An interview with Liza Pulman
Immersed in classical films by her screenwriter father, and steeped in the world of theatre by her actress mother, Liza Pulman was always going to have a strong creative streak. Having spenther early career singing at Glyndebourne, appearing in the West End and starring for 11 years in the comedy music trio Fascinating Aida, she has now returned to her first love – Hollywood films – with a new solo tour featuring songs from the silver screen, which runs from 9 March to 20 May 2016 at venues across the country. In the interview below, she explains more about the genesis of the show, how the solo spotlight is treating her, her move from London to Cornwall and looks back at how her experiences on 7/7 changed her.
What prompted you to launch your latest solo tour,Liza Pulman Sings Hollywood?
I’ve always adored doing solo work and have grown to love it more and more as I’ve grown older. Recently, one of my Fascinating Aida colleagues needed some time off to recover from an illness, and this break seemed like the perfect opportunity to develop my own show. It’s a chance for me to sing all the songs that I love.
Are you relishing being in the solo spotlight?
I love it! We’ve all got egos, and we all like to have the spotlight on us to a degree. One of the most important things I’ve discovered through working with Fascinating Aida is that a good relationship with the audience is imperative for any show, but especially for a solo one, because you can’t cut yourself off from them like you can with a lot of musical theatre. To me, the dialogue with the audience is just as important as what’s happening on stage.
Is it daunting to perform alone?
Being a solo performer is, of course, a more isolated process than singing with Fascinating Aida, but I’m still not wholly alone – there’s my brilliant Musical Director, Joseph Atkins,with whom I have worked on previous shows. Heis a gorgeous pianist and he is imaginative and funny; we lock ourselves in a rehearsal room for hours on end, making choices about the music we will play and laughing quite a lot. When we are on tour we also have a band of eight incredibly talented musicians with us on stage – the Stardust Orchestra.
How did your classical training prepare you for the world of musical theatre?
I trained at the Guildhall School of Music Drama, which gave me a truly classical background. But evenwhen I worked as an opera singer I always played comic roles, such as the maidsin Mozart’s operas. I was never going to be given the part of a lyrical romantic soprano like Mimi[the tragic heroine in Puccini’s opera La Bohème]because it just wasn’t in my temperament. I suppose in the olden days I’d have been a Vaudeville performer, a song-and-dance girl – that would have suited me perfectly.
What artistic influences did you have as a child?
Theatre, film and music were all around me when I was growing up. My dad, who sadly died when I was 10, was a prolific screenwriter who worked on films such as Kidnapped with Michael Caine, as well as blockbuster book adaptationsforthe BBC including I, Claudius with Derek Jacobi and WarandPeace withAnthonyHopkins. My mum, meanwhile, was part of the original Theatre Workshop with Ewan McColl andJoanLittlewood, and worked on TV through the decades in Coronation Street, Hazel, Family Affairs and Last of the SummerWine, and is still working to this day at 85. I should be so lucky! So I grew up in a sea of music, words and film scripts, with a steady stream of actors, producers and directors coming in and out of the house. I was absolutely immersed in it all.
How did your love of filmdevelop?
Most definitely from my parents, who loved sitting me down in front of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and would tell me who designed the costumes and who was singing the music. I suppose that schooled me in that part of the industry, and it’s in my DNA to this day. An early memory is of my father stopping work early one day, making us lunch and sitting down with me in front of Top Hat with Fred Astaire – all in the middle of a working day. After he died, I think I grieved by watching these old movies again and again for years, until I knew the dialogue and the music by heart. I loved film then and I still love film today. In fact, cinema is my answer to everything. It has taken me until adulthood toreturn to the thing that I loved best as a child.
What’s the allure of Hollywood soundtracks?
I tendto move forward in life rather than constantly looking back, but I’m quite an old-fashioned girl and nostalgia is important to me. Nothing transports you back in time quite like music.
What’s your favourite classic film?
I would find it impossible to choose just one because I pretty much love all kinds– romantic comedies, Marvel Comic films, documentaries, foreign language films... The only genre I don’t like is horror –maybe that’s because there are no good songs in horror movies!
How did you choose which songs to include in the show?
