Originally published on Musical Theatre Review:
Revived at the Southwark Playhouse, The Life at is a revival of a Cy Coleman musical which has not been seen since its original Broadway production 20 years ago.
Musical theatre star Sharon D Clarke, who was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list, plays Sonja, a prostitute in 1980s New York.
Musical Theatre Review’s Scott Matthewman chatted to her in the run-up to opening night.
First of all, congratulations on the MBE. Was that a big surprise?
Sharon D Clarke: Of course! Definitely.
Do you know who nominated you?
No idea. They don’t tell you, although I did ask. Whoever they are, I’m eternally grateful. It’s still a big shock.
Onto the show – were you aware of The Life?
Yes. I hadn’t seen it on Broadway, but I’d seen clips on YouTube and stuff like that. We have the album at home, so I knew all the songs. As a performer who does a lot of musicals, it’s in that place where you know it. It’s like Dreamgirls – we were just waiting for it to come [to London], and for The Life to come here too.
So it was always on my radar and Sonja was always a role that I thought, ‘yeah, that’d be a cool thing to do’.
Was it always Sonja that you wanted to play?
Yeah, yeah. As a performer, you listen to shows like these and think, ‘What can I do?’, you know what I mean? And Sonja was a role that I fell in love with. Her one-liners, the fact that she’s so dry, that she’s been doing it for a long time but it hasn’t worn away at her humanity, she still retains her self.
Does she take on a matriarchal role?
Yes. The relationship between Sonja and Queen is the closest thing you’ll get to a mother-daughter relationship in this scenario. Of course they’re not related, but I think she kind of sees what her younger self could have been and where her younger self could have gone.
She wants Queen to get out. She’s saying: ‘you can live a better life, you can do more than this. Don’t resign yourself to this life. Yes, I’m here, it’s my lot, I’m happy with it, but I don’t want that for you. You can do better.’
Would you say that The Life has a feminist outlook?
I would say the musical is about women being strong, knowing their own self worth and making their own choices.
You know, whatever judgement you want to put on people, in some cases the women out there have become prostitutes to feed their kids, to put a roof over their heads.
There’s a part of me that goes, we need to get it right – like in other countries, where they’ve legalised brothels so that women can be protected.
There is a speech about not knowing whether your next john [a prostitute’s client] is going to be Jack the Ripper on the make – having to take those kind of risks so that you can live your life. Not every prostitute is a junkie trying to feed a habit. They are working women like every other working woman.
And actually, if we had better laws that protected the women, instead of protecting the men, it would be a better thing for them. If that’s the only option you have, then you should be safe doing it. You shouldn’t have to worry about what disease you’re going to get, or if someone’s going to beat you up, or drag you off and kill you. We should be protecting these women.
As it says [in the musical] ‘as long as there are men, there will be johns and there will be hookers’. It’s as simple as that. Men are always going to do it, so protect the women.
Do you think the subject of prostitution is why The Life hasn’t been revived before now?
I think a lot of it is more about casting. One of the problems we have over here is that the Americans quite frequently think that they can’t cast stuff here. That is why Dreamgirls has taken so long, and why this has taken so long. And especially if something has a large amount of black folk, or is predominantly black, then [they think] they can never cast it.
That’s the problem, I think, they don’t think the talent is here. But the talent has always been here. And we’ve always been dying to do it. Here we are, this show has been cast, and they’re saying they got their first choice of cast. We’re here.
I was at the press night of Dreamgirls and overheard a conversation with people saying: ‘Well this cast is brilliant, but I don’t know how they’re going to recast it afterwards.’ Will you guys stop saying that? If we’ve got people in Britain commenting: ‘well, we’re never going to cast our shows,’ then we don’t stand a chance.
I think that’s more why it’s not been here before as opposed to the topic of prostitution. I kind of see Dreamgirlsand The Life on a par in that way of great musicals with fantastic numbers but have got a black cast in them, and we’ve had to wait 20, 30 years for them to come. And now we’ve got Hamilton coming, so hopefully the times are changing.
You’ve also got shows like Half a Sixpence where the entire cast is white…
And sometimes it feels like when the production team has been asked about that, they seem to fall over themselves to provide many different explanations of why that should be.
I didn’t see the quotes myself, but I heard one of them was like ‘historically there weren’t any black folk in Britain at that time’ – which is like, come on. Do your history.
There’s a fabulous TV programme where they are talking about Beachy Head Lady [a skeleton found in Sussex, believed to date from 200-250 AD and which has been identified as a woman of Sub-Saharan origin] and in York [‘Ivory Bangle Lady’, a skeleton dating from the 4th Century AD]. We’ve been here for ages. So that argument just doesn’t wash with me.
They just didn’t think about it. They thought: ‘It’s Half a Sixpence, it’s white.” But actually, think outside the box. You’re doing it in 2017, so think how you can bring that story up-to-date with your people and show a different side to it.
I always get frustrated because whatever show is getting put on, you are playing to a 2017 audience. And all art is a reflection of today, whether it’s science fiction or Shakespeare.
The audience should be able to see themselves reflected, especially in London. A London audience should be able to see that, see their community reflected on the stage.
In theatre, we’re asking people to step outside themselves and come into a world of imagination, whatever that is. Whatever the pieces, whether that’s a time-honoured classic, whether that’s a Shakespeare, whether it’s a piece of improvised theatre, whether it’s mime. You’re asking people to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours and come on a journey with you.
And so when you’re on that journey, there’s nothing wrong with teaching people something along the way or showing them a different way, and getting them to think outside the box.
I think that is our responsibility when we’re doing theatre. It’s not just to put on a show, but to educate and to get people to feel and to empathise. Because if people are going to watch what you’re doing behind a piece of glass and not feel moved, then there’s no point in doing it.
We should be doing everything that we can to include people and to show another, a different, a better way.
In terms of roles that you haven’t played yet, are there any you have your eye on?
I’m a bit rubbish like that. My other half says ‘oh my God’, because I don’t… I’m happy working, I’m happy doing stuff that challenges me, stretches me, puts me in a completely different situation amongst lovely people.
In my career, I’ve really only had one burning role that I desperately, desperately wanted to do and never got to – and that was Effie in Dreamgirls. And I’m now too old.
So I don’t know. I think Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! would be great, or Mame.
That would be amazing. Let’s put it out there now. A nice multi-cultural cast of Mame in the West End! Wouldn’t that be lovely?