The cast of Opening Night get meta for their new musical

Sheridan Smith and the cast of Opening Night share the backstage secrets of Rufus Wainwright and Ivo van Hove’s new play-within-a-play musical

As much as we love a buzzy Broadway transfer or the latest jukebox creation, a brand-new British musical is always something to celebrate. This applies double when it brings veteran West End performer Sheridan Smith back to our stages. Smith is no stranger to heading up a major production – she’s been Audrey in Little Shop Of Horrors, Elle in Legally Blonde and Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, to name a few. Her resumé reads like a musical theatre student’s Christmas list. But originating the role of Myrtle in Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s Opening Night is a fresh challenge – this is a musical far more meta and self-aware than the average, and one in which Smith’s interpretation of the character will remain part of the show’s identity for years to come.

As Opening Night arrives at the Gielgud Theatre, we sit down with Smith and the rest of the cast to discuss what they find so compelling about this story.

Sheridan Smith in rehearsals for Opening Night

Sheridan, what’s the most challenging part about playing the character of Myrtle?

Sheridan Smith: She’s a complex character. She’s an actress who’s struggling to find a way into this play within a play that we do. And she has some moments of wildness and moments of darkness, and sadness. And ultimately, she’s struggling through it. The way Ivo van Hove is – he’s just a genius – he just lets you play in the space. We’re finding it all the time. Since it’s brand new, we haven’t got anything to go off, which is good. But we’re also so used to doing shows that everyone knows. I’m having to go to some dark places to find some of the emotion, but Ivo van Hove’s direction is that you just shake it off after each scene and you don’t live in the angst.

So, there are some very dark bits, and also some lovely bits, like particular songs where she feels free. She’s still struggling a bit but it’s more fun. She’s dancing and adventuring, kind of letting rip. It obviously takes a little darker turn later on – it goes full circle, and then they do the show. It’s all about the behind the scenes – you get to see them in the dressing rooms… I think it’s gonna be really interesting for the audience to get to see the workings of a show, not just the show itself, you know?

Do any of you have any opening night rituals or superstitions?

Sheridan Smith: You know, I don’t have any in particular. I’m always saluting magpies and things like that. I probably should be steaming. I’ll probably have to for this. Rufus Wainwright is amazing and has got the range of no one I know. So I might be looking after my voice and doing the things that I have to do, but actually all I want to do is put on music and blast it, so that when I’m on stage, and I’m in all that darkness, I can let go and have fun when I come off.

Shira Haas: It’s pretty new to me, theatre in general. But I’m trying. First of all, I warm up, always, always, always. Even before rehearsal. That helps me psychologically to feel more ready. Breathing, meditating. It can even be two minutes, just to feel good.

Benjamin Walker: I don’t know whether I believe in the superstitions, but I respect them. Like “the Scottish play”… whistle at your peril. Those kinds of things, you know, those traditions that connect you with people that have had scenery fall on their heads back in the day. These theatres are so old, and so many great people have worked here. What an honour to be there. You’re stepping on hallowed ground.

Sheridan Smith in rehearsals for Opening Night

What’s your favourite song from the show?

Amy Lennox: That’s really hard. They’re all so good. I might just say one of my songs! I feel very lucky – I’ve got a beautiful song called ‘Married’, which is about my marriage, and it’s kind of heartbreaking and gorgeous, and different to everything else in the show.

Hadley Fraser: I quite like the quartet we do in Act One, ‘Talk To Me’.

Haas: I hum these songs all day, everyday. My partner knows all the songs already just by me walking around the house and singing.

What is it about this show that you think will really draw an audience in?

Nicola Hughes: It’s just that they get to see what’s going on behind the scenes. Oftentimes, you come in and see a polished production, but you have no idea about the process to get it there. And sometimes it can be quite messy. Sometimes it’s beautiful and everybody’s happy, but when something goes wrong not every production company or team deals with it the same way, and in this instance, in the play within the play, I don’t necessarily think it’s dealt with very well. Everything is falling apart.

John Marquez: Often if you do see a backstage play it’s sort of an all out comedy, you know, it’s getting in the wrong place, turning up at the wrong door. This is the more serious side of what can go wrong if one of the actresses decides, I don’t want to do these lines, it’s not for me. It creates a sort of drama within itself.

The cast of Opening Night in rehearsals

Have you ever had to improvise lines onstage?

Smith: It’s weird, because in the play within the play my character doesn’t like the script, so she starts improvising. And I’m finding that quite hard because I’m not good at acting the improvisation.

There was one moment in Little Shop Of Horrors where there were meant to be phones set up. The whole song is about phones. Me and the guy who played Seymour, we had a whole choreography where we tie ourselves up, and the phones weren’t set. We lost it and just had to kind of wing it.

Hughes: I don’t know if I have. I mean, I’d be terrified. I’d be utterly terrified.

Marquez: I think I have dreams where I do it. And I do really well at first, and think, “Oh, gosh, aren’t I good?” And then it just doesn’t go very well.

The cast of Opening Night in rehearsals

Do you remember what the first musical you ever watched was?

Lennox: I didn’t like it. It was Cats. Everybody was watching Cats. I was young. Everyone was banging on about Cats – I think it had gone to the West End, so everyone was seeing it – and I thought, “Oh, what’s this?” And I watched the VHS. I just couldn’t get through it. It wasn’t for me at all. I didn’t really get into musicals until I was about 12, when I auditioned for the school show, and I went, “Oh, this is fun.” But you know, I didn’t love that first one. Sorry, Andrew.

Fraser: I had the same experience. I went to see Les Misérables when I was about 16. I think my mum took me down to Bristol when it was on tour, and I thought it was rotten. And then I’ve done it subsequently a couple of times. And then my school did a production of West Side Story and my brother got to Bernardo – the most Anglo-Saxon Bernardo you’ve ever seen. It wasn’t great. But I remember hearing the dance at the gym music, and even with the school band playing it, I was like, “What is this thing?”. It was amazing.

Could you describe the show for us in three words?

Haas: Fresh.

Walker: Psychological.

Both: Exhilarating.

Walker: We’re proud of those. There were a number of words that we ditched.

Opening Night is now playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 27 July. Find tickets here.