When Alexandra Burke first took on the role of Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard it was only meant to be a three-month engagement.
The musical is based on the hit 1992 film starring Whitney Houston which gave us her global smash cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.
The X Factor star took over from Beverley Knight in 2014 for the end of the musical’s run in the West End at the Adelphi Theatre. She then took on the ensuing UK and Monaco tour, wrapping up in 2016. She returned in December 2018 for the current UK tour.
The Guide caught up with Alexandra while the show was in Canterbury, shortly before it heads to Hampshire – and reveals she wasn’t meant to be coming to Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.
‘This was meant to be my last venue. I was meant to leave in Canterbury and then the show would go on without me, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, because they’re going to Japan later in the year and I’ve never been, so I thought, you know what? I may as well take the opportunity while I can. My mum always said to me, if you get the chance to go to Japan, do it.
‘So I’m staying on the tour now until February next year. It’s the first time the show’s been there and I can’t wait, I’m so excited.’
Since then Alexandra has continued working in musical theatre, taking the lead in a year-long tour of Sister Act, a West End revival of Chess alongside Michael Ball, and a stint as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
But last December she was lured back to the role she made her theatre debut in – Rachel. So what brought her back?
‘Believe you me I was done with it because it’s such a hard show,’ she laughs, ‘I finished in Monaco in 2016 and I thought: “That’s it!” It’s such a tough show vocally – to sing Whitney 15 times a night is so hard.
‘But I know I’m lucky to be able to do what I do and live my dreams and singing, dancing and acting, and this was a way to continue doing this after Chicago.
‘I know I’m not in A&E saving lives, I’m not a doctor or anything like that, I’m performing, and I’m very lucky to be able to do this line of work and to entertain people and to escape from our own realities. We can only hope that the audience escapes with us, because that’s two-and-a-half-hours of their time, and we want them to enjoy it.
‘Do what you want in life, because life is too short. I loved this show before and I love it even more now, so I had to say: “yes,” and grab it with both hands.’
Looking back at her first run at the role, it got off to a rocky start.
‘How I managed to do six shows a week in the first time I’d ever done theatre, only Jesus knows,’ she recalls, ‘because I don’t think I know what hit me.
‘The day of the second show, I woke up with no voice. I hadn’t gone to sleep until 4am because of the adrenaline from the opening night, so I wake up around 1pm and called the resident director to say: “Listen I don’t think I can go on”. He says, “Okay, I can’t advise you to go off or come on.”
‘I called our company manager, which is the protocol, and tell him I’m going to come in and do my warm-up and see how I feel, but at this moment in time, I can’t speak properly.
Then he says: “Well... Dionne Warwick’s in tonight, you want to go off?”
Without hesitation she blurts: ‘I’m like: “I’ll be there!”’
As well as being a megastar in her own right, Warwick was also Whitney’s cousin.
‘I couldn’t not perform. The voice came from somewhere that night!’
Because of the vocal demands of the role, Alexandra no longer does the matinee performances on the tour, and she has to be careful with her voice.
‘I’m quite disciplined – I have to really look after it, and I rarely, rarely go out, I’m a bit of a granny now at 30, and I’m totally fine with that.’
Her strict regime involves regular steaming, avoiding dairy products, and lately she’s taken to gargling TCP and salt as well.
‘It’s a little bit taxing, but I can’t complain. It’s what you’ve got to do to get through six-eight shows a week. This is the one show, though, where I can’t do eight shows a week. I’ve done eight shows a week on Chess and Chicago and Sister Act. But there’s no way I could do Whitney twice a day, I just can’t.’
Following some very public battles with her demons, Whitney tragically died in 2012. Alexandra never got to see the singer perform live.
‘I didn’t and I’m gutted. But my mum was her backing singer, so I got a little bit close to her through my mum.
‘I was invited to her concert when she played at the O2 some years back, but I didn’t go because I had my own gig that night, and I kick myself as she’s now sadly no longer with us.
‘My mum got to meet her and she’s been one of my biggest inspirations, but it’s just absolutely tragic how both her and her daughter went, and my heart goes out to her family. But what a great tribute to her to still have this show on the road and all around the world.’
Although she’s made a name for herself on stage, it was winning the X Factor in 2008 that put her on the map. Her debut single, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah became the Christmas number one and sold more than a million copies.
It remains a staple of her own live performances.
‘I still love singing it and it brings back 11 years ago in my heart and my mind and my soul. I’ll forever be grateful to for it.
‘I remember when I heard that that was going to be the winner’s single and saying to my mum and my family: “Yeah, that’s not for me, I’m never going to win it!”
The song choice proved to be somewhat controversial, with fans of Cohen and Jeff Buckley – who recorded perhaps its best-known cover, campaigning against her version.
‘There were people trying to make sure Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley were number one and two, so that it wasn’t me. I remember thinking to myself, gosh, this is really difficult to digest. And then when it got to number one it was such an achievement, I had to pinch myself.’
Now though, she’s better known to young fans for being on Strictly Come Dancing in 2017 – she made it to the final and was ultimately runner-up to Joe McFadden.
‘A few days ago, I went to a little shop around the corner from the theatre, there was this young boy who was so lovely, but had no idea who I was.
‘He goes to me: “Oh, are you in that show The Bodyguard?” Because he saw my company pass, and he asked: “Who do you play?” So I said: “Oh, I’m the bodyguard”, and I made up this whole story and bless his heart, he believed me. I asked how old he was and he said 23. That’s when I realised he wasn’t even born when the film came out, and he was only 13 when I won the show.
‘It’s amazing how it has been now 11 years, and there are people who kind of only know me through Strictly. It’s bizarre to me, it’s amazing – not everyone knows Halleujah. And why should they? A lot of them weren’t born!’
Once her run with The Bodyguard comes to an end in February next year, Alexandra’s not sure exactly what’s next.
‘I would just like to get back in the studio and do my own thing, but you know what? Musical theatre has allowed me to see so many different cities and place and perform for so many people.
‘Who knows what the future holds? I’m never going to say no to doing it again because who knows what doors will open, but I would love my next role to be something original – something I can originate with a company because everything I've done so far has been a takeover role.
‘It’s been crazy, what was only meant to be a three-month stint has turned into five years of doing musical theatre. It’s not a bad run.’
The Bodyguard is at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from May 28-June 8. tickets £29.50-55.50. Go to mayflower.org.uk.