The first thing that you notice about Jodie Steele – when you meet her – is that she is absolutely nothing like her onstage persona, Heather Chandler.
In fact it took me a while to adjust to the laughing, happy-go-lucky actor’s real personality, such is the sullen image she oozes in the cult show currently at the Theatre Royal Haymerket.
It was completely coincidental that Sardines was able to speak with the triple threat just one day after 100% capacity audiences returned to theatres in England. This arguably meant that the thirty-year-old was even bubblier and bouncing off the wall more than usual.
With one half of her producing team also featured in this issue [Paul Taylor-Mills], this edition is fast-becoming a Heathers Special… which is probably just how a cult hit should be treated!
How has your return to THIS HUGELY POPULAR SHOW been going?
“Oh wow! It’s been amazing! Last night [Monday, 19 July] we had our first full capacity audience who were amazing.
“I thought I was done with the show too, so when Paul [Taylor-Mills] called me up I thought do I really want to do it – when I felt I should stay at home really. But then I saw it was just a twelve-week run I also thought, ‘Why not. Let’s just do it!’ And it’s at the Haymarket again so it does feel like going back in time a little bit!”
“The only thing that’s taken a bit of the shine off it is that I have dear friends who are also performing in shows that have had to close for a few days while people self-isolate. But as soon as 16 August comes, and we can rely on not having to close a show if someone tests positive, then I really think that theatre will be back properly.
“I also find the football thing really strange. I mean I love it but it just doesn’t make any sense in my head how that can happen. I saw the video of Andrew Lloyd Webber who’s pulling his hair out and is fighting for the entire industry.”
Do you all have to test every single day?
“Yes we do; lateral flow. It’s just part of the way it is now. I just wake up, do my lateral flow and send it to my company manager. It’s just got to be done. It should be part of life for the next few months and I am an advocate now that Covid has become part of our normality, like the flu. As long as the death-rate doesn’t rise then I’m really in the camp of ‘let’s continue with life.’”
You mentioned 16 August. Why does there always seem to be a 4-week extension?
“It does feel like that doesn’t it. But the main point is that theatre is ready right now.”
We also saw you in War of the Worlds (5 years ago), although I had no idea you were in it UNTIL I turned up at the Dominion.
“Ha, ha! I know. I was in the ensemble. I think that was one of the most challeng-ing things I’ve done in my whole life… and the Dominion’s a big theatre, huge.”
I hope you didn’t need to audition AGAIN?
“No, no. The producers and the creative team asked me to come back. Mind you, considering the role they asked me to bring back, I should really take that into account. Ha, ha. What are they trying to say! Ha, ha!”
Does a different cast provide a different vibe?
“Yeah! It’s an entirely different experience to when I did it before. It feels like a different show but obviously that’s not the case. I have an entirely different journey every night and I have a completely different Veronica – Chandler relationship than I did with Carrie [Hope Fletcher]. Carrie had to be in with the dark side of Chandler even though she didn’t really want to, while Christina is completely in awe of the Heathers and looks at my character through rose-tinted glasses. She completely adores and is even a little bit obsessed with her and, the way Christina does it, is made very obvious. She’s fascinated with Chandler when she’s alive but, when Chandler’s dead, it’s like a magnet for her. So, yes. It’s an entirely different playing field for me.”
It looks like the new cast have some impressive credentials too?
“Yes, Christina was in Bat Out of Hell with Jordan (Luke Cage] – who’s now also in our show…. also my other half, Liam Doyle, will be touring as Kurt. We’ve been together for five and a half years now; we met when I was doing War of the Worlds! Ha, ha.”
You have to die in Heathers – just like in SIX – although poison might be considered a better end than getting your head chopped off!?
“Erm… yes, I think ‘head chopped off’ is probably a little bit more painful. Ha, ha, ha! But it is quicker, that’s for sure.”
Did you have any idea of the show’s cult following when you first signed on the line?
