She’s a veteran of stage and TV, and she’s still only 19. Sarah Watson talks to Chris Titley about musicals and telly talent shows as Footloose hits York
On a hot summer’s afternoon, talented young performers are on stage at the Grand Opera House sweating their way through a dance routine.
To the untutored eye it all looks impressive. But the woman at the front of the stalls is not happy. “If you’re just going to sit there, then get off the stage!” she barks at the chorus boys and girls at the back of the set.
This is Louise Denison, director and choreographer of Footloose, the Stage Experience show at the Opera House this summer. She has two weeks and a large group of local ten to 21-year-olds from which to fashion a show. No wonder she’s shouting.
“Louise is absolutely amazing at what she does,” says one of the young stars, Sarah Watson, during her well-earned lunch break. “But you can’t put a foot out of place.
“If you gave a show to anyone else I don’t think you’d get anywhere near the result you get with Louise.”
Nineteen-year-old Sarah is the daughter of a musician and has been performing since she was seven. But it was another Louise Denison show, High School Musical, that first got her on the stage, in her home town of Wakefield.
“The shows I did with Louise are the reason I’ve been able to do what I’ve done in my career so far – Loserville and X Factor – because she teaches you what you need to do survive in the industry, the discipline, the perseverance.”
Which, let’s face it, X Factor doesn’t do. Fans of the Simon Cowell juggernaut will recognise Sarah from the series a couple of years ago.
Judge Gary Barlow called her audition “magnificent, really good”, and she went on a rollercoaster ride, first being rejected after boot camp then being recalled after another contestant was kicked off the show when a past crime meant she was denied a US visa.
This meant the then 17-year-old Sarah was flown out to Miami to the house of judge Kelly Rowland, singing in front of her and Jennifer Hudson.
What prompted Sarah to audition for X Factor? “It’s family saying ‘you should do this!’ They said it for years and eventually you just go, ‘I might as well give it a go.’ I was very lucky with where I got to.”
Yet she emerged with ambivalent feelings for the show. “I have such mixed views on the experience: on one hand it was the most amazing thing I ever did. I got to meet so many amazing people.
“On the other hand it’s a very manipulative environment.
“What I love about musical theatre is, it’s just hard work. If you work hard, if everyone in the cast works hard, you’ll get what you need to get done.
“Whereas on shows like that, they pick someone, they show what they want to show of what’s been said, and it might not necessarily be shown in the right context.”
The sudden turn around, from being rejected after boot camp and then brought back as a replacement contestant, meant “at that point I kind of knew I was just a number.
“But the experience – to be able to go to Miami and be taught by amazing vocal coaches and play with amazing musicians – I thought it’s an amazing opportunity.”
After her experience would she recommend a friend try for the X Factor? “I think it would depend what kind of person it was.
“It’s not for the faint hearted. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry. I’m not a crier. And it took all the effort I had inside me not to cry, because they spend hours in interviews just trying to make you cry. It’s very strange.”
After X Factor Sarah was in Loserville, a musical about computer geeks which began at the West Yorkshire Playhouse then transferred to the Garrick Theatre in London.
And now she’s in Footloose, a show with some stonking Eighties anthems including Holding Out For A Hero, Almost Paradise, Let’s Hear It For The Boy and the title track itself.
The show tells the story of the impact a city boy, Ren, has on the sleepy US town of Bomont. Breaking every taboo, Ren brings dance back to the heart of a town held back by the memory of a tragedy.
Sarah plays Ariel Moore, the role taken by Lori Singer in the movie starring Kevin Bacon.
“She’s the vicar’s daughter,” Sarah says. “She’s very feisty – she’s doing everything she can to prove to make her dad notice her.
“Since there was an accident in Bomont all he’s done is try to find the worst in people and she feels like he doesn’t see her.”
Are there similarities between Ariel and Sarah? “I think I’m like Ariel in that I love to perform and I love to be in this confident world. But I’m actually quite a nervous person. So I can relate to that.”
The theme of the show – kids having the time of their lives singing and dancing – is mirrored in this production.
“You make such amazing friends. Everyone’s just passionate about doing what they’re doing and everyone gets along.”
After Footloose, Sarah heads to Coventry to take part in a new musical called The Prodigals. And then?
“I just want to keep performing, really. It’d be lovely to go back on the West End at some point.
“Just keep going with it and see where it takes me. That’s my favourite thing about the industry, you never know where you’re going to be in a month’s time.”
- Footloose is at the Grand Opera House from Thursday, August 1 to Saturday, August 3
- Shows start at 7.30pm with a 2.30pm Saturday matinee
- For more information, go to the Opera House website