ASHLEIGH Gray’s dream role in Wicked brings the West End star closer to home when the show arrives in Edinburgh, writes Kelly Apter
It’s 2004 and Ashleigh Gray is sitting in a Broadway theatre watching Wicked for the first time. One character in particular seizes her attention – Elphaba, a green-skinned girl hitting crazily high notes. In musical theatre terms, she’s the holy grail, the plum role thousands covet, but precious few get to play.
As the show reaches its rousing finale, Gray, a recent graduate from drama school, turns to her friend and says: “I have to play that role.” An ambitious dream echoed by countless hopefuls – only this time, it actually came true.
“I’ll never forget that night in New York,” says Gray. “We were five rows from the front and I just sat there in awe. The show was so mesmerising, and the sheer spectacle of it was so immense, it had me in tears.
“At the end, my friend James and I made a deal – he was going to play the character of Boq and I was going to play Elphaba. Six years later we were both on stage in the West End playing those roles.”
As she recalls discovering the show, Gray is sitting at her dressing room table in Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre, the latest stop on Wicked’s extensive UK tour. We talk for half an hour, by the end of which time she looks like a different person. Layer upon layer of paint and powder is applied to her pretty, fine-boned features, until finally I’m sitting with the most famous face in musical theatre, green from forehead to chest.
Back in 2010 in the West End, Gray was the understudy, playing Elphaba whenever circumstances allowed. Now, the role is truly hers, and cleaning green paint out of her ears is part of daily life.
“It goes on beautifully,” she says, “but it’s so annoying to get off, and when I’ve finished a show the last thing I want to do is spend lots of time scrubbing in the shower. Quite often I’ll leave the theatre with traces of green everywhere – I just pull on a hat and hope that no one notices.”
They probably don’t, because unlike many performers on tour, hanging out with fellow cast members after the show isn’t on Gray’s agenda. The large electrical contraption sitting in her dressing room tells me the only steaming Gray is up for is the one that protects her vocal cords.
“This is quite an anti-social role,” she says. “I’ve toured a lot and you become really close to the people you’re with, because everyone’s away from home and you all socialise together. But you just can’t in this role, you really have to wrap yourself in cotton wool.
“It’s all about pacing to get through eight shows a week, working out how much you can give at each performance, and how much you need to save to make it through to Saturday night. It really is a lifestyle change, but the payoff is you get to play this incredible part.”
Despite its challenges, Gray’s love and enthusiasm for the role is written all over her face – even with a paint brush swiping across it. It’s a pinnacle on a journey which started 22 years ago, when her grandmother picked up the local paper in their home village of Newtongrange, Midlothian.
“I’ve always loved singing – that was my first passion,” recalls Gray. “And when I was about four or five, I used to devise my own little shows. My gran was always trying to work out how that could be developed into something, and then when I was about nine she found an advert in the paper for a summer school. She paid for me to go, we put on a production of The Boyfriend – and I just got the bug.”
Gran came up trumps a second time, spotting that Musselburgh Amateur Musical Association was looking for Von Trapp children for their production of The Sound of Music – which Gray auditioned for and duly got a part in.
From there it was on to regular performances with a Prestonpans youth group. But it wasn’t until a teacher at Newbattle High School told her about a relative starring in Phantom of the Opera on the West End, that Gray realised her future potential.
“I’d always thought of it as just a hobby,” she says. “It never struck me that this was something you could do as a job. I used to go to all the big shows at the Edinburgh Playhouse, and it started to dawn on me that those people were actually working for a living, doing something that they loved. I thought If I can get a bit of that, it would be amazing.”
A year studying performance at Telford College led to three years at Guildford School of Acting in Surrey, then straight into her first professional engagement in the Boy George musical, Taboo. Now based in London, thoughts of home are never far from her mind.
“I left Newtongrange when I was 17 and I do miss it a lot,” she says. “All my close family are there and in the surrounding area. There’s something about that little village mentality. My granddad was a miner at the Lady Victoria pit, so he knew everyone – we couldn’t walk down the street without somebody saying ‘alright, how’s it going?’ You just don’t get that in London.”
Gray’s path recently crossed with that other singing sensation from a small Lothian mining village – Susan Boyle. A role in the musical about Boyle’s life, I Dreamed a Dream, brought Gray back to Scotland for a few months and to the attention of Boyle herself.
“It was lovely to be slightly closer to home, and perform in something that was more accessible for my family and friends to see,” says Gray. “Susan is quite a character, and although she wasn’t in the show, every now and then she would come along and sing a couple of songs at the end, so I got to know her quite well.
“We come from very similar backgrounds – she grew up in a little mining village in West Lothian and used to sing around the house. So it was really funny doing I Dreamed A Dream, because it was very reminiscent of my own upbringing.”
At the end of the tour, Boyle took Gray to one side and said she had an idea, and that they might see each other again soon. Gray thought nothing of it – “In this industry, you take things like that with a pinch of salt” – until Boyle asked her to be the support act on her concert tour. A great opportunity, but a far cry from playing a role in musical theatre.
“I was so honoured to be asked,” says Gray. “But I’m not really a very outgoing person in real life, and it’s nice to have that protection of playing a character. So to go out there and just be myself was quite terrifying. It was really good for me to get into a different side of the industry, though, and I really enjoyed it.”
Something similar happened with actor and singer John Barrowman, whom Gray was cast alongside in panto at the SECC in 2012.
“John was the same as Susan,” recalls Gray. “At the end of the run he said, I’ve got an idea, I’ll be in touch. I didn’t hear anything, then he rang me a few months ago and asked if I would duet with him on Bridge Over Troubled Water on his new album. I just went silent on the phone, I couldn’t believe that he’d asked me.”
Singing with Susan Boyle and John Barrowman, playing the lead role in one of the most successful musicals of all time – Gray has come far since that advert in the local paper. The woman who started it all passed away a few years ago, as did Gray’s grandfather – but not before they had the chance to see their granddaughter go green.
“They died within a few months of each other, which was really hard,” says Gray.
“But they both got to see me play Elphaba in the West End and they were so proud.
“And I always think that they’re out there watching.”
Wicked is at Edinburgh Playhouse from Wednesday until 10 January; tickets £11.50-£75 plus £4 booking fee, www.atgtickets.com