“If I’m entirely honest, I didn’t really know the show. So no! It’s weird, it was such of a flop of a film [starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater] that became really popular about twenty years after it came out… which is such a cult thing. I was off in Asia doing Elphaba in Wicked, and Liam actually did the first ever workshop at The Other Palace – which ignited the fire of the whole Heathers journey over here. We were about twelve hours apart and he’d be face-timing me saying, ‘Babes, you don’t understand, the atmosphere,’ and I was thinking, ‘Sure, sure, I am in Wicked so I do get it!’ But I didn’t and I wasn’t prepared. I’ll never forget the day that we opened at The Other Palace and hearing the roar of the audience – which is only three hundred people – when the Heathers doors opened and we were revealed. Me and the girls just couldn’t hear our music; we were saying ‘When do we turn? Ha, ha.’ Then to open at the Theatre Royal Haymarket twelve weeks later with a bigger audience was just mad! To get to live that again last night was very emotional. I knew what was coming and I was so pleased for my cast. Don’t get me wrong, the audiences of three hundred were incredible, but it was probably another step up.”
Have you received any weird posts around playing Heather Chandler?
“Most of the time it’s very positive; I think I get to redeem myself as Chandler when she’s dead. She’s kind of on Veronica’s side… ish, and at other times she’s not. But she’s kind of in Veronica’s subconscious mind to steer her essentially in the right direction to go against JD in the end.”
“Having said that, I have had a couple of posts sent to me which asked: ‘Did Jodie choose to play that part so meanly?’ I thought, ‘Surely you could see that the script is the way it is?’ It’s written like that! Blame Kevin [Murphy] and Larry [Laurence O’Keefe] who wrote it! I have a love-hate relationship with social media, like Paul [Taylor-Mills]. On the previous Heathers contract I was really into the social media. This time, I don’t have a Tik Tok account and only use Facebook to check whose birthday it is. I do like to post some things on Instagram but I don’t really look at it or scroll through stuff… unless I have a rare ten minutes which doesn’t often happen. On Twitter I sometimes tweet about my dog and the weather sometimes. I do have a lot of thoughts and opinions on things, but choose not to share them because 50% of people will agree with you and 50% will want to troll you on the Internet. I know some people revel in starting a debate but, for me, I like to have a conversation with someone rather than putting it out there in a public forum. I’m definitely less of a social media fan than I was in 2018.”
Is it worrying that you play a bitch so well? – You’re very good at scowling!
“Hang on, let me do the face for you now… [does the face!] My passion in life is performing and acting. Yes, I love to sing and dance. I wouldn’t say I’m the best at either but acting, for me; telling stories and creating characters is absolutely my passion. I think that through my little career it’s always been the characters the most removed from one’s self that are the easiest to portray. I know it’s not like that for everybody, but it is for me.
“I remember in SIX they wanted a Katherine Howard who was an extended version of Jodie and I really struggled to find that. ‘How do I do an extended version of myself onstage?’ I’m ok in one-to-ones or small groups, but big groups like press nights are a nightmare, I completely cower in the corner. So for me to play that character I just have to completely get rid of Jodie and go on as Chandler.”
Paul Taylor-Mills told of his am-dram days with great fondness before turning pro. do you have any similar stories?
“Actually, I was really late into theatre. I never knew if I would ever get a shot at acting and didn’t really know what to do. I grew up in Basingstoke on a council estate, went to quite a rough school – which I didn’t particularly enjoy – so singing was a great way of releasing that and was also probably my saviour. So I kind of started out as a singer-songwriter. I went to the Academy of Contemporary Music in London for a year, before deciding to take my place at GSA [Guildford School of Acting] that they’d already offered me.
“I was the underdog of the century and felt like the odd-pod in my year. So, I had to work so hard and have continued to take that mindset with me. I’ll never be the most talented person in the room but I’m probably the most hard-working grafter.”
Above: Paul Taylor-Mills. Photo: Mark Senior
Our regular series of coffee-break interviews
15 minutes with… Paul Taylor-Mills
Paul Taylor-Mills is Artistic Director of the Turbine Theatre, located in London on the banks of the River Thames in the shadow of the gigantic grade II listed Battersea Power Station.
Nestled in the arches underneath Grosvenor Bridge, the thirty-something from Kidderminster launched the new 200-seat theatre at the back end of 2019 (they do say it’s all about timing).
In partnership with theatre impresario, Bill Kenwright, Taylor-Mills came straight from Victoria where he used to run The Other Palace in Victoria for Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Sardines caught up with the hard-working ex-amateur theatre member just as he was preparing to launch a number of Turbine initiatives, as well as the West End’s relaunched cult hit, Heathers the Musical.
How’s life at Battersea Power Station?
“It’s absolutely bloody wonderful! I feel very lucky and rehearsing in a room again – with real people – feels very, very odd. There’s a weird mixture of absolute fear but, at the same time, exhilarating excitement because we can actually get on with our jobs and do what we used to do.”
Was launching the Turbine Theatre been one of your best ideas to date?
“I wouldn’t go that far, ha ha! I’ve run other buildings before, such as The Other Palace in Victoria, and I always think you’re better set up the second time aren’t you, mainly because you learn how to do things. You learn who are the right people to put around you, and anyway opening any new building is always a challenge. With the Turbine, it was very interesting because we opened with Torch Song which was a huge hit, followed by High Fidelity which was less so. Then, we were just getting into our stride and understanding what the work was we were trying to make, who the audience were – and all of those kinds of things. And then the world stopped. Now we are able to properly continue it is so exciting. We have been active for the last fifteen months doing things online and outside, but we have finally got the opportunity to pick up where we left off.”
‘MT Fest UK’ and ‘Rally Fest’’… one might wonder how you are able to do so much?
“To be honest I’ve had over a year to sit down and plan everything out, haven’t I. I’ve been beavering away and if the last year has taught me anything it’s the opportunity to read and really access what I want to be doing, the kind of work that I want to be making; all of those kind of things. That means making some of the decisions in terms of the content of Rally Fest and MT Fest etc. I’ve been able to use the time – which I don’t normally have – to work with writers on their material, to talk with actors about the kind of work they want to make. I’m a firm believer in looking at the more joyful things that have come out of the last year and, for me, that has certainly been one of them. It’s given me the time to plot rather than doing the usual chasing around and trying to make stuff happen.”
The Other Palace position alone would be enough to satisfy most people, but not you?
“It was great and you learn things from everything you do. But we all have one shot at life don’t we and you need to find that one thing that wakes you up in the morning, particularly in theatre. What is that one thing that really gets you excited, that lights that fire in your belly? For me, it’s a challenge, it’s knowing that you’ve got a show that you believe in – but how do you cast it and market it? If you put the right people around the table then you give yourself the best possible of succeeding.”
Bill Kenwright and Andrew Lloyd Webber have obviously seen YOUR spark of success?
“I hope so. And I’ve been very lucky to have met such influential mentors. I have a huge amount of respect for Andrew, as a creative, I mean he’s probably the most famous living composer in the world. I’ve learned a huge amount about the landscape of musical theatre in this country. Bill has also been there for many, many years and has an incredible level of loyalty to me and respect for me. It’s amazing to know that I can call on him whenever I need to. I feel he’s really played the long game with me, which is one of the things he’s done incredibly well. I wish that every show we’ve worked on had been as successful as Heathers for example. But this is theatre and it’s not really the way it works. When we’ve been working on a show that hasn’t been as jolly as it was with Heathers, Bill has really been there for me.”
Heathers and In The Heights are obviously two musicals you must be very proud of. Is spotting the right show a gift?
“Perhaps, but I think it’s quite subjective isn’t it. It’s like your opinion of a musical; I always compare it to a chocolate box at Christmas. There are so many kinds of musicals that other people love that, for me, just don’t resonate. Different people respond to different work, and talent works the same. I’m interested in developing new audiences and so I’m always thinking about what I could do to engage younger people for instance. In fifty years’ time we still want to have people going to the theatre.”
Have you been involved in the filming of In The Heights at all?
“I haven’t, although I have been sending them all the love and respect in the world. I’ve seen all of the trailers of course and they’ve really moved me. When I produced In the Heights the world was pre-Hamilton of course… I think it was probably just a distant idea back then. The world has changed since those days and, I have to say I’m still friendly with Lin [Manuel Miranda] who is an incredible man – without whom I don’t think I’d have the career that I have. When we did In The Heights I was a wee boy looking to find my fortune as it were. So I’m very grateful to him for giving me that opportunity because it put me on the map and have people take notice of me. It was an incredible show to have been a part of.
“Going back to Lin, he’s hugely inspiring to everyone who meets him and he’s got this unfaltering passion, and to see his progress to world domination, whether it be film or theatre, is amazing. He keeps his feet on the ground, he’s hugely humble and, speaking of social media, Lin uses those platforms for good. It’s a great opportunity to use a great example of the digital world we now find ourselves in – and that’s been very important to all of us over the last fifteen months.”
The ability to befriend the industry is a powerful talent to have in this age of social media, yes?
