Emily Benjamin interview: ‘I like to change things up, and I’m excited to give myself a new challenge, to shuck the Cabaret jacket and try on a few new ones’

Matt Wolf
Thursday, March 28, 2024

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride? Not so, finds Matt Wolf, when it comes to this feisty Welsh performer, who played Sally Bowles in Rebecca Frecknall’s Cabaret for two years without having her name on the poster and is now headlining the UK premiere of Bronco Billy

Emily Benjamin as 'Sally Bowles' (photo: Marc Brenner)
Emily Benjamin as 'Sally Bowles' (photo: Marc Brenner)

As she recollects, the fast-rising performer Emily Benjamin never anticipated becoming an invaluable part of the ongoing revival of Cabaret for two years. But that’s how it turned out through to 18 October 2023, when the 30-year-old actress-singer, a London theatre obsessive throughout a childhood spent in the Welsh valleys, finally decided it was time to quit the Kit Kat Club.

Her tenure with Rebecca Frecknall’s smash-hit revival of the landmark 1966 musical was more than a job for Benjamin, who recalls being ‘very emotional’ when she finally decided to move on from the John Kander-Fred Ebb portrait of Weimar-era Berlin. ‘People were shocked when I chose to leave because it has an iconic aura, but I knew I wanted to do something that was mine – something of my own.’

That explains Benjamin’s co-starring role opposite Tarinn Callender (Hamilton) and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (Cinderella) in Bronco Billy, more than four years after this Wild West-themed musical, by Chip Rosenbloom and John Torres, with a book by Dennis Hackin and additional lyrics by Michele Brourman, premiered at the Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

I spent two years in a show where I didn’t get my name on the poster, and that can sting when you’re doing this job

But Benjamin knows she will long be remembered for her invaluable contribution to Cabaret, whether as swing, cover, Alternate or whatever you want to call her tireless commitment to a show that found her going on for six different Sally Bowles, not to mention, on occasion, as Fraulein Schneider and, to hear her describe it, for what sounds like practically everyone at some point or another, except for the Emcee. And that may only have been because the first Emcee Eddie Redmayne, who will lead the production to Broadway in the spring, was never off.

‘I feel like I’ve been pretty patient,’ Benjamin says of finally getting the sort of recognition with Bronco Billy that tends to be denied performers who fill in during a run without ever owning the role. (Think, for instance, of the gifted Rachel Tucker, who slayed it as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, but only once a week, as per her arrangement with a production built for and around Nicole Scherzinger – though Tucker has, of course, headlined plenty of shows in the past.)

‘I spent two years in a show where I didn’t get my name on the poster, and that can sting when you’re doing this job.’ At the same time, she has learned an incalculable amount from readying herself over time to go on for Jessie Buckley, Amy Lennox, Madeline Brewer, Aimee Lou Wood, Maud Apatow or, for just a month, Rebecca Lucy Taylor as that defining, if damaged, ‘toast of Mayfair’, Fraulein Sally Bowles.

Cabaret, she says, ‘has made me the performer I am. I know the importance of putting in the work and how important that is, and I know what it’s like to lead a cast and to be the pillar of a company.’ And having been a cover/Alternate/understudy herself, Benjamin is entirely on the side of the women who as time goes by will surely go on for her.

‘I’ve always been brilliantly treated by the people I’ve covered and I hope that I would do the same for someone covering for me. Everyone has their own spin on a part and the best performances come when you’re allowed to have your say.’

A 2016 graduate of the Performance Preparation Academy in Guildford, Surrey, who soon found herself making her professional debut in the bustling ensemble of Bat Out of Hell, Benjamin had no idea her follow-up West End contract – namely, in Cabaret – would bear such creative fruit.

As first cover for Sally and second cover for the landlady Fraulein Schneider (‘at drama school, I often played older than I am’), she watched Redmayne stick it out eight times a week even as it soon became apparent – for reasons to do with Buckley’s competing commitments as an Oscar nominee at the time for The Lost Daughter, but also to protect her health – that Benjamin would be needed as Sally.

‘Jessie rewrote the rule book, really, as to how Sally was played, and watching her throw herself at the part and show her guts every night encouraged me to be a braver performer.’ Benjamin quickly became aware that she was required, as she puts it, to ‘ease the burden’ on Buckley and all the Sallys that followed. The title number, alone, is directed to be a mammoth meltdown, and there are huge requirements, vocal and psychological, required of any Sally along the way to the show’s climax.

‘It was an organic process, which meant I didn’t have time to overthink it,’ she says of her first attempts at the role – though she does remember getting emotional when her mum first saw her as Sally during what was also Benjamin’s first double Saturday, meaning two shows back-to-back: ‘I remember crying when I saw my mother afterwards and being disappointed because I hadn’t yet figured out the balance needed.’

No matter. Benjamin’s mum had ample opportunities to reconsider her daughter’s performance anew. ‘She saw it so many times that she ended up keeping count of my dates via a tally on her phone.’

The cumulative total? ‘I think I played Sally 139 times.’

As time went on, Benjamin was given one show a week as Sally but could also be asked to play Schneider or even Frenchie, one of the cabaret girls, depending on circumstances on any particular day. Were there ever moments when she was called upon to fill in for two different parts at the same performance? Benjamin laughs: ‘It’s happened that two people have been off at the same time but luckily the show is built to deal with that. There have been some sticky moments’ – but ingenuity and flexibility, one gets the impression, will find a way.

Benjamin recalls having productive conversations about ‘the minutiae of Sally’ with all the women who headlined in the part, all the while adamant from her own perspective that ‘Sally is more intelligent than she allows people to see: if she tried, she would be able to perceive what’s going on around her [in 1930s Berlin], but she’s choosing to put the blinkers on; the reality is too difficult.’

Benjamin, who dabbles in art, would draw watercolours of each Sally, all of whom ‘were very very generous’. What could possibly follow such an experience? Not for her joining an extant long-running show ‘where I would be told to stand here and how to say the lines’. Instead, she quickly warmed to the folksy, country vibe and 1970s setting of Bronco Billy (the LA Times described it as ‘a fun show that roams the Wild West to a disco beat’), a musical landscape that prompts comparison with Reba McEntire and not Liza Minnelli or, London’s first stage Sally, Judi Dench.

‘I like to change things up, and I’m really excited to give myself a new challenge,’ says Benjamin of the title based on a 1980 Clint Eastwood film. (She plays the part of Antoinette Lily, a Manhattan heiress on the run, originated onscreen by Eastwood’s then-partner, Sondra Locke.) ‘I’m excited to shuck the Cabaret jacket and try on a few new ones.’ (Her choice of language makes one think she should go up for the London premiere of the Broadway musical Shucked.)

How does she feel about such a short run in Bronco Billy – not even three months – after so much time spent kicking up her heels at the Kit Kat Club? ‘I’m going to have to think before I go into another year-long contract. My dad always said, “Availability is your best asset”, and being free means you can say yes to that thing that comes through at the last minute.’ She laughs, as if knowing better than anyone whereof she speaks. ‘I look forward to being available.’

Bronco Billy plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, until 7 April – read our review next issue and, for tickets, visit charingcrosstheatre.co.uk; Cabaret at Kit Kat Club, London, is booking until June 2024, and it also opens on Broadway on 1 April – visit kitkat.club/cabaret-london and kitkat.club/cabaret-broadway

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today