‘There was a time when if you were curvy, black, with a big voice, there were about three roles you could play’ (Picture: Getty / Kat Hennessey / Metro.co.uk)
‘Thick thighs save lives!’ says West End star Marisha Wallace with the naughtiest of gap-toothed grins. She’s slumped on her sofa recovering from yesterday’s two shows of the smash-hit revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! at The Young Vic, talking about her own brand of sexiness.
Oklahoma! was a Tony winning success on Broadway before coming to London, where the reviews have been, if anything, even better.
And despite playing the second-fiddle role of Ado Annie, Marisha has also got stand-out reviews – including being namechecked in Vogue. Which she loves. ‘Vogue said, “Oklahoma! is the best show in London right now. The acting is sublime, especially Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie.” But I have to say, the role is great.’
The ‘thick thighs’ comment comes in a conversation about the song I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No, the one that Marisha stops the show eight times a week with, and how it might be a tricky one to pull off in these post-#MeToo days, when it could sound just a little shaming.
‘Not at all!’ she says, all freckles and hot pink nails (‘My own’). ‘I turned it into
a sex-positive, love-positive anthem, which is my way of thinking. I feel like
women should have the choice to do whatever they like sexually, to be very
sexual or not have sex at all. Women sometimes get ridiculed if they enjoy sex or have a lot of lovers but women want to have that choice. And to celebrate their bodies.
‘I’m a curvy black woman with a big butt, big thighs and they’re out, honey. And people are loving it!’
Marisha was not taken seriously in the industry because of the colour of her skin (Picture: Kat Hennessey)
Her costume in the show is a tiny denim skirt, cowboy boots with a fringe, a cut-off top with bra straps showing… ‘And it’s nice to see that body type on stage being the object of desire. Because in real life that’s how it is! You don’t get to see that reflected on stage but boys like to see that. Big thighs save lives, honey.’
Which is where we came in…. The new Oklahoma! – now updated to the modern day – explores small-town America and how insular it can be, ‘and how that can create violence, because people are poorer. We’ve had a lot more love here than it got on Broadway because Americans don’t want to see themselves this way,’ she reckons.
‘Brits can see it from the outside looking in and it resonates. And you guys don’t have gun culture…’
This is the week before the school shooting in Texas. ‘There are guns all over the walls in the show and you see Brits come in and go, “Woah!” But I grew up with that. There was a gun shop on the corner, everyone carried a gun. My aunt had one. She kept it in her glove compartment or had it sitting on her lap if someone she didn’t like was around.’
Marisha Wallace (Effie White) and Liisi LaFontaine (Deena Jones) during the curtain call for the ‘Dreamgirls’ musical (Picture: Dan Wooller / REX / Shutterstock)
But Oklahoma! is not Marisha’s first conquering of the West End. She did it as Effie in Dreamgirls, and in Waitress, and with her tour with Todrick Hall, an old friend of hers from Broadway. And at the Royal Variety Show when she sang Tomorrow for the Queen, a song she recorded in her house to raise money for West End stars out of work during the pandemic.
In fact, the only downside of being a smash-hit West End star is that they won’t give you time off to perform for the Queen at her Platinum Jubilee concert, even when you get specially invited.
‘I’m so sad, I saw the line-up today – Diana Ross! – and I was like, boohoo. But if I don’t get this one, I have to get another one. Queen, keep yourself safe so we can do it…’
And Marisha’s triumph is testament to the success of colour-blind casting. ‘There
was a time when if you were curvy, black, with a big voice, there were about three roles you could play: Effie, Mama Morton [Chicago], Motormouth [Hairspray]… I played them all. And all of those roles, you come out, you sing a big song and you leave and no one ever knew what happened to you.’
Which is why it’s great she’s getting plaudits not just for her presence and voice (and thighs!) but for her acting. ‘I take myself seriously as an actress but I was never taken seriously,’ she says. ‘I actually feel a bit British sometimes. I do feel like the Brits have really adopted me and accept what I’m putting out. It’s great to finally have your dreams come true… in a place you really didn’t expect.’
Oklahoma! is at London’s Young Vic until June 25.