Sharon Sexton talks to Adam Shawabout her one-woman show and what it’s like to play a Hollywoood icon
Imagine sitting in a coffee shop in Dublin, sipping on a cappuccino and watching the world go by. Then, out of nowhere, Liza Minnelli walks in. Not the Liza Minnelli, surely? Either way, it’s a striking comparison to the superstar performer.
Watching this woman – suspenders, bowler hat and all – belt out ‘Mein Herr’, you could easily be in 1930s Berlin, lapping up the delights of the Kit Kat Klub.
Of course, it isn’t Liza Minnelli. The actress is Sharon Sexton, an experienced entertainer who just happens to do a damn good Sally Bowles. She never planned to be Liza; it was only when she played a role involving a similar wig and outfit that people noticed the uncanny likeness.
“After the show, everyone was telling me how much I looked like her,” she said. “I’d never thought about it before but after people told me this, whichever way I looked at it, I couldn’t not see it.”
Her first thoughts turned to Cabaret; the iconic Minnelli film based on the musical by Kander and Ebb, which in turn was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Christopher Isherwood. The songs, the outfits and a foreboding but fascinating setting makes it one of the world’s great musicals – a story which has captivated millions. But such is its synonymy with Minnelli, Sharon was cautious not to jump in head first for fear of inevitable comparisons.
“It was my husband [Cillian O Donnachadha] who suggested that we do a show about Liza Minnelli, rather than just replay Cabaret,” she explained. And after a bit of research into her sparkling career, they discovered that her life was every bit as interesting as those of the characters she played.
“Her parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, were in the limelight so she’s kind of one of the last old-school, glam Hollywood Kids,” Sharon said. “She grew up on the Hollywood block, Frank Sinatra was one of the first to visit her when she was born and she hung out with him and the other members of The Rat Pack.
“She represents the golden era of Hollywood and is one of the last true icons that is still going.”
In spite of her admiration for Minnelli, Sharon admitted that it remains a daunting task to portray her, particularly given that the production is a one-woman show. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but also the best,” she explained. “Every single time I’m about to walk on stage, I’m tempted to turn around and run away.
“I have the realisation that it’s just me out there for the next two hours but, touch wood; it’s all gone well so far.”
And while performing as Liza might be the best thing she’s ever done, particularly when one considers that it started out as a ten-minute coffee shop routine, her proudest moment came working alongside another dancing sensation. Sharon recently completed a stint on the West End production of Billy Elliot, an experience she described as “amazing”.
“I do adore Liza but in Billy Elliot it was just incredible to stand at the side of the stage and watch the kids. To be part of that show was super,” she said.
The London Irish Centre in Camden might not have the same allure as the Victoria Palace but it will be an exciting venture for Sharon nonetheless. Her theatre company performed there as part of the 1916 commemorations and she cannot wait to get back.
“We’re all really excited given that it’s our last stop, it will be in London, and it’s at the Irish Centre,” she said. “We’ve built up a little following there after A Fit Wife for a Revolutionary and the community are always so supportive.
“Liza has a huge fan base and a great following among fans of musical theatre so we hope that the audience will enjoy themselves.”
Her and her husband’s company, Biscuits for Breakfast, will return to the centre in October, where it will host its first mini-festival. It will present five short plays catering specifically for the Irish community in Britain and Sharon believes it will give young writers and performers a platform to kick on from. An exciting future awaits, but for now it’s all about one woman.
• Somewhere Under the Rainbow – The Liza Minnelli Story is showing at The London Irish Centre on Friday August 19.
• Tickets are £12 (£10 for concessions) and can be booked at www.camdenfringe.com or on 07858 711320.