Interview with Jasna Ivir: Mama Morton in Chicago the Musical


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Interview with Jasna Ivir: Mama Morton in Chicago the Musical

Actress Jasna IvirJasna was born and brought up in Germany, as the only child to her Croatian parents.

When she was about 17 years old, she saw Barbra Streisand in the film Yentl and decided she wanted to be just like her. After singing in front of the mirror for only a few weeks, this talented young lady won a singing competition and has since appeared in numerous musicals all over Europe.

She made her West End debut in The Phantom of the Opera as the youngest ever Carlotta at only 26 years old.

Jasna also does voice-overs in German and her debut album ‘Musical Diva Delights’ was a huge success in Germany.

At the time of the interview, Jasna was playing the matron ‘Mama Morton’ in the hit musical Chicago at the Cambridge Theatre.

She very kindly agreed to answer some questions about her life and career before the afternoon show last Friday.

At what age did you realise that you wanted to be a singer/an actress?
I had been playing the organ since I was about 5 years old and was very interested in music but I never wanted to become a singer, really. But at the age of 17, when I was going to grammar school in Germany, we were taken on a trip to see the film Yentl starring Barbra Streisand and I fell in love with her and her singing instantly.

So I went and got myself the soundtrack on vinyl (no MP3 back then!). I listened to it morning to night and sang along and thought: when I grow up I want to be just like her! I loved her voice, loved the way she acted and I was gripped then and there. That’s when it started for me! She’s the one who really inspired me. I had all her albums and kept singing along in my little room, in front of the mirror, with a hairbrush in my hand, as you do!

At school, a friend of mine then said to me ‘hey, listen, there’s this singing competition, why don’t you take part?’ and I thought ‘OMG, I’ve only been singing for a few weeks – are you kidding?’ But I went anyway and didn’t tell my parents in case I didn’t make the first round. I was contestant nr 172 and thought ‘I’ll never make it!’ I sang ‘Being Alive’ from the 1985 Broadway Album and got through! They did ask me to prepare a different song for the next round, something people can relate to a bit more. I chose ‘The Way You Were’ and I won the singing competition a few days before my 18th birthday!

My parents had come along too – they have always been ever so supportive in whatever I do. My father wanted to be a musician but wasn’t allowed and he said to me ‘Just do whatever fulfils you and your days will be filled with joy’. After I’d won the competition, my father suggested I take some singing lessons which I did for about a year.

My singing teacher was also a professor at the ‘Hochschule’ (uni) in Stuttgart, Germany. When he asked me to sing something for him, I sang a Barbra Streisand song of course, but he said ‘We already have a Barbra Streisand so we need a Jasna now! Why don’t we do some classical songs.’ I wasn’t really keen on that, but he said ‘It’s like with dancing – you have to start with ballet and can then move on to jazz and tap etc…’ So I got into classical music a little bit then.

After my ‘Abitur’ (German A ‘Levels), I applied to the uni – I got in after two attempts. My theory was awful! But they thought my voice was ‘exceptional’ and took me on anyway. However, after only three months I auditioned for Cats (Zurich production). There I was also asked to do a classical aria but had not really prepared anything…I sang an aria in G minor for them and they loved it. I got the part and never went back to uni! On the 9th of August this year, it’s going to be exactly 20 years since I opened in Cats. And I still look 23 – how is that possible?

Mamma Mia is one of the most popular musicals of all time – you played the main character ‘Donna’ in Germany for 6 years. Please tell us about this experience.
When Mamma Mia started in Germany it was a big thing – it was the first ever production of it that was not performed in English! So a bit of a risk. It was the most wonderful experience and great fun! I love Mamma Mia, it takes a very big place in my heart. I never ever got tired of it. What I love about that show is that it is about real people with everyday problems, it’s very ‘now’.  It requires very little make-up, has a lot of dialogue and it’s very clever how all the songs have been woven into the storyline. We also had a lot of freedom to make the parts our own, insert some of our own personality and also change how to play the part. I played Donna in Hamburg, Stuttgart and Berlin – and it was a completely different Donna each time. That was lovely and I think probably unique to Mamma Mia. I miss it very much!

