Theater: Alien Being

Ruthie Henshall arrived in New York this past January with three suitcases and a green card classifying her as an “alien of extraordinary ability.” “Does that mean I can now write ‘A.E.A.’ after my name, like ‘O.B.E.’?” she asks.

Why not? Her extraordinary ability is not in question here. Long a favorite of producer Cameron Mackintosh, who cast her in London productions of Miss Saigon, Cats, and Les Misérables, Henshall won an Olivier for her Amalia (the Barbara Cook role) in a revival of She Loves Me and raves as Polly in Crazy for You, Roxie Hart in Chicago, and Nancy in Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver! Nevertheless: She arrived in January with three suitcases, that green card, and no job. She gave herself three months, but it took her only three weeks to land her first spotlight, appearing at City Center in the Encores! concert performance of The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. Half a verse of the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin gem “Words Without Music,” and a miracle occurred: New Yorkers actually took a British song-and-dance girl to their hearts (eat your hearts out, Sarah Brightman and Elaine Page).

Currently playing Velma in Chicago, Henshall will be part of the Carol Burnett-led ensemble that, come November, will finally bring to Broadway another Mackintosh project, the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together. (The show was first presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993, providing a pre-Victor/Victoria warmup for Julie Andrews; it’s been fiddled with considerably in the interim.) Henshall’s numbers in Putting It Together include “Sooner or Later,” the seductive ditty Sondheim wrote for Madonna in Dick Tracy; the litany of marital hurts in “Every Day a Little Death” from A Little Night Music; and, with Burnett, the breakneck, breath-defying hysterics of “Getting Married Today” from Company.

Henshall may be Mackintosh’s secret weapon against the charge, sometimes leveled against Sondheim, that he can seem cool, detached. “She’ll add color,” the producer says. “With a revue, the audience has to immediately say, ‘I know that person and I’m going to enjoy what she’s going to do,’ and Ruthie brings a tremendous warmth.”

That quality was abundantly evident during a recent lunch that, for her, consisted of two cups of coffee and three slices of broadly buttered bread. Henshall grew up in Bromley in Kent, a London suburb, the youngest of four girls. Her father was a newspaper editor; her mother taught film and television. “I didn’t have a white-picket-fence upbringing,” she says, referring vaguely to a rocky family life. Like Maggie, whom she would later play in a touring production of A Chorus Line, Henshall found solace at ballet school. “I wanted to be a ballerina for a long while, and my teacher said to me, ‘I think that it would be too stifling for you. I think you should go to a college that does musical theater, because you’re much freer than that.’ I think basically she was saying I had no bloody technique but I had a lot of feeling.” In truth, however, Henshall hated like hell to be doing what everyone else was doing. “My instinct is to do it differently and get noticed,” she concedes.

“The first song she sang in Ziegfeld Follies, she stepped five steps in from the wings and the audience was riveted,” says Encores! artistic director Kathleen Marshall. “It’s a corny term, but Ruthie has a center. She makes whatever stage she’s appearing on home.” Cameron Mackintosh went so far as to delay his opening three weeks to accommodate Henshall’s obligation to Chicago. “She’s one of the few people who can come onstage and stand absolutely still and get people to come to her, and that’s a rare gift,” says the producer.

“I find the journey exciting,” she says, her shorthand for why she left the security of London to face possible unemployment or ignoble failure in New York. (She tends to talk a lot in terms of journeys, paths, and other activities that don’t necessarily suggest physical transport.) Since hitting town, Henshall has been absolutely, positively identified three times as Parker Posey. “A friend of mine says, ‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous if someone was going up to Parker Posey right now and saying, ‘Are you Ruthie Henshall?’ “

Just give it a week.

Theater: Alien Being