Chicago - London

The girls, guns, greed, glamour and glitz of prohibition-era Chicago come to London in this razzle-dazzle West End musical hit.

Gold Medalist Robin Cousins on Starring in the West End's Chicago While Coaching the U.K. Olympic Team

It’s not every day that a West End show stars an Olympic gold medalist—and skating champ Robin Cousins’ 1980 medallion is actually on display in a Tiffany box in the foyer of the Garrick Theatre, where the athlete-turned-actor is playing Billy Flynn in Chicago. What’s more, Cousins will be performing in the musical while monitoring the synchronized swimming team at London’s 2012 Olympic Games. spoke to the enthusiastic 54-year-old about life on skates vs. the stage and how he feels about being in the closing cast of Chicago, which is set to end its West End run on September 2 after an astonishing 15 years.

Your run in Chicago makes history in all sorts of ways, both as an Olympic champ performing a West End show during the London Olympics and also the fact that you will close the show in six weeks’ time.
Well, I like to think that I’m in the show while it closes, not that I am closing the show [laughs]. But, yes, I do feel very honored to have the role and to be the final Billy in the current incarnation. It makes sense to go out on a sort of high so you don’t lose the energy that Chicago is all about.

You must have known the musical pretty well already.
Absolutely. I once skated to “Razzle Dazzle” in an NBC special with [previous Billy Flynn] Alan Thicke singing. I remember him saying, “You never know, you might end up in the show one day,” and I thought, “Ha ha!” This is one of the shows that I actually saw first time round, when I was skating competitively back in the ’70s. I was a huge fan of [original Billy] Jerry Orbach.

How did this gig come about?
Theater work has been more prevalent in my career in the last 10 years, and I found myself looking at Chicago and thinking, “When will I have that opportunity?” I actually auditioned for [producer] Barry Weissler the week the show moved into the Garrick, and he was extremely complimentary. So for it to coincide with the Olympics and to have this incredible excitement and buzz is just thrilling.

You’re actually performing the night of the opening ceremony [July 27], when most West End shows are going dark.
I turned down an invitation to be in the opening ceremony because we’ve got two shows that day! But, hey, I signed a contract and I will be thrilled to walk out on to the Garrick Theatre stage. I am missing one Friday matinee [on August 10] for the synchronized swimming final, since I’ve been working with the team since last October.

From skating to swimming?
It’s about the athletic mentality and the fact that they’re hungry for information. And I think they relish the chance to work with someone who’s outside their sport: I got Michael Crawford to do the voiceover for their free routine and I’ve taught them skating lifts to do in the water as well.

You’re a very busy man at the moment!
A little bit [laughs]! But I’m not complaining. We like to be working, and I feel it’s important to be one of the Team GB ambassadors; in practical terms that means that there are 26 of us who are former silver or gold Olympic medalists, at both summer and winter games, who are able to give information to the team so that they never have that “what if” moment. The thing about the Olympics is that there is no manual for it; you learn by being there.

So, how does the regimen of a West End show compare to that required of an Olympic-level athlete?
Eight performances a week are a breeze when you’ve done 15-show weeks on the ice, with six-performance weekends and 180 minutes of choreography. People say to me, “You’re doing all eight shows,” and I’m, like, “Duh, that’s what I’m here for!” Sure, the body isn’t quite as able as it was 30 years ago, but people wait their entire lives for an opportunity to be in a show, let alone one like this, so why on earth would you want a day off?

Have you been able to physicalize the role of Billy?
I give “Razzle Dazzle” a bit of the soft shoe. But the way I look at it right now, it’s about using the amount of energy required for the occasion, whether it’s running the 500-yard-dash or playing Teen Angel in Grease, which took all of six minutes in act two [laughs]. I played that role on the West End and on tour, and it was great fun. I learned a great deal about singing falsetto and also getting the number out there.

You’ve also done Cats.
My first audition was for [producer] Cameron Mackintosh for that show! I ended up playing Munkustrap in the first UK national tour; my current Amos [in Chicago], Tony Timberlake, was Gus and Growltiger, so it’s fun for us to be playing together again. I do remember thinking [at the Cats audition], “What’s the point of getting into a panic? All they can do is say, ‘Thank you very much’ and ‘no.’” People wait their entire career for the opportunity to be in front of these people.

As I listen to you, I detect an American accent—though you’re from Bristol.
Well, I’m talking to you, and also my other half [Pennsylvania native Mark Naylor] is an American, so the accent is just sort of there. At the moment, I am speaking as I would need to on stage.

You mention your partner. Is the world of theater easier than that of sports in terms of acceptance? One gathers that athletics can be very homophobic.
Sure, but first of all, I came from figure skating so it never occurred to me one way or the other. I grew up in a family that allowed myself and my older brother to be who we were, and I just assumed all families were like that. In any case, there are all sorts of reasons people can apply for being the type of people they are. As someone once said to me very succinctly, “Someone else’s opinion of you is none of your business,” and I’ve never made it any of mine.

Are there any musical theater roles you covet once Chicago comes to an end?
Thenardier [in Les Miserables]! I’d love to do that. But I’d also love to leave the singing behind, having been given this chance as Billy to use the acting chops in my scenes onstage.

Might we see you one day in a play at, say, the Royal Court?
My feeling is I would do Pitlochry Rep [in Scotland] if it was a chance to learn more about the craft. I say bring it on!