Jennifer Saunders: ‘I can’t really sing!’

The comedy icon will take to the stage in smash hit musical Sister Act this summer, but reckons she’s not much of a songbird.

Jennifer saunders in black coat

by Alison James |

Think Jennifer Saunders and the term diva doesn’t exactly come to mind – not unless you’ve just watched an episode of Absolutely Fabulous where she plays the wonderfully over-the-top Edina Monsoon. Yet Jennifer is donning a habit and playing Mother Superior in Sister Act, one of this summer’s biggest musical stage productions, even though she downplays her ability to belt out a tune.

“There aren’t really that many opportunities in musicals for people who can’t really sing!” she’s ruefully admitted.

Maybe not, but surely Jennifer is being ultra- modest by saying she doesn’t think she can really sing? She actually has a powerful yet sweet singing voice. She more than proved this when she sang Bonnie Tyler’s challenging signature tune, I Need a Hero as the Fairy Godmother in the 2004 animated film, Shrek 2.

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“I was quite surprised when they gave me such a difficult song to sing,” she recalls. I had a singing lesson beforehand, which was very helpful. I was told that when I had to hit a high note, I shouldn’t look up, but treat the note like a long road I had to reach the end of.”

Jennifer also had another go at flexing her vocal muscles last year when she sang with the English National Opera for Comic Relief. But Sister Act is a two-month run with eight performances every week. How will she cope?

“When I met the others in it (Beverley Knight, Clive Rowe and Keala Settle, who sang The Greatest Showman’s This Is Me), I did think ‘Blimey’. But Keala said, ‘Singing’s nothing. Singing’s just shouting in pitch.’ So, I thought, ‘There you go.’ I’m going on a lot of walks and doing a lot of shouting in pitch in places where no one can hear me. I find a track that Iknow Ican do a harmony for and fantasise that I’m in the band. I prefer ballads. I love a bit of Joni Mitchell, and I used to play a lot of country. I prefer melancholy songs to upbeat ones. And rap annoys me – stop talking, get back to the tune!”

Jennifer (63) is a lifelong musicals fan and has said she’s been talking to co-star Joanna Lumley about doing an ‘Ab Fab’ musical. “I love the idea of Patsy breaking the fourth wall (acknowledging the theatre audience), and being just fascinated by the crowd throughout, which no one else on stage can see. We’d do songs from the Sixties and Seventies and, as neither of us can really sing, we’d do a bit of drag-queen lip-syncing. But I think we have decided we’re too old.

“Someone was telling me their kids were now watching Ab Fab and enjoying it and I thought, ‘If we do it and they see how old we are, it would ruin it for a whole new generation.’ Also, I don’t think I could have all the surgery Edina would have had by now!”

There’s also the fact that times have changed since Eddie and Patsy first appeared on our screens in the early Nineties.

“Sensibilities are different. Every generation brings with it its own view of the world. We all adapt and we all move forward but you can still be funny. It’s a modern way of thinking, a different world, and we’re probably kinder, you know.”

Sister Act is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until July 9 and the Eventim Apollo London from July 19-August 28

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