Recent drama school graduate Leanne Jones became an overnight star when she opened in November as leading lady Tracy Turnblad in the West End premiere of Tony Award-winning Broadway musical import Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre.
Based on John Waters' cult retro 1988 film and set in 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray tells the story of geeky overweight teen Tracy, who finds celebrity on a TV dance programme. Can she get the guy and still have time to change the world?
Jones stars alongside Michael Ball (in the cross-dressing role of mother Edna Turnblad), Mel Smith (as dad Wilbur) and Any Dream Will Do finalist Ben James-Ellis (as Tracy’s love interest Link Larkin).
The musical has a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Whitman and Shaiman. As on Broadway, it’s directed by Jack O'Brien and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. A big screen version, starring John Travolta as Edna, was released earlier this year.
In London, the show has already won the Evening Standard Best Musical Award and has received a record ten nominations in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, including two nods – Best Actress in a Musical and London Newcomer of the Year - for Jones personally (click here to vote!).
Date & place of birth
Born 21 March 1985 in Stoke-on-Trent, England.
Lives now in
Alexandra Palace, north London.
Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts.
What made you want to become an actor?
I don't know really. My first solo was when I was three. It was a Doris Day song. I was always singing in assemblies and things. When I was 11, someone gave me the anniversary concert of Les Mis, and at that point I discovered musicals. Probably when I was 14 or 15, I decided I wanted to go to drama school and do musical theatre. When I was 16, I wanted to go to Laine Theatre Arts because my friend was going there. But my dad wanted me to do A-Levels so I went away to do those and then, when I was 18, I auditioned and got into Mountview.
If you hadn’t become a performer, what might you have done professionally?
Maybe a teacher. At school, my reports always said "Bright girl, could try harder" because I never had any interest in anything else. I was good in my English class but really only when we were studying Shakespeare or reading a play. Science and maths I was awful at. Languages I could have done well in, but I had so much out-of-school stuff I was more interested in that I never used to do my homework. Looking back, that's really awful, but I guess it worked out. That's not going to happen to my children, though - they're going to do all their homework!
I did a musical called A Karaoke Wedding in April this year at the Union Theatre. The guys who were in that with me - Jamie Richards, Russell Morton and a girl called Alice Keedwell - I absolutely adore. We were the characters at the wedding. But my favourite co-stars would have to be Ben James-Ellis and Michael Ball in Hairspray. Me and Ben are best friends. We just clicked on day one.
At college I worked with a director called Marina Calderone. She's written a book called Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus and we used it to action the text when we did a production of Rags with her. She talked a lot to me about truth. I just learnt so much. Matt Ryan was another one at college who was a great director. Of course, working with Jack O'Brien has been incredible. He's so inspiring and he explains things so thoroughly, he's a genius.
Favourite musical writers
I love Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Also Jason Robert Brown. I didn't see Parade but I really wanted to, and I can't believe it finished. I bought the CD though, it should be arriving soon. And I met Bertie Carvel at your awards party!
What roles would you most like to play in future?
One of my favourite roles would have to be Lucille Frank in Parade but obviously that's been and gone now! I'd also love to be Eponine or Fantine in Les Mis because they're the roles and the reason I decided I wanted to be in musical theatre. Because my casting is quite specific, I don't really know what there is musical theatre-wise for me after Tracy Turnblad. I'd be open to anything really – and I'd love to do a play.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
I loved Little Shop of Horrors. It was really original and funny and had a great cast. I loved Spamalot as well, again laugh-a-minute. I also enjoyed Carmen Jones at the Royal Festival Hall over the summer. But I haven't seen a lot recently because I haven't had a lot of time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Just to trust and be yourself. That's the most important thing. People come to the theatre to see you, so don't pretend to be anyone else.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Beyonce. I'm a big fan, I love her music and thought she was great in Dreamgirls. And she must have the most glamorous lifestyle!
I cannot wait to see The Golden Compass because I'm a huge fan of the His Dark Materials books. I've just finished re-reading the first one in order to see the film. I'm a huge fan of Harry Potter as well ... any kind of children's fantasy sagas I love!
Favourite holiday destination
Sardinia. I've been there two years running now, to the same resort and hotel. The town we stayed in was called Santa Theresa - I'm looking at a picture of it right now. Green clear water, great for snorkelling, and so relaxing!
Favourite after-show haunts
The White Hart, only because it’s across the road! I don't really go out a lot. On Saturdays, I'll always try to go for one after the show, but just to show my face really.
Tell us about the process of winning the role of Tracy Turnblad.
