Ruthie Henshall

Interview: Ruthie Henshall

Interview: Ruthie Henshall

The West End superstar talks coming to New Wimbledon Theatre in her first ever panto!

For Ruthie Henshall, the Olivier winning actor who left her blueprint on such iconic roles as Fantine in Les Misérables, Polly in Crazy for You and Ellen in Miss Saigon, the panto at New Wimbledon Theatre is her first foray into this age-old tradition. She will play the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “I’ve never actually thought about doing a panto. But this year I got this offer, at this beautiful theatre, and I just thought ‘it’s time to go and play something wicked!’”

Ruthie trained at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom so performing at NWT feels a bit like coming home. “I love this area. I spent my youth here – although I’m a southeast London girl originally. I love Wimbledon and the village. I love the fact that it’s just like being in the country but you’re in London! If I could afford to live here, I would,” she laughs.

Earlier this year, Ruthie played Fosca in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s multi-award-winning Passion at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester – and, as far as gloomy musical theatre is concerned, one can hardly find anything more sorrowful than the tale of tragic love in Passion. “I have gone from one extreme to the other this year,” she admits. “To keep life interesting, you’ve got to.”

And this is what we do so well in Great Britain: panto! It’s tradition. It’s like going to midnight mass. For me, it’s not Christmas without midnight mass. And it’s not Christmas without panto.”

Given the remark about mass – as well the religious themes on her old album Pilgrim (which, if gentle, lyrical pop is your jam, you should absolutely add to your list), I ask if religion plays a role in her life. “I believe that there’s a power greater than all of us somewhere, somehow. I think there is something about letting go in life. Because we can’t control everything. And at some point, we’ve got to say, ‘right, maybe there’s something else that looks after us.’”

Ruthie has starred in the most popular West End and Broadway musicals of the past 30 years. Her career has been a huge success. But she is frank about the challenges, particularly when she had two young daughters and had divorced from actor and singer Tim Howar.

Her daughters, Lily and Dolly, are now grown but raising them whilst keeping on top of the theatre industry was no easy feat. The leading lady is ordinarily required to do eight shows per week and exceptions are rarely made. “It was fine when they were little, and I could take them with me. It would be really good if one day, some producer could turn around and say, ‘I’m going to split that role so that you do it four shows a week, and you do it four shows a week’ and took two mothers who desperately want to be at home with their children. There were many times when it was extremely hard to be away from my girls. But more than that, it was hard for them because they didn’t have a parent at home. They just had the nanny.” It’s also not a lucrative path. “There is no decent living wage for a performer in the ensemble. To live and work in London, most people have to take an extra job anyway. During Covid, it was just awful. The government left us to it. Their answer for the entertainment industry was, ‘are you going to retrain?’ How insulting! They even put posters up [the infamous ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber’ campaign]. You don’t get to just step on stage after having never done it before. You have to be trained, to hone your craft, to be skilled at it.”

“I was more fortunate, but I had friends who were driving vans and picking fruit because they didn’t get any help from the government. Honestly, if you walk into musical theatre wanting to get famous and rich, you’re walking into the wrong business because neither of those are probably going to happen.”

The ‘famous’ part did happen for Ruthie though. She’s been in almost all the iconic titles over the years, including Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Chicago and Oliver! and led companies both in London and New York, which in her opinion are very different experiences. “In America, musical theatre is really revered. To the point that if you want to get a table in a fancy restaurant in NYC and you tell them you’re from a musical you’ll get this table no matter what. Whereas in England, it’s not easy for people to really make it. I made it when we didn’t have social media. It was just newspapers and reviews. Now it’s even harder.” Her favourite memory comes from very early in her career. “The opening night of Crazy for You. I was 25. The first time I had created a role. It’s your blueprint, an incredible privilege. I remember that coming down into the party in Leicester Square, my leading man and I walked down the steps, and the whole party turned around and applauded us. I knew my life had changed.”

There are plenty of shows she holds dearly although she would have liked some of them to have lasted longer. “I wish more people had seen She Loves Me. It was only on for a year which might seem like a long time but really wasn’t enough. I wish that more people had seen Passion. It’s just such a beautiful sundown piece. I wish Marguerite had lasted longer. This industry is so unpredictable.”

She acknowledges the efforts made by producers to keep audiences interested in long-running shows – such as the recent restaging of the quintessential blockbuster musical, Les Misérables, to fit more with the tastes of modern audiences. “I think Cameron [Mackintosh, the producer of Les Misérables] was smart to do that. It’s like remarketing it all over again, and unfortunately, that’s what we have to do. Well, fortunately and unfortunately – meaning that you can’t ever relax. There’s too much at stake. We have to reinvent ourselves constantly.”

Ruthie has been back on telly since last year, appearing as Miranda Evans in the BBC soap opera Doctors. “I love TV acting. It’s so different. It’s stop, start, stop, start, on repeat. And what I love about theatre is that you’re telling a whole story in one and it’s such a joy to do that.”

Ruthie still has quite a few dream roles she didn’t get a chance to play. “I’d love to play in Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. I love Sondheim. He wrote so well for older women.” With his recent, untimely death in November last year, Passion felt like a homage. “When we got the rights, we didn’t expect that at all. And he passed away so close to us starting.”

Ruthie had worked with Stephen Sondheim before on a musical revue, Putting it Together. “He was a legend. And he changed musical theatre. He was a professor of the human condition. I thought he was a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly.”

She would also love to revisit some of her iconic roles. “I’ve done that twice in my career. I played Ellen, in Miss Saigon in the West End, then 10 years later, I played it on Broadway. I also played Roxie [in Chicago] when I was 28 in London, and at 40 I played her on Broadway. It’s an absolute privilege, because you realise how changed you are as a person in ten years.”

Of her two daughters, the younger one wants to follow in her footsteps. “She wants to be an actress. She doesn’t want to sing or dance though,” she laughs. “I will let her do whatever she needs to do with the knowledge that it’s not an easy road. But the other side is also rather glorious.”

Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs plays at New Wimbledon Theatre, 3 to 31 December. We loved it – read our review.