Scarlett Strallen has been spending the better part of a year at London’s Palace Theatre, twirling an umbrella and sending her lilting soprano soaring into the hearts of audiences in Singin’ in the Rain. The hit musical revival brought her an Olivier Award nomination for her take on Debbie Reynolds’ screen role, heroine Kathy Selden. A veteran of Mary Poppins on three continents as well as the recent, much-acclaimed London revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, the multi-talented actress chatted with Broadway.com one recent afternoon about tackling iconic roles, getting wet on stage and off, and being part of a celebrated show biz family.
Congrats on what has become a long run in Singin’ in the Rain. Are you staying dry?
Thank you! I’ve done long runs in the past, but with this show, the joy surrounding it has been so great and the reaction so constant, it really hasn’t dipped. Obviously, we have had to embrace water in a big way, but that’s all right; we are, after all, such a rainy country [laughs].
I’ve seen the production several times, and the company seems to adore splashing the audience, especially those seated down front.
It’s amazing how the audience seems to love being saturated; it’s hard for us not to get carried away!
What's your feeling about taking on Iconic roles in two iconic musicals—the title role in Mary Poppins and now Kathy Selden?
I do like to challenge myself, don’t I? I’d be lying if I said I never watched either of the films. I grew up with both those movies—all the MGM musicals, in fact. What’s important is to embrace the spirit and the charm of those two performances, from Julie [Andrews] and Debbie [Reynolds]; they’re both idols of mine, and I have their spirit somewhere in the back of my mind. On the other hand, I have to look at it completely freshly as an actress and think of things I can bring to the part that make it mine.
Did you feel that Singin' in the Rain would become a hit when you were starting in Chichester, the summer before last?
Never! At the dress run we were all thinking, “Gosh, we have no idea how this is going to go tonight!” You tend to have a vague idea with a show, but we really, really didn’t: The script is quite old-fashioned, and the emotions go in a second from zero to 100. We just went for something that we thought was right and that was told truthfully. And what do you know? They just went mad for it, and here I am at the Palace through February, at least.
Were you surprised to land this role?
That’s an interesting question. I am looking to challenge myself, and as much as I adore this, in a funny sort of way, it did take me in a completely different direction from the one I imagined I was going in. But to be honest, I’m just happy when anyone gives me a job [laughs].
Was that because you came to Singin’ in the Rain having just played Clara in Jamie Lloyd’s revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion?
Yes. That was a wonderful experience and got my juices flowing for serious stuff. Then came Singin’ in the Rain, and I thought, “That’s not what I thought I’d do next,” only to realize I haven’t lost my desire for this kind of show. And as an actress, I can honestly say that I look at Kathy Selden in the same way as I would a classical part.
Speaking of Passion, you didn’t strip in the opening number, as Marin Mazzie did in the Broadway premiere.
After I got the job, I thought, “OK, I’ve got to get to the gym and get in shape because I might have to get my bits out.” I was fully prepared for that, I really was. So there I was on the first day of rehearsal, still slightly sweating, when they said, “We’re going to put you in lovely bloomers and a corset.”
How did it feel to lose this year's Best Actress Olivier Award to the quartet of girls who shared the title role in Matilda?
I was in such shock that I was even nominated [as Kathy Selden] that I genuinely didn’t mind. The thought of getting up and speaking is quite terrifying, and I was just so glad that I got to be there and to wear a beautiful dress. And [the girls] were very, very cute! They seemed so incredibly natural, as if they were genuinely enjoying themselves.
Of course, you began performing on the West End when you were even younger than most of the Matildas.
I did my first West End show when I was eight: Aspects of Love with Sarah Brightman and Michael Praed at the Prince of Wales. My dad [Sandy Strallen] was the dance captain. There was a little part for young Jenny, and I said to my dad that I really wanted to audition, and he said, “I don’t know about that.” But I did, and I got the part, which I don’t think he thought I would. The whole thing definitely came from me.
It’s extraordinary the extent to which your entire family is defined by show biz —your three younger sisters [Summer, Zizi, Saskia] and your parents and your aunt [West End vet Bonnie Langford].
When you have working parents in the theater, it’s just very much part of your life. As a child, I would spend a lot of time in the theater with my dad, so if he was working, say, on Sunset Boulevard, I would be up in the lighting box doing my homework. It was so much part of my growing up, I just thought, “Go for it!” Whenever I walked into a theater I felt at home, and to this day, I still do.
Did any of you ever think of being a vet or an accountant, just to be different?
The funny thing is that I was always dedicated to the theater, whereas Summer [now in Top Hat] wanted to be a vet and to be the opposite of what I wanted to do. Later, we were joined in the business by Zizi, who’s about to be in Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, and Saskia, who is doing 9 to 5 on tour. I suppose none of us could really imagine doing anything else, though we do have other interests. But the theater is so much fun. It’s the best job in the world in which to get paid.
You celebrated a landmark birthday earlier this year. What was that like?
I turned 30 in July and had drinks with some very dear friends. The tricky thing about the theater, and especially doing eight shows a week, is that time goes so quickly and you can often feel as if you haven’t seen friends for a long time. It was great to have a room full of nearest and dearest, and my husband [musical director Nicholas Skilbeck] organized a little piano and bass. It was a lovely night!