Arlene Phillips began dancing at a very young age. ‘I was one of those kids that was dancing before I could walk,’ she tells us. Her first love was ballet and Arlene had grand plans of taking the world by storm with her perfect piroutette but sadly it was not meant to be. ‘I was never going to be a ballerina,’ she admits, ‘I didn’t have the right physique.’ But she didn’t let this stop her. As we all know, Arlene went on to have a long and varied career in dance.
A list of Arlene’s achievements is enough to stop anyone in their tracks. In the Seventies Arlene was the driving force behind the hugely popular dance troop Hot Gossip who were noted for their risqué shows (and she’s still challenging conventions now). She brought a whole new meaning to I Wanna Dance With Somebody, producing music videos for everyone from Whitney Houston and Tina Turner to Freddie Mercury and Elton John. By the 1980s she’d found her way into film, working on such iconic movies as Annie, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Legend with Tom Cruise. In the theatre world she’s worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Michael Flatley... the list goes on. She was also on that TV dance show, perhaps you’ve heard of it – Strictly Come Dancing? Anybody who’s anybody is queuing up to work with her – she might not have become a ballerina, but she’s still sitting pretty.
And now...? Her new show The Songbook of Judy Garland will be coming to the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield this week (29th June–4th July). The show, which is on it’s UK premier tour, has been taking the theatrical world by storm. ‘It’s something I’m very proud of,’ Arlene beams, ‘It’s as big as a West End show but put together in half the time.’ It’s certainly an ambitious project. What Arlene describes as a ‘song and dance through the life of Judy Garland’ is actually a bumper collection of all the well-known songs that Judy Garland sang in concerts, films and recordings. Me and My Shadow? Check. By Myself? You bet. Over The Rainbow? Of course.
In addition to performances by the West End’s favourite cheeky chappy, Ray Quinn, the show also stars Lorna Luft, Judy’s daughter.
Like all the best stories, Arlene’s involvement in The Songbook can be traced back to 1970s New York, Studio 54 and some crazy showbiz parties. It was there that Arlene met Lorna for the first time. ‘I met Lorna through a mutual friend,’ Arlene explains, ‘We became really close friends, going out to Studio 54, clubs, bars, restaurants, dance classes – anywhere you could go in New York to have a great time and a great time we had.’ The friendship formed there was enough to last a lifetime – when we asked Arlene why she wanted to be part of The Songbook, she very sweetly replied ‘I knew that Lorna was coming over and anything Lorna is doing I want to be a part of.’
Having Lorna in the cast is clearly a big coup for the show, but even Lorna couldn’t overshadow her mother and the real star of the show will be Judy herself. Not only does the production feature never-before-seen footage and interviews with the actress, but she will sing many of the songs herself (a recorded performance of Over The Rainbow will be Judy’s heart-wrenching swan song) and, through the power of technology, she will be brought to life on stage. Yes, you heard me correctly, with the aid of the finest projection equipment Judy Garland will appear on stage 46 years after she died.
‘Modern technology,’ Arlene ponders, ‘I hadn’t realised quite how far we could go with it. In one number Judy is singing and dancing with our dancers on stage. It’s such fun.’
The use of technology in this production promises to be outstanding – the old and the new will be brought together in one beautiful production. This might be theatre for the 21st century, but Arlene has always been a pioneer of new and exciting dance. In addition to the Wizard of Oz (with many tricks and treats) and Starlight Express (unbelievably performed on roller skates), Arlene has been involved in many talent shows and dance academies and this is where she’d like to go next. ‘I’d love to do another dance show on television,’ she says. ‘I think there is room for another show – more people are dancing than ever before and it’s just wonderful for dance.’ Sadly for hardened fans it won’t be Strictly, but keep your eyes peeled for what’s next from the Queen of Dance.
The Songbook of Judy Garland
29th June–4th July
0114 249 6000
NB: Since our interview with Arlene Phillips it has been announced that the show will terminate its premier tour in Brighton on the 11th July due to Lorna Luft’s ill health. We would like to take this opportunity to wish her good health and best of luck for the future.