Dogs: The new stars of stage bow-wowing the West End

Tom Peck enters the pampered world of canine leads in 'Legally Blonde' and 'Wizard of Oz'

Thursday 03 March 2011 01:00

As of now, the hottest star in the West End is a West Highland Terrier. On the press preview on Tuesday of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of The Wizard of Oz, the script read that the leading lady – the angelic Danielle Hope, exhaustively selected for the lead role on BBC's Over The Rainbow TV show last spring – was to be the star of the show. Instead, it was little Razzle, Toto to her Dorothy, who stole the critics' praise.

"Endlessly endearing," was how The Independent's Paul Taylor described Razzle, one of four Westies on the books charged with the unenviable task of facing down the sharp-penned critics on press night. "He didn't put a paw wrong."

The secret of course, which is as true for Razzle's human co-stars, is to make it look effortless. In fact it is anything but. "It takes months of training," says Cindy Sharville, of Animals Galore, who has for decades scouted, cast and trained four-legged show-stealers for stage and screen. For Toto isn't the only canine charcter making a big impression. Six of Ms Sharville's clients – bulldogs Monty and Ronny (playing Rufus), and chihuahuas Pongo, Bruiser, Floozy and JoJo (playing Bruiser) – are tugging at audience's heart strings in Legally Blonde at London's Savoy Theatre. Two hours before curtain up last night, Floozy and Monty were getting in the zone. "Floozy just loves it. She goes racing on every night."

The chihuahuas in particular have some tricky dialogue to negotiate. In one scene the dog runs on, barks, waits for the leading lady to say a line, barks, waits for another line, then barks again before jumping into a carefully positioned handbag and turning round to face the audience.

"They know they're going to get their treat if they do it right," explains Ms Sharville. "In the end you don't even need to tell them when to go on. They know their cues, and they're licking their lips in anticipation before they're even out the wings."

They may not command the sort of fees of a Denise van Outen or Michael Crawford, but the costs of finding and training them, getting them taxis every day. and paying their two handlers at the theatre every night all add up, says Ms Sharville. And while an impressive body of work might make a dog more likely to secure a role, it is unlikely to raise the fee; there are no marquee stars in the animal world. Yet the chihuahua's in particular are not without their diva-ish tendencies. Twenty minutes into our photoshoot the flashbulbs have got too much for Floozy, who heads for the dressing room.

Legally Blonde is the story of a typical (blonde) chihuahua-wielding American college sorority queen, who, determined to win back her former boyfriend, sashays her way into Harvard law school and, quelle surprise, does rather well. In a case of life imitating art, the show's canine stars are required to have sleepovers with their leading ladies to improve on stage rapport. Nice work if you can get it, so how do you?

"I go round the countryside looking at dogs," Ms Sharville says. "I don't really want young puppies, but mature dogs who are up for homing, usually because they'd done something wrong. I try and get them at seven or eight months. You can tell if they have the temperament pretty quickly. They have to be outgoing, and comfortable around people."

A touch of the luvvie also, it seems, does no harm. "I never criticise them. I never tell them off. I always encourage them. They need the confidence to try, and they need to not be afraid of getting it wrong." Some, of course, fall at the last hurdle, as happened to an unfortunate staffy in a production of Oliver! in the mid-Nineties.

"We had our favourite Bullseye. He was coming on in leaps and bounds. Then a week before opening they brought in the orchestra. As soon as they struck up, the dog would just howl and howl. We thought it was funny at first. Then three days before opening and first preview we had to elbow him." He never worked again.

For those who do make it on stage, the first encounter with a live audience is a tense moment for all concerned. Ms Sharville explains: "You can have them doing it perfectly for weeks. You try and recreate the experience of the live audience by rehearsing with all the cast and crew and their friends in the theatre, but nothing can prepare them. They're shooed on stage and suddenly there's 1,500 people saying, 'aaawww'. The dog turns round, sees them all sitting there and thinks 'who are they?'

"The only time things might get tetchy is when two of them are there, and one of them isn't getting to do the part. You can see them thinking: 'Oi, that's my scene.'"

Ms Sharville lives near Gatwick Airport with 12 dogs and almost as many cats. All work in the industry. In 1968 her own family pet, an English bull terrier by the name of Butch, played Bullseye to Oliver Reed's Bill Sikes in the film version of Oliver!.

Things haven't always gone right on the night for animals on stage. Mozart's Mitridate at the Royal Opera House in 1993 was investigated by the RSPCA and RSPB after a buzzard "collapsed" on stage. Apparently it flew too close to a flame-torch.

In a 1990 panto version of The Wizard of Oz in Weymouth, Bazil, the Bichon-Frise playing Toto regularly became over-excited by leading lady Kate Watson's leg. He was sent to the vets for a course of medication aimed at shrinking his libido.

In the 1930s, productions of Verdi's Aida at the Met in New York would often have live elephants joining a triumphal march across the stage. The impresario Sir Thomas Beecham, so the story goes, was once conducting such a production when the elephants defecated on stage, causing the maestro to exclaim: "What manners! But what critics!"

What the critics said about...

Brusier and Rufus in Legally Blonde

"The dogs (there are four of each breed in rotation) are fabulous, too – I wonder if they have their own customised acting gurus or are simply falling back on sound Stanislavski training?" Paul Taylor, The Independent

"Scene-stealing turns from the pet pooches Bruiser and Rufus" Evelyn Curlet, The Stage

"The dogs alone will win audiences", Susannah Clap, The Observer

"Cute chihuahua (this is a big show for dogs – there's also a splendid British bulldog)" Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

Toto in the Wizard of Oz

"I found myself touched by the endlessly endearing Westmoreland terrier (one of four rotating in the role) who didn't put a paw wrong as Toto." Paul Taylor, The Independent

"The most appealing star of Lord Lloyd-Webber's latest telly-marketing musical is Toto the West Highland terrier." Quentin Letts, Daily Mail

"Toto – a delightful white Westie - proves absolutely adorable." Charles Spencer, The Telegraph

"She's accompanied by her faithful dog Toto, an endearing West Highland white terrier which looks at the Yellow Brick Road as if it's made of stinky cheese." Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard

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