‘She’s funny, she’s a consummate entertainer, not afraid to reinvent herself,’ says Debbie Kurup, Cher-leading Star

Cher leader: Debbie Kurup as Star, centre stage, in The Cher Show: A New Musical. Picture: Pamela Raith

THE Cher Show’s “oldest and wisest” Cher, Debbie Kurup, is full of admiration for the American singer, actress, television presenter and charity activist.

“She is amazing,” she says, ahead of tonight’s opening performance of a week-long run at the Grand Opera House, York. “Some of her inner strength comes from when she was bullied at school, dyslexic and never felt she fitted in.

“When she met Sonny Bono at 16, it was her trajectory into the industry, but because she felt like an outsider, she’s always worked harder. She’s funny, she’s a consummate entertainer, not afraid to reinvent herself. That’s what sets her apart and makes her a megastar.”

The role of Cher in The Cher Show, A New Musical on the European premiere tour is shared by Debbie, Danielle Steers and Millie O’Connell. In a case of Cher, Cher and Cher alike, the trio of musical actresses will portray the American “Goddess of Pop” and “Queen of Reinvention” in three different stages of her career: Millie as Babe; Danielle as Lady and Debbie as Star, each accompanied by a different colour scheme.

From a young child with big dreams in El Centro, California, the shy daughter of an Armenian American truck driver, to the heights of global stardom, The Cher Show tells the story of Cherilyn Sarkisian’s meteoric rise to 100 million record sales, an Academy Award, an Emmy, a Grammy, three Golden Globes and even an award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

“We actually start the show with ‘Star’, having a bit of a confidence crisis and calling on the other two Chers to help her and go through the eras together. I pick up the baton again in Act Two, although I narrate throughout,” says Debbie.

As she defines it, the story will progress through her break-up with Sonny Bono to going solo, from the mid-1970s into the ’80s, diversifying into acting and her rock phase, followed by “a bit of a slump”, and onwards to the comeback “where nothing can stop her”.

“Because it’s tongue in cheek as well, it’s at the stage where she’s friends with her counterparts and she knows she’s sending herself up now, but there’s something unique about her; a power to her, and she’s fun too,” says Debbie.

On the road since April, the year-long British and Irish tour of this Tony Award-winning 2018 Broadway smash is directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by two-time Strictly Come Dancing professional champion Oti Mabuse, with a book by Tony and Olivier Award-winning Rick Elice (Jersey Boys, The Addams Family) and costume design by Gabriella Slade (Six, In The Heights, Spice World 2019 Tour). 

As the publicity blurb puts it, “Cher takes the audience by the hand and introduces them to the influential people in her life, from her mother and Sonny Bono to fashion designer and costumier Bob Mackie. It shows how she battled the men who underestimated her, fought the conventions and, above all, was a trailblazer for independence”. 

“Obviously a lot of research went into this show and into portraying Cher, because when you create a character, you can let your imagination run wild, but with a real person you have to be more contained in your imagination, and then you can add the layers on top.

“So I want to stay true to Cher, working with a really strong book by Rick Elice, who did Jersey Boys. We have the benefit of him meeting Cher and really getting to know her from spending time with her to imbue all those idiosyncrasies into the script and capture the essence of who Cher is. It jumps off the page, so we can really run with it, and enjoy all the one-liners in there.”

I got you Babe, Star and Lady: Millie O’Connell, left, Debbie Kurup and Danielle Steers in The Cher Show. Picture: Matt Crockett

As for Cher’s costumes, “oh my goodness, I have so many, I’m going to have to guess, maybe 15,” says Debbie. “Some of my costume changes are only 20 seconds, and they all have to be so well choreographed, timed to perfection, with five dressers and wig assistants working at the same time.

“Foot goes here, arm goes here, head goes here for the wig, to make sure I’m ready to re-enter on time. The team we have are incredible; we really work as a unit.”

Thirty-five hits feature, from I Got You Babe, Bang Bang, Gypsys, Tramps And Thieves to I Found Someone, If I Could Turn Back Time, The Shoop Shoop Song and Believe, from a songbook of the only artist to have a Billboard chart number one hit in six consecutive decades. 

“The way the story of her musical legacy works, we’re using the songs to push the narrative, and whereas jukebox musicals are so reductive, this is so much more than just wedging songs into the storyline, especially as they are her songs,” says Debbie

“They have that weight to them because they have meaning in her life as stand-alone songs, so they mean so much to her. Like at the time of Heart Of Stone, she was breaking up with Rob [Camilletti], and when I sing it, I’m thinking of the pain she must have been in because I know she would have been suffering.”

Turning the focus to Cher’s distinctive voice, Debbie says: “She’s always had, even when she was very young, this alto range that set her apart from all those pretty, pretty soprano voices that were glamorised by Hollywood. Here she comes with this rich alto sound – and I love it because I’m a mezzo-soprano!”

On a technical level, “lots of diligent prep goes into getting the right tone to the voice, and some of that is to do with the work she’s had done on her face, which made her voice more up in her nose but also still in her throat,” notes Debbie.

“I do have to turn it up for the 1990s onwards, with the focus right forward in the nose, as opposed to when she was younger, when it was freer.

“For the big finale, the party – ‘OK, bitches, get your phones out!’ – it’s fun because it has to be slightly exaggerated. She does lean into that persona, the humour, the ‘bitch’, but we tread a fine line because we don’t want to turn her into the caricature sent up by drag queens.”

The Cher Show, A New Musical, runs at Grand Opera House, York, November 15 to 19, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or atgtickets.com/york.

Debbie Kurup’s theatre credits

Bonnie & Clyde (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane); Queen Tuya in The Prince of Egypt (Dominion); Blues In The Night (Kiln); Sweet Charity (Donmar Warehouse); Mrs Neilsen in Girl From The North Country (Old Vic/ Noël Coward); The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre); Anything Goes (Sheffield Crucible/UK tour); Nikki Marron in The Bodyguard (Adelphi – Olivier Award nomination for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical); Velma Kelly in Chicago (Cambridge Theatre/Adelphi); Sister Act (London Palladium); East (Leicester Curve); West Side Story (Prince of Wales); Tonight’s The Night (Victoria Palace); Rent (Prince of Wales/UK Tour); Fame (UK Tour); Guys And Dolls (Sheffield Crucible), Pal Joey (Chichester Festival Theatre); Boogie Nights (Savoy Theatre); Star in The Cher Show, A New Musical, UK tour.