Above: Kara Lily Hayworth in Cilla The Musical at the Liverpool Empire. Photo: Matt Martin
Following a series of open auditions up and down the country, Sardines was fortunate to grab a chat with Kara Lily Hayworth to find out a little more about the actress who beat thousands of hopefuls for the right to play the coveted title role in Jeff Pope’s new stage adaptation of his original ITV mini-series, Cilla the Musical.
Kara dropped into New Wimbledon Theatre in August to talk about the brand-new show at the tour’s only London stop.
On a level playing field queuing with thousands of amateurs and professionals alike, Kara originally attended the London leg of the audition process at the Dominion Theatre. There, producer and co-director, Bill Kenwright, alongside Cilla’s eldest son and Executive Producer, Robert Willis, whittled down a nationwide list of thousands to just thirty.
A professional actress since 2010, Kara is still buzzing as she remembers her biggest audition to date: “I left drama school in 2010 so I’ve been out in the big bad world for a little while, but I must admit the thought of going to an open call was a huge risk. To start off with, even though I felt right for it, I thought they were going to find someone from Liverpool. I knew I looked right with the same sort of gangly body shape, and I knew I could sing the numbers… plus my acting agent thought I stood a good chance. So it was definitely worth going for. But there was a hell of a queue when I got out of the Tube at Tottenham Court Road that day. And we all had to line up together; as far as I know there were no short cuts or preferential treatment shown to anyone professional.”
Once shortlisted, the final thirty were taken to perform back to where it all began for Cilla (and several other pretty famous people), Liverpool’s world-famous Cavern Club. Kara explains how a completely untrained Priscilla White, with the help of some well-chosen friends, started off on the road to fame and fortune: “She got lucky. She sang in The Cavern and just happened to be friends with Ringo and the other Beatles when they were just starting out,” she tells me. “There’s a brilliant line in the play where Ringo says, ‘Oh, John wanted you to come up and sing,’ to which Cilla replies, ‘Well, I suppose if I’m gonna sing somewhere I might as well sing with me mates.’ …and you think, ‘Oh my God. That’s The Beatles!’ So that’s where it all started. It’s funny to think how all that actually happened; The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers… I was reading Cilla’s autobiography and the way she talks about ‘Beatlemania’ and she just says, ‘It was just my mates from back home.’ Extraordinary.”
A packed Cavern for a performer from Buckinghamshire is probably intimidating enough, but any fears Kara had were soon dispelled. “The Cavern is an amazing place, it was completely packed, and that was in the middle of the day,” confirms the redhead. “Not being from Liverpool I wondered if they’d like me, but everyone was so lovely – although I didn’t dare do the Scouse accent that day!”
The chosen thirty eventually became a quartet, one of which was Kara. “At the end of the auditions and recalls there were just four of us left, and I had absolutely no idea,” she excitedly tells me. And then came the news: “I’ve just got shivers thinking about it again. Just that feeling of being told I’d got the part was so extraordinary, which sounds really cheesy, but it’s kind of a life-changing moment. Not only is this my life for the next year but hopefully things might change for me after this.”
I’m pleased to hear that upon receiving the good news from Mr Kenwright this was one young lady who definitely did not keep her cool. “No! …ha, ha! I started crying, very embarrassing. I think I was so shocked because I didn’t even realise I was being told on that day. Bill knew the week before, and I think he wanted to see that moment.”
While rightly celebrating such a momentous achievement, at the same time Kara is very philosophical about the way the industry works. “Of course the other three girls had to hear another NO, but that’s the way it goes. I don’t know what’s worse; not to even get a first recall, or to get all the way to the end and then not get the part. They’re both heartbreaking in different ways. It’s a very tough industry with a hell of a lot of heartbreak. This is definitely my big break even though I’ve worked a lot and done some lovely things in my career to date. There have been a lot more nos than yeses, and I’ve been working on it for seven years.”
Not wanting to put too much of a dampener on the mood, I ask Kara, who trained at Central School of Speech and Drama, if she’s willing to elaborate a little more on how tough it is to continuously receive so many knock-backs. Can three years of drama school prepare you for that amount of rejection? “Nothing prepares you for that!” is the immediate response. “You can be prepared for jobs and how to operate in a working scenario, but the reality of leaving drama school is a bit like, ‘Oh my God. What do I do now?’ You go to an audition thinking that you’ve really nailed it – and then you don’t get a recall. And sometimes you’ll go up for things that you think you’re really right for – and you don’t get a recall. You can easily over-think everything and drive yourself mad trying to figure out what you did wrong. There were a couple of auditions that I went to just before Cilla that I didn’t get recalled for and I just wondered what was going wrong… and then this happened. Quite often there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to any of it.”
The twenty-nine-year-old is surprisingly grounded and mature in her approach to the industry. “I’ve always been quite tricky to cast. I’m not a typical looking girl next door, so I don’t slot into every show very easily. But then, when something is really right then… well, that’s why you should never turn your nose up to open auditions, especially if you feel that you are right for it – just go! Getting a no for something doesn’t mean you’re not any good, it just means you’re not right, or rather not what they want in at …that particular moment. It’ll come down to the silliest things; someone might walk into the room and look exactly the same as the director has envisaged a role to be. So even if you’ve been in before and absolutely nailed it, done everything right and to the best of your ability, then they’re probably still going to give it to the other person.”
