Phantom of the Opera

All posts tagged Phantom of the Opera

For fans of musical theatre, the name Dave Willetts is synonymous with the West End.  Over a career spanning more than thirty years, Willetts has appeared in many shows, including the lead in Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera.  He continues to perform in musicals around the UK and as befits an actor who was part of the original Les Mis production at the Barbican (understudy to Colm Wilkinson), Willetts more often than not, chooses to work with new musical projects.

Alongside this illustrious stage career, Willetts has also enjoyed success with a number of albums.  One such offering is Timeless, an album first recorded a while ago but only now finding it’s way into the mainstream, which for fans of rich, tenor voices and musical theatre alike, is nothing short of miraculous.  After all, we don’t often get the chance to hear new material from such a seasoned actor and singer.

I described Willetts as an actor and singer in that order as it happens to be the way he described himself when I interviewed him back in 2015 when we talked about Dave Willetts as Jean Valjean.  For him, this is the crucial distinction when performing in a musical.  It is somewhat of a surprise then to find that his back story has more in common with Alfie Boe than Michael Ball. Like Alfie, Willetts has a non performance background, working in engineering as a day job and relaxing through the medium of amateur productions. While performing in Charlie and Algernon at the Priory Theatre in the Midlands, Willetts was spotted by the art director of the Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and after a successful audition, became a professional actor, with a first role in the chorus of Annie. Twelve months later he was in the West End with Les Mis and the rest, as they say, is history.

Timeless is a collection of songs that are exactly that; timeless.  Encompassing popular standards and songs from musical theatre, the album feels full of choices personal to Willetts and needless to say, they show off his vocal range and versatility to perfection.  This is a singer who through his vast acting experience, is able to convey warmth, tenderness, fun, pathos whilst also projecting enormous vocal power.

My favourite tracks are those from musical theatre, particularly I Dreamed You and This Is The Moment, from Tony Rees and Gary Young’s Jekyll and the Broadway production Jekyll and Hyde, respectively.  Willetts has worked with both shows and when I spoke to him in 2015, he was involved in writing the book for a further musical based on the Jekyll and Hyde story, The Man Inside, which has since had it’s premiere, Willetts of course taking the lead.

The majority of the other tracks are not from musicals and are such an eclectic mix that you have no option but to believe that these are personal choices.  Fun is the word that springs to mind when listening to You Took The Words Right Out and San Francisco Bay Blues – they would be great to listen to live.  Tears in Heaven and Smile allow Willetts to show his tender side while Bridge Over Troubled Water lets that rich tenor soar.  Leaving all this aside, the song I’ve taken away from this album is a duet, with Lara J West, on I Swear, a massive 1990’s hit for All4One.  As soon as you hear it, you’ll know it, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll love it.

Timeless is released on 2 February and is available for pre-order:

If you can’t wait that long, I have a copy to give away!  Just answer the following question – competition closes at Midnight on Sunday 21 January.

Which West End show did Dave Willetts star in after Les Mis?

This competition is now closed.

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Fourth in our series of Club 24601 interviews is our earliest Jean Valjean so far, Peter Karrie.  As well as JVJ, Peter is most associated with the title role of Phantom of the Opera, a distinction he shares with three other JVJ interviewees (John Owen-Jones, Geronimo Rauch and Dave Willetts).  He is also the second Welshman in succession to feature in our Club 24601, following John Owen-Jones last week.

Peter first played JVJ from 1986 for three years and returned twice more.  He first got the role after auditioning whilst appearing in the first national tour of Evita.  The musical director of the show went to see Rebecca Storm in Liverpool (where Evita was at the time) with a view to casting her as Fantine.  Upon seeing Peter in Evita, he also asked him to audition and he duly did, around the piano in the foyer of a Liverpool hotel.  He then repeated the process on the stage of the Palace theatre in London and was cast a week later.  During all this time he had not met Cameron Mackintosh and when  he did finally meet him, on his opening night, it was a rather unfortunate meeting to say the least.  After the show, Peter was in his dressing room with his family when there was a knock at the door and this man stood there telling Peter how much he had enjoyed the show and invited him to dinner.  Peter politely declined…only finding out the next day that the man was Cameron!

As the most experienced JVJ in this series of interviews, I asked Peter how his approach changed each time he revisited the role.  He said that it was like “slipping back into a pair of old slippers because I got on so well with the role”.  When he first took on the role and was in rehearsals, the role just wouldn’t click; something just wasn’t right until one day he found the inspiration.  After a particularly bad journey, in the rain, Peter said that “he walked into rehearsals trudging along” and that’s when he realised that the key to his portrayal would be a heavy footed trudge, “walking as if he was pulling a truck behind him”.  That was the key to Valjean’s character.