“Yes, and I think I’m probably part of that generation that you can market using social media. It was only really with In The Heights that I found out that social media could be used in that way, the same way that we might use print, newspaper adverts and billboards. So it’s quite important that people see me as somebody who’s quite open. I really have a love-hate relationship with social media, but there is definitely an intangible value to what it can bring. It can of course also be very noisy and, in many ways, really hurtful and hard. So I feel that to use social media in my work I have to maintain that healthy relationship with it. It needs to be used alongside your work though rather than like a personal diary. We’re in an age where everything is shared and I can speak very honestly about the value of it.
“With Heathers, for instance, there’s an online community that stays connected through social media and buys tickets to my shows simply because it’s been seen on social media.”
I read somewhere that you used to be heavily involved in amateur theatre before becoming professional?
“Yes! And these are some of my favourite memories. Actually, the reason I’m so proud to talk about it – as someone who was brought up by a single mum, so we never had any money – is that when you’re broke, the only access to the arts and theatre can be via amateur dramatics. For me, growing up was really hard at times and amateur dramatics was my absolute escape that, in many ways, taught me my craft and what it was like to walk into a rehearsal room. It ignited my passion for the theatre. And I think that other kids who are out there now, perhaps even in Kidderminster where I’m from, may also be in the position that without amateur theatre I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.
“It’s so important that we never underestimate the power of amateur theatre and how meeting the right person at the right time could make something happen. The difference between living your dream or dreaming of living, experiences that amateur theatre can give you are so, so valuable.
“Mum could never have afforded for me to go to a private stage school, and am-dram allowed me to do that. For those kids also from a working class background and who don’t have a disposable income it is a lifeline.”
It’s apparent that your programming leans very much towards diversity and LGBTQ+?
“I do kind of think it’s what I’m kind of doing with the musicals work in lots of ways. Again, being a boy from a small town, if you’re gay and coming to terms with who you are as a person, it’s very easy to be frightened to face up to your own space and be yourself. I was in a very unique environment where my mum encouraged me to be me and I just think as I’ve got older I’ve had some incredible experiences thanks to the generosity of the people who I’ve met.
“I can actually give more opportunities to under-represented voices to bring them into the spotlight a bit more. I’m going to try and open conversations that, at times, are difficult. In doing Rally Fest at The Turbine in the spring, I’ve been giving work to trans artists, gay men, lesbian artists and every single conversation I have with these people, I’m learning, and I think it’s crucial to allow for these opportunities to happen so we can all learn. Then we can enter into a safe space where we’re allowed to ask questions, make mistakes… but with an underlying respect and sensitivity. I think I’m in a very privileged position where I’m able to do something like that; that’s really why I came up with the idea of Rally Fest. I think I have to do that.”
The team over at Stubhub have delved into Spotify Data to discover the soundtracks that get the world singing the most…
Ever since 1728 (the world’s first musical, The Beggar’s Opera!) we have been tapping our feet and shimmying along to our favourite musical theatre tunes. But what are world’s ALL TIME favourite hits? To see both of the top 100 lists and discover where your favourite song sits, visit: www.stubhub.co.uk/backstage/content/best-loved-musicals/
Top 5 Movie Musical Hits (no. of listens)
1. The Greatest Showman – Rewrite The Stars (416,207,352)
2. Grease – You’re The One That I Want (174,869,256)
3. Moulin Rouge! – Lady Marmalade (161,849,896)
4. La La Land – City of Stars (125,947,336)
5. Dreamgirls – Listen (80,023,410)
Top 5 Broadway / West End Musical Hits (no. of listens)
1. Hamilton – Alexander Hamilton (114,934,000)
2. Dear Evan Hansen – Waving Through a Window (72,017,121)
3. Wicked – Defying Gravity (66,636,045)
4. Heathers – Candy Store (32,693,819)
5. The Sound of Music – Preludium (23,225,451)
Other movies that make the cut include Hairspray, Mamma Mia!, Fame and many more. When it comes to the onstage picks, Jersey Boys, The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, Matilda, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Chess all make the top 20!
In order to compare songs, a list of popular musicals was created using IMDB and What’s On Stage as well as looking at Spotify playlists to determine which musicals people are listening to. Then all the songs on musical albums that have at least 1 million listens were looked at. Only true musical movies are considered as opposed to those films featuring singing such as A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody and Once. To create the final ranking, the top song from each musical was used. While top 20 features the most popular songs from 20 productions, the full lists feature 150 songs as a comprehensive collection.