Joanne Clifton is not quite the smalltown ingenue thrown into the deep end that is the title character of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.
But taking on the lead in a major revival of the show based on the 1967 Oscar-winning film is a big leap for Joanne, who has so far been best-known for her dancing. The nationwide tour is due to stop at the Kings Theatre later this month.
Against the odds, Joanne and her partner, BBC sports presenter Ore Oduba, lifted Strictly Come Dancing’s glitterball trophy after winning the last series of the ratings behemoth.
But Joanne had already won the part in Millie before filming even started on the TV show’s last season. And as she tells The Guide, the role couldn’t have been more apt.
‘It’s a childhood dream come true to do musical theatre. Funnily enough, when I moved back to England from living in Italy, at my first singing lesson the first song she taught me was Not For The Life Of Me, which is from Thoroughly Modern Millie. It seems like I was destined to do it!’
While she has won plenty of British, European and world ballroom dancing titles, Joanne has only been a dancer on Strictly for a couple of years. And before Millie, she had only appeared in a brace of ‘fringe’ productions, Face The Music and Norma Jean: The Musical. She was conscious of not trading on the attention that being on Strictly had brought her.
‘I wanted to work my way up. Obviously I haven’t had the training in the singing and the acting, and I didn’t want to just use the fact that I’d been in Strictly for a year to get a really big role and then not be very good at it, because if I wasn’t very good, then I wouldn’t get any more roles after that.
‘I loved those two shows. I loved every minute of it – constantly trying to improve and take more lessons and study and catch up with all these thousands of other people who do this and are amazingly talented.’
Set in the roaring ’20s, Thoroughly Modern Millie follows the titular character as she steps off the train from Kansas into a New York city filled with speakeasies, frivolous flappers and the pulsating sounds of syncopated jazz. Millie’s ‘modern’ plan is to work in a typing pool and marry the wealthy boss. But then she meets and falls in love with Jimmy, a man without a dime to his name...
Joanne was invited to audition for the part last summer after the producers saw her in Norma Jean.
I am a believer in hard work and I have worked hard with my singing and acting lessons to get.. well, I think I’m all right!Joanne Clifton
‘I hadn’t seen the musical,’ says Joanne, ‘I saw the film when I was much younger, but I couldn’t really remember it.
‘Once I got the role, I tend not to look at things like that. Let’s face it I’m no Julie Andrews. She’s an absolute legend and I’m nothing like her and I wouldn’t want to watch it in case it affected the way I played Millie – I wanted to bring my own thing to Millie and then work on it with the director.’
Taking the lead in a musical requires the classic ‘triple threat’ of singing, dancing and acting.
‘What I love is the challenge of doing everything,’ says Joanne. ‘Obviously I’ve danced all my life. I always get nervous at the overture because there are people out there thinking: “I know her as a dancer, lets see if she can sing or act”.
‘I am a believer in hard work and I have worked hard with my singing and acting lessons to get.. well, I think I’m all right!’
However, even the dancing has proved a test for her.
‘The dancing in it is great, but it’s actually a bit of a challenge. Being a dancer I thought I would be fine, but actually there’s a lot of tap, and I’ve never done tap!’ she laughs. ‘It’s been quite tough to learn it.’
Given that she had this role in the bag, winning Strictly certainly did the show’s profiles no harm either.
‘It was great for the musical that I won it, but at the same time I missed a few weeks of rehearsals because we kept getting through!’
Ore had no dance experience and never featured among the bookies’ favourites to win. They had to twice fight their way through a dance-off to avoid elimination.
‘We just didn’t expect to win. Our goal for the whole season was to get to Blackpool. I could see he had talent and he could move, but he’d never danced properly before, so I said let’s make a realistic goal and if we get there we were going to have these chocolate waffles.
‘So we got to Blackpool and I was really happy, and crying as per usual, and then we went on and on, and then we got to the final.
‘We thought we had no chance of winning it because we had been in the dance-off so many times. We just thought let’s go out and enjoy it. We put no pressure on ourselves, we were just happy to be there, and I think that paid off, we didn’t try to win it.’
To win the final she had to beat her brother Kevin and his partner Louise Redknapp. Has Kevin forgiven her yet? ‘Bless him - he has,’ she giggles. ‘As soon as the cameras went off, I went over to Kevin and said: “I’m really sorry”. He’s been in the final four times now and never won it.
‘But he said to me, never say that again because there’s no-one in this room right now who could be prouder of you than me – you’re my little sister and I love it when you do well.’
Thoroughly Modern Millie is at The Kings Theatre in Southsea from Tuesday, March 21 to Saturday 25. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call the box office on (023) 9282 8282.