July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

She sneaks up on you. A pint-size waif so kitteny cute you want to take her home for a saucer of milk. You might miss her at first as she peeks out from among the hordes of the downtrodden in Broadway’s smash London import, Les Misérables. Then Frances Ruffelle stands to her full 5’1″ and does something extraordinary: she sings. Playing the street urchin Eponine, the impassioned Ruffelle rocks the theater. In the show’s stand-out ballad, On My Own, she yearns for a man who loves another woman. Later, shot down at the barricades, she imbues such lyrics as “Don’t you fret…I don’t feel any pain” with fierce heartbreak and then, literally, dies for love.

Her performance has hardly passed unnoticed. “Ruffelle is stunning,” raved the New York Times, “an angel with a dirty face and an unrelenting rock balladeer’s voice.” Next came the Helen Hayes Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Theater World Award and then, early in June, the “icing on the cake”—a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Ruffelle, who had created the role of Eponine in London in 1985 (only she and leading man Colm Wilkinson traveled to the U.S. with the show) was dazed. “You get much more attention in America than you do in London,” she says. “I’m doing the same performance, but somehow it’s a bigger deal here. People stop me on the streets in New York. It’s so lovely.”

Before long they’ll be stopping Frankie Ruffelle on streets everywhere. And she doesn’t even turn 22 until August. Her Broadway debut has brought a record contract with RCA—work on an LP will begin in the fall and may include her own version of On My Own. “I’ll rock it up a bit,” she says, grinning. Still, comparisons with Madonna and Cyndi Lauper rankle. “I don’t see it,” she says firmly. “My voice is really high-pitched and theirs are too, but in style we’re not alike at all.”

Indeed. Flamboyant is not a word that fits this gamine. Try “consistent and efficient,” says Wilkinson. “She gets on with it very quietly without jumping up and down.” He invites her to join his wife and family at their rented home in New Jersey. “Colm makes sure I’m okay,” she says. “He’s always saying, ‘You all right? Are you busy this Sunday [their day off]? You’re not going to be alone, are you?’ ”

Most of the time, what with eight performances, three dance classes and two French lessons a week, she is, at the very least, busy. Her boyfriend is back in London. She misses him, sure, but push for details and you’ll find the kitten has claws. “I’m not going to talk about him,” she snaps. “We made a deal: I talk and he’s not my boyfriend anymore.” She does admit that she’d never put up with unrequited love à la Eponine. “I’ve got no patience,” she says.

What she does have is determination. Born in East London—her father is a phone company manager, her mother the founder of a theater school—Frankie always wanted to sing. Her mother helped her and her younger sister, Allison, win acting jobs from the age of 7. But Frankie didn’t get to sing in a musical until 16, in a West End production of Gavin the Monster. In 1983, she joined the original London cast of Starlight Express. While she was singing and skating through that role, Trevor Nunn asked her one Friday to audition for the musical he was about to direct, Les Misérables. By Monday morning she had the role. “I’m very lucky to be this age and have gotten this far,” she says.

Lucky, but not yet content. Clearly Frankie wants to go further. Her mother, Sylvia, admits Frances “wants to be successful,” but stresses that her daughter is not driven. “Frances has never wanted or needed to be top banana.” She may be now, whether she wants the adulation or not. High-powered Hollywood manager Sandy Gallin (he handles Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond and Whoopi Goldberg) has signed on to make sure it happens. When Ruffelle leaves Les Misérables in October (“two years in the same role is enough”), movies, TV, records and theater are all options. “People say, ‘Make up your mind—do you want to sing or act?’ Well, why can’t I do both?” she asks. She may be doing just that next November in London, when the Royal Shakespeare Company produces its own version of The Wizard of Oz. Ruffelle has been offered the role of Dorothy. She’d like to stay in the U.S. for awhile and doesn’t rule out the possibility of settling here. Says Ruffelle: “I walked offstage with my Tony and went, ‘Yeahhhhh!’ Since then, I can’t stop smiling.”

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