20 Questions With...Liz Robertson
Date: 22 April 2002
Musical actress Liz Robertson, currently appearing in The Phantom of the Opera, speaks about her admiration for choreographer Gillian Lynne, what she thinks of My Fair Lady & why she loves being in Phantom.
Actress Liz Robertson has a string of impressive stage credits to her name, including the original productions of Song and Dance and Side By Side By Sondheim, as well as more recently in the stage musical Stepping Out in the West End.
She first came to prominence starring as Eliza Doolittle in the 1979 London revival of My Fair Lady, a role for which she won the Variety Club's Most Promising Actress award. She was also married to the show's co-author, the late Alan Jay Lerner, for five years.
Since then, Robertson has made numerous appearances both in the UK and in America, including singing for President Reagan at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. She can currently be seen playing Madame Giry in the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Ilford, Essex. And do you really want to know my age?!
Now lives in...
Chelsea, west London
The Finch Stage School
First big break
Eliza in My Fair Lady, which was my first starring role in the West End.
Career highlights to date
The opening night of My Fair Lady at the Adelphi Theatre was an absolute high. Also touring America in The King and I with Rudolph Nureyev. I've had several highlights, actually - singing for President Reagan at the Kennedy Center, doing four Royal Command Performances and being invited by Cameron Mackintosh to be in Hey, Mr Producer! - that was an amazing event. Also what I'm doing now, playing Madame Giry.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I was understudy for the original production of Side By Side By Sondheim with Julia McKenzie and Millicent Martin. That show was just thrilling because it was so different. It was a new concept then and so warmly received. Working with Gillian Lynne, Tim Goodchild and being directed by Alan Jay Lerner on My Fair Lady. I also love what I am doing now. Phantom has been running for 15 years and I am amazed at how it looks. It is still fresh as a daisy, not tired and shabby as it could have become. In particular, the technical side is truly outstanding.
Tony Britton, who was my Henry Higgins and became a dear friend. And for all his bizarre behaviour at times, Rudolph Nureyev. We became very close before he died, and his funeral was devastating. Richard Beckinsale was another major talent and so generous with it. He would always help if you had a problem. I have been blessed with some wonderful co-stars.
Alan Jay Lerner, because he not only directed me but I fell in love with him. Alan enlightened me as Eliza. As the book writer and lyricist, he knew the role and the play better than anyone. He understood it so well and opened up huge areas of Eliza's character that I hadn't even begun to delve into. Harold Prince is one of the greatest directors around. Gene Sack was terrific on I Love My Wife, and John Caird was also very good on Song and Dance. But Alan comes top.
What do you think of the current West End revival of My Fair Lady?
I loved it. People have asked me how it compares to the revival I was in, but I never saw my own production! I thought Martine McCutcheon was a delight, so fresh and endearing. I felt very sorry for her for all the criticism she received. Eliza is a mammoth role that does tend to damage the vocal chords. But I found it enchanting to see a real cockney playing the role, and hearing her having to really work at the posh accent. Matthew Bourne's choreography was also so inventive, and the Ascot scene even managed to make me laugh out loud - and I know it back to front! I thought it was all brilliantly done.
I started as a dancer and worked with Heimi Rodger, who was a bundle of Puerto Rican fire. Gillian Lynne is outstanding and a lesson to us all. She looks terrific, works so hard, and brings out so much in you. Anthony Van Laast is another superb choreographer. Two greats who I never got to work with and so wish I had are Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.
Favourite musical writers
One of the most talented men I know is Gerard Kenny, who wrote Beach Radio. He's such a wonderful writer and it breaks your heart that he's never really taken off. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe are an excellent pair and David Zippel is a fantastic lyricist. I just wish Disney hadn't got hold of him because his work on City of Angels, for example, was great. I also love the work of Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch.
How do you feel about the current scene for new writing?
There don't appear to be many young composers and lyricists being discovered, though I'm sure they're out there. There doesn't seem to be the money to experiment. No producer seems willing, or possibly can afford, to put on a new show. For example, I know that Jason Carr, who is a huge talent, was paid by the RSC to write a piece called Water Babies, and apparently it is wonderful. But it has never actually been produced and I think that is so sad. It's a terribly difficult situation; maybe the Donmar Warehouse should have an annual four-week season showcasing musical writing talent.
What do you think of the current trend for turning popular films into stage musicals?
If it gets bums on seats, I'm all for it! I went to see The Producers on Broadway and was concerned about whether it would live up to the film, which is a classic. But it did, and Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were brilliant. What amazed me was that it is still so funny. I laughed the whole way through. It's a fantastic, hokey musical, and the choreography in the "Springtime for Hitler" number has to be seen to be believed.
What roles would you still most like to play?
Well, last year I was offered the part of Desiree in A Little Night Music, but unfortunately couldn't do it. It's such a fantastic role and I would still love to play her one day. Though I'm not an Ethel Merman, I'd also like to play Rose in Gypsy. Cameron Mackintosh has always joked that his last production will be My Fair Lady, and that he will cast me as Mrs Higgins!
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
Kiss Me Kate. It is just terrific - beautifully directed and a joyous experience. Brent Barrett is amazing. I worked with him on Dance a Little Closer in 1983 when he was still very fresh-faced. He's got a glorious singing voice, looks a million dollars and is a nice man.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Go! It's sad that you don't see many MPs going to the theatre. I think the government should subsidise as much as they possibly can and make the theatre more available. Prices are very high because they have to be to cover costs. But as a result, it is becoming a rich man's hobby again. I doubt a show like Phantom will ever go to the half price booth - which is a wonderful thing to be able to say - but at £40 for a good seat, it means that there are some who may never get to see the production.
This is going to sound terribly boring, but I'm a great fan of Jane Austen. The one I keep going back to again and again is Pride and Prejudice.
Favourite after-show haunt
If I could afford it, The Ivy! I'm not really a clubby person and never have been.
Favourite holiday destination
Anywhere at the moment! With my family, I like going to northwest Scotland. It is staggeringly beautiful and we love walking and fishing.
Do you find playing a role that has already been performed all over the world is a less satisfying than creating a new part?
Not at all. It just means that there are certain perimeters you have to work within, so there isn't the luxury of expansion. But I came to the role with no preconceptions and approached it with an open mind. I am loving playing Madame Giry, and it is a very different role for me - very dark, mysterious and slightly sinister. She drifts about like a shadow and you never really know quite what she's up to - she's enigmatic and fascinating in that way. Also because Phantom is almost entirely sung-through, there's the added challenge of getting the most out of the few spoken words.
- Liz Robertson was speaking to Tim Connor