Throughout her career, Sandra Marvin has played some of the most iconic female roles in musical theatre. The actress and singer has taken on Chicago’s shrewd matriarch Mama Morton and feisty dame Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray.
The cabaret star admits that she has always been drawn to strong characters, commenting: “I love the strength and the dignity of older characters. Getting to portray that wealth of experience and confidence. I really do enjoy those inspirational roles.”
Marvin’s current role in Show Boat is no exception as she will be playing ship’s cook and mother hen Queenie. Sheffield Theatres’ Christmas offering follows the lives of those on-board Mississippi showboat, the Cotton Blossom. Set in the world of nautical vaudeville, the show is brimming with soulful classics including ‘Make Believe’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.’ But as well as spectacular theatricality, Show Boat’s narrative covers a seminal period of American history. Spanning four decades, the story begins in 1887, just 22 years after the Thirteenth Amendment illegalised slavery in the US.
Marvin, elaborates; “Show Boat is set around the time that they were ending slavery in the South, so it covers the immediate effect of that and the changes in society straight after. There were significant moments that happened in the wake of that, like laws that came in. It also covers how people came out of slavery and how they moved on through their lives. It’s still poignant today, because we still do have these race struggles, which you see and read about in the news. That’s why it’s important to be part of the telling of this story.”
Marvin’s vivacity is infectious, as she describes the “beautiful story” and “amazing cast” with genuine reverence. She is particularly emphatic about the direction by Daniel Evans describing his very personal approach: “It’s been emotional in the rehearsal room. It’s sometimes floored us, trying to walk in these peoples’ footsteps. We’ve all done our own research rather than approaching it with any preconceived ideas or stereotypes. Instead we’ve discovered for ourselves who these people might have been through the writing and through what we know in history at this time.”
Show Boat is set around the time that they were ending slavery in the South, so it covers the immediate effect of that and the changes in society straight after. There were significant moments that happened in the wake of that, like laws that came in. It also covers how people came out of slavery and how they moved on through their lives. It’s still poignant today, because we still do have these race struggles, which you see and read about in the news. That’s why it’s important to be part of the telling of this story.
I find the Leicester born performer incredibly friendly and her wonderfully sonorous laugh permeates the interview. She speaks animatedly about her theatre work as well as her extensive singing career. The singer has performed with the likes of Liam Gallagher and The Charlatans. When asked about her recent performance with Kate Bush on the sell-out ‘Before the Dawn’ residency, Marvin, exclaims: “It was amazing, absolutely amazing. She was an inspirational lady. I think everyone’s a Kate Bush fan if they’re honest.”
Marvin is equally emphatic about her current character Queenie. When asked to describe the role, she affectionately, croons: “Queenie! (Laughs.) Oh, Queenie’s just a wonderful character to play. She’s married to Joe who’s played by Emmanuel Kojo. She’s been on the boat for a while and it’s her home, her life and her love. There’s a lot of love from Queenie, she does all the cooking and she’s at the heart of a lot of things that happen in the show. As an actress she’s so much fun to play. It’s interesting to see her aging over the years. We meet her in her late 20s and it was fun to explore who I think she may have become over the 40 years.”
Sandra Marvin in rehearsals for Show Boat. Credit Johan Persson
With so many renowned numbers in the show, Marvin struggles to pick a favourite but eventually concedes: “I’ve yet to hear ‘Ol’ Man River’ without crying because it’s so moving, so if I have to pick one, that’s it.”
Marvin has combined her two considerable talents in numerous musicals, including The Lion King (read review), Boogie Nights and Porgy and Bess (read review). As the artist explains “I love expressing emotion and acting through song.” The performer’s first ever role was in a musical, and happened quite by chance. “My sister noticed a role call advertisement in Leicester Haymarket. It was for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and the next morning, myself, my mum and my sister were at the front of the queue. I auditioned for that and got the part as one of the kids and was sold ever since.”
Whilst she is a devout musical theatre fan, Marvin reveals that she also enjoys to different genres of performance. She has just completed feature film Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep as well as some television work which she says she can’t reveal too much about yet. When asked about future career plans, Marvin answers that she is open to trying new things: “I’m open to different roles and different avenues. I’ve got a few personal things I’ve got to be looking at next year, but I’m always looking to try new things. In my career I went a different route. I used to be an Accounting Recruitment Consultant and I did my singing and things on the side. So I’m really motivated, I basically got to performing full time through a lot of hard work, so am always looking to stretch myself. I still go for singing lessons and acting classes and very reluctantly I’ve gone for dance classes (Laughs). It’s something you have to keep current as well, but I enjoy doing it. It’s my art, my love, my job.”
Show Boat is very emotional, moving and something that I don’t think people would want to miss.”
Marvin’s enthusiasm for her work is obvious and truly uplifting.
Such is her dedication that she’s had to stand outside during our interview to get reception.
Before she goes inside to defrost, I ask Marvin why people should come and see Show Boat, knowing she’ll give an answer with plenty of zeal: “Because they’ll be missing a really beautiful story otherwise. And absolutely why not? Not only have we got this amazing cast of West End people like Michael Xavier, Gina Beck, Rebecca Trehearn and Emanuel Kojo. But the way that Daniel Evans and Alistair David (Choreographer) have created and presented this story is amazing. It’s very emotional, moving and something that I don’t think people would want to miss.”