As she prepares to star in a musical about 9/11 Belfast-born Broadway star Rachel Tucker talks to Donal Lynch about the grief of her mother’s death, love and making a fan of Meryl Streep
It's early afternoon at Three Mills Studios in east London and the building is swarming with radically coiffed and pierced young performers practising their scales in hallways and anxiously flicking through scripts at canteen tables.
This is where they film British television productions like Jekyll and Hyde and Our Girl, but it's also a popular rehearsal stage for some of the big West End musicals. One floor has been commandeered by feral-looking refugees from Cats. Across the hall, singers and actors are rehearsing for the much-anticipated Come From Away.
It is a show that seems at first impossible: a feelgood 9/11 musical. The show portrays the events that transpired after planes were redirected into rural Canadian airspace after the notorious atrocities, and deftly interweaves the narratives of pilots, passengers and villagers.
At a moment when immigration is one of the thorniest issues around, its story of small-town populations warmly opening their lives to strangers blew through the American theatre world like a warm wind, earning the musical universal acclaim and a shelfful of Tony Awards.
By that point, Rachel Tucker (37) had already accepted the role of Beverly Bass - the only female pilot who was diverted - for the musical's international run, and her first thought when she saw the original version was, 'Phew, thank God it's really brilliant".
Her relief was understandable. She had been burned by fickle Broadway audiences before. Despite her fine starring turn in Sting's musical The Last Ship, the production closed after less than a year, in 2015. She knew not to take for granted the magic alchemy of a big hit.
"The public are very difficult to predict in terms of what they will really like," she explains between mouthfuls of lunch (a sensible salad).
"There is no rhyme or reason. There has got to be a mixture of things.
"If people really knew the answer to it, they would never have to work again in their lives.
"With this show, it was fantastic timing, in terms of what the world was going through at the time.
"People needed a real dose of humanity, seeing people depicted as honest and giving, rather than it being all about me, me, me."
Tucker's warmth and humanity is part of what has made her one of the most popular and relatable stars in a field where soaring voices feel 10 a penny.
This unassuming Belfast woman's fame may still be fairly low-key in some places, but to a certain cohort of theatre fans, she is bona fide West End royalty.
Her belting vocals, full of instinctual growls and riffs, and almost palpable stage presence, helped her make the role of Elphaba in Wicked more her own than any other performer before her.
She's won praise (and some criticism) from Andrew Lloyd Webber, been hugged by Meryl Streep and sung with Sting, yet there is no diva hauteur about her: she seems as comfortable in her own skin as she was in Elphaba's green epidermis.
That humble down-to-earth manner might be a result of growing up in north Belfast in a Catholic family where she was the youngest of five children.
Her descriptions of her childhood sound, you can't help thinking, like the makings of a musical based around the Troubles.
"We had the Army with rifles in our garden," she recalls. "It was normal to us to see that. I'd walk down to them with my friend and she'd say to the soldier (adopts guttural lilt), 'She can sing, do you want to hear her sing?' And so I used to sing to them. The soldiers had English accents, which sounded so alien to me. I remember my mum and dad switching the news on each night to hear if someone they knew had died, but I genuinely would say it was a happy childhood."
Her father, Tommy, was a stalwart of the city's cabaret scene, and when Rachel was a child, he would bring her to working men's clubs, where she would all but stop the show with her preternaturally powerful vocals. "I remember he brought me to a dockers' club to sing with him when I was nine and that was it - I had the taste for it then," she recalls.
"I had a huge voice for a nine-year-old and I was paid for it, which was amazing to me. My dad didn't care if you were sick or not feeling up to it, if you were booked for it, you went on, so when my mates were out drinking at 14 or 15, I was rehearsing and performing. I was a bit different, but I enjoyed that as well. I never have had a rebellious phase."
She studied performing arts in Galway, but when she was 18 she won a starring role in Rent at the Olympia in Dublin. "I loved being in Dublin... just being away from my parents without them worrying too much and being able to drink," she recalls.
"The city was starting to boom then, with loads of independent shops and lovely cafes. I thought I knew everything."
After that she was accepted to the Royal Academy Of Music in London to do a post-graduate degree, which she hoped would rid her of the feeling that she was winging it.
"There was always a little voice in the back of my head, saying that I hadn't really earned it," she says.
Her first real stab at national fame came in 2008 in Andrew Lloyd-Webber's TV show I'll Do Anything, which saw him searching for an up-and-coming talent to play Nancy in his production of the musical Oliver!
Rachel was initially very wary of taking part in what was, in the end, a reality show, but she felt that success on it might get her noticed for big West End roles.
