FRANCESCA Annis is more than ready for her lunch break when we meet.
“A bit puffed,” she says between sips of juice when asked how she is, “but absolutely fine.”
She then quickly reminds herself and us that Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which opens on Wednesday, is her first major musical in a career stretching four decades that includes countless films, plays and TV dramas.
She was persuaded to join the cast that includes award winning Samantha Spiro and Sheffield Theatres artistic director Daniel Evans by show director Jonathan Munby.
“I initially said I didn’t think it would be within my range, but he’s so supportive,” says Annis, a week into Sheffield rehearsals after an initial week in the capital.
“I did need to be given confidence that it was possible. So I sang with the musical director and he told Jonathan he thought it was going to be possible.
“I did do a musical when I first started my career, when I was 20, so that was really a long time ago – like the ark. But, in fact, I haven’t sung since then. I don’t even sing at home.”
So one of the first things Annis had to do was take singing lessons. “When I started the teacher said ‘there’s nothing wrong with your scales, just go and sing, you’ve got to get used to hearing yourself sing – sing anything’.
“When I got home I realised I didn’t know a single song and I thought that was so sad. I don’t even sing in the bath. Maybe it’s something I’ve been lacking but I am working on the assumption it’s never too late.”
Sondheim’s pacy story about love and marriage, centres on Robert (Evans), a commitment-phobic bachelor, as he celebrates his 35th birthday. His well-meaning, married New York friends believe it is high time he settled down but he has other ideas.
Even non-musical fans will recognise many of the standards within Company, songs such as Getting Married Today, Ladies That Lunch and Being Alive.
“I’ve never been a great musical fan but I am now. Being an actress I thought Company was about a company of actors, whereas of course it’s about relationships. I had no idea.
“Now I can see how much work you put into it on so many levels. It’s layer upon layer and we’re working long hours singing and dancing all day until 10.
“I said to Ian Gelder (returning after his appearance in Racing Demon last year) the other day ‘Let’s not sit on the floor because we’ll never get up’.
“I can’t believe at my age, at this time, I’ve actually gone into a completely new territory. But I thought the time has come. It’s no good whingeing on, ‘you haven’t been in musicals, you don’t sing.’ Get out there.
“It has been challenging, I can tell you. It’s been a virgin canvas, so it’s nice to know there are a few firsts left.
“I think maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t read music. It’s fine and the musical director, Nigel Lilley, has been so patient. He got me through all the numbers but of course when they’d say ‘bar 15 and then move to 35, I’d think ‘oh my God’. But it’s fine, they’re an incredibly nice bunch of people.”
Company is programmed as Sheffield’s Christmas musical. The piece, based on George Furth’s book, doesn’t traditionally have a festive feel, but it is filled with music and dancing, surely staples of the season.
“It’s quite hard edged and I think it was quite hard edged for the ’70s. Now we’re that much further away, people can really see the irony and humour in it.
“Over the years we’ve become more au fait with self analysis and people never stop talking about their relationships and the value of relationships.
“There’s nothing new in it that people haven’t been party to or discussed and thought about as part of their DNA now. But this is so funny and I think they’ll see the humour and it’s got a great upside; it’s a very loving musical. It’s about love and that journey of making a commitment.”
While those are common factors of many stage pieces, at the time Company emerged it prompted debate over class and other issues that maybe now appear nostalgic.
“We’re in a different place now and I think that’s why people will come to it; it’ll be new. It’s not like a period piece at all.
“We have all caught up with it. Consequently everyone won’t be bemused in the auditorium.”
Company, which also features Claire Price, who won an award for her role in Crucible Studio’s The Pride this summer, Damian Humbleby (Fiddler On The Roof), Anna-Jane Casey (Piaf), David Birrell and Samantha Seager, runs until January 7.