Frances Ruffelle: 'Life doesn't always go the way you want it to go but you have to embrace and enjoy what you have'
Musical theatre star Frances Ruffelle's new show is about living on the edge. It feels horribly current, she tells Nick Curtis
Singer and actress Frances Ruffelle is listing the unlikely themes of her new musical, The Wild Party, set in the Prohibition-era world of bathtub gin and loose Vaudeville morals: "Rape, misogyny, paedophilia, drugs," she says. "It touches on issues we are dealing with now but also a lot of fun subjects - it's a wild party so there's a lot of free love. I love the darkness of it, the debauched craziness of it, and I love that 1920s era."
Her character, Queenie, is a chorus girl "who dances with hardly any clothes on twice a day, is in an abusive relationship, drinks, takes drugs, and has lots of sex just to get her kicks. Then it all comes down on her." The role is a long way from that of the waifish Eponine in the London premiere of Les Miserables in 1985, which Ruffelle originated aged 20 and then played on Broadway, winning a Tony and many other awards.
She has packed a lot into the intervening 32 years: straight and musical roles (including a stint as Roxy in that other Jazz Age slinkfest, Chicago; a cameo as Whore No 1 in Tom Hooper's film of Les Mis; six solo albums, a stab at Eurovision as Britain's entry in 1994; two marriages and three children - the eldest of whom is pop singer Eliza Doolittle. "The thing I identified with in Queenie is that life doesn't always go the way you want it to go but you have to embrace and enjoy what you have," Ruffelle says.
The Wild Party has a chequered history. It began life in 1928 as a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, a New Yorker journalist and screenwriter who later created the line "excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable" for Jean Harlow's character in the 1930 film Dawn Patrol.
It was initially banned in Boston and other cities for its lurid content, was misquoted by Ian Fleming in Goldfinger, and rediscovered in 1994, when a new hardback illustrated by Art "Maus" Spiegelman was released. Michael John LaChiusa's musical version ran for 68 performances on Broadway in 2000, alongside an off-Broadway musical by Andrew Lippa with the same name and source, which ran for 54.
Four years ago LaChiusa came to one of Ruffelle's solo shows in New York, heard her sing a song from his show, and offered her the UK rights. She approached producer Paul Taylor-Mills, who invited Drew McOnie, the award-winning choreographer of In the Heights, to direct. Then last year Andrew Lloyd Webber bought the St James Theatre as a home for new musicals, renamed it The Other Palace, and put Taylor-Mills in charge. The Wild Party will reopen the refurbished space. It's an intimate venue "but the stage is bigger than you think. There are 16 in the cast and it's also become a big dance show," says Ruffelle.
She was born in the East End and attended her mother's eponymous drama school, the Sylvia Young Theatre School, for a term aged 15 before being thrown out. She initially wanted to be a hoofer. "I didn't know I could sing," she smiles. "Or that I couldn't dance that well. I'm quite clumsy. If I do too many turns I fall over: we found that out doing Starlight Express with Arlene (Phillips). But I can move well enough to get through what we need."
Also at 15 Ruffelle auditioned for the dance troupe Legs & Co on Top of the Pops "and got to the last 12" before choreographer Flick Colby found out she was too young. The next year, though, Colby hired her as a "cheerleader", whipping up the crowds on the show. "It was great: £50 a day to watch the bands rehearse, work with the crowd in the evening, then party with the pop stars," she says. She never met Jimmy Savile - "thank God" - but adds that "in those days, people did touch your arse and you kind of accepted it. It's bad, isn't it? But that's how it was."
At 17 she was in a play in the West End with Omar Sharif, then came Starlight, directed by Trevor Nunn, who invited her to audition for Les Mis. "I thought: 'Really bad title'," she says, but she was the first person cast after she sang an Edith Piaf song for Nunn and the show's writers, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. The only person who wasn't sure about her was Nunn's co-director, John Caird. By the time she won her Tony in 1987, she was pregnant with Eliza ("Doolittle" was a nickname) by Caird, who had left his first wife.
Terrible morning sickness forced Ruffelle to quit Broadway and then, during her second pregnancy with son Nat (now a restaurateur), to withdraw from the Ian Dury musical, Apples, at the Royal Court.
She and Caird married in 1990 but divorced two years later. Ruffelle had another son, Felix (now 21 and a design student at Central St Martins), with her second husband, Virgin Records executive Rob Manley. Today she is single, having split up two-and-a-half years ago with Urban Golf founder James Day.
"I didn't really plan any of my babies, though they were happy accidents," she says. Having children young did "put a bit of a brake" on her career but she is "immensely proud" not just of her own kids, "who are all grown up, and my mates now", but her many stepchildren.
"For birthdays and Christmases John, his (third) ex-wife, and his current wife and me and all nine kids get together," she says. "We are one big crazy loving bunch."
Without a partner or youngsters to worry about now she can do what she wants. She has written a sitcom and trained as a yoga teacher. She has posed, along with other stars, for a photographic exhibition by Debbi Clark, to be shown in aid of the Sir Hubert von Herkomer Arts Foundation, which gives children access to the arts.
Last year she let out her Primrose Hill flat and moved to New York, where her Broadway fanbase is still strong, securing a Green Card and representation.
Whether she goes straight back this year depends on whether The Wild Party gets a further life. It should: its theme of dancing on the edge of imminent disaster feels horribly current.
"I was in New York when Trump's victory was announced and people were crying on the streets," says Ruffelle. "I said to Donna McKechnie (her American co-star), maybe it's better to be here than there right now."
The Wild Party is at The Other Palace, SW1 (theotherpalace.co.uk), from Feb 13; Debbi Clark's photos of Ruffelle and other stars are at Alon Zakaim Fine Art, W1 (alonzakaim.com), from April 5