Michelle Ryan spent many years on the popular British TV show EastEnders and crossed the Atlantic to take on the title role in the short-lived 2007 reboot of The Bionic Woman. Now, the 28-year-old Londoner is preparing to make her West End debut as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which begins on October 4 at the Savoy Theatre, directed by Rufus Norris. Broadway.com caught up with the charming Ryan during the production’s pre-London tour to talk iconic roles, Liza Minnelli and the bionic demands of playing the divinely decadent Sally eight times a week.
Cabaret most recently ran on the West End in 2006, helmed by your director, Rufus Norris. Were you aware of that production?
I’m friends with Kim Medcalf, who replaced Anna Maxwell Martin as Sally, and I remember thinking that it was just incredible: so dark and edgy. I then had a quick chat with Kim when this came up, and she said, “You’ll have so much fun playing the role.” In fact, the opportunity had come my way before, at a time I couldn’t do it, but being 28 and not 21 or 22 allows me to bring a lot more to the role.
It’s unusual for a director to revisit a show in this way—to revive his revival, so to speak.
I think it’s an incredible way of getting something right! It’s as if they’ve been on this journey for the past six years, finding the best way to do justice to Kander and Ebb and Christopher Isherwood’s work. It’s not often that you get to revisit a project in this way. The response from audiences on tour has been amazing.
You get to remind us that the character of Sally Bowles, as written, couldn’t be further from Liza Minnelli, even if she did win an Oscar for her performance on screen.
You’re absolutely right. People say to me, “How does it feel playing Liza Minnelli?” and you think, “Actually this character was based on an English girl in her early 20s.” I went to see Liza in concert at Hampton Court Palace and met her with my mum, and it was very exciting; she was very sweet. But I know that Kander and Ebb have always been happy for people to bring their own interpretation to the part. With all full respect to Liza, it feels as if the part is being loaned to me.
How would you describe your take on Sally?
Because I have a dance background, [choreographer] Javier de Frutos said that he really wanted to push the dancing and make me much more physical than past Sallys: to get at the physicality, which is really at her core. Sally’s quite clownlike in some ways, and she’s this vulnerable, damaged young woman, and Javier is great at finding ways to bring the role to life.
I gather you’ve somewhat altered the opening.
I think Anna opened with “Don’t Tell Mama,” whereas we start with “Mein Herr,” which has a real grit and strength to it. So it’s a nice arc to start there and move toward the ending, with Sally as this broken woman. We played around and found a lovely spot for “Don’t Tell Mama,” which in our production is more of a vaudeville piece.
As for the title number, the tendency these days is to play it as a breakdown, not as the anthemic triumph associated with Minnelli.
To me, it’s about combining the dramatic breakdown with remembering that Sally is on stage. Despite the drugs and the alcohol and the manic depression that Sally is struggling with, she’s still a professional. It is a cabaret number she is singing while still having this breakdown and going on this journey. So it’s a mix, really; I feel as if it’s growing all the time.
Does this part feel out of left field to you, or does it make sense within your career?
People don’t realize that what I wanted originally to do was musical theater. When I was 15, I got accepted to Laine [a drama school south of London] and also got offered EastEnders. I took the work because it was work, and that led me on a journey of mostly film and TV. But I was in a local drama group in north London between the ages of 10 and 14 where we did mainly musical theater. Even after I moved into TV and film, I was forever going to shows. I still remember Fiona Shaw in Medea and Rachel Weisz and Ruth Wilson in the plays they have done at the Donmar.
Do you think it matters that you didn’t end up at drama school?
I don’t have formal training, but I’ve always loved learning on the job. With The Bionic Woman, I learned martial arts, and I recently did a movie called The Man Inside where the heroine was an aspiring singer, which started me on my singing training. Playing Sally is definitely on a par with The Bionic Woman because you have to be uber-switched on; your mind has to be totally focused for two and a half hours, and there are not many things nowadays that allow that.
There’s always the question with Sally as to just how good a singer she is actually supposed to be.
I think she does need to be a great singer because people are coming to the Kit Kat Klub to be entertained.
Your co-star, Will Young, is also making his West End debut. What’s it like acting opposite a former Pop Idol winner?
This is a change of pace for Will, and he’s just lovely; he’s brilliant. There’s a bit where he comes on stage and takes my arm, which is a really nice, intimate moment. And my favorite song of the whole piece is his song, “I Don’t Care Much,” which is also the beginning of Sally’s emotional breakdown. It’s about creating a sparse, stripped-back environment that lets the raw emotion through.
Any thoughts of doing theater in New York?
I was offered a Broadway project right after The Bionic Woman that didn’t feel right, to be completely honest, and if I’m going to put myself out there, I have to make sure it’s the right project. That’s the thing about Cabaret: It feels absolutely right to me. My mum jokingly says that there are some similarities between me and Sally—except, of course, for the drug-taking and the gin-drinking and the prostitution!