Six years ago, British actor Cynthia Erivo was starring in I Can’t Sing! at the London Palladium. The comedy musical based on The X Factor was expected to be a hit based on its early hype and the television show popularity, but instead it proved a major flop. Now she has been nominated for an Oscar and that show must seem a long time ago.
In 2014, when the show was staged, Erivo had regularly toured or worked Off-West End but hadn’t broken out properly. In the year before I Can’t Sing!, she had played the lead role of Celie to critical acclaim in the musical The Color Purple at London’s intimate Menier Chocolate Factory.
During that performance, she was so good that at the end of her big Act II number, I’m Here, the entire audience, including me, rose to our feet to applaud her. I had never seen that happen before mid-performance at any production.
Erivo’s industry reputation was steadily building, but her big break looked set to happen when she joined the cast of I Can’t Sing!. Its failure must have felt bitterly disappointing.
Meanwhile, The Color Purple was picked up for a Broadway transfer, with Erivo able to reprise her lead performance in an otherwise all-American company that included Jennifer Hudson and Danielle Brooks.
Erivo would go on to win a Tony award for her performance and the production would prove the biggest break in her career. Last week she was nominated for the best actress Oscar for her performance in the movie Harriet, about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
If she wins, Erivo would be the youngest actress to join the EGOT – an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – winners’ circle. It’s important not to forget that the remarkable journey she has taken did not start on Broadway, but years earlier through training and hard work learning her craft playing many different roles at a variety of UK theatres.
Something to consider: if I Can’t Sing! had been a West End hit, Erivo may have been under contract to appear in that production and therefore unavailable to star in The Color Purple on Broadway. Her story epitomises life in the theatre: you never know what’s around the corner.
Maybe some who have worked throughout the holiday season are feeling anxious over work drying up in January. In theatre, you have to expect the unexpected – the challenge is not losing your optimism or belief in yourself along the way. That feeling of bitter disappointment one day can easily flip into elation the next.
Keep on keeping on is a good mantra for the theatre but sometimes this can feel particularly tough
Erivo’s story reminded me of a tale Victor Spinetti used to tell about his friend Sean Connery in his brilliant one-man show. Spinetti became friends with Connery when they worked together on the 1953 UK tour of South Pacific.
Five years later, Connery played the role of Mark in the movie Another Time, Another Place. His performance caught the eye of Disney, who hired him to a contract as a leading man, flying him over to New York.
Each night, Disney arranged for Connery to see a hit show on Broadway and be photographed with a different female companion. On the last night, his companion did not turn up so he gave his spare ticket to the first person who was waiting hopefully in the cancellation line outside the theatre.
It was not until Connery took his seat that the lucky recipient realised who he was sitting beside. “Oh my God!”, he exclaimed loudly, “you’re Sean Canary! You were in the movie Another Time, Another Place and played a character called Mark, and my name is Mark!”
At the interval, Connery made a bolt for the bar, only to find three Disney executives had dropped by the theatre to see him. Before he could say “by the way, the girl didn’t show up”, pushing through the interval crowd came Mark, calling Connery’s name and holding two glasses with straws sticking out of them.
The Disney executives looked at him, while Connery, not wanting to appear rude, took the glass and said: “Thanks, sorry what did you say your name was again?” “Mark – you remember!” came the reply.
The Disney executives politely smiled and told Connery that they hoped he’d enjoy the second act. A few days later, Disney terminated his contract.
If true, the tale is reflective of a sorry indictment of industry attitudes at the time, and must have been heartbreaking for Connery who thought, having worked hard for his big break, it was lost for good.
However, shortly after this, he was cast as James Bond. If Connery had still been under contract to Disney, he would never have been able to play the role that defined his career.
Keep on keeping on is a good mantra for the theatre but sometimes this can feel particularly tough. A lot has been written since this year’s Oscar nominations were announced about the continued lack of diversity within the categories, which needs urgent address.
However, Erivo also represents something else that’s important, as indeed so did Connery in his early stage work, where too frequently an attitude exists towards musical actors being considered “less serious” than those in straight drama.
I have always found this deeply insulting towards both them and this art form. I therefore hope Erivo’s nomination now knocks such stigma out of the park, and that her example will inspire many, and encourage changing industry attitudes on many levels.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan