An English woman in New York

SUFFOLK star Ruthie Henshall is a hit of the West End and Broadway, and as she moves to New York with her family, the time has come to tell her full fabulous story.

SUFFOLK star Ruthie Henshall is a hit of the West End and Broadway, and as she moves to New York with her family, the time has come to tell her full fabulous story.

This week brings a unique series by feature writer JAMES MARSTON, who flew to the Big Apple to meet the local girl and chart her life from the early days to Broadway.

AS I landed at JFK Airport, I was prepared to interview Ruthie Henshall.

I'd done my research, I was ready to fire questions, I knew things about her to fill any awkward silences, and I was briefed on the Suffolk girl done good.

When I climbed out of the yellow cab to face a New York tower block, I had an appointment to keep and I thought 'this is glamorous.'

As I waited in the comfortable, sofa-filled, atrium, I watched the building's staff check deliveries and the well-heeled residents passing in and out. When I signed the visitor's book, the concierge quickly and discreetly phoned upstairs to herald the arrival of James from the Evening Star. I was a minute or two early.

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There were no flunkies, no meddlesome press officers, no pretence - Ruthie and I had organised this meeting over the phone and now I was standing on the doorway to her home about to knock.

Ruthie Henshall opened her own door to a rather nervous Star reporter that morning, and it was her who quickly put me at my ease. She welcomed me, as Brits do abroad: “Did you have a good trip?” and “What's your hotel like?”

I liked the woman on sight -which, after the length of the journey, was a bit of a relief.

An easy conversationalist, a listener, a comic and a charmer, Ruthie is a joy to interview.

There not a sniff of prima donna-ism, no celebrity self-importance and nothing but friendliness and warmth. As she offered me a coffee and we sat down in her ninth floor apartment, it wasn't long before she was talking openly about her life.

As testimony to her raw talent, Ruthie has rarely been out of work in a profession notorious for its insecurity. The Olivier Award winning actress has been performing on stage or screen for nearly 20 years - rarely taking a break and seldom saying no to work.

This year she moved to New York, and her reputation as a professional actress and singer is secure. But where did she get her inspiration and where did her driving passion for showbusiness start?

Ruthie, 39, said: “I went to see a play the other day and I rarely see plays.

“Whether it is the lack of pace, or the fact that I have an appalling attention span, they just don't interest me. I was glad when it was over.

“But musical theatre has got acting, dancing, singing, music, scenery - there's lots going on and that is exciting. There is a complete suspension of disbelief so when you are in the audience you go right out of yourself.”

Throughout her childhood, Ruthie was surrounded by music and a love for the theatre. Her father David, a former Evening Star editor, and her mother Gloria, a drama teacher, both inspired her in her choice of career.

As she relaxes on the sofa in her apartment over nine floors above the hustle and bustle of New York's busy streets she can proudly reflect on her achievements to date. She said: “My father was in a jazz band and loved the theatre, and my mother was an English and drama teacher at Northgate High School.

“I think my mother would have liked to have been an actress herself. The whole family has always had a passion for show business.

Describing her own tastes as “miss middle of the road”, Ruthie said: “Dancing was my first passion then music took over from that. Music is a passion of ours and it is part of our lives. We don't listen to show tunes all the time!”

From the age of 16 Ruthie spent three years studying acting, dancing and singing at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom. It was as a student she got her first break.

She auditioned for her first role in a touring production of A Chorus Line and won the role of Maggie.

She said: “I have been lucky. I haven't had that rejection that others in the profession have had to deal with. I've been in work from my first summer season.

“I was spotted along the way and I have got the breaks you need in the profession.”

Ambitious and determined, for 16 years Ruthie didn't stop working.

She said: “I never said no to work so I was always there in people's minds. I've only had three holidays. This business is about being there and being available. If you are out off sight you are out of mind.”

After A Chorus Line Ruthie joined the long running show Cats at the New London Theatre, where she had the appeared in a variety of roles including Jemima, Demeter, Griddlebone and Grizabella.

At the age of 21 she was cast as Ellen in Miss Saigon at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Her career blossomed.

