Samantha Bond was a Tony nominee for Amy’s View, played Moneypenny in the Bond (no relation) films, and appeared in Downton Abbey as Lady Rosamund—but only now is the 52-year-old actress tackling her first-ever musical. The new production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy Theatre features Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound as two con artists let loose on various unsuspecting Riviera culprits, with Bond as an Anglicized version of Muriel Eubanks, the glamorous divorcee originated on Broadway by Joanna Gleason. The protean actress spoke to Broadway.com about her fears of singing and dancing in public, and taking a vocal cue from her former Broadway and West End co-star, Judi Dench.
Here you are in your first musical. Had you been angling to sing and dance on stage?
No, it came completely the other way around! My agent rang and said, “They’re doing a new musical and I’ve suggested you for the part of Muriel,” and I said, “I don’t do musicals; Alex [Bond’s husband, Stephen Ward alum Alexander Hanson] does musicals,” and my agent said, “But I’m sure you can.” So I went away and thought about it and listened to [Muriel’s] big number and thought, well, if I was going to have this experience, it couldn't be more phenomenal than to have it in this company.
What was your audition like?
There were ten people there, including [book writer] Jeffrey Lane, [composer] David Yazbek and [director/choreographer] Jerry Mitchell, and I sang the song with my back to the entire room—which is precisely what you’re taught not to do—and then read for them. Jerry put his arms up and twirled me around in a waltz and I left the room feeling the whole thing had been a total disaster, but thank heavens I wouldn’t have to do it again. Then before I knew it, I had the job.
Was it difficult gaining confidence in yourself in a singer?
It was. At first I didn’t want anybody to see my singing, and it took a very long time for me to overcome that. For a long time in rehearsals if anyone beside the musical director came in, I completely froze and turned my back on them again. It was quite a journey to go from singing in a cupboard to singing in front of 1,400 people [laughs].
Had you really never sung in a show before?
The last time I sang in public was in pantomime at the Bristol Old Vic some 30 years ago when I was a year or two out of drama school. I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be doing it again.
Did you take a leaf from your friend and former co-star Judi Dench (Amy’s View), who always says that she sings the way she speaks?
I think that is the way to approach it. Even Alex, who sings properly, always says that the reason you break into song in a musical is because speech is no longer enough and, following that logic, that you should be singing as you speak, as it were. What Judi says about singing is all I can do.
Leaving the vocals aside, how does it feel to be part of a big West End musical, with all the expectations that entails?
You become really aware with something like this of the scale of it and the fact that it’s a huge undertaking quite unlike being in a straight play. And I think when there’s so much riding on a project, then all the pressures are greater: musicals are such expensive machines.
Tell us your thoughts on Muriel—she’s British in this version, which of course she was not on Broadway.
Very British—she comes from Surrey! What was useful for me was that I never saw the show on Broadway or the film, so I was able to approach the whole thing totally fresh. I think of Muriel as someone incredibly wealthy who’s recently divorced and is looking for love, and her one drive in life is to be useful and helpful. She’s smitten very early on by Robert Lindsay, who beguiles her by pretending to be a prince. She’s an innocent, an absolute innocent.
It certainly feels like luxury casting to have you in this role.
[Laughs.] I don’t know that [my colleagues] think that at the moment! But what’s been most extraordinary has been the love and support our ensemble has given me. There are moments where I have been literally shaking with terror and the young dancers have put their arms around me and held me and championed me and picked me up; I’ve literally been blown away by their support.
What’s been the most exhausting aspect of the job?
The stairs at the Savoy! There are 55 stairs down to the stage and back up again to my dressing room and then there are 13 to the exit, and I’m forever going up and down. I added it up about a week ago and it was something like 976 steps that I have to climb every night.
Good heavens! That’s a far cry from the demands of playing Lady Rosamund in Downton Abbey. How has that been?
What’s been interesting is that my character only arrived in the last episode of the first series, so by the time I got there, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I think the older members of the cast in particular were aware that the show was being done so carefully and with such style—such attention to detail—that by the time I got there, it was as if a delicate perfume was hanging around the entire project. I’ve been filming again this week, mostly with Laura Carmichael [who plays Lady Edith], and I’ll be filming again over the summer.
With your two children, Tom and Molly, now entering the profession as actors, might we at some point see an all-Bond/Hanson project?
[Laughs.] Only if someone writes a rather extraordinary play!