Following a 5 year break, Chicago – the longest running American show in Broadway history – is back in London, with a cast featuring West End royalty. Ruthie Henshall plays Mama Morton, having previously played Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. Josefina Gabrielle plays Velma, having played Roxie before, and Sarah Soetaert returns to the role of Roxie. And if that wasn’t enough, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. is stepping into the West End for the first time as Billy Flynn.
We had a chat with Josefina and Sarah about the show, as well as testing their knowledge on all things Chicago…
You’ve played in this musical before, what does Chicago mean to you?
Josefina: Years and years ago a friend gave me this cast recording, and I didn’t know anything about the musical or it’s background or the writers or anything, and I was really taken with it. I thought it was so much fun and absolutely loved it. At the time I was in a ballet company so was very immersed in ballet repertoire and not so much theatre. When I was doing my first musical in the early 90s I remembered this soundtrack and still hadn’t joined the dots of who’d written it or the amazing people in it, I just knew I liked it. Slowly I began to join the dots about how special it was and how special the team were that put it together – then I heard this amazing new revival was coming to England in the late 90s which had been a smash hit on Broadway, and I still didn’t know the story. I just knew the music – loved the music – and the publicity was amazing with these monochrome photographs of absolutely drop dead beautiful men and women. So I could not wait to see it. I couldn’t wait – I saw a preview! There was all this music I loved, and these beautiful people on stage, but I hadn’t realised how funny it was too, and what a great story. So I’d been obsessed with it for years, and when it came my way to have a part in it it was an absolute dream come true, and doing it was as much fun as watching it.
Sarah: I’ve had quite an interesting journey with Chicago, and for me – especially this part – it’s very dear to my heart. I feel, when I come back to it, I’ve evolved and I can bring more to her, and the sort of changing and growing and exploring together. It’s like a love affair I have with Roxie.
I recently saw Chicago on Broadway, and one of the things I noticed was the difference in how the characters were portrayed – how much freedom do you get?
Josefina: There are some very set specific things – you have to stick to the foundations, you absolutely have to otherwise the structure of the show loses its way. But within that, things are tailored to your strengths and your abilities, therefore the parts – even in the ensemble – get to enhance you, which therefore enhances the show. So it does feel nice and personal to everybody.
Sarah: Everybody is very unique and it’s nice that the directors let you explore it in the way that you want to deliver it. You always have to give the truth and tell the story, but they let you put your own mark on it – your own signature. I have seen quite a few Roxies and I do think my Roxie has got something a little bit different, and I hope to bring that because I’m different.
And of course you’re surrounded by a cast who have also played different roles in the show before, what has that brought to this run of Chicago?
Josefina: The wonderful thing about this cast is all know the show intimately – we know the structure of it, so we’re coming back in different roles but we still have the essence and the groundwork of Chicago- it gives it a real depth. And also, because we all started together we’re all sort of breathing together, and the show feels nice and tight, and very slick which is a lovely thing.
Sarah: The interesting thing and great thing about it is that we all have a great understanding of the backbone and the whole journey the play takes. So we can all feel very safe with each other in bringing this in our own individual ways, at the same time having a blood that runs through it – we’re one and the same – we all have to know the blueprint of it and understand the heartbeat of it. And that’s only because we’ve all done it. Even the ensemble, everybody’s done it before. We’re very lucky to have such an amazing cast.
And then there’s an Oscar winner as well, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Josefina: He is such a nice guy. He has fully embraced this new medium for him. He just loves it, and he’s been such a generous, fun company leader. And also he is naturally bringing so much of Billy Flynn to this. He’s an authentic American with such a natural essence that can connect with both sides of Billy. Because the thing about Billy is, you don’t know if he’s a good guy rooting for the downtrodden, or a shark doing it for himself who’s good at his job. The ambiguity of whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy is just great, and Cuba’s an absolute rock.
Sarah: He’s such a generous actor, and a great guy. He’s such a nice man and a real part of the team.
In the show Roxie and Velma are out to get each other. In the spirt of sisterhood and the year of the woman let’s spin it round – what are the positives of working with each other?
Josefina: She’s a professional with such a stage craft and a presence, and understands the rhythm of the show. You have to have each others backs in order to… Shaft each other, as it were! It’s a great bond – we need a ladies night out, with Ruthie. At the end of the show we wave goodbye to an audience, go down in a lift and that’s when we see each other and go, “hello, how are you? How was your day?” – because we spend the entire show walking over each other to get to the top.
Sarah: Josefina is the most elegant, beautiful woman. She has an elegance not only in her physicality, but in her vocal and her presence. I admire her as an actress, as a singer. I’ve seen a few things she’s been in and you just look up to these women who are strong, talented, gorgeous – and not only that but a really nice person! In rehearsals there was all the camaraderie and we got to hang out with each other, but in the shows – I’m on and they’re off, or they’re on and I’m off – so we never really get to hang out anymore. We just pass each other by. But we’ll hang out at some point I’m sure.
Once Chicago is back, you can’t imagine the West End without it. Which musical do you think the West End is currently lacking, and from your choice which role would you like to play?
Josefina: That’s a tricky one, there are so many good musicals in the west end right now I can’t think of any. Chicago’s unique and there’s a real place in the west end for it, and the flavour of the regular shows – Les Mis, Phantom, Mamma Mia!, 42nd Street – they really compliment each other to be long runners. So I like all the ones that are there now!
Sarah: I’m going to be a sucker for history, and I really like Cats being in the West End. It has a wide variety audience that can access that show. And I have to go with my age and what I’d want to play in it so it would probably be Grizabella. I’d like to say Demeter but I’m just too old! I played Victoria, the white cat, 20 years ago. I really enjoyed my 2 year run, but I just feel it’s missing and I’d love to go back to it.
So now, after reuniting you and all of that positivity, we’re putting you head-to-head as we come to the quiz on all things Chicago, although not necessarily Chicago the musical…
Question 1: In which state would you find the city of Chicago?
Josefina: Chicago, Illinois.
Sarah: I don’t know… Illinois?
ANSWER: Illinois. 1 point each.
Question 2: With which song did the band Chicago have a UK number 1 in 1976?
Josefina: Oh no! “*sings* “I’m all out of love, I’m so lost with you” ..?
Sarah: I read it recently, I have no idea… These are really hard questions, sir!
ANSWER: Hard To Say I’m Sorry. Still 1 point each.
Question 3: Who played Kitty Baxter in the 2002 film adaption of Chicago?
Josefina: Is that Go To Hell Kitty? Damn, I can’t think.
Sarah: Bette Davis – no. 2002?! … She was in Ally McBeal. I loved her, she was such a bitch. …Lucy Liu!
ANSWER: Lucy Liu. 2 – 1 to Sarah.
Question 4: Four of the city of Chicago’s sports teams are named after animals, can you name one?
Josefina: Chicago Bears!
Sarah: Cuba would nail this. I have no idea. Bulls?
ANSWER: Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls. 3 – 2 to Sarah.
Question 5: What was the original name of the 1926 play, Chicago?
Josefina: I didn’t know it was based on a play, but I do know that there was a movie with Ginger Rogers called Roxie Hart…
Sarah: It was under the same name, no? That’s the one Maurine Dallas wrote isn’t it? Three words… I know it’s three words.
ANSWER: Brave Little Woman. The final score is 3-2 to Sarah, but just a minute…
Josefina: I believe the Mary Sunshine was a journalist of the time and that the Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly characters were actually real people, and it was based on a true story. And with the power of the Mary Sunshine character’s pen, she captured the audience of the time. They were fascinated, and she inadvertently sensationalised them. And she was so appalled, I think she became a recluse and refused to give the rights to her book because she didn’t want any publicity, because she was so horrified that she’d corrupted the juridical system with her good writing!
Sarah: Is that the name she gave it? Because she wrote the play out of all her interviews, right? Brave Little Woman – she was only 23 when she went to jail. I think because it’s based on true facts and true events, it has some substance to it – I think that’s why it works so well.
So with a bonus point each for extra knowledge on the origins of the show, the final score is 4-3 to Sarah!
Don’t miss your chance to see the ultimate Chicago cast on the West End, get your tickets here.
Cover photo: Tristram Kenton