Next week, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern's Hot August Fringe welcomes the Brighton Fringe 2011 Best Cabaret winner Miss Hope Springs. Her new musical show Je m'appelle Hope describes Miss Spring's return to Blighty after a spell playing in a seedy Parisian nightclub.
Her creator Ty Jeffries is the son of Lionel Jeffries of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame. As a youngster in Hollywood, Jeffries had dinner with Frank Sinatra and danced down Sunset Boulevard with Fred Astaire. He trained as a pianist at The Purcell School of Music in Hampstead and modelled for Jean-Paul Gualtier and Comme Des Garcons before returning to music playing piano and singing at venues including the Kensington Roof Gardens and The Ritz.
Tell us a little more about what we can expect from your show. Is Hope back for good?
Miss Hope Springs is a lot like Lassie, not in the looks department thank God, but in the fact that she is always moving on, like Chaplin’s sad clown. Who knows where her faithful winnebago will take her next, or what town or city she may end up singing in.
As for what to expect from the show? Authentic lounge act glamour of the vintage variety. And all original songs performed live at the piano. My shows have been described as "Streisand-esque" and I love that. It really is an old school evening of grown up supper-club style cabaret. The modern twist being that this particular ageing starlet is performed by a man.
What was the inspiration for the show?
Watching too many Golden Age MGM musicals I suppose. My love of the Great American Songbook and the certain kind of woman who performed those fabulous songs. I wrote the Recovering Showgirl show for Miss Hope last year which revisits her years in Las Vegas and Je m’appelle Hope this year, which is the continuation of her Ritz to the pits fall from grace.
The classic American nightclub singer of a certain age always has a repertoire that spans from Rogers and Hart to Sondheim, from Harold Arlen to Burt Bacharach, perhaps from Kander and Ebb to Michel Legrand with possibly a Lennon and McCartney thrown in for good measure. Miss Hope has an entirely original repertoire that does, I hope, the same job, taking the audience on a musical emotional roller coaster ride. If I have made the audience laugh and cry during an evening then I can say to myself, like that terrifying old midget lady in the movie Poltergeist, ‘my work here is done’.
Are there any new songs you're looking forward to playing?
Oh yes..there are eleven new songs in this current show. From tart, witty, point numbers such as Satan in Satin to smouldering torch songs such as When your Man is Gone. Of course I enjoy playing them, I wrote them! If I don’t who will? But seriously, the great thing is that audiences really do respond to the songs on an emotional level and, although the numbers are fresh to their ears, there are always people who leave the theatre singing them...which is very affirming. They also buy my CDs, available now from my website and to download on iTunes.
How has London changed since you began performing here?
Don’t get me started...I was in the States for a number of years and living out of town in this country, but coming back and seeing what Boris has allowed them to do to the Borough and London Bridge area is heartbreaking. Borough was always such a magical, historic place, the ancient market, those wonderful back streets and Dickensian yards. Now it’s been pulverised.
Borough Market will never be the same...that's a thousand years of history out the window. And don’t get me started on windows either. The horror that is white UPCV. I even wrote a song about how awful they are. Vile. Everywhere you look are rows of lovely Victorian, and older, houses with mismatching badly designed plastic windows and doors...the joiner’s handmade sashes dumped. It’s vandalism.
Are there any London venues you played in as Ty that you would like to play in as Hope?
I am working my way to the London Palladium of course. It’s the natural venue for Miss Hope Springs to play. I saw Bette Midler there when I was about 16. I had never before been in the midst of so many whooping and hollering queens. It really changed my life. I went in there a winsome school boy and came out a fully formed gay man.
Strangely (or not so) I also started my show business career in a gay bath house as did Bette. I used to play the piano and sing in a, erm, "Sauna and Spa for Gentlemen" in Covent Garden. I think it’s still there. It was the famous performer’s nightmare, but reversed. I was fully clothed...it was the audience who were naked.
What would your father think of your show? Did he approve of cabaret?
It depends what you mean by ‘cabaret’, the meaning of the word seems to have changed a great deal over the years. If you are talking about sophisticated late night entertainment, a comedian, impressionist, magician or singer performing their beautifully crafted act...then yes, he would have loved it. If you are talking about what passes for cabaret in most cases these days, then...no.
The late Danny la Rue was a great friend of my father. He and my mother often went to Danny’s famous nightclub in Soho in the 60s where Danny worked his act with a young Ronnie Corbett. My godmother was singer and dancer Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Josephine Baker’s pal from "Le Revue Negre", who owned the famous Paris and Rome Jazz club "Chez Bricktop’s" which is where my father met her. So you could say it’s kind of in my blood.
How has the culture of celebrity changed since your father’s day?
Without stating the obvious, people who were celebrities in my father’s day were usually people in possession of at least a modicum of talent. But then again, there have always been those who were filthy rich and drop dead gorgeous, or those who were simply famous for being famous, or those who led interesting lives or those who were renowned.
Look at the Kray Brothers...celebrities for all the the wrong reasons. My parents had many glamorous parties back in the day and the house would be full of celebrities, no...the stars of the time. From Morecambe and Wise and Dick Emery, Diana Dors and Peter Sellers, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal, Anouk Amee and Albert Finney, Fred Astaire, Shirley MacLaine and Lee Remick and so many more all hung out at our family home near Pinewood Studios when I was growing up. To me the WAGS and "kiss and tell" darlings of today don’t even register on the celebrity scale.
