February 3, 2011
Original Cossette Rebecca Caine talks to WestEndGeek about floated notes, leading men and the endangered soprano.
Firstly, on Twitter you are a delightful dry wit in a sea of theatrical ego. Does it really bother you to still be thought of in terms of the Les Misérables original cast?
Oh no, I’m very proud of it. I’ve joked about it, as sometimes it’s very hard to deal with what it’s become; it’s so far away from the work we did 25 years ago, you know? How can I put this tactfully… it’s a musical about the poor and the dispossessed, and I think that gets forgotten. If you look at the writing they used for the DVD, it was sort of glittery silver. I think people forget what it was supposed to be about. We had three months rehearsing it, and a lot of that was studying the history, the social deprivation, all this kind of thing, and now it’s become something different. That said, it’s amazing to be part of something that became so loved. Of course, you have to remember at the time it was just another show. We didn’t know it was just going to build and build – I remember it being a huge hit at the box office, but it’s become something in 25 years that no one envisaged it was going to be.
You must accept that it’s a huge part of people’s lives though. I grew up listening to your voice. People feel like they know the original cast. Was the O2 concert good fun? You looked and sounded absolutely incredible.
Thank you. Well, it’s nice in some ways. It was kind of hard for us when we did the O2, because you’re very much made to feel that you are a very small part of it, and I think only the original cast knows what they actually contributed. I mean, all the moves that are being done to this day at the Queen’s were improvised 25 years ago. I put in all those high floated notes for Cossette, Michael [Ball] and Frances [Ruffelle] worked out the harmony that they did. Patti LuPone put that climbing scale into I Dreamed a Dream; I remember her coming in one afternoon and saying, ‘Can I do this?’, and they said yes. Certainly it was an amazing moment to step forward to those microphones and see the faces thinking, ‘I’ve spent years listening to the album, now I’m going to hear them live.’ That was very touching – but we did kind of have to fight for that. They weren’t paying us much to spend an entire day sitting backstage, then walk out and wave, you know? So we really felt that if we were going to be there we wanted to contribute something. It was wonderful, I watched both halves of the show from the front, but I did find it hard to relate it to what it had been 25 years ago.
Did you have any strong feelings on the casting choices?
I really liked Katie Hall very much, and I’m not just saying that because she played my part. I was really pleased with how she sang it and I was very, very glad that she did it. You want your role to be played well, and I think the slight problem with the juveniles is they’ve become lighter and lighter over the years. Originally Michael was a very strong Marius, and they don’t really cast them like that anymore, they cast them very, very ‘lite’. I thought Gareth [Gates] did a nice job, but I have seen others that just… It diminishes the show, because you don’t have all levels of the cast being strong. I think Michael is a one-off really. You had people like Graham Bickley initially, and Simon Bowman, they were much more manly, they were less poppy. It’s kind of a shame. But I teach singing as well, so I do know that the sound is headed that way a little bit, you get a lot of boys that sing like that. But I was very pleased with Katie, and I thought Lea Salonga was stunning as well, I thought she did a beautiful job. I also loved Samantha Barks.
You’re very diplomatic. Last year you worked on Intolerance, by Mark Ravenhill and Conor Mitchell, which sounds fascinating. It was an ‘operatic monologue’, wasn’t it?
It was a monologue that Mark had written for Harriet Walter. A couple of summers ago I went up to Edinburgh, and did a piece by Conor Mitchell, who writes opera and musical theatre, and Conor really liked my work, so he said he’d write me an opera. People very often say they’ll do things, but this time, an opera arrived in the post! So we did it last summer down at the Riverside Studios; it was very difficult piece about a woman who thinks she has food intolerances, but actually she’s a racist bitch and that’s what’s giving her a stomach ache. And it looks like it’s being developed into a proper, full-length opera with other characters, which is great. Monologues are fabulous to do, but actually it’s deeply scary standing on stage completely on your own. I’m also doing another project with Mark, coming up in a couple of months – at the Kings Head, we’re going to do a jazz fusion version of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. So a jazz fusion version of a baroque opera, and that should be extremely funky, I’m really looking forward to that.
“It’s hard because you are very much made to feel you are a very small part of it. Only the original Les Mis cast knows what they actually contributed.”
And more recently you’ve been in Salad Days, also at Riverside Studios. What attracted you to that project?
I’m doing Salad Days now, which is a huge hit. I think they’d like to extend it but I don’t think we’re free, which is a real shame. I really enjoy it because I can walk to work, which is great, because since I became an opera singer I’m used to getting on planes to go places. It’s a wonderful young cast, because they had to get triple threats who could sing without mics and dance as well, so it was very difficult to cast, but I’m absolutely blown away by the level of talent. It’s the first time I’ve done eight shows a week since Les Mis, because after I left that I did Phantom for several years, but six times a week. So I haven’t done it for about 24 years, and that’s a bit of a shocker, but I enjoy it hugely. It was the longest-running British musical before Oliver. It’s got slightly a naff reputation because it’s quite a light piece; if it’s a bad production it’s appalling, but this is a good production, and it makes people happy. We dance around between them – Tête-á-Tête [the company] is great for involving the audience – and we pull people on to the stage to dance, and we sing to people. I don’t think I’ve ever found such a joyful experience. Sometimes it reminds you what one sings and dances and acts for; it’s to entertain people. It’s to make people happy.
As well as your most famous role, you’ve also been a leading lady in Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. Did you prefer those kind of gutsy soprano roles, or the dainty ones like Cossette and Christine?
