If you're one of the Les Misérables-obsessed, the kind of person who listened to that cassette tape or double-CD set nonstop, then you know the name Frances Ruffelle. You know that heavenly voice as it begins to sing "On my own/pretending he's beside me…" You know that she won a Tony Award for her performance as Eponine on Broadway. You also know that she hasn't been on Broadway since (though in her native United Kingdom, her stage career still flourishes).
But now you can rejoice because Ruffelle is returning to New York with her cabaret show Beneath the Dress. She will take to the stage at 54 Below on September 16 and 18 following a sold-out engagement in May. TheaterMania chatted with Ruffelle about the show, her passion for fashion, and why Les Misérables has endured for so many years.
Tell me about Beneath the Dress.
It's something I put together about four years ago. I just wanted to do a concert. I'm not very good at talking to the audience. I get quite nervous. It's weird. I wanted to do something that was personal but where I wouldn't have to talk too much. I chose a collection of songs that meant a lot to me — that I associate with people in my life. It's quite dark in places but also very light and funny. I don't think the audience is particularly expecting me to do what I do. The journey I take is very surprising…I didn't really want to do a show where I was saying "This is a song I performed when I was in Starlight Express." That's an obvious route. A lot of the material I chose is surprising. [And] I don't just stay on the stage, I use the whole space. I change [outfits] a lot. I like fashion and style, and I use a lot of that in the show.
How did you pick your song list?
Songs that work for me have incredible stories. The lyrics are very important. I'm a big fan of Michael John LaChiusa. I sing some songs from The Wild Party throughout the show. I love his version of that show and his music really suits me. [And] I work with [Matthew Ryan]. I call him my brother. Our parents met and he's like my brother…He's someone I've known since I was zero. We would put on shows together in the back garden. I call him my brain, sometimes. He influenced me a lot as a kid. He is an encyclopedia of music. He was obsessed with Judy Garland growing up, and Liza Minnelli, and Barbra Streisand. We listen to music together. Sometimes I find things myself, but on the whole, it's driven by his knowledge.
I understand you played the Edinburgh Fringe with this show, as well? I did 20 or more performances there. We got five stars in The Scotsman, which is the coveted paper [there]. From that, I can tell that the show is something that works. It had a lovely reception here in New York [at 54 Below]. It's great to be back.
You won a Tony Award for your work as Eponine in the original Broadway production of Les Misérables, and now there's a second revival of the show coming in this spring. Why has that show endured?
The book itself is the most incredible story and it touches everybody. You know what it's like to lose a person that you loved. Or to have unrequited love. It's a worldwide subject. And then you've got the beautiful French music. That's what drew me to want to be in the show. Our production at the Royal Shakespeare Company was staged so simply and so wonderfully by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. I'll never forget the original cast. I was very much in awe of everybody.
How does the new production stack up to the original?
The new production…I've seen it in London and of course I'm going to say I prefer the old one. Maybe I'm biased. [Laughs]