Jacinta Whyte tells Marjorie Brennan how audiences appreciate the lighthearted moments in the musical version of Angela’s Ashes
JACINTA Whyte can remember taking home her first pay packet when she was just ten years old. “It was a show with Jack Cruise in the Olympia Theatre,” recalls Whyte, about to tour to Cork and other centres with Angela’s Ashes: The Musical.
“I was working in the pantos in the Olympia and the Gaiety. My life was literally school, come home, do your homework, get the rollers in, go to the show and come home, back to school the next morning. The nuns would be: ‘Off gallivanting again, Miss Whyte doing your singing and dancing, full of yourself, we’ll knock you down off that high horse’.”
Fortunately, the nuns never managed to that, and Whyte is riding high with one of the most important and challenging roles of her career. She plays the title role in the musical adaptation of Angela’s Ashes — the mother who is at the centre of Frank McCourt’s bestselling memoir of his hard-scrabble childhood in Limerick. It is also a novelty for her to originate a role, giving her the opportunity to mould it from the start.
“In a lot of the work I’ve done, I’ve had the privilege of taking over roles from other people in these shows that go on for a long time, with recasting again and again. When I went into Les Mis in London the first time, I think it was on the fifth cast, then I went back into the seventh cast, eighth cast and ninth cast. And when I was in Miss Saigon, I went into the sixth or seventh cast and then I was there till the eighth or ninth cast. So, for me, this was the first time anybody played Angela McCourt in a musical so it’s really nice.”
It is also a taxing role vocally, with the character of Angela delivering some powerful and emotional numbers.
“It’s quite a sing for me. She starts young and then I end up where Frankie’s going off to America, when he’s a teenager. So there’s quite an emotional journey, which is nice to play.”
This is the second outing for Angela’s Ashes: The Musical, which previously toured Ireland in 2017, to rave reviews. Whyte says that the enthusiastic reception from audiences was a gratifying one, particularly as there was some scepticism about a musical based on a book steeped in poverty and neglect.
“It’s not like the dark film from the ’90s, it’s more true to the book. I think audiences were sceptical, you know, ‘Angela’s Ashes the musical, what next?’. But when they came? I think we did something like 40 performances and we had a standing ovation every night.
“People took it to heart, I think because they didn’t know what to expect. And there’s so much comedy in the book. It is very Irish — how we laugh at ourselves, because if you don’t, you’ll cry. And then there is the lilt of the writing of Frank McCourt in there, and the big dramatic poignant scenes as well — that’s the beauty of it. It’s the Irish Blood Brothers —where you’re crying one minute and the next, you’re rocking around, howling with laughter.”
Whyte was the archetypal Billie Barry kid, singing and tap-dancing her way from Late Late Show appearances to the title role in the original West End production of the evergreen musical Annie in 1978.
“I just loved it. I was doing the pantos with Maureen Potter, The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne. Crona, his daughter, was a good friend of mine and I used to go out to their house for dinner, it was so exciting. People make fun of the Billie Barry kids but we had a great time. There was nobody there doing it because the parents wanted them to do it. Kids will only do what they want to do.”
When she finished school, Whyte headed to London, where all the opportunities were.
“There was no work in this country, the shows were brought in. So that’s why I had to leave, I would never have left home otherwise. I was doing the cabaret circuit in Dublin and I thought ‘this isn’t for me, I’m going to the West End’. So I packed my bags, took £500 out of the TSB, bought a plane ticket to London and just went and literally knocked on doors and slept on sofas.”
Whyte’s training and her powerful voice stood her in good stead and she went on to carve out a hugely successful career in musical theatre, starring in productions from Les Miserables to Miss Saigon.
The Artane native lives outside London with her husband, orchestral manager, Stephen Hill and son Callum, who has just started university in Manchester. She says she finds it ‘terrifying’ that she has lived outside Ireland for more than three decades.
“I still call Dublin home but I’ve lived longer in the UK,” she says. However, living near London has its advantages, especially when it comes to taking a ‘busman’s holiday’.
“I’m very lucky, I have a lot of friends in the shows, so I’ll get the train up to London and I’ll sneak into a matinee. I recently saw Patti LuPone in Company [Stephen Sondheim] — I went to see it twice, she is one of my idols. And Hamilton, it’s just so innovative musically. Also, Waitress, which my husband worked on, so I got to go to the dress rehearsals. And I’m waiting for Dear Evan Hansen to come. People often say to me, what do you like to do when you’re not working? And I go ‘listen to musicals’. It’s a bit sad but I do love musicals.”
As for a wish-list of roles, Whyte still has plenty on her radar, even if the range available has narrowed.
“I would love to have played Eva Peron in Evita but I think my time has gone with that. I’d love to play Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers and I’d still like to play Grisabella in Cats. But as I get older, it’s harder for women, because a lot of the roles in musical are for younger women. I am a huge fan of Sondheim — I’d love to play the witch in Into The Woods or Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
“The age I’m at now, there are older parts, but not particularly for my age. You’ve left the young ingenue parts behind, and it’s difficult for people then to see you as a more mature woman. That’s why when Angela McCourt fell into my lap, I thought ‘this is manna from heaven’.”
She also believes the role of Angela has been symbolic in the sense that her career has come full circle.
“It is quite lovely to have started as a kid playing Annie — and now I’m playing Angela. From Annie to Angela. So it’s quite nice for people to identify me with Angela rather than saying ‘Weren’t you the one who sang ‘Tomorrow’ with the dog?’.
Angela’s Ashes, The Musical is at BGE Theatre, Dublin, from Sept 9-14 and Cork Opera House from Sept 16-21.