Haley Flaherty has appeared in a range of musicals in and outside London, from Chicago and Mamma Mia! to Love Never Dies, but the Scottish actress shines especially brightly as Miss Honey in Matilda, the Olivier Award-winning hit, which continues its sold-out run at the Cambridge Theatre. Playing a kindly schoolteacher who forms a special bond with the singularly talented young girl of the title, Flaherty brings a lilting soprano and an unaffected sweetness to a role originated by American Lauren Ward. Broadway.com talked replacements, Andrew Lloyd Webber sequels and working with kids in a wide-ranging conversation with the gifted 31-year-old performer.
You took over as Meg Giry in Love Never Dies on the West End, and now you’re playing Miss Honey in Matilda. It must be lovely to join an established hit.
I actually joined the cast the day after the show won seven Olivier Awards, so it was great to come into a show with that kind of buzz. Matilda was my favorite book growing up and obviously I loved the [Danny DeVito] film.
When you auditioned, did you have to do the cartwheel that Miss Honey and Matilda do at the end of the show?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t; I suspect the skirt I was wearing wouldn’t have allowed it, anyway. But I did have to sing “My House,” which is a hard song to learn for an audition. They phoned me on a Monday, I got offered another job on Tuesday, and then the Matilda people phoned back within half an hour with a contract!
Was there pressure that came not just from replacing the original Miss Honey, but taking over for an actress [Lauren Ward] who is married to your director, Matthew Warchus?
What was unusual for me was that they had only ever had Lauren as Miss Honey, whereas I had been used to shows like Chicago and Mamma Mia! where you’re one of a sequence of women who came before you and who will follow you. It was clear when it was time to replace Lauren that they knew they would have to be open-minded in terms of what someone else would bring to the part. I found out later that they hadn’t been finding anybody, and that when I walked out of the audition, they went, “Yeah!” So, that felt nice [laughs].
Were you worried about a role that requires interaction with a stageful of kids, including the prodigiously talented young title actress?
You would be silly to go up for this show without being prepared to take that on board. I don’t have children myself yet, so it’s been amazing for me to watch the bonds that get created with these young kids, especially the Matildas, since they’re the ones I spend the most time with. These kids are amazing. I couldn't have begun to do what they're doing at that age.
What's the secret to playing someone good and kind without for a minute becoming cloying?
What matters for Miss Honey is that the classroom is her domain, and within that, she recognizes that something has to be done about this amazing girl [Matilda] who has come into her midst, even when everyone around her says no. She is one of those genuinely nice people, but for me, it’s not about playing “nice”; it’s about layering the part, as you would any role.
And about giving Miss Honey some backbone so she isn’t just a pushover.
Miss Honey is in no way weak. She has lost her parents and she thinks she knows who killed them, and you are watching someone who has been abused her whole life working in the same place as her abuser. But what you get from the writing is the way in which the character grows. Every night, I have to remember those parts in the show where Miss Honey’s strength is very definitely up. The script is written so well and and makes such perfect sense.
What are your memories of appearing in the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies?
Well, we found out we were closing via social networks and from the papers, which seemed strange. The odd thing is that once we knew we were closing, it was like, “Oh, okay, we’ve got three months left; let’s give each performance everything we’ve got.” I remember thinking to myself that if the audience loved The Phantom of the Opera, then they would surely love another Phantom of the Opera, but that turned out not to be the case. One thing I will never forget, though, is the cast and crew on that show. They were so nice—spectacularly so.
You’ve carved out quite a career for yourself in musicals. Was that always the plan?
I actually came down to London when I was 11 to go to the Royal Ballet school and studied for two years before I realized that I liked tap and contemporary dance more than classical dance. So I ended up at age 16 going to Laine Theatre Arts [a performing arts college in Epsom, Surrey] instead; I knew London better than I knew Edinburgh or Glasgow, the nearest cities to where I grew up.
Can you envision a time when a former Matilda will become old enough to play Miss Honey?
Maybe I'll stay on and play [the librarian] Mrs. Phelps!