Young Frankenstein - London

Mel Brooks' classic monster musical arrives in London!

London Young Frankenstein Star Summer Strallen on Her Near-Burnout, Memories of Snogging Ewan McGregor & More

London Young Frankenstein Star Summer Strallen on Her Near-Burnout, Memories of Snogging Ewan McGregor & More
Hadley Fraser, Ross Noble & Summer Strallen in "Young Frankenstein"
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Summer Strallen was a 2013 Olivier nominee for her swellegant performance in the Olivier Award-winning musical Top Hat, since which time she has been largely absent from the London stage. That changed this fall with her delicious star turn as that nubile Transylvanian, Inga, in the West End bow of the Mel Brooks musical Young Frankenstein at the Garrick Theatre. caught the gifted performer backstage one recent evening for a funny and candid chat.

How does it feel to be in such a buoyant show during the holidays?
Unfortunately I was off last week with a shoulder injury and [co-star] Hadley [Fraser] was off as well but now we’re all back and it feels as if everyone is getting into the holiday spirit. Our show is a night of unadulterated silliness and fun; if you’re wanting a night of serious theater, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Did you manage to catch the original Broadway production?
I didn’t, but I looked it up and I have since seen a bootleg. All I knew was that it was [director-choreographer] Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks, and that was good enough for me!

Hasn’t this London version been conceived on a different scale?
Absolutely. It’s very different in its nature. It’s much smaller to start with and we’re in such a small house, so you have to play it at the right level of nonsense and crazy but also truth and reality. The Garrick is essentially a playhouse, which means that the audience is very close-up.

How has it felt following on once more from Sutton Foster, who originated Inga on Broadway and also the part of Janet in The Drowsy Chaperone, which you played in the West End in 2007?
It’s weird in a way because we’re quite different, though I suppose we have the same stature and build. I look forward to the day I actually get to meet [Sutton] in person because I look up to her immensely. Now all I need is to get myself a TV series!

Do you feel like the fittest performer on the West End, given the legwork and physicality required to play Inga every night?
I think the American in Paris guys probably pip me to the post on that one; they’re doing quite a lot on that stage. The challenge with Inga is singing and getting your leg up while wearing double D-cup “chicken fillets” [breast enhancers] at the same time. Luckily, I’m a big one for yoga; yoga is like my crack [laughs].

What about the yodeling?
At the beginning, it was quite tough; I would get to the end of the yodeling and almost pass out. But my mother told me when I got the part that our great-grandmother was a yodeler. That’s the thing about our family [the Strallens are pretty much all performers]: you can’t just be good at something because you’re good at it; it then turns out to be because someone else in the family was good at it in 1874!

Are you tempted to talk like Inga in your offstage life?
Honestly, whenever I say “hello,” I do find myself wanting to say [thickly accented] “hulloo” and then I think, “Oh my God, she’s taking over!” But it also makes me very happy when that happens.

What’s it been like working with co-stars who range from musical theater veterans [Hadley Fraser, Dianne Pilkington] to TV stars [Lesley Joseph] and one of Britain’s best-known comics [Ross Noble]?
The thing about Lesley is that she was a busy, working theater actress before she became a TV name, so she was slightly more au fait with musicals, and Ross has been an absolute marvel. He says he’s having a great time learning from us but I’m having a great time learning from him. He and Hadley as Igor and Frederick have become quite the double act.

How do you respond to those who take issue with the sexual politics of the piece?
You can find negatives or positives in anything but on this point I come immediately to Mel’s defense. When you think of the three women in our show—Frau Blucher, Elizabeth and Inga—it’s so clear that each of these characters is very strongly who she is and yet entirely different with it. Mel is a straight male who loves strong women and is celebrating the female form, and, I mean, let’s not forget that he comes from a different era.

Did you discuss any of this with him?
We didn’t really have those discussions. Musicals are always so high-pressured and time is limited. Being 91, Mel would come in, say his piece, give his notes and leave. The arts aren’t funded well enough to have eight-week discussions about the politics of Young Frankenstein when you’re singing and dancing on a haycart.

Speaking of time, why has it been more than five years since you last headlined a West End musical—Top Hat, which opened in May 2012?
That’s an interesting one. Basically, I had an awakening. I was very, very tired, and I don’t mean physically but also emotionally to the point of almost being burned out. I had started to not enjoy [the work] and felt as if I was becoming this ego that I didn’t like.

Why do you think this was?
I think it’s because everyone in our family started so young, and I was feeling the pressure to be something that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. It was as if performing was this thing that you did in our family, but I just didn’t know what it was that I as Summer wanted to do.

What got you back on track, which you triumphantly are?
It was really Rob Ashford directing me at Chichester in [the Gershwin-scored musical] A Damsel in Distress in 2015. One of the peaks of my career had been working as the Havana Girl in Guys and Dolls for Rob and Michael Grandage some while before and I thought, “OK, I’m ready to go back and give it a go.” So it was [Damsel] that completely reignited my love of musical theater and helped me also to remember that I am an artist.

A quick digression since you mentioned it: what are your memories of that Grandage-directed Guys and Dolls?
I got to snog Ewan McGregor every night—it was great fun!

And does this reckoning with your own career feel like a brave thing to have done?
You know, it was really about figuring out how to communicate with my own demons. What I actually discovered is how self-indulgent I had been in my thinking to ever feel as if this career is all for me, when actually that’s the worst reason ever to be an actor. As soon as I went, “I’m going to try and be conscious of everyone else and how they feel,” it was the best thing I could have done. I’m having the best time.