Josefina Gabrielletrained at London’s Arts Educational Schools London before starting her career as a soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal. Following many memorable rôles in productions such as the National Theatre’s Oklahoma!(with Hugh Jackman), 2009’s revival of Sweet Charity and the recent UK tour of The King and I, she is soon to return to the West End as Gussie Carnegie in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along. Maria Friedman’s production of this reverse chronology coming-of-age musical was a huge success at the Menier Chocolate Factory last year, selling out and extending for two weeks. Lucy Thackray caught up with Josefina about her part in the show, couture choreography and why the six o’clock news is music to her ears.
You’ve just started rehearsals for a West End run of Merrily We Roll Along, after an enormously successful spell at the Menier Chocolate Factory. What’s the atmosphere like?
Yes, this is day four, I think. It’s lovely, the Harold Pinter is the most beautiful theatre – and I’ve never met such wonderful stage doormen, they’re so warm and welcoming and the whole atmosphere is just great. It’s a lovely new home.
Are there many changes for the West End?
We have one cast change – Samantha Mercer who played Dory was pregnant during the run at the Chocolate Factory and gave birth two weeks after we finished. So we have a Merrily baby! And we have a lovely actress called Julie Jupp who’s joined us, so she’s been thrown in at the deep end because of course we have a very fast turnaround. And we have two swings, which we didn’t have at the Chocolate Factory. So a slightly bigger company.
Tell me a bit about your character, Gussie. She’s a bit of a femme fatale isn’t she?
She’s a very driven woman who’s come from nothing and grasped her way to the top, blatantly using people along the way – I don’t think she’s ever hidden anything. She’s quite on the level, just very focused and grabby. Once she knows she wants something, all of her attention goes on getting that. She doesn’t take any prisoners.
What drew you to the show and the part?
I knew the show well and thought it was a wonderful show, so I was thrilled to fit the breakdown for one of the characters in this version. I love working at the Chocolate Factory, I love Sondheim and I love Maria Friedman, so it was a wonderful project to be part of. Then more and more people came on board and, by the time the show was announced, I felt like I was part of the coolest group in town. I felt like we should all have bomber jackets and swagger down the road together in sunglasses!
You mentioned director Maria Friedman, who was in the show herself at the Leicester Haymarket in 1992. Did she have a lot of great insights for this cast?
She absolutely wanted to see what you brought to the table; she embraced everything. One of her favourite things is ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’ – ask anything and everything. But she also very much knew how she wanted it to unfold, knowing the piece intimately, having been in it. Having also directed it for students (the original Broadway concept, with a younger cast), then directed it with mature people becoming younger, rather than the other way around. So I feel like she’s tasted every aspect of it and was very clear on where she wanted to go.
Did you expect it to be such a hit at the Menier? I’ve never had so many personal recommendations to go and see a fringe show.
You never know, when you’re part of something. You can only get excited about being part of it and about the people you’re doing it with. But it was a lovely atmosphere and a very gracious atmosphere; there was lots of love in the room. So it all came together. There’s always a rush, there’s never enough time, especially when you’re in a low-budget production, but the collaboration was so great that everything moved forward just beautifully. When the piece that you all love and believe in resonates with an audience and you’re getting the love back, it’s just the most gratifying feeling. And I suppose the subject is so universal – it makes you look at your own life.
“It’s like wearing haute couture
when someone designs movement on you –
it’s completely yours”
You have a really rich background in musical theatre, but you started off in ballet, didn’t you?
I went to theatre school from the age of 10, so we studied everything, but I specialised in classical ballet because it’s the youngest profession – you sort of study it now or never. I was lucky enough to get into a ballet school and have a very full ballet career before segueing into musical theatre. I worked abroad, in Portugal, and when I came home Kenneth MacMillan was casting dancers in his production of Carousel at the National Theatre, so the bridge from the dance world into theatre was such perfect timing for me, I was very lucky.
Then one of your biggest rôles was the National Theatre production of Oklahoma!, where you were the first Laurey to dance your own dream ballet.
In the West End or Broadway, yes.
That must have been fantastic.
Oh, it was the most extraordinary opportunity. It was so good in itself as an acting piece, with the most beautiful songs, and Susan Stroman choreographed it. To be in a room on a one-to-one with Susan Stroman and David Krane, who composed the dance music, and basically have a jam session where my favourite move was put together by a star choreographer and composer… I remember, even in the moment, thinking ‘this is the most exciting jam session I’ve ever been in’. It’s like wearing haute couture when someone designs movement on you; it’s yours, it’s completely yours.
Do you look out for rôles with dance or is it just one aspect of a project?
I love it when dance opportunities come along, because dance is the first of the three disciplines to give up on you, I suppose. With some projects, dance gets put in – some dance was put in for me in this [Merrily]. It’s there if you can do it, and that’s happened in a few other shows. And I’m always thrilled to still keep in touch with dance. It’s opened so many doors for me, some phenomenal opportunities because dance was required.
Are you based in London? What kind of theatre do you like best?
I live in north west London, yes, and I go to the theatre an awful lot. Over the years, you make so many friends and I love to go and see them in things. I love intimate, small theatres. That’s why working at the Chocolate Factory was wonderful. And I love rep too, because you’re purely there for the love, it’s all about the love. You’re certainly not doing things for the money in low-budget projects, it’s all about the story.
Do you worry that Merrily will lose anything in its new, larger venue?
The Pinter is a lovely, intimate theatre already so it doesn’t feel like we’re going to lose intimacy – if anything, we’ve got the intimacy and we’ve got the space to get lost in, because there’s a bigger area out there to look into. But I think there’s always that slight apprehension that you don’t know what makes the magic. That’s always there when you change something. There’s certainly no complacency that we’re bringing our hit show here to just do it again – we’ll have to give it lots of commitment and love and pray that the magic aligns.
What is the single best and worst thing about your job?
There is an absolute shared joy, a collective adrenaline, that comes from the energy that you exchange with the audience. It’s such a high that you get every night, and to have that appreciation of your work is wonderful. Repetition is a hard thing because you do eight shows a week. That’s a challenge, to keep it fresh every night. I am also quite fond of my evenings at home, which you don’t get many of. I love hearing the sound of the six o’clock news and knowing that I’m still at home!
Are there any dream rôles you’d still love to play?
That’s such a hard question, because I never know until I’m doing it. I did The King and I last year, so a return to Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I got the same feeling as when I started rehearsals for Oklahoma! –like coming home. I really appreciate their work and it’s an education every time you do an R&H because it’s always a new subject, it puts something on the map that you knew nothing about. It’s the same with Sondheim – he chooses subjects that you never would have known anything about, and suddenly you’ve got these reams of research to do and it’s fascinating.
Merrily We Roll Along opens at the Harold Pinter Theatre on 1 May (previews from 23 April). merrilywestend.com
Watch the trailer: