An interview with Gypsy’s Gemma Sutton

This week we met the enchanting Gemma Sutton who has been wowing audiences in hit West End show Gyspy as Rose’s daughter June and now takes over from Lara Pulver in the role of Louise, a character who undergoes a chrysalis-like transformation to become the complex and eponymous Gypsy.

There’s still time to catch Chichester Festival Theatre’s jaw-dropping West End transfer of possibly the greatest of all American Musical, Gypsy. The show is booking until 28th November at the Savoy Theatre and features music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.

Hi Gemma. You’ve been playing June since Gypsy started – when did you take over the role of Louise?

My first performance as Louise was on Monday. It’s only with this year’s West End transfer that I’ve known I’ll take over the role of Louise. It’s been wonderful to be able to observe the show and have time to think about Louise’s character – and what a privilege to have played both June and Louise. They are such fascinating characters, and Imelda [Staunton] has brought such depth to this production. I’ve not been in a musical that has felt so like a play before. The parent-child relationship is something we can all relate to. That’s what makes it so successful, so shocking and moving for the audience. June is extraordinarily frustrated, trapped as an 8 year old doll when she’s actually a fifteen year old woman. Mama Rose refuses to allow her to grow up and the way that we’ve played it for both of the daughters is that they don’t actually know how old they are. They’re just extremely confused young women.

Louise is a bright, intelligent woman who became the woman she was because she was an avid reader. Her talent as a burlesque star was her wit, her intelligence and that must have come from reading and from observing show business through those Vaudeville years:  she could sit back and watch incredible people like Fanny Bryce and although she couldn’t do it herself at the time, by the time she was twenty, she could.

Gemma as Louise (Gypsy): [Photograph: Matt Crockett]
Gemma Sutton as Louise at the Savoy Theatre [Photograph: Matt Crockett]

When you were cast in Gypsy, did you know you’d be working with Imelda Staunton?

I think the whole industry knew that there was a rumour that Imelda would be playing the role. By the time I auditioned I think I did know that it would be her but I never in a million years thought that I would be in the show.

Were you more excited or nervous about working with such a big star?

All I said to my friends in the run up to rehearsals was “I cannot wait to work with and learn from such an extraordinary actress”. And I really have learned from her – not just an actress and a leading lady, but as a leader of a company, how to treat the other actors and people you are working with – it’s a real skill and she is amazing at it.

Gemma Sutton in her previous Gypsy role as Dainty June
Gemma Sutton in her previous Gypsy role as Dainty June

Do you get nervous before a show?

Always at first previews and press nights. That will never change because you just want the audience to enjoy themselves and there’s so much to remember. But nerves are good – everyone says they are and it’s true.

Have you ever forgotten your lines?

I’ve never completely forgotten lines, but I have made up words in a song and it does happen to everyone at some point in their career. In a long running show you develop muscle memory and although you’re still listening, sometimes that muscle memory fails. That’s frightening but the next night you just look at your script for half an hour before the show and you’re back.

What was your first West End role?

After graduating from the Arts Ed Musical Theatre course, I was cast in Gone with The Wind – and I was so excited about that show, working with Trevor Nunn, Gareth Valentine and an extraordinary creative team. We had a fantastic cast, but sadly the show closed and I was absolutely devastated. Straight after that I was cast in Imagine This, also at the New London Theatre and that closed early too!

Was Gone with The Wind a Broadway transfer?

No, it was brand new – the initial read-through took five hours and we had a very long rehearsal process and tech period to get it down to at least a more reasonable length. Imagine This went through a similar process. But it’s so nice to create a role and not have the image in your head of how someone else did it first. I gained a lot of experience that year, and did a lot of understudying.

Gemma as
Gemma as “Foxy” Roxy Hart in Chicago rehearsals at Leicester Curve

And what have you been doing since those early days in the West End?

I’ve been lucky to work both in the West End and smaller off-West End venues. I was in the final cast of Legally Blonde for 6 months playing Enid Hoops and understudying Elle Woods. It was amazing to be playing such different characters. And Elle is a big character in all senses – she’s barely off the stage and there are quick changes, dogs…you name it!

What role would you love to play that you haven’t…yet?

I really love working on new shows, but I would have to say Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof as I just love the score and I can really connect with her song ‘Far From the Home I Love’. I love London but I miss my family and Cheshire which is where I’m from.   I’ve always wanted to be in City of Angels because I love ensemble singing and the close harmony singing in that show would certainly be a challenge!

What advice would you give someone thinking about coming into The Business?

Be resilient. Find a part time job that doesn’t make you want to cry. This industry isn’t always fair but you just have to keep on going. It can’t be the only source of your happiness because it doesn’t give enough back. When you’re not in work it’s very difficult but when you are working, my goodness it’s extraordinary. When I was a teenager I had these dreams of being in Les Mis or Mamma Mia but you get into the business and you realise it’s not as simple as that. You have to be very specific for a role and just wanting to be in it doesn’t mean you’re right for it. My agent, the wonderful Jean Diamond  encourages that thought of “be in the new exciting things so that people [like casting directors] will come and see you”.

Gemma as Beryl Marsden in ITV's hit drama production
Gemma as Beryl Marsden in ITV’s hit drama production “Cilla”

What might you have done if you hadn’t gone into Theatre?

I did love school, particularly academic subjects like maths so maybe that – otherwise it would have been something musical like playing an instrument. I do play the piano and there is something in the mathematical forms in jazz that fascinates me.

