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Mark Shenton: My 13 favourite musical theatre stars

Jenna Russell, Sharon D Clarke and Hadley Fraser. Photos: Manuel Harlan (Hadlet Fraser)/Marc Brenner
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Earlier this week, I listed my 13 favourite theatre stars who work in mainly in plays. Now it’s the turn of my baker’s dozen of favourite actors who are particularly known for their musical theatre appearances, though once again many of these also work in plays and on film and television.

Mark Shenton: My 13 favourite theatre stars


1.  Imelda Staunton

Follies review at the National Theatre, London – ‘not just triumphant, but transcendent’

An actress whose versatility is demonstrated by the fact that she’s nominated for this year’s Oliviers for both best actress in a musical (Follies at the National) and best actress (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Staunton has soared to the very top ranks of London’s musical theatre actors thanks to a succession of multiple award winning performances in Sweeney Todd, Gypsy and most recently Follies – all of them Sondheim titles. She now holds the crown of London’s pre-eminent Sondheim performer – once held by the incomparable Julia McKenzie, whom Staunton took over from in the National’s Guys and Dolls to announce her arrival as a major musical star. But the glory of Staunton, of course, is that she’s just as extraordinary in plays (from Ayckbourn and Chekhov to Edward Albee), films (the hilarious Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter, Oscar nominated for Vera Drake) and TV (Cranford).

Read our 2015 interview with Imelda Staunton

2. Jenna Russell

Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens. Photo: Scott Rylander
Jenna Russell in Grey Gardens. Photo: Scott Rylander

Though she’s currently on a hiatus from musical theatre as she’s back on the small screen in EastEnders, Russell is one of our very greatest musical theatre actors, sublime in Sondheim (the West End and Broadway runs of the Menier’s Sunday in the Park with George, and the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along) as well as Guys and Dolls (Sister Sarah in Michael Grandage’s West End Donmar production opposite Ewan McGregor), and the brilliant Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse that’s shamefully not had a further life.

3. Killian Donnelly

Killian Donnelly: ‘Being a swing was my training – it made me the performer that I am’

Since arriving in London from his native Ireland in 1988 and securing his first job as a swing in Les Mis, Donnelly quickly graduated via roles in The Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliot to become one of London’s pre-eminent (and hardest working) leading men. His successive starring roles have included The Commitments, Memphis, Kinky Boots (which he subsequently reprised on Broadway) and he’s now back in Les Mis, this time as Valjean.

4. Hadley Fraser

Hadley Fraser: ‘I have never thought of myself as being in one box, or another’

Back on the stage of the West End’s Garrick Theatre in the title role of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, Fraser was last seen on the same stage in Kenneth Branagh’s production of Winter’s Tale. He’s similarly appeared onstage at the Donmar in Shakespeare (Coriolanus), Shaw (Saint Joan) and the musical City of Angels, as well as co-adapting the musical Committee there. He’s also done duty in Les Miserables (graduating from Marius to Javert) and Phantom (Raoul). As he has said in a recent interview – he defies easy categorisation. And long may it continue to be the case.

5. Sharon D Clarke

Olivier winner Sharon D Clarke: ‘We need to better cultivate British musicals’

Currently reprising her role in Caroline, Or Change at Hampstead Theatre that she originated at Chichester’s Minerva last year, Sharon D Clarke was described by the Observer’s Susannah Clapp as giving “one of the supreme performances of 2017. Clarke’s magnificent voice makes each song mighty. But she is also extraordinary in the way she holds a silence. She is riveting as she glowers, swivelling between pain and anger”. Those of us who’ve followed her progress from regular panto star at Hackney Empire to leading National Theatre player (Guys and Dolls, The Amen Corner), Open Air Theatre (Porgy and Bess) and West End (Ghost, We Will Rock You, The Lion King, Chicago and more) know that there’s nothing she can’t do.