Do you have a particular process when creating new shows?
I usually have a vision of the piece as a whole and then I work towards making it a reality. Songs, dialogue, costumes even lighting cues I can see it all fully formed in my minds eye. I always have a deadline when writing a show. I love a deadline... almost as much as I love a good line.
How did you go about choosing Hope's stage outfits?
I design them myself and then have them made. Miss Hope is trapped in her heyday (Las Vegas in the 1970s) and her wardrobe reflects that. All she has is a handful of glamorous costumes she managed to rescue from her dressing room at the Pink Pelican Casino before it was dynamited and turned into a parking lot.
What would Hope think if she met Ty?
I think she would adore Ty of course! 6’ 2” of shaven headed, man-genius. Handsome, talented...single. What’s not to love?
When preparing backstage for a show, do you have an essential bit of kit?
Well, my makeup box contains a vast array of essentials. It takes me a good two hours to get into character. And every stage is important when I undertake that journey from me to her. But it’s not until the hair goes on that Hope is fully "in the room". And after the show the wig comes off, Ty is back and it’s "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Springs has left the building".
Jonny Woo has spoken about the physical toll of being a performer which resulted in him being hospitalised for multiple organ failure in 2006. How close to the edge have you sailed in your career?
Poor Jonny Woo! Has the boy never heard of chicken soup? I’m glad he’s better now. For a start Mr Woo is far more "rock and roll" that I am. I come from a "straight" theatre background and I think being classically trained helps you stay on an even keel.
You have to take care of yourself or you are no good to anyone. And I don’t intent to cheat a paying audience of the best I can give. A siesta is of paramount importance and I would certainly recommend to His Royal Wooness the miraculous curative properties of the ‘power nap’. It’s a must for any artist. "Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care" - I love that quote. I don’t want to boast, but all my internal organs, I am happy to say, are in full working order.
Given a thousand quid and no work the next day, what would be your ultimate night out in London?
Well my current show is about Miss Hope’s experiences in Paris while her Winnebago is parked in the Bois De Boulogne and she is singing in a seedy Pigalle "boite de nuit". So say, if I had just arrived in London on Eurostar, I would meet my great friend the dashing and charming Jeremy Hackett for a "pick me up" at the new "Booking Office Bar" at the Kings Cross Renaissance Hotel. Then possibly we might meet up with some lovely people and go for a splendid dinner somewhere like Scott’s. Then I could simply stagger back to my suite at Claridges, just around the corner. Anything left over from the budget would go probably go on Nurofen.
Have you had any interesting heckles?
I love a good heckle but I am lucky that people are genuinely very nice to Hope. She usually gets heckles of support and sympathy. For example when Hope reveals that husband Irving ran off with another man there are often cries of "the bastard!". People feel for her. She is thoroughly likeable soul and not at all the one dimensional drag "bitch" that people might expect if they haven’t seen my work.
Although you are no longer a model, do you still follow fashion?
I read Vogue darling...but who doesn’t? I wear Hackett of course. Not that they do women's wear and certainly nothing in sequins. But when I am in man mode I wear Levi’s 501s, vintage stuff and a few pieces of Hackett which have that vintage feel to them but a with modern edge. I don’t really do "fashion" I think so many designers and their followers take themselves, and fashion itself, way too seriously.
And talking of falling from grace, I knew John Galliano back in the day when he was starting out and it makes me wonder if some people actually DO sell their souls somewhere along the line. Oh I do pick up the occasional fabulous vintage accessory for Hope, or a funky T-shirt for Ty, from ‘Earl Of Bedlam’ on Clapham Road, near the Imperial War Museum (which used to be the Bethlehem Mental Hospital or ‘Bedlam’ hence the name). It’s a very cool store.
What tips would you offer anyone going to London for the first time?
Walk everywhere if you can, I think its the best way to see London, and these days probably the least stressful. Also do try to make the most of London’s ravishing parks. What a joy they are. And of course you have got to find one of the few remaining old double decker Routemaster buses, the Number 9 is still running them I think. You simply can’t beat them for atmosphere and for seeing London in style. “Ding ding...plenty of room on top love”. Heaven. And don’t forget good fish and chips with a side order of white sliced bread and butter washed down with a cuppa from a proper big old metal tea pot.
What are you up to after the show? Are you taking the show up to Edinburgh?
To be honest Edinburgh is not really my style...I was never fond of zoos. I recently signed a book deal for my autobiography which I am in the midst of writing, so will crack on with that. I have lots of gigs here and there around the country and I sometimes do a Sunday afternoon show upstairs at The Cambria Gastro Pub - its fabulous! They do a great Sunday lunch and cabaret affair. Do pop down sometime.
Also… Miss Hope Springs has been invited to do a season in February 2012 at Leicester Square Theatre, oh, and I have been invited to Provincetown USA to do a run in a little theatre there which is very exciting. But until then, Miss Hope’s Winnebago is going in for a much needed service, and as I have been going non stop for the last year, I am going to be taking a well deserved rest. I don’t want to end up doing a Jonny Woo now do I?
Miss Hope Springs will be at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern on August 17/18 as part of their Hot August Fringe. More details and advance tickets here.
Keep it tuned to Londonist for more zingy cabaret tips every week.