After taking on the role of Aphra in Children of Eden at the Prince Edward Theatre, Ruthie won a straight acting role and spent the following summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre performing in Shakespeare, Moliere and the musical Valentine's Day, based on Shaw's 'You Never Can Tell'.

In 1994, Ruthie was nominated for the second Olivier and won the coveted award for 'Best Actress in a Musical' for her portrayal of Amalia Balash in She Loves Me at the Savoy Theatre. Ruthie was now becoming famous.

After several other roles, Ruthie later went on to star as Roxie Hart in the opening production of Chicago at the Adelphi Theatre.

She was nominated for her third Olivier for her outstanding performance and won the 'Theatre Goers Award for the Most Popular Musical Actress in The Last 21 Years.

In 1998 Ruthie went to Broadway for the first time.

She said: “When I came here last time the reason was I had done everything I wanted to do in the UK.

“The only option for me was to do another show. I had just done Chicago and it was time to go to Broadway. It was an amazing experience and I worked very hard while I was here.”

After performing in a number of Broadway musicals - including Chicago, Miss Saigon and Putting it Together - Ruthie returned to the UK early in 2001 and the starring role in Peggy Sue Got Married at the Shaftesbury Theatre, gaining her a fourth Olivier nomination.

In December 2001, Ruthie joined the cast of The Vagina Monologues at the Arts Theatre for a six week run.

Following this,Ruthie made a return to America to appear in a series of free concerts to thank the American public for their help and support after the horrific events of September 11 - New York Loves America - The Broadway Tour.

In 2002 she collected an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from Suffolk College. Her heart remains in Suffolk but now married to Canadian actor Tim Howar and with two young children Dolly, three and Lily aged one, Ruthie's life is moving in a new direction.

See tomorrow's star for the inside story on Ruthie's big break, and the shows that helped her become the queen of the West End.

LIVE theatre can be a terrifying experience.

Ruthie said: “Once you have got through the first couple of weeks its normally okay but everyone suffers from nerves. The opening night of A Woman in White I didn't enjoy at all. I had a really wordy first entrance without a moment to pause.

“I couldn't wait to get to the end of the show. It wasn't until about three weeks into the run that I started in enhoy it when the part becomes part of your bones.”

But not everything always goes smoothly.

Ruthie said: “There are days when you just cannot connect with what you are doing and days when it all fits perfectly. “The audience do not know the difference.”

Sometimes the performer can simply lose their place.

Ruthie said: “During a performance of A Woman in White I had a moment where I couldn't figure out where I was or what I was doing. It was either a lack of concentration or you are observing yourself. Your mind can just wander and it can be terrifying.

“You think everyone knows what is happening. It happens to everyone at some point.”

Perhaps her worst moment came in a show called She Loves Me.

She said: “I did actually stop a show once. It was hideous. The orchestra came in and I stopped. It was a complete mess.

“I asked the orchestra to stop and I thought I was going to die. People love live theatre and for that reason I don't think anyone cared too much. They feel for you when it goes wrong but it's not an ideal situation to be in!”

Name: Valentine Ruth Henshall

Born: March 7 , 1967 in Bromley , Kent.

Ambition: Ruthie wanted to be a ballet dancer but she lacked the necessary physique.

Love: In the early 1990s Ruthie was linked in the media to Prince Edward after they met while working for the Really Useful Theatre Company. She remains discreet about the relationship.

She was formerly engaged to actor John Gordon Sinclair, but they separated in 2000.

She married actor Tim Howar in September 2004 , and they have two children. Until moving to New York the family lived in Manningtree.

Achievements in America:

In 1998, Ruthie headed to America to establish a career on Broadway. She won a leading role on Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, then starred as Velma Kelly in Chicago, and later in Miss Saigon and Putting It Together.

She returned to the UK in 2001 to return to the West End stage starring as Peggy Sue, in Peggy Sue Got Married, gaining her a fourth Olivier nomination.

James Marston's visit was in association with Thomson.

Thomson America & Canada offers short breaks to the four-star art-deco Millennium Broadway in New York. Prices start from £445 per person for 3 nights' room only including flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow. Call 0870 403 0651 or see www.thomson.co.uk

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