6. Joanna Riding

Gary Barlow’s The Girls review at Phoenix Theatre, London – ‘sheer joy’

First coming to major attention when she played Julie Jordan in Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 National Theatre production of Carousel (for which she won her first Olivier), Riding has also starred in the National’s productions of A Little Night Music, Guys and Dolls and the West End transfer of Trevor Nunn’s production of My Fair Lady. But she’s also been extraordinary in the West End in the original productions of The Witches of Eastwick and The Girls, and most recently was sublime in Romantics Anonymous at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

7. Janie Dee

Janie Dee: ‘Theatre is a world in which I can explore things without fear’

Most recently seen as Phyllis Stone in the National’s Follies, Dee has graduated to leading actress in plays as well as musicals from starting off as a chorus dancer with the Krankies in Blackpool. Her versatility saw her become a leading interpreter of Pinter and Ayckbourn (winning every award going for Comic Potential) as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein (she was Carrie Pipperidge in the NT’s Carousel), Jerry Herman (Mack and Mabel) and Gershwin (My One and Only). Next, she stars in a new play Monogamy, which comes to London’s Park Theatre in June after a national tour.

8. Michael Xavier

Michael Xavier. Photo: Pamela Raith
Michael Xavier. Photo: Pamela Raith

There’s hardly a more classically handsome or accomplished leading man in the business than Xavier. In 2016, he starred as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum, before reprising that performance on Broadway last year. He then stayed on to star there in Prince on Broadway. He began his career doing the standard tour of duty in Mamma Mia! (Sky in the international tour) and Phantom (playing Raoul), before ascending to leading man that has also seen him star brilliantly in the West End premiere of Howard Goodall’s Love Story and the West End transfer of Chichester’s The Pajama Game.

Read our 2015 interview with Michael Xavier

9. John Owen-Jones

John Owen-Jones

One of the great male voices in British musical theatre, Owen-Jones he made history as the longest-serving actor in the West End’s Phantom of the Opera, playing it for over 2,000 times. He also became the youngest actor to have played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables: a role he has played repeatedly in the West End, on tour, and on Broadway as well. Those shows may have come to define him, but he’s also breaking out of that now; last year he was wonderful in The Wild Party at the Other Palace.

10. Rosalie Craig

Rosalie Craig in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith
Rosalie Craig in The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre. Photo: Richard H Smith

After I first saw Craig in the Open Air Theatre’s production of Ragtime in 2012 I was sure that she was destined to be the West End’s next big leading lady. That prediction may very well come true later this year when she stars as the gender-switched lead in Sondheim’s Company, playing Bobbi instead of Bobby. But she’s also a fine straight actress and is currently to be found leading the cast of Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman at the Gielgud. In the years between Ragtime and now, she’s done plenty of unpredictable stuff, from the original National Theatre productions of London Road and the Tori Amos musical The Light Princess, to starring as Rosalind in As You Like It and The Threepenny Opera.

11. Emma Williams

Emma Williams: ‘I still go home and train with my schoolteacher whenever I can’

The original Truly Scrumptious when she was still in her teens in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium opposite Michael Ball, Williams has avoided pigeon-holing and the rat-race of take-over runs in established hits. Instead, she’s followed her own interesting instincts, crafting an impressive career that has stretched from originating Howard Goodall’s Love Story at Chichester and in the West End, Mrs Henderson’s Presents and Half a Sixpence. Next up, she stars in the stage premiere of An Officer and a Gentleman, launching a UK tour in April.

12. Rebecca Trehearn

Oliviers 2017: Rebecca Trehearn – ‘plenty of casting directors won’t go to musicals’

Possessed of one of the most radiant voices in musical theatre, Trehearn won the 2017 Olivier Award for best supporting role in a musical for starring in the West End transfer of Show Boat from Sheffield’s Crucible.  She was also stunning in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse and City of Angels at the Donmar.

Read our 2015 Q&A with Rebecca Trehearn

13. Charlie Stemp

Charlie Stemp in Half a Sixpence. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

When the effervescent Stemp starred in Half a Sixpence at Chichester and then transferred to London’s Noel Coward in 2016, the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish wrote, “the production boasts one of those fairytale finds that’s the stuff of legend. With just two professional musical credits to his name, the 22-year-old Londoner has a smile as bright as the Oxford Street Christmas lights”. A star was born and he’s now been catapulted direct to Broadway, where in January he joined the cast of Hello, Dolly!, where he earned a mention in the very first line of New York Times critic Jesse Green’s review: “A dimply new star has joined the cast of Hello, Dolly! and he’s delightful — oh wait. Perhaps you weren’t asking about Charlie Stemp, the replacement Barnaby Tucker in the hit musical revival that introduced four fresh principals on Thursday evening. OK, then: A dimply new star has joined the cast of Hello, Dolly! and she’s delightful.” It was interesting, but not surprising, that Green gave him the first mention over Broadway veteran Bernadette Peters.

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