I would say that my Christine was never a damsel. She was a little bit confused. I struggled with Christine because I found it very difficult to play the slightly vacuous character in her. I enjoyed it, but I do remember, very early on in the production in Canada, Gillian Lynne coming up to me and waving her hand in front of my eyes and saying, ‘Darling, you’re looking a bit too intelligent’! So I did struggle with that. Also the early Christines really sang out, and now they like much lighter, more pop voices. We were much more full-on singers and we were also a bit older. This ‘let’s cast 19-year-olds in the role,’ nowadays I think is a bit of a shame, because you’ve got to have people with the stamina, and the experience and also the colour in the voice to really bring it out. I think the girls should be mid-to-late twenties playing that role. I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off. Because I left musical theatre for about 17 years, the stuff that I’m very proud of is what I’ve done in between. I did all the big parts in opera that my voice does – La Traviata, Marguerite, and an amazing modern opera I did, Lulu. But I’m just proud to be working 31 years after having started. I think that’s what people forget; it’s not about being a name or a star, it’s about consistently working and having something to offer.
“I would rather, if I’m paying that kind of money, have somebody who can really sing their pants off.”
Do you think with opera it’s less about names than musical theatre, and more about the music?
Everything has become about branding and names now, all of the arts. If you see the way they’re advertising Alfie Boe going into La Bohéme now after Les Mis – it’s about branding. You won’t ever see a musical like Les Mis happen without a name going into it, it won’t happen anymore. I think in opera, it depends where you’re singing; in certain houses they will want the big names, obviously. I’ve never really differentiated between all the different forms of theatre I’ve done. From my point of view it’s just about good acting and good singing, working with people I respect , and being in a creative, happy atmosphere. That’s what I try to focus on now. I feel very strongly how difficult it is for the kids starting out. I teach on the musical theatre course at Trinity College of Music, and now we have a million schools churning out a million fabulous kids. I actually think some of the most interesting stuff is happening on the fringe, and I know it’s really hard for people just starting out to afford to work there. But that’s where the great stuff is happening, and the experimental stuff. It’s good that some shows like Les Mis go on, because it gives people a chance to go through it. It’s kind of like the musical theatre version of The Bill, they go in and find out what it’s like to do eight shows a week and to have to fit in with a product that’s already made.
I interviewed Earl Carpenter a couple of months ago and he was telling me about the ‘Three Phantoms’ concerts, which you’ve also appeared in. Do you enjoy working with the guys and singing the material again?
It’s fabulous fun. When I started out, we didn’t really have men like that, great British men. But now we grow these great big butch British men with powerful voices. What soprano would not be thrilled to be working with those three guys? [Earl Carpenter, John Owen-Jones and Matthew Cammelle.] It’s a great laugh, we have a shriek offstage. I think we’ve got three this month and some more to be announced. I met Earl doing Friday Night is Music Night. It’s lovely because I’ve got big-girl chops, so it’s great to have good people to sing with.
Who do you admire in acting or singing?
As a child I was inspired by Lynn Seymour who was a Canadian ballet dancer and wonderful actress. Nowadays I like to see people like Kristin Scott Thomas; I want to see women my own age doing valid work, which starts to disappear. They either start playing mums or their stories aren’t being told anymore. Obviously Helen Mirren. Musically, I adored Leontyne Price as a child. With musical theatre, it was more shows than individual people. I was hooked on West Side Story and Candide – anything that had a good soprano line to sing.
You teach as well as your theatre work. What do you enjoy most about that?
They say that the next step is to teach, because it makes you a better singer. You have to explain things that come easily to you and you don’t know why, so you have to break down that process, and you also have to put yourself into their bodies and sort their problems out, so it’s a real learning process. I like to teach with a lot of love and encouragement, and a lot of support, because I don’t think I was taught that way. Singing is something that makes you feel very vulnerable and you have to be in a safe place to do it. I’m very interested in maintaining what I think to be a good soprano sound in musicals, because I think that’s being lost. It’s partly due to something called the Estill technique, which has its uses, but it’s making everybody sound a bit the same. Everybody is now taught to belt and to use a legitimate soprano voice, so consequently you don’t get what has always been featured in musical theatre, which is Sarah Brown and Miss Adelaide, Maria and Anita, Cossette and Eponine. You don’t get the two different colours. It’s important to keep that soprano sound because it says something, whether it’s a certain refinement, or a different kind of purity, or a virginity. Whatever you read into that sound, it’s important that we don’t lose it and that it all doesn’t become a little bit too chesty, a little bit too belty, a little bit too twangy, and sound like everybody else. So that’s why I’ve been doing a bit of singing with people like Gina Beck and Annalene Beechey, because I think those girls epitomise the next generation of keeping that voice really pure.
It’s great that you think about the future of the industry as well as your own work.
It means a lot to me, and in teaching I hope maybe I can help maintain and safeguard that sound. You need to think about new composers; where is the new Les Mis going to come from? Who is the next Andrew Lloyd Webber, where are they? Are we just going to have adaptations of movies? It’s about looking after people’s voices, maintaining a sound and finding new composers. If we don’t have composers, the whole art form is dead anyway. If you’re able to make a living in this business, you should be incredibly grateful, and never be complacent for a day. Just be thankful you get to go to work and make people happy – that’s an amazing thing to be able to do with one’s life. I know when I was younger I was complacent. Now when I hear people going ‘Oh God, a two-show day,’ I’m thinking, ‘Yay, lucky me.’