Caroline is no longer Les Miserables to have given up showbiz life

Doreen Wachmann discovers why the show didn't go on after Caroline Pakter discovered religion

LIVERPOOL music theatre student Caroline Cohen Pakter had always dreamed of performing in Les Miserables.

So after spending a year as understudy to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at the West End's Drury Lane Theatre Royal, then 23-year-old Caroline was offered an audition for a lead part in Les Mis, it was an opportunity definitely not to be missed.

But there was a problem. London-born Caroline, who had been raised in a family belonging to a Reform synagogue, had recently increased her religious observance. And the final audition was on Shavuot.

Caroline recalled: "I was living in two worlds, that of Golders Green and my frum friends and mentors and that of the West End. When I was in one I could pretend the other was not there.

"I was not able change the date of the audition. So I pre-paid a taxi, wore no make-up and did not carry anything.

"I had stayed up the previous night learning for tikun leil. I normally go to bed early before an audition. My skin was so green. I was so tired.

"As the taxi pulled out of Golders Green, it was really good to see the two worlds right next to one another. I wished the taxi was going back to Golders Green and not to the West End where I no longer felt comfortable. It was not a great audition.

"That afternoon I went to Rabbi Dr Akiva Tatz's house for lunch and it sealed my fate. I decided to take the plunge and phoned my agent to say I was quitting. He could not understand.

"At 23 I was at the start of the height of my career. I put the phone down shaking and tearful."

But Caroline, now a mother-of-two in Salford, has never regretted her decision. Instead she uses her talents to perform From Showbiz to Shabbos, the story of her life in words and music, to all-female audiences.

Interestingly, Caroline's first Jewish inspiration came in Liverpool where she attended the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which was opened by Paul McCartney.

As a youngster Caroline feigned a stomach ache most Sunday mornings so as not to have to attend Edgware Reform Synagogue cheder.

She said: "I just didn't enjoy it. One of my reports said, 'Caroline would be quite knowledgeable if she actually showed up'."

Music was in the blood for Caroline and her elder sister Louise Leach, who left the pop world to create a Hendon dance school for females.

Caroline said: "Louise and I grew up singing and dancing together. My great grandmother was an opera singer. A great aunt was an opera singer in Los Angeles. My grandmother and her sister trained at RADA.

"I started ballet when I was three. The reason I was sent at such a young age to dance school was that my parents foresaw that when we became teenagers they didn't want us to hang out on the streets.

"They wanted us to have a hobby so that we would be so busy with our singing and dancing, that we wouldn't have time. They didn't know we would both go on to a professional level."

In fact, Caroline said: "My mum was always unhappy about us being in performing arts professionally. She did not think it a nice place for a Jewish girl.

"My mum was incredibly deep and spiritual. When I came to religion I recognised the values my mother taught me."

Both sisters did not begin by studying drama. Loving languages, they both studied them at Birmingham University. But in her first year at Birmingham Caroline was a finalist of the Jewish Performer of the Year competition.

One of the judges at the finals, which took place at the London Palladium, recognised her potential and suggested that Caroline transfer to Liverpool's LIPA, which she did.

Besides enjoying the course and the professional opportunities it offered, in Liverpool Caroline first became aware of her lack of Jewish involvement.

She recalled: "It started to bother me more in Liverpool than in Birmingham where I had a few Jewish friends and went to the occasional J-Soc event. Because the Liverpool course was so intense, I had little time for a social life.

"I got in touch with Rabbi Ariel Abel, who was at Princes Road Synagogue, which was right opposite my hall of residence. But because it was such a scary area, I did not want to walk there on a Friday night.

"Rabbi Abel put me in touch with a J-Soc leader who invited me to spend Friday night at Hillel House."

Caroline said: "I had always had Friday night dinner with my family with challah, grape juice, a meal and TV. I had never had a real Jewish Friday night.

"I was overwhelmed by how many students who were not particularly religious wanted to be involved on Friday nights, people from varying backgrounds, singing zemirot together. I found the atmosphere really uplifting and inspiring."

Caroline began to go to Hillel on Friday nights when her heavy timetable permitted.

Then her friend Aviva Braunold, whose father was rabbi in Blackpool, asked her to stay over Friday night at Hillel with her and accompany her the next day to the homes of Rabbi Avremi Kievman and his wife Golda and later Rabbi Aaron Balkany and his wife Chana.

Caroline said: "I was very reluctant to go for Shabbat lunch. I think I'd seen Fiddler on the Roof too many times. I thought men in black hats and beards would be judgmental.

"It was summer when Shabbat went out very late. It was 9pm and I didn't know where the time had gone. I was loving every minute of being there with such a warm, loving family."

Caroline started to keep Shabbat whenever she could, frequenting Hillel House and her rabbinical friends and spent her summer on an Aish programme in Israel.

She said: "I came back deciding only to wear skirts, not to talk to boys and to eat kosher. I was not quite ready to give up my degree. But drama school was not exactly the right environment to keep growing spiritually.

"In my second year, my schedule became much more intense. I was not able to get to the Jewish area in time for Shabbat.

"At the beginning I tried to do Shabbat on my own, walking back from college to light candles, then going back to uni not carrying, then coming back home by myself to cold gefilte fish.

"It became harder not to have people to share it with. I started going to a local pub with friends, but not buying drinks. Eventually my Jewish practice watered down and took a back seat. It was too hard by myself."

By her third year Caroline was becoming disillusioned with her friends in drama school as they began to compete against each other to be signed up with West End agents.

She said: "It made me think, is this the world I really want to go into full-time as a profession?"

She decided to take some time off to defer her decision and, reverting to her love of languages, was considering spending some time in Italy where she could stay with a Chabad family.

One of the top West End agents, Jorg Betts, phoned her on the recommendation of a friend.

After seeing her perform in Liverpool, he asked her to audition for the part of understudy to Eliza Doolittle, which she got.

Meanwhile, after appearing on the TV talent show Popstars, influenced by friends in Golders Green, sister Louise had become religious and set up her female-only dance school.

But Shabbat was a problem for Caroline in Drury Lane.

She said: "Friday night was the busiest. I had to put on make-up and wear a microphone. I acknowledged it was Shabbat by not putting on my stereo on my drive to work. But it became watered down.

"Then at my sister's wedding at Finchley Synagogue everything I knew I really wanted was re-awakened in me. I started going to the Jewish Learning Exchange and did not renew my West End contract."

Then came the Les Mis audition, after which Caroline finally gave up the West End. After studying in an Israeli seminary she met her husband Dr Grant Pakter and the rest is history.

She now tours the world with From Showbiz to Shabbos, which she has already performed twice in Manchester and once in Glasgow.

She is hoping to set up female singing and dancing classes in Manchester.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph