A Spoonful of Scarlett

September 30, 2009

Each night on Broadway, Scarlett Strallen bustles into the Banks household as Mary Poppins. With the straightest back on Cherry Tree Lane, a contagious positivity and expertly turned-out feet, the dazzlingly talented UK native is a dance-lover’s dream choice for the role. Although her pristine soprano and veritable acting chops fulfill the standard leading-lady formula, it’s her exquisite dance skills and impressive background that make her even more “practically perfect”—and rare.

From dancing in the original Mamma Mia! and starring in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London‘s West End, to performing in Shakespeare productions and her current perch on Broadway, this triple threat is quickly moving into the primetime spotlight.

All in the Family

Scarlett’s talent is literally in her blood: She’s part of a serious dance legacy. Her parents, Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, are both West End veterans. They performed in the original Cats, in which her aunt, the legendary Bonnie Langford, originated the role of Rumpleteaser. Her younger siblings, Summer, Zizi and Saskia, are all performers, too. Not to mention her 80-year-old grandmother, Babette Langford, still runs Young Set, an arts academy in Richmond, England, where Scarlett grew up and began training at age 3. “My mom and aunt went there. We all went there,“ Scarlett says, looking effortlessly stunning in a yellow T-shirt, jeans and Frye boots in her Mary dressing room. “She puts on singing and dancing spectacle shows. I was in them until I was 15!”

Scarlett was further inspired by her mother. “My mother started out as a ballerina and trained at The Royal Ballet School,“ Scarlett says. “She took me to the ballet all the time. I loved The Nutcracker, and after I saw it, I begged for proper ballet classes.”

But it was really a feline, not a Sugar Plum, that sealed Scarlett’s fate. “I was four when I saw my mom in Cats,“ Scarlett remembers. “She was doing a difficult attitude in a pool of spotlight; it was utterly magical. I thought, What else is there to do in the world, really?”

Scarlett‘s parents also helped her enter show business aware of the pros and cons. “I remember my parents being so tired in the morning, both physically and emotionally, when they were in a show,“ she says. “I learned that this career looks glamorous, but it takes discipline to do eight shows a week and keep your body in shape. You have to be a racehorse with training and maintenance. No matter. I live for this. ”

It didn’t take long for Scarlett to find her own life onstage. She nabbed the role of Young Jenny in the West End production of Aspects of Love at age 9, working alongside her father, who was the show’s dance captain. “I had to beg him to let me audition!,” she says. “When I finally did, I was terrified at first, but then had an intense feeling of calm and sense of belonging. From that moment, I knew I felt most comfortable onstage.“

Although she spent her nights in the spotlight, Scarlett’s days were spent at a convent school where her professional life made her the butt of bullies’ ridicule. She persuaded her parents to let her switch to Arts Educational in Richmond, an arts academy where students complete academics in the morning and then dance all afternoon—a “heavenly” setup according to Scarlett.

Scarlett toyed with the idea of becoming a ballerina, especially when her pointework became intense at age 13. But one audition pointed her in another direction: “I tried out for Aurora in Sleeping Beauty at my school, and I was desperate to get it,” Scarlett explains. “I had facility, but I never had truly brilliant feet. Claire Figgan, my good friend, was all that I wasn’t and got the part. It was a huge heartache for me. But in the midst of it all, our teacher Miss Delanian complimented me and told me I was very expressive. I realized then that ballet was not my world. Even though I didn’t have confidence as a singer yet, I knew not being able to use my voice, or do jazz and tap, would be stifling for me. I‘m a storyteller.”

With this realization, Scarlett got to work honing her musical theater skills in college at the London Studio Centre at the young age of 15. First, she tackled her taps with Bill Dresidale. “It took me a while because it was hard to get the messages from my brain to my feet fast enough!” she says.

She also learned to sing with confidence. “Growing up, my sister Summer was known as the singer and I was the dancer. I was shy, so at first it was easier for me to express myself through dance,” Scarlett says. “But with the help of my voice teacher at college, Philip Foster, I finally found my voice.”

It wasn’t an automatic change, though. “Being a dancer, I was always so pulled up,“ Scarlett says. “I didn’t know how to let my breathing go down to my diaphragm, which you need when you sing. You have to be rooted and let your belly go. I’m still working on that!”

Putting in the Work

Regardless of the challenges involved, Scarlett tackled her new tasks with an ironclad work ethic and endearingly humble perspective. “I still have so much to learn—you always do! I think that comes from my days with Miss Delanian and Claire in front of me,” Scarlett says, with a laugh. “I saw that there is always someone better, so I strive to be as good. I had dreams of being on Broadway and in the West End, but I never knew it would actually be possible. I just worked as hard as I could.”

Fortunately, this dedicated approach was a success. At just 16 years old, Scarlett earned a spot as a featured dancer alongside much older castmates in the then-unknown West End show Mamma Mia!.” “I didn’t know any of the ABBA songs,” Scarlett says. “But I was very confident as a dancer.”

She took advantage of the situation by sticking with her always-more-to-learn attitude. “I was so shy because I was in such an grown-up world with that cast,” Scarlett says. “But I learned so much just from observing and paying attention.”

Rising through the Ranks

After her success in Mamma Mia!, Scarlett truly claimed her spot in the theater. She was in The Witches of Eastwick and Peggy Sue Got Married, then climbed the ranks in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in London. (In her three years with the show, Scarlett moved from ensemble dancer all the way up to the lead!) Soon after, she flew to the West End location of Mary Poppins, where she originated her take on the show’s famous nanny.

Now in NYC, she continues to mold her own version of the beloved figure with her trademark triple-threat take. “I’ve watched Julie Andrews countless times, so she’s always on my mind. But in the original P. L. Travers books, Mary is quite sharp, tart and rude. I wanted to marry the two versions, plus really bring my dancer background and use it as much as I could,” Scarlett says. “There‘s a hint of something otherworldly in Mary, like those effortless, old-school ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn. And that helps me. Fans often ask, ‘How do you keep your back so straight?’ It just comes naturally to me as a dancer!”

While enjoying her musical theater success, Scarlett is also hoping to venture into dramatic theater, film and TV next, to “go in a completely different direction and learn a whole other discipline.” But her inner dancer won’t be left behind: A poster of the Broadway production of Fosse in her dressing room is a proud dancer’s badge. “I saw Fosse four times when I first came to New York,” she explains with a giggle. “I’m dying to do at least one big dance show. My sister Summer did Fosse and got to do the trumpet solo in “Sing, Sing, Sing“. I was so jealous!” Plus, Scarlett warms up for each performance with a basic ballet barre and can’t help but disobey her costumer, who wants her to abandon perfectly broken-in tap shoes for a shiny, stiff new pair.

But regardless of whether or not the audience takes specific note of her impressive taps, kicks and turns before her soaring singing and cheeky portrayal, it’s undeniable: Scarlett’s skills—underpinned by her dance training—create magic. In the last moments of Mary Poppins, Mary floats from the stage over the audience, up to the highest heights of the balcony. “It’s my absolute favorite moment of the show,“ Scarlett says. “I always imagine Mary‘s soaring up to the stars.“ Perhaps it’s no coincidence: That’s Scarlett’s destination, too.

Did You Know?

Scarlett’s a “choreographer“, too! “When I did the original Mamma Mia! most of the cast members were singers, so they improvised movement until something was set. My partner Tim Walton and I—the two trained dancers—worked something out for ourselves. To this day, it’s the actual choreography in the productions I’ve seen. And in the movie!“

Mary Mania

Mary Hazards: Because of the character’s specific posture, Scarlett has to roll out the muscles on the outside of her thighs every night to make sure they don’t pull on her knees. Plus by the end of the week, she contends with “Mary arm“ from carrying the heavy Poppins bag!

Favorite Dance Piece: “Step in Time.“ “Brilliant producer Cameron Mackintosh told me‚‘Keep it all in until “Step in Time.“ Then let rip!‘ That’s hard for me because I’m so expressive, but then I get to go to the end of my fingertips with my dancing in this one.“

Photo by Joan Marcus