Chicago - London

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

West End Chicago Star Alexandra Burke on Brandy, Cartwheels and The Bodyguard

West End Chicago Star Alexandra Burke on Brandy, Cartwheels and The Bodyguard
Alexandra Burke as Roxie Hart in "Chicago"
(Photo: Matt Crockett)

Alexandra Burke has had a busy time of it in the decade since she became an overnight British sensation on X Factor. She has played Rachel Marron on the West End in The Bodyguard, a show she will tour around the country from December, and was Svetlana in the recent, and well-reviewed, revival of Chess. From August 13, she becomes the latest Roxie Hart in the ongoing phenomenon that is Chicago, now at the Phoenix Theatre, so there was plenty to talk about when phoned for a lively chat.

How does it feel since we last spoke to have become such a theater animal?
It’s been a whirlwind! Who would have guessed I had the theater bug without really knowing it? The Bodyguard was a very different experience for me, and I learned so much doing that about me as a person and an actor. I’ve also done Sister Act, Chess and now this [Chicago]. It’s been quite crazy!

Had you been circling the part of Roxie for some time?
This show for me is really about seeing Brandy in the part on Broadway three years ago, or so. There’s Velma, who’s obviously older and has the power, and then there’s Roxie, who’s young and sassy, and I really felt watching Brandy as if I could do this.

Was it a visceral reaction?
It really was. I mean, Brandy was insane in the role, and I said to my fiancé, “OK, great, let’s go; I am going to do that part one day.” And now look what I’m doing!

Do you feel part of an established community on this show given how prominent it has become?
Oh, yeah! Chicago is quite renowned for getting people in, and it’s nice to be one of those people and to be added to the list. My brother doesn’t come from theater, so I thought it was interesting when he said to me, “You know, Chicago is the biggest show you will ever do.” This is a title that really means something.

How are you approaching Roxie for yourself?
Well, basically, she’s very sassy and she doesn’t think before she speaks. All she wants is for that dream to come true, which is to be the biggest star. So, I like to think I’ve added a bit of a diva to her—she can be sweet but she’s got a bit of an edge.

So, are you tapping into your inner diva?
[Laughs.] The thing is, I am getting to play something I could never be in real life. If I were, I wouldn’t be able to get out of the bed in the morning.

Have you discussed Roxie with your Velma, Josefina Gabrielle, who has played the role before?
Not yet. I’ve only just met Josefina, and we haven’t had much time to have a chinwag. But she’s incredible—honestly incredible—and I will look forward to that.

Why do you think this show continues to run and run?
Well, I’m not going to say it’s a show people can relate to because it’s about killing people, but at the same time, these women are just these incredible, legendary roles: it’s amazing how comfortable they are in themselves—sexy and vulnerable at the same time.

Does it feel empowering to be in?
It does, you know, in that every performer gets a name check [during the bows], so as a result, every performer feels as if they contributed. Even the orchestra gets to have a laugh at the top of the second act, and as soon as they stop, Velma comes on.

Are you going to do the late-in-the-show cartwheel that not every Roxie attempts?
I sure am! I love a cartwheel. I’m like, “OK girl, teach me a thing or two!”

Some performers move within Chicago over time from role to role, like Ruthie Henshall, who has played all three principal female roles: does that tempt you?
Maybe by the time I’m approaching 40, I might feel as if it’s time to play Velma or Roxie but for now it’s about doing it one day—or step—at a time, so that hopefully I can do this company proud. I hope to God I can do this company proud.

How does this compare so far with your previous takeover as the third West End star of The Bodyguard?
I’m not sure if I quite realized what I was letting myself in for on The Bodyguard. I was like, “Wow, my character is literally always on stage!” Plus, there are those killer Whitney Houston songs. Chicago so far feels very much like an ensemble: everyone is in it together.

How do you look back on being cast as Svetlana in Chess, with an onstage husband in Michael Ball?
The thing is I didn’t know Chess and had never heard of it. But once I looked into it and saw that there had never been a black woman playing my role I thought, well, if you can execute this part, you’ve got to do it. And Michael and everyone in the company were just so caring and so loving.

Did that production demand of you a different skill set?
It’s funny you ask that: what I discovered with Chess was a strength in standing still. I had to be taught to stay still which isn’t something I do with ease. And, as you know, they added a song for me, so that made the experience very emotional, as well.

What’s on tap after this?
I have a feeling the next show [The Bodyguard on tour] might be my last one for a while. I feel now as if I want to get back into the studio. I’ve been pouring my heart onstage and it’s time to do that again in the studio. But I didn’t think Chicago was going to happen until it did, so you never really know.

A question I have to ask: do you play chess?
[Laughs.] I do not play chess. I’m not that smart, darling!