In our previous issue you may recall actor, Zoe Cunningham, disclosing how only a miniscule percentage of the profession manage to earn upwards of £20k per year. Once again Kara is open to discussing the truth behind such an over-subscribed industry: “I haven’t earned anything like that since leaving drama school,” she says honestly. “It’s a bit heartbreaking when you have to get a ‘normal’ job outside of acting to pay the bills, but you do what you need to do. I’ve handed out flyers on the streets and other stuff like that. Luckily, for the last five years I’ve been either singing or acting in some capacity full time – which in no way means I’ve been earning a good living, because I haven’t – but I have been working in the profession, such as singing gigs where I pretend to be a waitress and suddenly pop up singing opera, which can be great fun. I’ve done all sorts of random things. To be in one job now until next year really provides a bit more clarity when, usually, it’s been one day to the next.”
Kara’s attitude to the amateur sector is also a strong one especially as it’s here that she caught the performing bug. “Training-wise, early on I went to Jackie Palmer’s on a Saturday which was a dance and drama school but, other than that, I just went to normal school. I did a show with the Chesham Light Opera Company [now Chesham Musical Theatre Company] at The Elgiva Theatre in Chesham which was where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver!  and, for Wycombe [Swan] Youth Theatre I did The Hot Mikado and West Side Story. That definitely gave me the buzz for performing.”
And of course without that initial experience, who knows what might, or might not, have happened. “It’s funny, without those productions I probably wouldn’t be sat here playing Cilla,” admits Kara. “To see how you’ve got somewhere in life, you can trace everything back to a line of tiny little moments, and without them that path would fall apart. Even being devastated at something you didn’t get always ends up being the right thing. You’ve got to believe that everything happens for the right reasons – otherwise you’ll never be content.”
One such ‘blip’ for Kara was appearing on television’s biggest talent show. “My career’s gone in a very wobbly line. I was in a four-piece girl band that got to the live semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent last year. We were signed to a record label for a little while which actually took me away from acting, and musical theatre, for a couple of years. Then we got dropped by the label – which is another example of how the industry gives and then takes away – and that’s when we went in for BGT but, as I said, it’s all led to the right place in the end.”
Kara offers more wisdom: “What’s also important is that you mustn’t hold onto something that’s not working. If you get an opportunity you have to be ready to say ‘yes’ every time; ‘Yep, I’ll do that!’ Obviously you have to use your common sense and judge whether or not it’s going to serve you well, but if it looks like a good idea, it’s going to be fun and you could potentially get something from it, career-wise, then you have to experience it all.”
The new tour, which Jeff Pope himself has adapted from his own TV screenplay, started life in early September in Cilla’s home town of Liverpool and tours until 24 March 2018 when it finishes its run at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre. After that, with Wimbledon being its only London stop (7-11 November), you can bet that plans are already being drawn up for a West End run.
“I’m sure that must be in their minds, and that would be a dream come true,” says Kara. “I did The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Arts Theatre which counts as off-West End so Cilla would be my proper West End debut. Hopefully the tour will go down well. It’s a beautiful script by Jeff Pope and obviously has wonderful songs. It’s really a play with music about Cilla’s story rather than a musical so the way the songs happen in the story is the way they actually happened in situ whether she’s in the studio or performing on a TV show. If you were going to compare it to anything it would probably have to be Beautiful the Carol King Musical.”
Playing opposite Kara are Carl Au as Cilla’s life-long partner, Bobby, and Andrew Lancel who interestingly returns to the role of Brian Epstein. It’s an introduction by a young John Lennon to the music mogul that changes Priscilla White’s life forever. I remember sitting directly behind Bill Kenwright three years ago when Lancel gave an acclaimed performance in the title role of Epstein – The Man Who Made The Beatles – so it’s nice to see that Mr Kenwright also agrees with our review.
When it comes to the songs, Kara Lily Hayworth knows all too well how difficult they are to perform. “They’re all very hard songs,” she tells me. “I don’t think anyone realised at the time how much of a range Cilla had; a lot of the songs go from very low and do an octave leap halfway through. They’re tough numbers so I’ve been working on them a lot while also getting a bit of her personality through – without making it a pure copycat version. They don’t want an impersonation as such, but you obviously need to capture her spirit.”
Lastly, I can’t help asking about the incredible performance from Sheridan Smith who, of course, portrayed Cilla so well in the original ITV mini-serial. Has our new star received a message from the Funny Girl yet? “Not yet, but I’d love to. She was so wonderful in the TV serial,” gushes Kara, obviously a genuine fan. “I had a very small part in the film called The Huntsman that Sheridan was in, and she’s such a lovely person. So I’ve met her before and I hope she remembers… I’m sure she knows.”
After opening to rave reviews, let’s hope that by the time you’re reading this, a message from Ms Smith along with dozens of other well-wishers, are stuck to Kara Lily Hayworth’s dressing-room mirror.
For performance dates, tour info and tickets please visit: www.cillathemusical.com