I would love to say that there’s a story behind each and every choice, but quite a lot were selected simply because they are so beautiful. I included a couple of seminal songs such as Que Sera, Sera which had to be in there because it’s so famous, but I needed to get a good mix of music with a different tempo and contrasting styles – that’s really important for a solo show. Lots of these wonderfully lush romantic tunes have quite a slow tempo, so alongside stonking ballads such as Nobody does it Better and Evergreen, we have Nine to Five, which you have to sing pretty fast, and an up-tempo version of It Had to be You. We also included a quirky take onMoon River – I won’t say much more than that, but it’s not as you’re used to hearing it!
How did you choose your amazing on-stage frocks?
You can’t do a show about Hollywood in a t-shirt and jeans, so my show clothesneed to be very glamorous. I searched for prom dresses on Google and found that there was a shop called Cargo [cargoclothing.com] not far from where I live in Cornwall. I spent three glorious hours in there, trying on all kinds of dresses – we had a ball. I took lots of selfiesto email to the Fascinating Aida team because they love a sparkly frock, and they helped me choose which ones to buy.
How does your voice stand up to therigours of a tour, and how do you look after your health on the road?
All my training as classical singer has stood me in very good stead for the demands of singing in a different theatre every night. I usually walk miles each day, but sadly it’s the one thing I can’t do on tour, and I do miss is desperately. I’m never in one place long enough, and I tend to stay in un-glamorous motels by motorways, which aren’t great places for walking!Instead I stay healthy by eating lots of fruit and drinking lots of water, but I do enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the show. Some people say you shouldn’t, but I feel it’s more detrimental not to unwind.
People may have read the feature you wrote for the Guardian about your experience in the 7/7 London bombings. How does it feel now when you look back on that part of your life?
It was a life-changing moment for me that’s for sure. I’d just come back from working in New York with Fascinating Aida and was beginning a job as receptionist in a law firm to fill the gap. I was on my way to Chancery lane that morning. I was living in Wood Green and so, in an unexpected twist of my life, I found myself in the 3rd carriage of the Piccadilly line train that was blown up. In many ways, it was like being in one of those disaster films, The Towering inferno, or the Poseidon Adventure, and when we were finally lead to safety, back up along the tracks to Kings Cross, I took a video on my phone. I wanted to show my husband and try to capture what it felt like down there and so that’s why I shot the film. I wrote the article because I wanted to describe how amazing people had been. I had never previously had the opportunity to witness how people react in the face of fear, but I am proud to say that mankind came up trumps that day. It was an incredibly difficult situation. We were all very frightened and could hear terrible cries coming from further down the train, but the people around me were kind and compassionate and, at times, really rather funny. It also showed me something about myself that I hadn’t known. Turns out I’m quite a capable and practical person, clear-headed and calm. Must be all those years with Fascinating Aida! It was very hard to fully comprehend the fact that I had walked away from a train in which 27 people had lost their lives. It’s a very strange feeling to carry with you and it took me a long time to be able to view it objectively, but now, looking back on that day, I can see that I came out of the tunnel a different person to the one who went in; Stronger, braver and just a little bit blessed.
Doing a solo show takes a degree of courage and in the moments when I’m trembling with fear I remind myself to look back and realise that I’ve faced worse things in the past and have survived them.
When did you move to Cornwall and why?
I moved for love! My new partner lives in Cornwall and there was no way he was going to move to London. Also, you get to certain point in life when you have to take a leap of faith and stop hedging your bets. So, having commuted back and forth for a year or so, I moved to Cornwall permanently in June 2015. Having a proper home is hugely important to me, and keeping a foot in each camp was actually harder than making the break.
In what ways does Cornwall inspire your music?
I love walking, and I often workwhile Iwalk, re-listening to recordings of my songs and critiquing themas I go. On a recent sunny day I was trudging along the coastal path near where we live and was listening to Shenahdoah. I stopped and looked out over the water and, as the waves rolled in and out, I realised that I have never come acrossa more perfect site-specific place to sing this song. I did a quick check to see if anyone was around and then I started to sing, projecting my voice right out to sea. The song is originally about a river, and about leaving something you don’t want to leave, and, at that moment, it was all about falling in love with Cornwall.
What does the future hold?
I am planning further solo shows. Liza Sings… will hopefully be an excuse for me to sing all the songs I’ve ever loved and maybe find some I didn’t know I loved. Also, Fascinating Aida will always be part of my lifeand will return with a new show in 2017. Luckily these two strands of my professional lifeare good bedfellows, and are sure tosit very comfortably alongsideone other in the years to come.