It was a bright Saturday morning in London, and I managed to speak to musical theatre performer and actor Rachel Lea-Gray on the phone. She is currently playing the lead role of Carmen in Phil Willmott‘s new production, Carmen 1808. The production’s run has already begun at the Union Theatre. I got to talk to Rachel about what she finds fascinating about Carmen, what challenges she faces performing her role, her love for Disney’s The Little Mermaid and what steaming your voice means. Much more below.
Firstly, congratulations on the first night! What has the general buzz and atmosphere been like working on a new production of Carmen?
To be honest, it’s probably one of the nicest shows I’ve ever worked in and that’s purely because we’ve got such a nice chemistry as a cast. We can’t quite believe there are seventeen of us, and—honestly—everyone gets on so well. It’s such a nice comradery. Everyone is really positive and just wants to do their best and make the project as brilliant as it can be. It’s a really nice atmosphere. In the rehearsal room, we’ve just been really enthusiastic and excited really, but that’s because we’re creating a new piece as well, so we are all part of a new journey together. It’s using the music, obviously, of Carmen, but it’s a completely new musical theatre arrangement with new lyrics. Even though it uses elements and characters from the original, it’s a completely new story. It’s been a really exciting journey.
Is this the first time you’re playing the role of Carmen?
Yes. I’m from a musical theatre background, so, it’s a musical theatre adaptation with a lot of new arrangements, completely different pieces of music sung by different characters in different contexts. It’s completely brand new.
Learning about the character of Carmen in Phil Willmott’s production and seeing her in a new and different way, what kind of things draw you to her?
For me, it’s that she is a fighter. She’s a woman in a man’s world, obviously being in 1808. As a woman, she has relatively little power, but she makes and creates her own power. I was talking to Phil about the idea that she is so intelligent, spunky, bright and manipulative. She knows what makes men tick and uses it to her advantage. We were talking about the idea that if she were a modern woman, she’d probably be at university or have a high-powered job. She’s just living in the wrong era to have all of those intentions and that spark. Instead, she uses it to her advantage. In our version, Phil has put in the lyrics, ‘love’s a weapon I have made an art.’ I feel really passionate about that.
Have you seen the opera of Carmen before?
I’ve seen many versions online. It was interesting for me to come into this new role because I didn’t know how much of it was linked to the actual opera. I found it really useful reading the novella. Phil’s taken lots of bits from the original Prosper Mérimée novel. I also did lots of reading, looking at what people said about my character and what they said about the other characters. I found the book really useful.
When I first read the synopsis of this production, I found it really interesting because your Carmen has a reason why she seduces men and that’s to gain military secrets. That’s different from the opera and gives it some edge.
Yes, because in our production we have Verlade, which is our version of Don José, who Carmen falls in love with. Initially, she is trying to seduce him to get information, but she falls for him and that’s where it all goes wrong.
How do you want the audience to feel after they’ve seen Carmen 1808?
I think it’s important people come away feeling that they care for the characters because the music is iconic– it speaks for itself, but Phil was very adamant that no one was an ensemblist. Traditionally there would be an ensemble with the lead. He worked hard with everyone to make sure everyone had a recognisable character and when it goes horribly wrong in the end, you [the audience] would care for everyone on stage. It’s like watching a group of people you get to know within the play and by the end of it, you’re invested in the characters. At the same time, we want people to have highs and lows, [experience] the celebratory numbers when it gets really exciting and its ending, which is sad. It is a very untraditional version and it isn’t the same Camen. We want people to go away and think [the production] had an interesting take on the original. I hope people enjoy it and come away feeling uplifted and excited.
Have you come across any challenges with your role?
I think it’s the range of emotions that the character goes through. She has to be seductive, fall in love, be strong, be intimidating, and lovable as well. I think that’s the most challenging part and it’s just a vast range vocally, not like the opera, but the colours in the voice.
It isn’t going to be three to four hours long, is it?