You were born in Germany and have performed there but have also worked in Switzerland, Austria and England. Have you got a favourite place to work?
I’ve had so much fun wherever I worked! It’s a bit harder in Germany in that there is not really a city with a huge array of theatres with musicals or a big musical theatre community as it is here. If you want to do another show, you have to move. Of course I loved all the places because I associate them with my colleagues (who I miss very much) and great times we had.

But yes – I have to say London is the best place with all the shows and theatres! It’s like being a child at Hamleys thinking ‘I want to move in here!’ It’s wonderful. And when you’ve worked here for a while, you know so many theatre people you always bump into someone you can have a natter or coffee with. It doesn’t get any better than the West End!

You made your West End debut as the youngest ever Carlotta in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at 26 years of age. That’s a BIG show. What was that like for you?
It was a dream come true! I loved the show, fell in love with the original, rather than the German translation (although that was good too!). I first auditioned for the role in Vienna when I was in Elisabeth, just to see whether I was going in the right direction. They actually thought I was wonderful and suggested I continue in Elisabeth until the end of my contract and then join Phantom and take over as Carlotta! Unfortunately Phantom closed before I got to the end of my contract. So I phoned Cameron Mackintosh Limited and asked if I could come and audition. I was 23 at the time. And they said: “OMG, you are Carlotta!” I was waiting for the ‘but’…and it came: “But the role is cast”. I knew it… but they continued: “We can however give you first cover and as soon as the current Carlotta finishes her contract, you’ve got the part. Can you start next week?’ Wow! I learned then, that, unlike in Germany, in London you don’t audition months in advance. I was under contract in Vienna at the time, but I auditioned again, got the 1st Cast and was able to accept it in ’96! My dream role! I love the feistiness of the part, the vocals, her costumes, the wigs, a true Diva! I played the part for over three years and was in musical theatre heaven.

You are currently starring in the hit musical ‘Chicago’, playing the matron ‘Mama Morton’. Can you describe to us what she’s like, what kind of person she is?
What is she like? Well, she’s the nicest person in the world! She only thinks about herself! Seriously, well, she’s the matron, runs the county jail and looks after all the girls. In my opinion she’s in cahoots with Billy Flynn; whenever there’s a new girl coming in and needs a lawyer, of course there’s only him she’d recommend as he’s the best. She probably comes from a poor background, must have had some hard times, people disappointed her so she’s become tough. Her motto is ‘If you’re good to me, THEN I’ll be good to you’ – not the other way around.  But underneath it all she still has a big heart, cherishes old values and genuinely wants to help people. Like Huynak. Being the only one who understands Hungarian, she thinks she can save her. But not being able to succeed is then very tough for her. Apart from that she has a jolly old time, a good laugh and enjoys being in charge.

Why should everyone go and see Chicago?
Because I’m in it!
Seriously, it’s one of the most wonderful musical as it’s got the orchestra on stage making this glorious big band sound – it blasts you away! The story is thrilling and very current, the show doesn’t need any sets; the props are chairs and newspapers. It’s all stripped down and concentrates on the characters journeys, great voices and sassy choreography. For the performer there’s nothing to hide behind and it is the most sexy musical – eye candy for male and female audience members! People are familiar with the songs even though they’re unaware they’re from Chicago the Musical, like Mr Cellophane or All that Jazz. You come away with a smile on your face, whistling the tunes and dancing in the streets – you get completely ‘razzle dazzeled’. Oh…and because I’m in it!

Is there someone you’d really like to work with?
No, no one in particular. I feel inspired by everyone around me in my work environment and don’t differentiate between ‘big names’ or unknowns. To learn from people’s behaviour on stage and off is what I am after.
For example I take my hat off to the swings – all the things they’ve got to learn and do at the same time –all their hard work and how they have to come on mid-show sometimes because someone falls ill, changing costumes, changing characters, different dance track…I admire people like that….not a specific person or well known celebrity.