"The producers have agendas... of course, they want you to cry and so on," she recalls. "I tried to dodge the cameras any time I could, but I was just trying to protect myself.
"Andrew Lloyd Webber was great. It was intimidating and, to be honest, I don't think he loved my style. I think I was a bit brash for him. I never got the feeling he'd pick me.
"At the time, it was heart-breaking. I cried a lot. I believe the panel had an agenda, and I don't believe that when (panellist and Dame Edna herself) Barry Humphries went for me that he necessarily believed everything he said. It was a shock though. Up until then all I had was glory and people telling me how good I was (Humphries opined that Rachel wouldn't be a perfect Nancy but would be a good understudy).
Rachel's stage career continued to go from strength to strength after that, however, and her personal life improved too. 'Showmance', she concedes, is a cliche in the performing arts and, anyway, decidedly iffy in this era of #MeToo and so on.
But at the same time, she was getting to the point in life, she says, where "my mother and sister thought I was gay" and she herself was hoping to meet someone special.
When she met Guy Retallack - he directed her in the musical Tommy - sparks flew almost immediately.
"Yeah, it was a bit like a casting couch situation," she laughs. "No, it was the wine after. I totally felt the connection. I think it was me who made the first move. I think I had to because, I mean, he was the director. It took months to happen and we were kind of sneaking around.
"We didn't want anyone to think 'director sleeping with actor' or whatever. It was terribly cliched.
"Guy is a bit older than me, like 17 years older, and mum was like, 'Oooh is he not too old? And he's English!' It was like you could be anything but English - we joked about that - she didn't care at all about that."
They were married in 2009 and in 2013 Rachel gave birth to their son, Ben. "I had a very easy pregnancy and my voice felt stronger," she recalls. "Maybe it was the hormones. My only issue was bending down to pick the broom up in Wicked - I had to bend sideways."
Unbeknown to Rachel during her pregnancy, her mother, Kathleen, had become deathly ill. "She had got breast cancer and had her lymph nodes removed," she recalls. "We thought things had improved, but it came back. She didn't tell me and my sister how severe it was then because we were pregnant. My belief is that they told her six or seven months and she told us six or seven years."
In the end, Kathleen would die three days after Rachel and her sister had christened their new babies. "It was more of a shock when she did die but, in a way, I'm also thankful that it was quick because by that point she was in so much pain."
While she had Ben to focus on, she felt bad for her father. "He had lost his partner in crime. They were really brilliant mates and what is cruel is that the loss seems to get even worse with time," Rachel explains. "He says he's fine, but I don't think he is. He has good days and bad days."
Of her own grief, she adds: "Mum would always say, 'If I think you are crying over my grave, I will come back and haunt you'. She'd have hated the idea that we couldn't go back to work because we were grieving, so in a way we were all a bit like, 'Right, let's just get on with things'."
And, in fact, her life was about to change again, with Sting taking a shine to her at an audition for his new, slightly autobiographical, musical. She won the starring role and very quickly she, Guy, baby Ben and Barney the dog were being spirited to Manhattan, where they had an apartment right in the middle of everything in Times Square.
"They set everything up for us - we were living on actual Broadway, above the M&M store," she recalls. "Ben was only seven months old. I had sung an old Joni Mitchell song for Sting in auditions and he loved it.
"The whole production was a great adventure. One night the press people asked me if I wanted to meet Meryl Streep. She came backstage and was like, 'You! You were like a gazelle across that stage!" When she said that, I thought, 'Okay, now I can die happy.
"Tom Hanks came, Steven Spielberg came to see the show twice and Harvey Keitel was also in the audience one night too."
However, the celebrity following, and even a late draft of Sting himself into the show, didn't save it.
Even though he had once given her a foot massage while she was reading a script, Sting and Rachel didn't stay in touch after the show closed. "A show is like a bubble," she explains. "You're best friends just for the duration of it."
But, as with Lloyd Webber's reality show, success seemed to spring out of an apparent setback. Her casting in Come From Away represents a never-say-die positivity which has been there all through her storied career.
"My mum used to have a saying," she tells me as we get ready to leave. 'What's for you won't go by you' - and I really like that. Another one she had was, 'Jump and a net will appear'. I think those are words I really carry with me."
And she lifts up an arm to show me. "They'll be my first tattoo."
Rachel Tucker appears in Come From Away at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin from December 6 to January 19 2019. Tickets are available from abbeytheatre.ie. Come From Away will transfer to London's West End on January 30, 2019.