the top 10 from just two roles, taking over in The Bodyguard and currently Memphis; but she’s been such a sensation in both that I would see her in anything now.

Louise Dearman in Wicked. Photo: Matthew Crockett
Louise Dearman in Wicked. Photo: Matthew Crockett

10. Louise Dearman

Louise Dearman is the closest we have to a Streisand voice. She’s belted her way through both the roles of Elphaba and Glinda in Wicked, but deserves (even) better things.

I know that compiling a top 10 of personal favourites inevitably leaves out a bunch of others — I’d name Alison Jiear (arguably the best voice of anyone in British theatre) and Maria Friedman, too, but neither have done a musical for a while (though Friedman is soon to direct one at the Old Vic).

I’d also love to include all of the following:

Ruthie Henshall (one of our forever best leading ladies, currently in Billy Elliot).

Kerry Ellis (but she’s mainly been a take-over, not originated roles, in shows like Wicked and currently Cats).

Rachel Tucker (another Wicked alumni, who was brilliant in The Last Ship on Broadway).

Sally Ann Triplett (also fantastic in The Last Ship).

Scarlett Strallen (great in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium, and a marvellous Mary in Mary Poppins).

Strallen’s wonderful aunt Bonnie Langford (a 40-something year veteran of the West End since she started at the age of just six).

The fierce and fabulous Sharon D Clarke (magnificent in shows from Once on this Island to Ghost and pantos at Hackney).

The always spunky Anna-Jane Casey (so wonderful in last year’s Forbidden Broadway).

Josefina Gabrielle (who I’ve loved ever since she starred in the National’s Oklahoma! opposite Hugh Jackman at the National, then opposite Patrick Wilson on Broadway).

Rebecca Trehearn (sensational in Dogfight and scene-stealing in City of Angels last year).

Clare Foster (hearbreakingly wonderful in Merrily We Roll Along).

The glorious Caroline Sheen (again, perfection in everything she does).

I’m sure I’ve left out a slew of names here, so please forgive me (and add your own nominations below). But the fact that drawing up a list is so hard proves the extent of the talent we have here.

Tomorrow I’ll be naming my current favourite leading men.

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