With Chicago returning to London, I spoke with Josefina Gabrielle who, as Velma, is sharing the show’s leading credits, about the piece and her career.
Josefina: Well, it’s the longest-running American musical. It’s been running for 21 years on Broadway and it is wonderful to have it back in the West End. Chicago holds a very dear place in my heart because I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with it. And I also have to admit an obsession with it too! Before I’d even saw the show, the original cast album had been a favourite of mine. I love to watch it and I love being in it.
It also has a real international appeal. Not only do theatre lovers come to see the show, but it brings other audiences too. It makes me feel very proud, and Cuba Gooding Jr., by the way, is a diamond. We love him, an absolute superstar. He’s a true star – a lovely, warm, funny man and an excellent company leader too. And of course, to work with Ruthie Henshall is a privilege and a dream. I’ve followed her for years and admired her and we’ve met socially on occasions too, but to finally get to work together, and to sing ‘Class’ with such a classy lady, is a thrill.
You’re playing Velma but when Chicago was last in town you played Roxie. Tell me about that contrast.
It is terribly interesting, because I played Roxie for the first time 18 years ago. I went in and out of Chicago on various occasions during its run. I think the last time I was involved was 10 years ago. So now I am Velma watching Roxie, having been Roxie watching Velma.
I suppose, maybe because of who I am now, 18 years later, my Velma certainly feels very grown up. Looking back at Roxie, I felt more sort of twinkly and girlie then. Now I feel more calculating, more of a planner, whereas Roxie didn’t really think about consequences. She sort of turns on a sixpence and just cleans up as she goes along, whereas Velma is more calculating.
JB: You’ve played a number of phenomenal roles in recent years. What have you brought from your experience to date, to add to your take on Velma?
Josefina: Interestingly and thinking of Merrily We Roll Along from four years ago, I’ve tapped into Gussie quite a few times.
JB: The sexual politics of Chicago take on a different hue post-Weinstein. This production’s publicity shots follow the tradition of presenting Roxie, Velma and here, Mama Morton too, clad in underwear, while Billy Flynn (and Amos) remain fully clothed. How can that styling be explained, today?
Josefina: I feel that the entire company, men and women, with the exception of Billy and Amos maybe, are owning their life with sexuality and physicality. Fosse is such a very strong, wonderful style of choreography, and we are wearing outfits and costumes that represent that style of the show and its dance.
If you think of any ballet company, any dance company, it’s no different. It is a dance and singing and acting show, so you’re covering everything, really. I don’t feel anyone is being exploited or feeling weak, because of what they’re wearing.
JB: Tell me your thoughts on performing Kander and Ebb’s work.
Josefina: My experience with Kander and Ebb and also Rodgers and Hammerstein are that the subjects that they pick are so fascinating and very often ahead of their times. How they portray those subjects, the structure of the shows and the music is just so wonderful, such brilliant numbers, that is it pure, pure entertainment that really sort of picks you up and makes you soar, soar as in fly to the sky.
But when you really think about the message that you’re putting across, it is wonderful food for thought of the whole sensationalising criminal behaviour in Chicago. Cabaret with the rise of the Nazis in Berlin. They touch on such fascinating subjects, moving you. And then, when you explore what you’ve celebrated, it opens your eyes. It’s wonderful.
JB: I’m glad that you touched upon Rodgers and Hammerstein because the first time that I came across your work was at the National Theatre 20 years ago in Trevor Nunn’s remarkable Oklahoma! What do you mean by those composers being “ahead of their time”?
Josefina: Well I’ve done three Rodgers and Hammersteins now. Oklahoma!, Carousel and The King and I and every time it’s an education. It’s the birth of a nation in Oklahoma! as that state was just coming into existence. The musical is about the land rush, starting from scratch and setting up communities. That’s an entire education on the history of the birth of a state.
The King and I is all about cultural differences. Where you believe yourself to be superior, because you think you know better, but then another culture opens your eyes to your ignorance and you learn from each other. It’s always been a wonderful education, and a sort of sense of coming home to, every time I’ve done a Rodgers and Hammerstein – the material is just so rich.
JB: And of course you are one of the few West End leading ladies to have played opposite Hugh Jackman!
Josefina: Yes. I mean on stage, it’s just me, isn’t it?
JB: And now, together with Ruthie Henshall and Sarah Soetaert, you can add Cuba Gooding Jnr to that tally too!