When The Fugard Theatre announced their plans to stage a production of Funny Girl, the first question on everyone’s mind was, “Who will land the legendary role of Fanny Brice?” The answer to that question is Ashleigh Harvey. Far from being an unknown, Ashleigh has spent most of her career performing straight plays, most of them being classical works and even snagging a Naledi Award nomination along the way. However, once you hear her belt out the iconic show-stopping numbers in Funny Girl, it’s hard not to become an instant fan.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I was in High School and we were doing Hamlet in Grade 11 and I saw Kenneth Branagh’s film Hamlet as part of that syllabus. I fell in love with that movie. I don’t know what it was but I just fell in love with it. I started to read more Shakespeare and I started to fall more and more in love with it. When I was in matric, the Wits students came to our school and did a Shakespeare workshop with Malcolm Purkey, who was the head of Drama there and then moved to the Market Theatre as the Artistic Director. I was just like, “This is epic.” We went to this workshop and then I approached him and said, “I want to be in you production of Romeo and Juliet.” He was like, “Great,” and put me in as a little serving person and that was sort of where it started. I studied Drama after that at Wits and that’s where I started with the acting. I’ve [been] mainly doing Shakespeare and drama and plays. This is sort of one of my very first big musicals.
Which is insane!
It is, right? It is a bit insane but I also think it’s meant to be in a way. I did The Rocky Horror Show at the Barnyard and I played Janet and then I didn’t do musicals again. I’ve done plays with music, I did Sophiatown at the Market and then I did a play called Truth in Translation which travelled Europe and Hugh Masekela wrote the music. I’ve always been singing. I did Shrek last year at Goldreef City in Joburg but this is just on another level. This is amazing. It is one of the best things that has ever happened to me in my life.
I know that this has been a role that you’ve always wanted to play. When the audition notice first went out, did you think, “Ok, I’ve got this?” Or was it just a shot in the dark?
No, it was not a shot in the dark. I don’t want to sound arrogant. I fell in love with this musical when I was in High School mainly because of my grandmother who was a Streisand nut. I think I was quite different from the kids around me because I was listening to Sinatra and I was watching old-school films. I found Funny Girl and I was like, “This is amazing.” When I heard about the auditions last year….I didn’t know. You can never know because there are so many talented people that auditioned, but I just had a really good feeling. I just thought that if there is any musical that I can do, this [is the] one. It felt right.
I’m guilty of using the phrase, “We got to watch a star being born,” but it is almost like the tip of the iceberg. You have been working for years but very much under the radar.
I’ve been doing a lot of stuff but I love very dark work. This is the first thing that I’ve done that is not a dark piece. It is light. It’s dramatic but it is not dark. A lot of the stuff that I have done up to now has been depressing. It is not popular because people don’t necessarily want to see work like that. I’ve done lots of plays and straight drama. I’ve been gigging for a really long time. I gig with my husband in Joburg, we have a duo and we gig together a lot. I have been working for 10-14 years, maybe longer, but this is the big one.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
I have so many! I love “People.” I love that scene because I love the song and it is just so famous and beautiful. I love the first song that I do which is “I’m the Greatest Star,” because that is the one I remember from the film as being iconic. I used to sing it to my nephews when they were little. It is my go-to song. I’ve auditioned with that song. I love The Swan Lake routine because it is just completely absurd. I won’t give anything away but it is lots of fun. There are a lot of moments. It is hard to pick one.
Was there any pressure around taking on this role because it is considered to be the role that put Barbra Streisand on the map? How did you go about making it your own?
I think I put pressure on myself because it is her. This was her big part. This is the part that launched her but there was never any pressure from the creative team to do it like her. In fact, if anything, there was a lot of moving away from her and what she did and making it our own and our own story with Clyde [Berning], who plays Nick and our own chemistry with the cast. I think the pressure all came from me, especially with the famous songs like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People.” You hear her sing it and you just go, “I can’t do it.” It is different and I think our approach has been different. A big part of that has been working with Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, who is the musical director, because he really unlocked the songs for me in a way that made me steer away from doing them like her. She sings them like they are standards. When you hear the recording of “People” it just sounds like a standard but when you act it, it becomes a whole different thing. He really pushed for that which is amazing. He is a genius. I think I accessed the performance that I give largely through the music interestingly enough.
Your version of Fanny Brice is so different than the Barbra version. You almost forget that this was “Barbra’s role.”
