Elaine Paige used to bill herself as the first lady of British musicals, but she also used to be first in a relatively small field. Julia McKenzie also made a significant mark, but that was partly thanks to a parallel career as a TV actress and in straight plays, while Diane Langton and the late Stephanie Lawrence were other leading players. As the mid-80s arrived, however, and shows from Starlight Express and The Phantom of the Opera to Me and My Girl, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon emerged, there was a lot more competition and opportunity.
And the pool of British leading lady talent expanded exponentially. Sarah Brightman and the wonderful Frances Ruffelle would both recreate their West End performances in Phantom and Les Miserables respectively - an opportunity thrice denied to Paige, who saw her roles in Evita, Cats and Chess all go to American performers Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Judy Kuhn respectively.
Nowadays, of course, as musicals have come to totally dominate the West End, the talent pool — and the training that nurtures it — is much wider than ever. In the last week alone, I’ve been thrillingly struck by the arrival of not one but two people to mark down as serious contenders for leading lady status, from the tiny Union Theatre — where Madalena Alberto is stunning as Lucy in Jekyll and Hyde — to the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, where Rosalie Craig proved her serious vocal and dramatic mettle as Mother in Ragtime.
Craig was last seen in the original National Theatre cast of London Road; she’s had to bow out of that show’s summer return owing to Ragtime, but she’s being replaced by the superb Linzi Hateley, who has managed the rare trick of sustaining a career from ingenue (in one of the musical theare’s most notorious flops, playing the title role in Carrie) to mature leading lady.
I’m currently hosting the return season of my These Are A Few of My Favourite Songs season at Soho Theatre, where leading British theatre personalities choose some of their favourite songs, some of which are performed live and others heard on CD. Last Sunday Jeremy Sams’s choices were sung by the glorious Emma Williams, another of my absolutely favourite leading ladies in shows from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to a production of Promises, Promises in Leeds and Howard Goodall’s Love Story in the West End last year. (Goodall is, incidentally, my next guest on June 17, with Emma once again on hand to sing his choices). It struck me watching her sing on Sunday why I admire her so unstintingly: she is utterly natural and real; there’s no ‘front’ to her, she doesn’t impose herself on the song but provides a completely effortless conduit of it.
One of the songs that Jeremy chose that was heard on CD was Move On, performed by Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell from the Menier’s production of Sunday in the Park with George, and Jenna - who will star in Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders at Soho Theatre in August — has the same transparent yet heartfelt qualities that Emma has. Jeremy also chose Maria Friedman’s haunting recording of Michel Legrand’s “Now and Then”, who is another performer that brings her heart and soul to a fine, versatile voice.
There’s a similar purity of tone and intention that Caroline Sheen, who was last year’s singer for the series, also brought out; she’s now playing Fantine in Les Miserables in the West End. The week before Sams, we had Simon Russell Beale choosing his favourite songs, some of which were sung by the effortlessly natural Leanne Jones, an Olivier winner for Hairspray, who won that role straight out of drama school. The current series of These Are a Few of My Favourite Songs culminates with a singer herself choosing the songs — Kerry Ellis, who brings a different kind of pop passion to her voice that has stood her in good stead for shows from We Will Rock You to Wicked.
Louise Dearman, another Wicked alumna, has just issued a new solo CD, Here Comes the Sun, that reveals another of the new generation of leading ladies at the height of her powers, showing off the full staggering, swaggering range and breadth of her talent, from pop classics like ‘Here Comes the Sun’ (that gives the album its title) to the beautiful Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time’, on which she is joined by the brilliant Steve Balsamo. The choices are not from the world of theatre music that her career has been associated with but show a soulful, powerful pop alternative side to her musical personality.
There are plenty more. Jessie Buckley and Samantha Barks— both of them finalists in the reality TV casting show I’d Do Anything to play Nancy in Oliver!, coming in second and third respectively — are part of the wave of new talent being brought to public attention via that medium, but who have since more than proved themselves as career professionals.
But sometimes old-fashioned graft is the way forward, and nothing beats the progress through the ranks of performers like Sally Ann Triplett, Anna-Jane Casey and Ruthie Henshall, each of them also on my list of favourite West End leading ladies. Dancers becoming leading ladies are sometimes underrated as they make the transition, but Caroline O’Connor and Josefina Gabrielle has proved that being able to dance up a storm can stand you in good stead to do so.
Ditto the Strallen sisters, who had a headstart in the business through family connections, but have earned their dues via understudying and supporting roles to reach the leads, as Scarlett and Summer are now in Singin’ in the Rain and Top Hat, while Zizi is still progressing through the ranks and is now in Rock of Ages. The Strallen’s aunt is the brilliant Bonnie Langford, who started out at the age of seven and more than 40 years later is still one of the best troupers (and hoofers) in the business.
Likewise for my final two of West End leading ladies, who are near the top of my personal pantheon: Imelda Staunton, now giving one of the fiercest, funniest and saddest performances in town as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and Sheridan Smith, last seen in a musical in the West End in Legally Blonde where she transformed a fluffy bubblegum musical into something worth chewing. Both Staunton and Smith are, of course, serious actresses as well as serious talents, equally adept in plays as they are in musicals.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, of course; there are plenty more fantastic singers appearing every night in the West End. And tomorrow, I will turn to the leading men.