On two upcoming Sunday nights off from Onassis, Francolini will also appear in the hotly anticipated one-off concert presentations of Merrily We Roll Along and Company at the Queen's Theatre, as part of "Sondheim at 80", the Donmar Warehouse's celebration of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. She is the only actor to perform in both concerts, reprising the roles she played in the original Donmar productions of the Sondheim musicals. This summer, she also appeared in the Sondheim prom at the Royal Albert Hall.
Francolini's many other stage credits include: Into the Woods, Caroline Or Change, Daisy Pulls It Off, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Little Jo, 5/11, Little Shop of Horrors, Taking Steps, Awaking Beauty, 3 Sisters on Hope Street, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Almost Like Being in Love, Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, Floyd Collins and Dick Whittington.
Can you tell me the story of Onassis in a nutshell?
It’s quite difficult to sum it up in a nutshell. It covers roughly the last 15 years of Onassis' life, including his affair with Maria Callas, meeting Jackie Kennedy, John Kennedy’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, the marriage of Onassis and Jackie and the breakdown of that marriage. It covers the rich and the famous, and the infamous times of this man.
Why do you think that’s a story worth retelling on stage?
Onassis, Callas and Jackie Kennedy each have enough drama in their lives to make a thousand plays; it’s choosing which bits to dramatise. There’s so much intrigue behind the incredible wealth and power of these people. The play is a retrospective look at Onassis, through the people who worked for him, through his accountants, his housekeeper and other staff, who have a role that is something like that of a Greek chorus.
You play Maria Callas. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered about her?
Everything is just so fascinating. Her family came over from Greece to New York, where she was born. When she was about 12, she went back to Greece with her mother and her sister, leaving her father behind. She lived through the Depression and the Second World War and her mother fiercely pushed her into being a singer. I think the most interesting thing is the way she transformed herself from being a rather heavy woman into this incredibly svelte, glamorous, Audrey Hepburn sort. She was the greatest opera singer of all time and heralded the way for acting through singing in a way that was previously unheard of. She seems to be a magnificent woman who, though she had success after success, had incredible insecurities. How do you keep up the level of your success? You’re only as good as your last performance. I think that, frankly, exhausted her.
What do you like about playing her?
She’s a diva in the greatest sense of the word. She’s a magnificent theatrical being. Beyond that, there are her insecurities and this great love affair she had with Onassis. They were together for nine years and then he left her and within three months got married to Jackie Kennedy. It was just devastating. You’ve got all that going on: yearning and longing and heartbreak. It’s funny, it’s rueful, and it’s terribly tragic.
You’re opposite Robert Lindsay as Onassis. What do you think he brings to that role?
He’s phenomenal; I just can’t take my eyes off him. He brings charm, sexiness, danger, intrigue. He’s brilliant and he brings this man to life. Onassis was not a particularly attractive man, but he was a Casanova in a way, and an incredible businessman, so there was something that everyone found attractive about him. I think Robert brings incredible energy to him.
You’re the only person to be appearing in both "Sondheim at 80" concerts. How do you feel about reuniting with those casts for such an important occasion?
I’m so excited! We all cannot believe our luck. For all of us, those were our happiest jobs – in terms of fun, material and where we did it. I cannot wait. In fact, I almost don’t want it to happen because I don’t want it to be over.
Does it make you nervous that there’s such attention on these events?
I knew they’d be popular and that they’d probably sell out. But I thought I’d phone the box office the next day to get a couple of extra tickets and they were all gone! I think it’s wonderful though, as it’s testament to what brilliant productions they were. I feel so proud to have been part of them, and I’m so pleased that people want to relive them again.
How important has Sondheim been in your career?
He’s been really important to my career. I think very early on doing Company at the Donmar opened my eyes. It set me on a path that I’m pleased I took. I’ve done about four or five productions now, and I can’t wait to do more. He set the benchmark for how we view musical theatre and he’s so clever. You want to work for people like that.
Following dates in Derby, Onassis, directed by Nancy Meckler, opens at the Novello Theatre on 12 October 2010 (previews from 30 September) for a limited season.