INTERVIEW: Ruthie Henshall on Chicago, Mama Morton and taking life as it comes

An unquestionable legend in the world of musical theatre, Ruthie Henshall has astounded audiences in London’s West End and on Broadway, served as a judge on ITV’s Dancing on Ice and is an Olivier award winner and five-time nominee. Just before she stepped on stage in London’s Phoenix Theatre as Mama Morton in Chicago, she spoke to The Reviews Hub’s Fraser MacDonald about becoming the only British actress to have played all three leading female roles in the show and what keeps her treading the boards.

Can you tell us a little about Chicago and who you’re currently playing?

The story of Chicago always seems to be so current; really, it’s about getting away with murder because of celebrity [status] and what the power of fame can bring to you. It’s also about the desperation of fame at all costs. I play the keeper of the keys – the Countess of the Clink, I’m called – Matron “Mama” Morton.

You are the only British actor to have played Roxie, Velma and Mama on a professional stage. Is it good to be back?

It’s wonderful to be back with Chicago. I have such a long history with this show and it really is a fantastic piece to be a part of. I felt that I had done the other two roles, on both sides of the Atlantic, and I felt that Mama was a really interesting choice. I get to sit and watch the show – I’m watching everyone else sweat – which makes a nice change!

Are you finding this role challenging?

For me, it is a much less demanding role than others that I’ve had but it is actually really nice for me. I don’t have to gear myself up quite as much as if I were playing another role and I’m really enjoying it being a lot less busy!

You know the show so well. Why is Chicago such a success?

Ruthie Henshall as ‘Mama’ Morton ©Tristram Kenton

Well, firstly, it is still a very current show and it very much lands with the state of the world right now. The songs are fantastic and the choreography – [Bob] Fosse’s choreography – is stupendous. What’s not to love about watching a load of talented, beautiful dancers? This production is very much performance driven – it’s not about the set and the scenery. It’s much more about telling the story and the story is fantastic.

Is there something in particular that keeps you coming back to musical theatre?

Well, for me, there’s nothing like the telling of a story through song. I’ve done television and plays and all kinds, but when the orchestra starts there is no feeling like it. You do a play and you have to gear yourself up for something, whereas I find that musical theatre just sails you through. It takes you all the way on the wings of a song.

Do you still get nervous before going on stage?

Err… yes(?), although not when I’m doing a long run. Opening nights are different I suppose. I used to when I was younger, but less so know. I think that getting nervous just means that you care, that you want to get things right. It’s live theatre and anything can happen, so you have to keep your eye on the ball all the time. You can’t just say cut and start all over again, which does keep you on your toes.

Is there any job that you outright wouldn’t do?

Oh, I don’t know! You take every job as it comes, I suppose. For me, it’s all script driven – what’s the story and what’s the character like? – so you take your cues from the script really. With Chicago, where there are lots of brilliant strong female roles. I feel very lucky to have that in this show.

Do you think that is part of Chicago’s appeal – these strong women?

I think that, when you look at the show, everyone in it is manipulating the system in some way, so they are fabulous riles. Everybody is in it for themselves and everybody is guilty – apart from Hunyak – and they are delicious roles to play and there is always something new you can find depending on where you are in life. Each time I come back, I find something different because I’ve lived a bit more life and you bring that with you when you play these roles.

Is there a dream role that you’d like to play?

I love creating something new so for me, a dream role would be in a new musical where you draw up the blueprint and you are the first person to do it. There’s nothing like that; for me, that is my ultimate dream.

In previous roles, you have been an inspiration to a great number of people who followed on from you. For myself, your place in the Les Misérables 10th Anniversary Dream Cast sticks out particularly. Is your motivation always to make a piece your own?

Always! Otherwise you just put on somebody else’s costume. You absolutely have to make it your own; your own experience, your own life should inform what you’re doing. You are given a blueprint, but you absolutely have to own it yourself or, for me, it wouldn’t be a very stimulating job. That’s what makes live theatre so exciting.

We know you’ll be with Chicago until 30th June – what do you get up to in your spare time?

Do you mean when I’m not doing eight shows a week?! (Laughs) I have two teenage daughters who keep me fairly busy. Sometimes I go horse riding, though I can’t do that when I’m in a show because if I fall off and break something then I don’t get paid! So I have to choose very careful hobbies!

Finally, what comes next for Ruthie Henshall?

I never have a plan and that’s what I love about it! I don’t have a clue about what I’ll be doing in six months and that is a very exciting life – I count my blessings every day that I get to do something I love and hopefully, that will continue!

Fraser MacDonald | Image: Contributed

Chicago is at Phoenix Theatre, London, currently booking until 6 October 2018. Tickets available here.

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