What other parts would you love to play and why?
Hard to say – right now I don’t have a particular part I’d like to do. There were lots of parts I wanted to play at some point, but I was either too young or the wrong type or they were cast. And now, over the years that’s changed. Now I’d just love to be involved generally in new shows that are around, because I love the way musical theatre is developing and moving forward at the moment.
For example London Road – that’s a show I would have loved to have been involved in. It doesn’t have to be a lead part or a big production or a big venue.
Although one day I’d like to be involved in a Sondheim musical – I haven’t ticked that box yet! Or Madame Thenardier  in Les Miserables, definitely – the older I get, the better for the part, so hopefully that won’t run away.

You have done numerous voice-overs in German, including ‘Kiara’ in Disney’s Lion King II and ‘Miriam’ in the Prince of Egypt. How does this kind of work compare to singing & acting on stage?
Oh, I love to working in a studio behind a microphone. It doesn’t matter what you look like. You can express everything through your voice, which is fun and a challenge, playing around and see what you can do with it. It’s a completely different way of working but it’s great fun. You can look completely wrong for the part but be perfect vocally. I really love it and hope to do some more in the future.

Would you ever want to star in a straight play?
I’d love to do a straight play although I can’t see myself doing that forever because music means too much to me. So maybe for a short run. But it is certainly something I’d like to try!
You are also a very successful recording artist – your chart-topping solo debut album is called Musical Diva Delights.

Will there be more?
Well, my CD wasn’t really meant to be released as such. My agent asked me for a demo tape that would show off my vocal range. A friend of mine has a recording studio and helped me out. He suggested if we record a proper CD, I’ve got something glamorous to send off to my agent. A friend who owns a bookshop said hey, I can sell some of these CDs in my shop and so it grew into something really big that I had not planned at all!
I don’t know if I’ll record another album. I’m a bit of a perfectionist so unless I can have the full works, a full orchestra I’d rather leave it. It’s also a time and money issue, isn’t it. If you do it, do it properly and really well – or leave it for now. My heart needs to be in it. I don’t want to do a CD for the sake of making money or being famous but do something because it inspires me and share it.

If you could go and see any West End musical tonight, which one would it be and why?
I would like to go and see Legally Blonde! And also Ghost, Betty Blue Eyes, Shrek….
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to sleep in and spend lots of time with my friends, especially on a Sunday. There’s no event I don’t go to, like the Proms, Ascot, the Henley Regatta, Wimbledon. I love going to the cinema and visiting castles. Just enjoy life!

And anything else you might like to add?
I’d like to thank my parents and am grateful to my fans who come and see me and write me lovely letters. I’m pleased that they like what I do. I’m not doing it for the success or the money or to have fans. I always try to serve the material because I feel it is not about me but about the piece, and am very pleased when fans like that, like when they come up to me and say ‘I’ve never seen Mama being played like that before’. So thanks for all the kind words that I’ve been receiving, and much love… and continue the journey with me for another twenty years or so!

Thank you very much for this fantastic insight into your life and career, Jasna! All the best for the future.

Jasna’s Theatre Credits include:
‘Gumbie’ and ‘Griddle’ in Cats (Musical Theater, Zurich); Elisabeth/Mizzi in Elisabeth (Theater an der Wien, Vienna); Mme Grande Bouche in Beauty and the Beast (Raimund Theatre, Vienna); Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre); Alex, Felicia and Gina in Witches of Eastwick (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane); Rosie in Mamma Mia (Hamburg), Donna in Mamma Mia (Hamburg, Stuttgart, Berlin), Signora Naccarelli/Margaret Johnson in The Light in the Piazza (Curve, Leicester), Mama Morton in Chicago (Cambridge Theatre).

Follow Jasna on Twitter: @JasnaIvir
Interview by Sandra Palme (@LondonTheatre2)

Updated 27th November 2015

1 Comment

  • FABULOUS! I remember her at Carlotta in Phantom WAYYY back in the 90s – saw it for my 21st birthday.

    Just shows how versatile Jasna is to move from an operatic style, grandiose performance to the sassy, tough, belter that Mama is! Great performances!