When Les Misérables reopened in the West End in September, Chanice Alexander-Burnett joined the cast playing the role of Fantine, who she continues to play at the Sondheim Theatre. Since making her professional debut as Angie in Our House, Chanice’s credits have included making her West End debut as Swing in 2016 at the Aldwych Theatre in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, Ensemble and cover Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon and, most recently, she was in the cast as Ensemble of Motown the Musical, where she covered the role of Diana Ross. Chanice’s daughter Chanai Owusu-Ansah can also be seen performing in the West End as Young Nala in The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. Speaking with us, Chanice answers our questions about playing Fantine in Les Misérables, covering Diana Ross in Motown the Musical and her time in The Book of Mormon.
You’re currently playing Fantine in the West End production of Les Misérables, what is the role like to play?
I am! And the role is completely wonderful to play. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in some really great shows, but for a while now I’ve said that I wanted a part that I can really get my teeth into (with the acting side). Something dramatic, and not as light-hearted and fun as the other characters I’ve played. So I just feel completely honoured to have been trusted with this pretty iconic part!
She’s been wonderful to get to know so far and I know that as time goes on I’ll discover even more parts of her and she will evolve even more. But I absolutely adore playing her so much already. Her story is so tragic, but I think it’s also very beautiful and full of so much love.
Was there anything that drew you to the role and how did you prepare for playing Fantine?
I think that her love for her daughter is something that really connected me to Fantine. Being a mother myself, I can really relate to her story and her want for an amazing life for her child. That’s all most mums want, right? And seeing her strength throughout her journey, the sacrifices she makes in the hopes of making a good life for her daughter Cosette… it’s really touching.
In terms of preparation, of course researching is a must. I’d already seen the movie version of Les Mis a few times and the theatre production once before, so I was familiar. I also purchased the Victor Hugo novel which delves more deeply into the character giving you more background into her life which the show and film doesn’t really do. And I watched the BBC drama which was really great!
How did it feel opening in the show and returning to live theatre?
Wow… It feels so incredible to be back on the stage. I think I speak for most of us when I say we’ve had such a tough couple of years and our industry was hit so hard, I really didn’t know when it would get back on its feet or if it ever would! It was a really scary time. But I’m so grateful to be here and there is so much joy throughout our building and in the audience. You really feel it, at the end of the show especially. You can see the audience are so happy to be back experiencing live theatre.
As for opening in the show, it was so surreal! Was a complete whirlwind… but such a beautiful night! I’m glad I got to experience it coming out of the pandemic. It was such a buzz being a part of that reopening after so long.
What are you enjoying most about being in the cast and what are you looking forward to for continuing in the role?
I’m enjoying being surrounded by some incredibly talented people every day. And as well as talented they’re such a lovely bunch! Also working with two friends I worked with before… and, of course, getting to know my dressing room ladies!
And continuing on in the role I’m just excited for progression! Progression in my craft and discovering more parts of Fantine!
Can you tell us about your time as Ensemble in Motown the Musical?
Ahhh, my time at Motown is so dear to me. I made some of the best friends that I have from that show. It was so much fun! I mean, hearing and performing to Motown music every day is brilliant anyway. But we had such a great group of people and laughed all the time. Ensemble life was great! Hectic at times with costume and wig changes, but I really enjoyed my time there. You tend to pick up backstage routines at certain moments and that’s also really lovely.
What was Diana Ross like to portray when covering the role?
It was AMAZING playing the legendary Diana Ross!! It was an interesting process doing research on her and all of her isms. The way she moves, the way she sings… how I think she would respond in certain situations. It’s a whole new ball game when you are actually portraying someone who is a real person and so well known. A lot goes into creating that character. But I loved playing her so much and wearing her gorgeous gowns!! People would often say I looked a bit like her which was nice.
You were Ensemble in The Book of Mormon, what was the show like to be part of?
