Being cast in two high profile ‘flops’ could leave you a bit unsure of your future career on the stage.
It’s a tough enough life as it is fighting for auditions and roles in the highly competitive industry.
Now, rebounding from the highly-publicised failures of musicals Viva Forever and Stephen Ward has seen Helen Ternent become one of the ‘Boys’.
The Jersey Boys, that is, as she’s currently in the West End cast of the musical, which charts the rise and fall of one of the most successful bands in pop history, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
But a couple of years ago, things weren’t looking quite so good.
Helen, who trained at Blackpool’s Phil Winston’s Theatreworks, had the back-to-back misfortune of winning roles in the two major new musicals, which failed to impress, each one closing early.
It’s one of those musicals I recommend to people if they’re not sure about musicals – even before I was in it. It’s a good musical for men! It’s not all jazz hands, we don’t break out into song in that wayHelen Ternent
Firstly, she was cast in the Spice Girls’ musical Viva Forever, which was widely panned by critics, and ran for just seven months from November 2012, closing at a reported loss of £5 million.
And her next job was the similarly ill-fated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Stephen Ward, setting the 1960s Profumo Affair on the theatrical stage and running for just four month from December 2013.
Even the Lord’s name couldn’t save this one, but the double blow didn’t get Helen down.
“It was a massive privilege to work on an original Andrew Lloyd Webber production,” she said.
“Perhaps in a different venue, like the National Theatre, it might have done better – it wasn’t the type of thing which would bring in the tourist audience in the heart of the West End.
“It was such a contrast to the very light-hearted Viva Forever, but after those two, at one point, my agent was referring to me as having the ‘midas touch’.
“It was a bit of bad luck really, but they were both amazing jobs for six, eight months.
“Viva Forever was a chance to work with amazing people, the cast and creative teams, I met the Spice Girls and Jennifer Saunders.
“It was a massive adventure and I’m proud to say I was in both productions.
“It’s a bit gut wrenching when it’s an original work as you really invest in it. It’s lovely to get that creative input to a role, but then when it goes wrong you’ve put time and emotion into it.
“But it’s a business, and if people aren’t buying tickets you can’t keep going. The lows make the highs even better too, getting this job I was so excited.
“Jersey Boys is a stable, long-running show, I knew what to expect and what’s expected of me.”
Although, that somewhat heightens the pressures too.
Jersey Boys has become a stage phenomenon. It tells the story of the Four Seasons, through the ‘four seasons’ of their career – the spring beginnings, the heights of summer, the fading in the autumn, and the winter of their discontent, with each section told from the perspective of a band member, Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi.
It’s been running in the West End since 2008, playing the Piccadilly Theatre since early last year, and has been seen by worldwide audiences of more than 22 million people.
The story of four boys from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey and how they made music history, is packed with their hits, including Beggin’, December, 1963 (Oh What a Night), My Eyes Adored You, Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got), Bye Bye Baby, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, Working My Way Back to You, Fallen Angel, Rag Doll and Who Loves You.
Unlike the jukebox musicals which create a fictional plot around the music, such as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You, it’s the truth of this story – which is not-at-all sugar coated – which appealed to Helen.
She plays Valli’s daughter Francine, who died from an overdose in 1980, having been a runaway with a troubled relationship with her parents.
Rehearsals started in February, and Helen made her debut in the role in March, so she’s well settled now – with a three-year contract under her belt.
“Calling Jersey Boys a jukebox musical doesn’t do it justice,” she said. “I wasn’t too sure when I first heard about the show because of the ‘jukebox’ thing. I didn’t know what to expect - and I certainly didn’t know how many songs I would know, but they’ve been used so much through the years that they’re all familiar – but it won me round once I saw it, and it’s a show I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
“It’s very clever, well directed and the guys [The Four Seasons] came on board and did the story, and wanted to give their sides of the story, all the different perspectives of how they were seeing things at the same times.
“It’s a privilege to listen to the direction and everything you do has a reason as to why it’s directed in that way. They were all real people. You get a real rounding of the character and how those things happened.
“It has been done in a very classy, slick way.
“It’s one of those musicals I recommend to people if they’re not sure about musicals – even before I was in it. It’s a good musical for men! It’s not all jazz hands, we don’t break out into song in that way.”
And Helen gets the best of both worlds, enjoying the music and fun of the first act in a variety of small roles, before Francine’s story comes to the fore.
“My character has a very sombre part in the story, although she doesn’t really come in until the second act,” she said.
“I always try to play it with respect, every time for eight shows a week, because I have to do justice to her. Frankie [Valli] found it quite tough, as her dad, when he first saw the show, and got quite upset I’ve been told. It’s digging up the past, so that’s understandable, and to admit that there are consequences to one side of the story.
“There’s all this success, and Francine comes in after the three big numbers – Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like A Man – and the success of them, but it cost Frankie his family life, that went off for a while.
“It highlights that the grass is always greener; he had turmoil with his children and his wife. It’s important to tell that part.”
A Lancashire lass born and bred, Helen grew up in Burnley, attending Higham Primary School and the former Mansfield High School in Brierfield, and loved dance and drama, attending Sandersons Dance and Basics Junior Theatre School in the town. But these were just a hobby and not a career path, until one of her teachers gave Helen and her parents a prospectus for Phil Winston’s Theatreworks in Blackpool.
None of her family, hairdresser mum Veronica or former Claret Ray – he played for the club between 1963 and 1970 – nor sisters Rachelle and Emma, had any theatrical backgrounds, but they were all right behind her when the suggestion of attending Theatreworks came up.
Dad Ray especially understood the passion behind a vocational career.
“He knew it could be a temperamental life, but he let me crack on,” Helen said. “He had been in a similar position so knew they would have to be behind me – and you really need support.
“None of the rest of the family are into music, so they don’t know where this passion or talent came from, but went with it.”
Helen made the most of a little more than two years’ study at Theatreworks, from 2003 to 2005, cramming a week’s worth of classes into three ‘long days’ each week, returning home to Burnley in between for work to fund the course.
Although Helen didn’t quite complete her course, because an agent took her on early in the final year and she secured a six-month job in Berlin almost instantly.
“The idea was to have an agent and attend auditions to prepare for when you do leave, but this particular audition they were looking for one girl, and I fitted it,” she said. “And you can’t say no at that stage. I loved training at Theatreworks and had fantastic teachers, but with an opportunity to work that’s where you really learn the craft… And I still am now.
“By going home to work between classes, it made me work even harder – and it’s a great way to allow people to train who might not afford it otherwise.”