In 2005, I was at drama school and just in my second year. There was an open audition advertised in The Stage for Tracy Turnblad. I didn't know anything about this character, but all my friends encouraged me to look at the photos on the website, rent the original movie, listen to the music etc. So I did, and I decided that night that I had to go for this because her look, her size and her face – it’s just me! When I went to the open audition, there were loads and loads of girls, probably about 200. We were first seen in a line-up, so they could see who was too big or too small. You only got to sing if you looked right. I got to sing and was given a recall - my first ever recall! There were loads of rounds of recalls that day and I got quite far. At the end of the day, there was about three of us left. We were told that the next round would be meeting the Americans, and singing to them. Three days before that was due to happen, we got a phone call from the casting directors saying that everything was postponed. I was quite disappointed. A year later, just after I’d left Mountview, I was seen for the movie audition. I went in to do a screen test and didn't hear anything. Then this year came around. I'd had a year out. Although I’d been auditioning for various shows, I'd never got a "yes" phone call, so I was working in a call centre, starting to think about going into teaching. Then I got my audition through again, got down to the final two with the Americans – and the very next day, I finally got the call to say I got the job! It was the best day of my life.
Why did you want to play the part of Tracy Turnblad?
Because she's so fun and confident and free. Nothing ever fazes her. She basically sees something that she wants - she wants to be on this TV channel and wants to date this lead boy - and it happens! Whatever she wants, it happens. That's an amazing character to get to play, so exhilarating. I feel as it’s kind of my story too. I've wanted this since I was about 11 years old, after seeing the Les Miserables tenth anniversary concert video which has Michael Ball on it. I've been a poster on the Whatsonstage.com Discussion Forum and the Broadwayworld.com board for a couple of years now trying to get any kind of information that I could. I feel like I've always wanted this, and it’s actually happened. So now I feel like anything's possible. Maybe I get a little bit of that from Tracy - her confidence and resilience.
Tracy is a very demanding role. You’re on stage in almost every scene of Hairspray. How did you get fit for that challenge – and how do you keep your stamina up now?
It's taken a while! I'm in the zone at the moment, but I'm a bit worried about what it would be like if I went on holiday and got back! I've lost four-and-a-half stone this year. For about 12 to 16 weeks solidly, I was in the gym six times a week. Then leading up to the previews, the last four weeks of rehearsal, the associate choreographer Danny Austin offered to train me, so I was with him six times a week, usually before rehearsals, whenever we could fit it in. We were doing everything - spinning whilst singing! I reccommend that to anyone who's trying to get fit. It really, really works! But it’s been a long slog.
Your co-star is Michael Ball. What’s it like working with such a stage legend – and particularly having him as your mother?
It's unbelievable! It kind of doesn't feel like the same person. I have to keep reminding myself where I am and who I'm standing with, but Michael is so warm and naturally friendly. He feels like one of the guys now, just a mate. Obviously, when I first met him, I was gobsmacked. I told him about the Les Mis video. He said to me "How old were you?" - "11" - "Yeah, so I was 34 when you were 11 ..." He turned it into a joke and took the pressure off completely. He's just wonderful, very supportive and has helped me so much. He always gives me hugs and little tips. If ever I had a question in rehearsal, I’d ask him first before asking the director so I didn't look silly! He also taught me how to bow. I did this rubbish bow, a really embarrassed one. And he said "No, you've got to do this and thank everyone and blow kisses to the balcony!" So he gave me a little bowing masterclass! I think there's a connection between us, which is maybe a maternal connection, so I never thought it was odd him playing my mum. He’s so believable.
What’s your favourite number from Hairspray?
"Without Love". It’s such a great Motown song. I love the melody and the lyrics, and the way the four parts come together. The staging for it is also fantastic. That's the one I always used to play on my iPod. I'd skip the others and go straight to "Without Love"!
What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals/performances to date?
There's a point where I have to get changed really quickly. It’s just after “The Madison”, before the “Nicest Kids in Town” reprise. During a technical rehearsal, I didn't get changed in time so the spotlight hit the middle of the stage and everyone on stage points to it. But it was empty. Of course, my microphone came on and, in time with the music, I didn't mean to, I went "Oh f***!" really loudly!
What’s been the highlight of your Hairspray experience to date?
Probably taking the first bow on the first preview. I had a lot of family and friends in the front row of the dress circle. It was an amazing night. They were all on their feet, pointing at me and laughing and whooping. At the point where Tracy first gets on to the TV show and I shout "I'm Tracy!" at the end of a number, I drop to my knee at the front of the stage and do a little pose. And the audience just exploded with cheers and whooping - it lifted me up to another level. We couldn't carry on because the audience wouldn't stop applauding! I think I'll always remember that first preview night as being electrifying.
Why do you think the show is such a hit?
I think the release of the movie with John Travolta definitely helped. Even in first previews, there were people singing along. We have got a little following now. One of the mad things is the fans - because a few months ago, I was one of them! I used to go to stage doors too. Ruthie Henshall is my female musical theatre icon. I once took a poster I stole from the Tube to get it signed by her at stage door. I was a big fan. So I feel really connected to fans of our show when they come to see me afterwards. I just have so much gratitude.
What are your future plans? Anything else you'd like to add?
I'm in Hairspray until October 2008. I can't really imagine what's after this. I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone who nominated me for the Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers' Choice Awards. To hear my name called twice was just so surreal and thrilling. So thank you everyone. Whether I win or not, that's how I feel.
- Leanne Jones was speaking to Terri Paddock
Hairspray is playing at the West End’s Shaftesbury Theatre, where it’s currently booking through to October 2008.