Oh no! It’s a condensed version. It’s using the same themes, but none of the resting bits from the original. That’s where we have the dialogue.
What kind of things should the audience have in mind when coming to see Carmen?
To have in mind that it is something completely different and it is musical theatre rather than an opera. But I mean, the music…. where do you begin? It’s just amazing.
I’ve had a look into your past performances in a few Gilbert & Sullivan productions and pantomimes, do you find there is an affinity with Carmen and the characters you’ve played in the past?
I’ve done three G & S’s and, actually, I think that was really helpful for this because G & S are hugely inspired by opera. They send up opera really well. I think [the answer is] Katisha. Again, she’s another woman in a man’s world. In the story, she has to get married otherwise she is going to end up alone. It’s comedic, but she’s quite a strong character. In the version of Mikado that I did this summer, there were six of us who played every single character. We did the whole score of the Mikado, the whole show, all the dialogue, but there were only six actors in it, so I was Katisha, but I was also Pitti-Sing as well. Vocally it was challenging and that was great for the part as it prepared me for the stamina. In Carmen, there’s dancing and parts where it gets really passionate – I have to shout – and lots of singing. A lot of stamina is required.
Who and what inspired you to take up performing arts?
Put simply, I went dancing when I was very little like all children tend to do or you do it as a hobby with your friends. In all honesty what changed it for me was when my mum and dad went to see The Phantom of the Opera when I was either six or seven. They came home with the soundtrack they bought when they were at the show, and they used to play it in the car. From then on I fell in love with musical theatre. It was having this soundtrack in the car. That was it for me. I have to say The Phantom of the Opera is still my favourite show. I loved singing when I was little, and it just stemmed from there. I studied musical theatre from a very young age and I had all of the soundtracks. I went to university for three years when I was 18 and I was always performing, always in love with musicals, and then I went to drama school for three years. That was my trajectory.
Was it an intensive three years of training?
Yes. It was the best training. It was amazing and I wouldn’t change it for the world. They strip you down and throw so much information at you. There are so many people you’ll work with, too. It was a crazy three years.
What did you study for three years before drama school?
I was in university from 18, so before that, I did my A-levels. I was also performing in school and college productions. I did singing and dance lessons. It was always ticking along with my academic work, but at 18 I made the decision I wanted to go to university and study English and Drama. I’m glad I did it because I was always passionate about English Literature, and I think it informs [any] work really well. I got a good understanding of classical texts and history. Very helpful!
Do you have a certain preference or way you like to rehearse and practice at home?
I like to stretch in the morning. I know that’s not directly linked to singing, but I try to do fifteen minutes of yoga every morning because if you’re tense, it will affect your back and your neck, and that constricts everything, vocally and physically. You have to be quite loose and free. Just before I picked up the phone to speak to you, I was steaming my voice.
What does ‘steaming your voice’ mean?
It’s when you have hot water. There are things you can buy online like little steamers and you hold them up to your mouth, and you breathe in the hot water and it’s good for loosening up.
Is there any advice you’d give to someone who wants a career in performing arts, for someone starting out?
In this industry, unfortunately, you have to compete and hone your skills in many areas as possible. Don’t just focus on your acting, dancing or your singing. Try and improve your skills in all three. If you want to be a dancer, you have to be able to act and sing. You can’t just be a dancer. If I could go back in time, I’d learn a musical instrument because that’s another amazing skill and would help me get ahead. Even if you get into the industry, don’t stop learning. Keep gaining new skills.
Do you have any favourite composers?
I love Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m very much into classical musicals like Oklahoma and South Pacific. And I love love love Alan Menken because I was growing up with all the big Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, which is my favourite Disney movie. With his music, I find it really emotional because I’ve known the music since I was very young.
You can see Rachel perform Carmen in Carmen 1808 at the Union Theatre now. It is showing until March 10th 2018. Get your tickets here.
Follow her on Twitter here.