ANITA HARRIS enjoys magic moments at the New End Theatre
From The Ham & High, April 2009
After years in the business, Anita Harris explains to Bridget Galton why she is looking forward to the intimacy of the 100-seat New End Theatre for herlatest role - a tribute to former West End and Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence
WHICH is scarier? Being scrutinised by hundreds of people in an enormous theatre or being watched up close by a tiny audience?
Anita Harris, who has played the Palladium many times, isn't phased by either.
The 66-year-old is preparing to play Gertrude Lawrence at the 100-seat New End Theatre and thinks the venue's intimacy enables "some lovely little magic moments of character development".
She said: "People are so close you welcome them in. It's a very friendly space that feels warm."
Lawrence was a West End and Broadway star in the 20s, 30s and 40s, creating the role of Amanda in Coward's Private Lives and Anna in The King and I. G&I - Going Into Battle With Gertrude Lawrence is a musical comedy focusing on Lawrence's rehearsal for an Ensa concert during the Second World War.
As she recalls in her 1945 memoir A Star Danced: "After weeks of more or less patient waiting, repeated timid, pleading, urgent, and finally importunate requests to the authorities who rule such matters in Washington and London, and a rapid-fire barrage of telegrams, cables, and telephone calls, it had happened. At last I had permission to do what I had been wanting desperately to do for four years - go to England and do my bit on a tour for Ensa."
Within hours of landing she was performing for US and British troops about to embark for the D-Day invasion of Normandy - including her third husband Richard Aldrich who was a US Navy Lieutenant. "She was an enormous star in America - perhaps the first woman to become a huge Broadway star - and she was Noel Coward's muse, he wrote plays and musicals for her," says Harris. "Her new husband had been sent off to war for the past four years and she was at a sparkling but vulnerable stage in her life. "What attracted me to the script was the chance to play this feisty, funny, crunchy lady who handled tough situations with wisecracking one-liners. "She loved performing. Her whole being from a child was about being on. It was real life that took it out of her."
The play sees Lawrence talking to her pianist about her life as she rehearses songs by the likes of Gershwin, Coward and Cole Porter, and is bossed around by an Ensa organiser.
Harris says Lawrence had that "unexplainable magic" of a star performer. "Other people may be more talented or can do each individual thing better but she had the magical combination - that inner joy that made audiences love her."
Harris' own epiphany came when watching Doris Day in Calamity Jane at the age of 13. "I remember coming out of the cinema five foot above the ground. It was something in her, a spirit that made you bubble up with excitement and happiness."
At Harris' convent school, she was encouraged by a singing teacher and cast in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals including Iolanthe and Pirates of Penzance. She also trained seriously as a figure skater, becoming the training partner of world champion Courtney Jones before heading off to Las Vegas as a Bluebell girl at the age of 16. "My parents had no thought about me performing but I was properly chaperoned, protected and looked after, and they thought 'let her fly she will come back'."
Her successful career has spanned records such as the 1967 hit Just Loving You, appearances in Carry On films Follow that Camel and Carry On Doctor, and West End roles including Grizabella in Cats and the lead in Steppin' Out. She has also notched up an enduring, loving marriage to her former manager Mike Margolis, although after two traumatic miscarriages they were unable to have children. "My darling husband is the most important thing in my life. I am so loved and although we were not lucky in the fact that we couldn't have children, we have so much else together."
Harris thinks being spotted by the Bluebell Girls' talent scout "had to be destiny," "I wasn't an ambitious girl at all but I loved singing and I have loved everything that I have grown into. I love the learning, growing, the creative process and team effort of performing - the applause at the end is the icing on the cake."
G&I runs at the New End Theatre from April 8 until May 3.