West End Star Bonnie Langford on Diva Behavior and Jumping from 42nd Street to 9 to 5

West End Star Bonnie Langford on Diva Behavior and Jumping from 42nd Street to 9 to 5
Bonnie Langford in "42nd Street"
(Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Bonnie Langford began her career as a child actor in such shows as the Angela Lansbury Gypsy and has joined the cast of the rousing West End revival of 42nd Street to close out the show as the last Dorothy Brock before the run ends January 5 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Rarely long away from the stage, she will segue shortly afterwards to the West End premiere of 9 to 5 the Musical at the Savoy, so there was plenty to discuss when Broadway.com caught up with the ebullient stage star for a lengthy chat.

Does playing Dorothy Brock feel like a date with destiny?
Well, not one that I ever planned or thought would come around. I came to the opening night and absolutely loved it without ever once thinking that in less than two years I would be playing the part myself. When it was suggested, it just seemed like such a wonderful opportunity.

Had you been angling to do it?
It was the most extraordinary conversation because I said to my agent back in July that if 42nd Street is doing anything with its casting, I would love to have a go at it, and he said that he was about to ask me whether I would like to do it! What happened then was that I couldn’t start when they wanted me to because I had to finish my contract on [popular TV soap opera] EastEnders, so I eventually finished that job on a Friday and went into 42nd Street on a Monday.

Don’t you have your own history with this show?
Yes, I played Peggy Sawyer [the young ingénue] for six months, or maybe more, on tour after the original Drury Lane production had finished; Dilys Laye was our Dorothy Brock. But at the time I was in an unhappy place in myself, so rejoining the show now has made those memories better. I can enjoy the show at last.

What problems were you facing then?
I was going through a transition period myself and was emotionally and physically exhausted, and we were touring, which is always difficult. I felt then as if I was taking it all too personally, whereas this time I’m able to see it from a totally different place. This production is so extraordinary and so spectacular and so brilliantly done that I just feel so honored and proud to be in it.

Haven’t you learned an enormous amount about yourself over time?
What I know is that you have to get your work-life balance in order. I think at the time I was playing Peggy that I was expecting my work to make me happy, and although I absolutely adore what I do, you have to be able to grow as a person from the inside out rather than expecting the outside to keep fixing you.

Was it intriguing for you to join this revival given that you knew the material so well already?
It’s great that [choreographer] Randy Skinner said when it came to do the show again that we can’t just do a verbatim production—it needs to have grown. I remember him telling me that the first show he ever saw was Mame and then they revived it 20 years later, and he went back and it was basically the same and it was disappointing. Our expectations have grown; things need to be fresh.

How did it feel on your opening night to join in for that performance only on the explosive final dance number—and bring down the house?
The thing is, I kept remembering bits from when I had played Peggy and would find myself doing bits of the choreography, so I thought, “Maybe I should just join in one day,” and that obviously got back to the marketing team. They asked if I would do that last bit of the finale on the media night and they asked [director] Mark Bramble, and he said, “It sounds cute, do it.” But I don’t think they ever thought it would be something full time: Dorothy Brock isn’t supposed to be able to dance!

What do you make of Dorothy, who actually is a quite a layered character?
I adore playing Dorothy, actually, and think she has many different levels. At the point you meet her, she’s at a turning point and there’s a lot at stake for everyone. Dorothy hasn’t had a hit for 10 years and has had to sell herself to a businessman to get a job, so she’s putting on this brave face to try to survive and doing so at the expense of her personal life.

So, she’s not just a diva?
I think with all characters you have to see a vulnerability to be able to empathize with them: people talk of course about the singing and dancing, but 42nd Street is also about people surviving in a very difficult climate and how they sustain that.

How would you describe Dorothy's dynamic with Peggy, who ends up as her replacement once Dorothy is injured at the end of the first act?
Here you’ve got this young girl [Peggy] who is suddenly looked after by the only person Dorothy feels is truthful to her, and so Dorothy immediately decides she’s not good enough because this girl is young and threatening her on every level. And all the while, Peggy doesn’t have a clue. This is a show about a first chance for the younger characters and a last chance for the older ones.

Do you think the word “diva” is sometimes misapplied? Patti LuPone would say that it’s merely synonymous with a desire for excellence.
I think I would agree with Patti on that. We’re all striving to do our best at any given moment and if there are obstructions that aren’t necessary to be there, you then may well have to turn around and say so. When it’s just about throwing your weight around is when that attitude isn’t helpful, I would say. Most people I would like to assume are doing their best.

Do any examples of diva behavior come to mind?
Well, I’ve probably seen a few such moments in action, but when I was very little, I worked with Angela Lansbury [as Baby June in Gypsy] and she was the best example of how to be a leading lady and not be a diva in the negative sense—so if she is a diva, then that’s the kind of diva I want to be.

How does that experience look in retrospect?
What’s interesting are the different child labor laws: I was only in the show here in London for six weeks but when we got to New York, I did eight shows a week for a year. I remember having to go to Bow Street Magistrates Court, which is now being turned into a block of flats, to get permission to make me what they called a “ward of court” so they could take me to America. I’ve seen Angela many times since and she is most phenomenal: she’s this wonderful combination where she’s this impeccable lady but you also feel as if you could talk to her about your washing if you needed to. She’s a true star.

And how do you your career going forward? [Not long after this interview, Langford was announced for the West End bow of 9 to 5.]
I’ve got a low boredom threshold so I want to work. And when it comes to what the work is, we all just want to be as versatile as possible.