I’m really glad you say that because in every interview that I’ve done, she comes up obviously and she must because she is who she is and she is unbelievably brilliant and I adore her, but you don’t want to try and do Barbra because you can’t. No one can. You want to do the character. I have fallen so in love with the character. I just love her in a much more visceral way than I love watching Barbra do her. I just feel this bizarre connection.
I think we easily forget that Fanny Brice was a real person.
She was a real person. We watched some footage of the real Fanny Brice. I don’t know if you have watched any of her stuff but it is outrageous. It is completely outrageous. I think if I did the whole show that way, I don’t think you could connect with it because it was part of that style and that time and she was very…odd. There are elements, like in the bridal number and The Swan where Matthew [Wild] said to go and watch her. She uses her face a lot and her eyes a lot. That was a key thing for me because those pieces are so mad that I needed something to latch onto. When I watched her doing some crazy things on YouTube, I was like, “Ok, that is what we have got to do.” She does a ballet piece that I watched and she uses her face and her eyes like she is creating a conspiracy between her and the audience which is magical. She is very interesting.
What has playing this character taught you?
I think she was very different from the women around her. I’ve experienced that in my own life. I’ve always grown up not being the “pretty,” [do] you know what I mean by pretty? Like not being classically beautiful with the pointy nose and the heart-shaped face. I’ve never looked that way and I’ve always felt quite at odds with that because this industry is so much about what you look like. I think for the first time ever, I’ve sort of just embraced looking a bit different from everyone else, I know this sounds so vain but if you look like me and the rest of the females in the cast, we don’t look the same. You can see the other girls in the cast are just exquisitely beautiful and [have] perfectly proportioned faces and I don’t look like that. I think it has made me go, “That’s quite cool actually.” I think it has taught me stamina on a different level just being able to do this every day and every night and keep it consistent. It’s taught me that I can rehearse an entire musical on a fractured foot and be pretty good at that. It has taught me about my own strength in a way which has been a really amazing gift.
I find it so interesting that you have such a strong stage presence but when you walked out after the show you did so quite unassumingly.
I think if this had happened to me in my 20s, I don’t think I would have known how to deal with it. I am not in my 20s. I’m in my 30s and. I live in Joburg, I have a life there, I’m married, I have animals [and] I have a family. I am very aware of my life outside of this which I think is really important because I think you can get so lost in this. It is wonderful and it’s amazing and I am hugely grateful and I feel blessed to be a part of this but it is just one part of my life. I think when it becomes your whole life, then you run the risk of it consuming you and I don’t want that to ever happen. I just feel like we are a team. I couldn’t do what I do without every other person in this cast and the crew and the stage manager and the sound guys and the director and the choreographer. I am just one part of a very big machine. It is important to keep that in perspective. There are things happening on that stage that I cannot do. Those girls on pointe? I cannot do that. There is huge talent around me that I am in awe of. It is important that we recognise each other’s abilities because that is what makes the show, and what makes any show amazing, is the whole picture and not just one part of it. It is really important. We are all just humans.
A human with an inhuman voice!
I didn’t always sing this way. I’ve worked extremely hard. I think a lot of people are born singing this way and I certainly didn’t sing this way even two years ago. I’ve worked extremely hard. I work with my husband who is the most phenomenal singer you will ever hear. He has taught me so much about singing. Charl has taught me a lot about how to sing these particular songs. I feel like I am being guided and taught by so many people that it is sort of our team thing. I love singing it and I think I sing it well and I think it is amazing to be able to do that but it is a whole journey that I have taken to get here.
What is still on your professional bucket list?
I really want to do As You Like It. I really want to play Rosalind. It is my favourite Shakespeare. I’d love to do that. I’d love to perform overseas. I don’t think you are human if you say that you don’t want to leave the country and go and do this somewhere else. I’d love to perform overseas and get more exposure but that is a whole other journey.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I love Sandra Prinsloo. I just think she is unbelievable. Lira is like the queen. I’ve seen her live twice. She is unbelievable as a vocalist and a singer. She is just on a whole other level. I know she is one of my best friends but Kate Normington, who is in this and plays my mom. [She is] just a massive huge musical theatre person in this country and has performed in London and has just done the most unbelievable work and is just so humble and beautiful and real and has guided me through this and has been my friend and so supportive. People like that who are so insanely talented and yet so grounded are are massive influences and people to look up to.