“I’ve had to dig deep to play this role in Carousel because I’ve had no dramatic training – I’m just your little opera singer really,” says a beaming Lesley Garrett, all five foot four of her wrapped in a cosy white dressing gown after a matinee performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical at Milton Keynes Theatre, the third stop on a seven-leg UK tour which ends at the West End’s Savoy Theatre.

Breaking the habit

The last time I’d seen Garrett on stage, she was encased in a black nun’s habit at the London Palladium, where she made her musical theatre debut as the Mother Abbess in the current revival of another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, The Sound of Music. It’s small wonder that she was nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award for the performance. She gave that top A at the end of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” such mighty operatic clout that hearts either stopped ticking or soared up to heaven and didn’t come back down again until after the interval. It wasn’t so much “Ave Maria” as “Bravo Lesley”.

“That was a difficult one – like climbing Everest,” she recalls. “Operas are bigger and more difficult vocally, and you only perform once or twice a week. That’s why I took Thursdays off at the Palladium because I wasn’t sure I could sustain eight shows a week. I hated doing that because even though people were told I wasn’t performing they would write and express their disappointment. In Carousel I’m doing every performance – and loving every moment.”

At first sight, Garrett is on less holy ground playing homely soda fountain proprietor Nettie Fowler in Lindsay Posner’s new production of Carousel. Off has come that nun’s habit, and on she bursts wearing colourful 1870s bustled skirts and high-laced boots to lead the citizens of a New England fishing village in a bright and breezy rendition of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”.

A soprano inspired

It’s later in the show that Garrett’s amazing voice reaches the angels, in what is surely one of the darkest, most tragic scenes in any musical ever written – when Nettie’s pregnant cousin Julie (Alexandra Silber) has just discovered that her abusive husband, fairground barker Billy Bigelow (Jeremiah James), has killed himself after a botched robbery, and Nettie comforts the distraught girl by delivering that mother of all anthems “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

As the applause dies down and there’s a mass fumble for Kleenex, it’s then that you realise why Garrett never was just that sparky chatterbox seen regularly on Loose Women, or simply that funny diva who would camp up operatic arias with the likes of Lily Savage on her three TV series, or more recently do a nifty twirl with Anton DuBeke in Strictly Come Dancing. Here’s a soprano inspired, who’s at the top of her game.

“Just grabs you by the bits doesn’t it,” she says when she can see that I’m still reeling from the power of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. “I call it an aria rather than a show song, and it takes every bit of my classical training to get it right. I tell you, it’s tears every night for Alexandra and me in that scene.”

But Garrett is worried that people will come expecting another big “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” moment. “Dramatically, you can’t do it that way because it’s part of an intimate scene between two women who are bound together in grief and in hope for the future. Carousel is as powerful as any opera – it grabs you by the heart, the spirit and the soul and shakes you all over the place!”

Maturing into musicals

Nettie, she goes on with a typical impish chuckle, is the role she feels she was born to play. “My husband (a north London GP) said, ‘It’s just you, love, isn’t it? Cooking all the time, sorting out everybody else’s lives and flirting with the local doctor’. I can’t imagine how it was ever conceived of as an older person’s role. I mean, she’s young Julie’s cousin and spends the entire first act talking about sex! So I thought, well maybe she’s some older woman with a twinkle.”

But why move from opera into musical theatre? “It’s partly because there seems to be more roles for me at the moment. I’m now too mature for the opera roles that I’m known for. The casting has to be credible – I mean, I can’t do Mimi on stage again. But Anna in The King and I? Let’s hope!”

If the Mother Abbess is the spiritual pivot of The Sound of Music, so too is Nettie in Carousel – they are both strong, generous, loving women who hold their communities together. “That’s another reason why this role is so right for me,” Garrett responds. “I knew women like Nettie when I was a child in South Yorkshire. They were the communal glue. My grandmother was exactly like that. In Carousel it’s cotton mills and fishing fleets, whereas we had the pits and the railways – and a hard-working, fantastically close community out of which music sprang at the drop of a hat.”

Born into the sound of music, perhaps it’s no wonder that Garrett grew up to become South Yorkshire’s very own vocal hero. She was awarded a CBE in 2002 for her services to music, which must include her long and fruitful relationship with English National Opera, where she starred in numerous productions, winning critical acclaim for portrayals of both serious and comic roles (once famously baring her backside to the audience in Die Fledermaus).

In addition to countless international concert tours, and her various television series and radio shows, she’s also recorded no less than 14 albums, the latest of which, Amazing Grace, is released this month. And as well as her musical theatre roles, she’s also become Britain’s uncrowned queen of anthems. Who can forget her stonking “Abide With Me” at the 2000 FA Cup Final before Wembley Stadium finally closed? More recently she delivered a hymn-like “The Impossible Dream” (from Man of La Mancha) at 10 Downing Street for Gordon Brown and health workers on the 60th birthday of the NHS.

Spiritual awakenings

“Everything I do comes from when I was a kid. My parents would sing everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to opera and folk – in fact I can’t recall a time when we didn’t sing. I knew I just had to get out on a stage. I lived for four o’clock when we’d end classes and go off and rehearse the next school show. I’d play Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady or it might be something in Oliver!. That was ages before I did six years classical training at the Royal Academy of Music.”

And it was at a very early age when Garrett first began to get wind of the notion that singing was more than just belting out an arrangement of notes: “I must have been only 11, but I sang ‘And She Was a Golden Lily in the Dew’ from the pop cantata ‘The Daniel Jazz’ and my dad came up to me very moved and just said ‘That was lovely’. I felt even then a connection between music and spirituality and that music has a purpose in our lives.”

When you look at her recent work, you can understand what Garrett means by music and spirituality now playing a more important role in her own life. The Mother Abbess had an obvious spiritual quality. When last year the Salvation Army asked her to record a guest track on a CD of spiritual songs (The Salvation Army – Together), she chose “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which is also included on Amazing Grace, her first full album of sacred songs. Then Carousel came round, which is all about the forgiveness of sins and resurrection, and in addition, she’s about to record another Christmas Voices series for BBC TV.

“It’s all come together at the same time. I do feel spiritually uplifted myself and that I’m being pulled in a direction that I have to follow. I’ve always known that when I take in a breath and sing, it’s coming from somewhere else. I’ve never questioned it before, but perhaps now I’m older I’m beginning to ask what this sensation really means. Basically I’m the vessel – the conduit – for a much higher spirit that comes out to an audience. With ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, my job is to deliver that divine quality in the best way I can.”

As for singing divinely at this year’s Theatregoers’ Choice Awards launch party on 5 December, Garrett says, “Just give me a backing track and bring it on! I love it that theatregoers themselves do the voting. But you see I have this voice inside me that says ‘do it all’. Life draws me on and every project gives me great joy.”


Carousel opens on 2 December 2008 (previews from 22 November) at the Savoy Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 25 July 2009. A version of this article appears in the November issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is available now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online version. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!

Garrett will be joined at the Whatsonstage.com Awards Launch Party by a team of guest presenters and performers – including Graham Norton, Mel Giedroyc, Michael Ball and the stars of Jersey Boys and La Clique - to help us announce this year’s shortlists this Friday 5 December 2008. For the first time, we’re making a limited number of awards sponsorship packages available to individuals, which includes party passes to this invitation-only event. For information on theatregoers’ packages, click here.