‘The trembling is real’: how does it feel to sing a musical showstopper?

·6-min read

Let It Go, from Frozen

‘I’ve never experienced anything like it in my whole career’

Sung by Samantha Barks

It’s all there in the lyrics. When I sing this song – especially at a really big performance of Frozen such as The Royal Variety – I feel something similar to Elsa, her expectation and her anxiety. The lyrics are written so beautifully that you shed a layer with every Let It Go. Each time, a different kind of anxiety is released. What will people think of me? It doesn’t matter. Let it go. What if I unleash my powers? It doesn’t matter. Let it go.

On opening night, I took my glove off at the beginning of the song and saw that my hand was shaking. In that moment, I forced myself to let go of my fear. As the song continues, you feel freer and freer. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my whole career.

A lot of Elsa’s journey is about her mental health and trying to keep it in check: “Conceal, don’t feel.” She mentions this over and over again. Let It Go is all about forgiving yourself. You don’t have to be restrained any more. You don’t have to judge yourself or beat yourself up. Stop trying to hide or change. You are amazing. That’s the beautiful message of the song.

Cabaret

‘It’s like going down one of those flumes at the leisure centre’

Sung by Amy Lennox

This song starts in a really raw place. Sally, pregnant, has just had this huge row with Cliff. She runs into her dressing room and is then suddenly called on to the stage. She’s completely wasted – everything is bubbling away in her head. The beginning of the song is rough. She’s really just crawling through it. She has probably already decided to get rid of her baby. And the song solidifies those feelings.

The way it ends, in our production, it’s like Sally is being sucked down into hell. She falls through the stage. It’s a bit like going down one of those flumes at the leisure centre. You’re just spat out the other side. It’s hard to not be affected by the song, to shake it off at the end and not be Sally any more. But there’s also something really cathartic about it. I let go when I’m singing. It feels incredible, visceral, like a punch in the gut. When I come off, I descend through the stage on this strange little lift. I’m trembling, and the trembling is real.

I like to think the audience is feeling what Sally is feeling. It’ll shake them up. When I sing, “Life is a cabaret, old chum. Only a cabaret, old chum. And I love a cabaret”, I really land on that word love. This is my moment! I own this song. I don’t care if I’m going to die. I don’t care what happens to me. Whatever I have chosen, this is my hell. That’s what Sally is saying. And I hope that ricochets through the audience. When she sings that last note, it’s pure pain. Suffering. Desperation. Defiance.

Footloose

‘If the audience aren’t all dancing I haven’t done my job’

Sung by Josh Hawkins

Deep down, everyone in the audience responds to this song in the same way. It’s about not caring about anything else, just cutting loose for three minutes. It really helps me to think about the song as if it’s being performed at a gig. With these music shows, you have to realise that, as much as it’s a musical, it’s also a concert. By the end, you want to have everyone boogying away.

The first performance of Footloose after Covid was brilliant. We’d been waiting to open the show in Zurich for over two years. There was such a sense of relief – the audience in Switzerland went crazy. We got a roar as soon as we began. That’ll stick with me for ever.

A sense of coming together is what makes this song so special. That’s why it’s so important to get the audience dancing. So much has been going on over the last two years, a lot of people have forgotten how to enjoy themselves. This show is about everyone dancing together. If that doesn’t happen, I feel like I haven’t done my job.

The Phantom of the Opera

‘Sound and colour come rippling out of me’

Sung by Lucy St Louis

It’s a captivating song. I hit a top E at the end and that feeling of soaring is so thrilling and euphoric. There’s a lot of running involved, too. After I go through the mirror in the dressing room, I run up a 16-step staircase on to a bridge. Then I run across the bridge, which is angled upwards. And I have to do all of that in just the first couple of chords! Then I take a second, breathe, and start singing this huge number. “In sleep he sang to me, in dreams he came.”

The audience has seen Christine cross the bridge plenty of times already. Normally, this is done with doubles, who make it look like she is everywhere. But I decided that, since there’s only one other person in the company that looks like me, I would do the bridge crossing myself each time. Representing black women and diversity in this show, I don’t want anyone who isn’t the same ethnicity representing me. Landing that top E after all that activity feels like a much more real part of the journey. It feels like such an achievement.

There’s this magnetic pull between Christine and the Phantom throughout the song. I never feel like it’s a duet, though. It feels like a solo: the eye contact, the chemistry – we’re so connected it’s like we’re one voice. When I get out of the gondola to sing those final notes, the pull between us is so powerful. It’s like there’s a golden thread connecting us, as sound and colour come rippling out of me.

And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, from Dreamgirls

‘When I finished the song, I just broke down and cried’

Sung by Nicole Raquel Dennis

I was obsessed with Dreamgirls growing up but I could never sing the show’s big numbers. It was only when I got into my 20s that my voice developed enough. It was also a confidence thing. The more I discovered about myself and my voice, the more confident I became about trying bigger songs. Dreamgirls is such a big score: it scares everyone, but it’s one you want to sing all the time.

And I Am Telling You is an iconic song, which means there are going to be hundreds of covers and comparisons. It has been difficult trying to separate myself from that. The big thing I’ve done is steer away from trying to sound pretty all the time – it’s not a pretty song. Effie is at her most desperate point and your heart breaks for her. So my personal twist is to try not to shy away from the ugliness inside this number.

One of my most memorable performances was when I played Effie for the first time when I was understudying. I was 22 and I didn’t think I was ever going to go on. When I finished the song, I just broke down and cried after the curtain came down for the interval. Sonia Friedman, the producer, was watching in the wings and she came out and we stood on stage and cried for about five minutes. It was one of the most incredible moments of my career.

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