Mormon was an absolute treat! LOL! When I think about my time at that show all I think about is never-ending laughter! We laughed EVERY SINGLE DAY! On and off stage. And I honestly don’t know if I will experience anything like that again. Hearing an audience gasp in shock and roar with laughter was so wonderful and it will stick with me forever, I think. I’m actually reunited with one of my Mormon sisters here at Les Mis too… Kelly Agbowu, so that’s been so, so nice to be seeing her every day again!
How was it being first cover Nabulungi and what do you remember most from playing her for the first time?
I remember being petrified the first time I played her! LOL! I was in the middle of my first dress run then I was told I’d be on that night!! But I also remember being so excited. It was my first time playing a leading role… so the pressure was on. But I loved playing her so much! She was such a cute, fun character to take on. Being left on that stage alone to sing Sal Tlay Ka Siti felt a bit daunting at first and I really had to learn to just breathe in that moment! But it was so amazing! And I always looked forward to getting to play Nabs from that point on. She was really special.
You made your West End debut in 2016 as Swing in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, can you say more about it?
That was such a great learning curve for me! I’m so glad that I got to take on that role in that show particularly! Being a swing for four roles was just the right amount for me, I think! Don’t think I could manage more then that, to be honest! Haha!
I have so much admiration for swings that cover like six+ roles!!! It’s so full on! But I think it was a great way for me to be introduced into the industry and life in the West End. And I wouldn’t change that at all. I think every performer should swing at least once in their career.
I enjoyed going on for every single character and loved the group of people that I worked with that year. I also love that that was my starting point and I’ve been able to slowly move onto ensemble tracks, ensemble with cover and now to play a principal. It feels like a really nice journey for me.
That show was also just a, dare I say, ‘beautiful’ show. Fantastic script and score!! Very dear to me.
Do you remember how you felt booking your role at the Aldwych Theatre?
I was over the moon! I was actually outside the Union Theatre when my agent called and gave me the news. I think I was doing Our House or maybe I’d had an audition there. Anyway, I’d literally just finished drama school in that July… worked at the Union for the summer and then was starting with Beautiful in the November! I just remember feeling extremely blessed!! Couldn’t believe my luck! I’d tried to prepare myself that it could potentially be a long wait to find work so I was really shocked. So happy though. Just couldn’t wait to tell my family.
How was your time as Angie in Our House, with the show marking your professional debut?
So much fun!! Again, that’s another fantastic show! I’ve been so lucky with the shows I’ve done so far! Lol! And Angie was a really funny character to play. I’d never had the chance to do any comedy characters before and, to be honest, I couldn’t imagine myself doing it. But, as I said, it was so much fun and she was such a nice role to play.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I ADORE Miss Saigon and Hamilton… I think they are both top tier theatre and could watch them over and over and over again!!!!
Also, I’ve never seen it, but I love the score and I’m SO desperate for someone to put on The Wild Party, the Andrew Lippa Version. I’m so sure I’d love that too! The music is fantastic!
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you start?
I’m not sure, to be honest. As I child I loved watching TV and Disney movies and I always loved how watching them made me feel. I’d often get connected to certain characters and hoped one day someone would look at me and feel the way that I did when I watched things. I was fascinated by the way an actor could immerse themself into a role and make you believe they were that person. I never did any drama classes or anything as a child. So I’d say my journey really began when I was sixteen and went to college. I studied acting there then continued on to uni a few years later… and then drama school a couple years after that.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
I’d have to say spending time with loved ones is top of my list. And anything that involves food! Ha!
Your daughter Chanai Owusu-Ansah plays Young Nala in The Lion King, how is it having both of you perform in the West End at the same time?
She is! I’d be lying if I said it was easy, especially with also having a two year old. It’s pretty hectic in our home at the moment as we all have important things going on. But we’re making it work!
We couldn’t do what we do without the support of our family and friends. We have such wonderful support and I’m so grateful for that. Overall, it’s an absolute dream come true. We both love what we do so much and feel very lucky to have this experience together.
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