Brief Encounter With … Amber TopazDate: 11 December 2010
Amber Topaz started her career in West End musicals (including lead roles in Les Miserables), before razzle-dazzling her way to international Burlesque stardom and enchanting audiences with her showgirl splendour. In 2008 she had the unique honour of being inducted into Las Vegas’ legendary Miss Exotic World Burlesque Hall of Fame. Next month she stars in Matthew Bugg's new musical Miss Nightingale at the Lowry. We caught up with her during rehearsals to discuss her varied career and the show itself.
How did you make the transistion from West End musicals to Burlesque?
It’s the classic combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time! Whilst staring in Les Mis in the West End I started to write my own songs. I had some photographs taken for a CD I’d produced and the guy doing the shoot asked me to do some modelling for him – they were pin-up inspired, mainly 1940's & 50's. The first shots were bought to advertise a Mayfiar night Club. The photos were always very authentic and he suggested I do Burlesque. Not only had I never modelled before, I didn’t even know what Burlesque was! When I found out, I realised it was right up my street. I loved the fact that Burlesque is tongue-in-cheek striptease performance combining dance, song and comedy. I did my first act in Spring 2005 at Hip Hip (a talent night run by Whoopee Club). I came first, was signed up to agency and have never looked back.
Do you imagine a character when performing a burlesque routine as yourself?
It depends on the routine. I always choose songs that I want to sing or that inspire me to dance or because they inspire me to create a particularly costume. Mostly when I’m on stage I’m the all-singing-all-dancing saucy, Burlesque bombshell Amber Topaz. But sometimes a song calls for its own character. For example, I have a number I do as an 18th century lush, a nautical one where I perform as a mermaid, and even a routine in which I’m Jessica Rabbit! These numbers go down especially well at special, themed events.
Tell us a bit about Miss Nightingale - The Musical. What is the plot?
It’s a gripping story of sex, scandal and show business set in London during World War II. Maggie Brown dreams of becoming a famous singer as she nurses wounded soldiers in an East End hospital. With her songwriter George, a Jewish refugee, she auditions at every night club and cabaret bar in London. But nobody wants their act. Their luck and lives change when they meet the handsome, charming and wealthy Sir Frank Conner. A plan is hatched and the mysterious Miss Nightingale explodes onto the stage. Soon polite society is shocked by her scandalous exploits, outfits and songs. She takes the West End by storm. But out of the spotlight, sexual tensions and illicit love threatens to reveal secrets more dangerously explosive than the bombs falling in the Blitz.
What about your character. How does she fit into the narrative?
Maggie is an East End nurse working in a hospital dealing with soldiers returned from the Front and civilians caught in the Blitz. But she wants so much more from life. She is ambitious, determined but led by her heart rather than her head. The show centres around her transformation into Miss Nightingale, her relationship with the two men and her bringing of the two men together. So I get to play two characters, Maggie and Maggie as Miss Nightingale, and am on stage almost all the time.
What's your favourite musical number in the show and why?
When I read the script and listened to the songs I was instantly gripped and knew I had to play the part of Maggie/Miss Nightingale. It really spoke to me and I found the story and music inspiring. I was thrilled and honoured to be chosen to play the part. It’s an exceptional show and it’s too hard to pick a favourite number. I love them all. What’s exciting for me as a performer is that I not only get to perform big, out there cabaret numbers but also beautiful, intimate songs that are moving moments of the soul.
What's the most challenging aspect of doing a show like this and why?
That I’m on stage almost all the time and have two parts to play, Maggie and Maggie as Miss Nightingale. They are the same person but the character of Miss Nightingale gives Maggie permission to act in a way she wouldn’t do as herself. Because of this there is, on a basic level, a huge amount to learn and it’s a while since I’ve had to learn a script and a show full of numbers. It’s also exciting to be working with such talented co-stars, Ilan Goodman and Richard Shelton. In Burlesque it tends to me on stage alone. Lots of challenges but I’m really looking forward to going back to musicals and taking all my Burlesque experience with me into the performance.
Why should audiences come and see the show?
Because it’s a fantastic piece of new work – it’s the type of show I would love to see it. So rarely do musicals combine amazing songs, a gripping narrative and emotional truths, with a powerfully moving message. Miss Nightingale has all this and more – it really is the full package. Matthew Bugg who has written the book and lyrics and music is quite simply amazingly. He is, without doubt a major new talent.
What are your plans following the King's Head dates?
Showgirls never rest, at least not this one. And the weekend directly after Miss Nightingale the musical closes I fly off to Italy to perform at the world-famous Venice Carnival.
Amber Topaz was speaking to Glenn Meads.
Miss Nightingale is at the Lowry from 20 - 22 January.