You were utterly fabulous in a production of Carousel last year at the Arcola Theatre – was the experience vastly different from a show like Gypsy?

There was a lot less technical rehearsal time, that’s a big difference. You normally rehearse for four to five weeks for any show. I think with Carousel we had a three day tech as opposed to maybe a week and a half for a big show. What I loved about playing Julie Jordan in Carousel was that I could be brave – because I knew it was a small venue I wanted to give as small a performance as I dared and the character of Julie made that possible. A space [like the Arcola] allows that. You could see what was happening in people’s eyes.

Gemma as Julie Jordan with Tim Rogers (Billy Bigelow) in Carousel at the Arcola Theatre
Gemma as Julie Jordan with Tim Rogers (Billy Bigelow) in Carousel at the Arcola Theatre

How did you approach the subject matter, particularly the physical violence which Carousel deals with?

Tim Rogers (Billy Bigelow) and I spent a lot of time talking about the relationship between the two characters, particularly the “If I Loved You” scene. It was simply that if you love someone, often you will let them hurt you. Now that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t damaged by it and my goodness she was, but this woman was completely devoted to a violent man and she was going to stand by him, not only because of the period it was written in but also because they had a daughter. The fact that she adored him doesn’t make it right, but it’s not rare. The “If I loved You” scene is extraordinary, and one of the favourite sequences of my performing career so far.

How did you get started on the road to the West End?

Through my local dance school. I had an inspirational teacher who is now a really good friend, Carolyn Farrish Mayer. I always looked up to her because she performed, and I used to teach for her as well in the dance school. Teaching is always a useful skill when you go into this business because you’re not always going to be working. I had a singing teacher who was a classical soprano which gave me great technique from such a young age…from just 8 or 9 she taught me about breathing and that’s helped me enormously. I always loved singing and that’s in my blood – my Dad’s very musical and I used to do lots of little concerts with him back in Macclesfield, which is where I’m from. With acting I knew there was a whole world of things to learn, and plays to discover and when I got to Arts Ed there was just something about the feel of the building. When I walked in I knew straight away that that was the place for me and the training there is great in all three areas.

Who inspires you now?

Well obviously one big name crops up – Imelda Staunton – and also people like Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Judi Dench: It is harder [for women] as we grow older – this business doesn’t have longevity and my greatest fear is not having work as I get older because I just love it so much. So to see women like that, that’s inspiring. I just hope that writers keep creating roles for us. I think they will because I think things are changing. What I love about Gypsy is that 6 of the lead roles are women: Mamma Rose, Louise, June and the three older strippers – and that was written in the 1950s! I also love the great Jazz singers. If when I’m sixty I’m sat on a bar stool singing jazz I’ll be very happy.

“Be resilient…and get a part time job that doesn’t make you cry!”

So do you think your career might move into singing jazz some day?

I did some cabarets in my early twenties – I look back on those recordings and think how brave and fearless I was. As I’ve become older I’ve felt more self-aware which is a shame. Musical Theatre singing is so specific so I see myself getting older and really exploring the form more. I love the Vortex in Dalston I also enjoyed the 606 in Chelsea. Ronnie Scott’s is next on my list…

What was the first show you saw – and the next show you plan to see?

Actually two stand out for me, both probably in Manchester – Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Miss Saigon was the soundtrack that I would play over and over again. I haven’t seen the current production, but as soon as Gypsy is finished I’m there! I’m also desperate to see Kinky Boots as I have two friends in the show. I try to support my friends because they are so supportive of me. I also love supporting the smaller theatres like the Union and the Arcola. I have worked in quite a few of them and loved it, because there’s less pressure, you can experiment a bit more and have a bit more fun with parts. I get a tremendous amount from the smaller shows I’ve done, like Carousel. People have to think more creatively and can’t just rely on enormous spectacle and I love the teamwork – everyone is there to create something exciting rather than just to pay the bills. You have to do it because you love it.

What’s next for Gemma Sutton?

Actually I don’t know! I usually do at this point in a contract. I am definitely going to go home for Christmas and that’s what I know and spend time with my family which I don’t get to do often enough. After that, it’s all a mystery which feels quite exciting!

If you need some shelves putting up, I’m your girl! [Gemma as Julie Jordan, Carousel]
If you need some shelves putting up, I’m your girl! [Gemma as Julie Jordan, Carousel]

Finally what’s the best and then the most difficult thing about a life on stage?

The best thing is that when you are in good pieces of theatre, that you have moved an audience or made them think – that is genuinely why I love it. I can’t deny that I also love seeing the audience’s face in the finale when they’ve enjoyed it. In Hairspray for example in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” I loved seeing the audiences having the time of their lives…I did Hairspray on tour and it was one of my favourite jobs. It’s such a great show and whatever mood you walk into the theatre in to go to warm-up, something about that show just lifts your spirits, and doing that for nine months on tour was just a wonderful experience…and I met my boyfriend on that tour too! The worst thing – the instability of the work and you always think “What if I never work again?” That’s why the older I get, the more I realise I need to find sources of happiness without the work. I’m very lucky – I have great hobbies, a great home life and I do DIY. So there you are – if you need some shelves putting up, I’m your girl!

See the wonderful Gemma Sutton in Gypsy The Musical until 28th November 2015.
or call 0844 871 7674
Savoy Theatre, Savoy Court, Strand, London WC2R 0ET