Obviously, with such a long run as JVJ, there would be many other cast changes and new actors to work closely with.  One actor who really sparked with Peter was Philip Quast, who in Peter’s words was “the best Javert I ever worked with”, although if you had been present in their first ever rehearsal, you might be forgiven for wondering how it would turn out.  Peter described to me how after a while in the role he had his own way of doing things and Quast came in and made it abundantly clear that he had his own ideas about the relationship between the two characters which led to some interesting rehearsal moments but some fabulous moments for the production.  The confrontation in the sewer, where Javert eventually stands to one side to let JVJ and Marius pass, was one such moment: in rehearsal, Quast was adamant that Peter would have to force his way past, whereas Peter was equally adamant that it was not right for the character and the story.  Quast eventually came round to Peter’s way of thinking and Javert continued to move aside at the vital moment.

In common with all the actors I interviewed, Peter mentioned the amazing score as the best thing about the role; it was challenging both musically and as an actor, “a very satisfying role”. This is reflected in his choice of favourite song, which (apart from the obligatory Bring Him Home) is the soliloquy.  Peter said that “musically, dramatically, everything was in that song”.  He went on to say that the role was “always emotional.  I never cried during the show even though I could hear the audience sobbing, crying but at the end of the show I would burst into tears, every time.”

Given that Peter is our longest serving JVJ, I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask about any disasters or funny moments that occurred in the show and he obligingly told me about “one Javert who made me corpse”.  After one cart scene, just before JVJ launches into Who Am I?, the Javert in question, turned his back in the audience, clicked his heels together and was supposed to then make his exit.  He did make his exit but not before he said (knowing full well that only Peter could hear him) “if you don’t have that cart moved, I’ll have it clamped”.  Peter said he laughed so much he had to feign a coughing fit and ran off stage to compose himself!

Lastly, Peter’s favourite song by another character was Empty Chairs and Empty Tables as it’s a “very poignant, very emotive song”.

Here is Peter singing in Les Mis Medley from 2011:

Club 24601 returns next week with an original cast member, Dave Willetts.

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Week three of the Club 24601 Jean Valjean series and this week’s focus is the youngest JVJ, John Owen-Jones.  (Try writing lots of JOJ as JVJ and see how hard it is!)  As well as being the youngest JVJ, John also played the role in the 25th anniversary touring production of Les Mis (he is the JVJ featured in the cast recording) and on Broadway.  In addition, he of course formed one quarter of the Valjean Quartet along with Alfie Boe, Colm Wilkinson and Simon Bowman at the 25th concert.  Also, very memorably and obviously unexpectedly, John was called up on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in April 2013 to sing Bring Him Home with Alfie  – what a great moment that was for the audience!

In a previous interview, I asked John if he had plans to work with Alfie again after that night and he said that he’d had no plans to work with him then either!

He is currently playing the title role in Phantom of the Opera in the West End and is tremendously good (I saw him just over a week ago).  In the course of the interview, I asked if he would ever be tempted back to Broadway and his answer was in the affirmative, saying “I would quite like to have a crack at Phantom in the Majestic one day”.

Back to Les Mis and as he is the youngest person to play JVJ, I wanted to know what was different about the way he approached the role when he was older? John said “Well, I had a more rounded outlook on life and more life experience to draw on when I was older. I had two children in the intervening years and suffered some loss in my family and had grown up a lot. I therefore was naturally able to give the character more depth and I like to think my approach to interpreting the role was more mature than when I was 26”.  The natural next question was about the differences in playing the role in the West End, on Broadway and the touring company.  It turned out that there were considerable differences – the touring version (now the Broadway show) was re-imagined from the ground up and John was given a lot of freedom to inject ideas into the show.  Some of the new bits of staging – the hint of Valjean meeting with Petit Gervais in the prologue (a very important part of Valjean’s story in the book), the chain in the hospital fight, the bishop returning at the end of the show – all came from ideas he had in rehearsal.  John says that one idea was rejected (no beard and a shaved head – can’t think why John!).  John went on to say that “these of course all informed how I approached the role. I also worked hard to age my voice and physicality as the show moves along and tried to make Valjean rougher vocally in the beginning.”  Of course I then wanted to know if he would play the role again if asked? The answer was “yes of course but I think the time would have to be right for me to do it again and I’m not quite ready at the moment.”

Throughout the interviews with the JVJ’s there has been a consistent theme of how amazing it is to sing such an incredible score night after night and John is no exception.  When asked about the best aspect of the role, he said “when you are 100% on top of it playing the role can feel like flying”; conversely, the best part is also the worst, “sometimes the role is like climbing a mountain every night if you aren’t feeling physically or vocally up to it.”  As Geronimo Rauch memorably said, at least they don’t have to dance!

Unsurprisingly, along with most of the other JVJ’s, John chose Bring Him Home as his favourite song as a singer, and uniquely in these interviews, Who Am I as an actor.  Oneof his most memorable JVJ moments concerned a rehearsal of Bring Him Home with Claude Michel Schoenberg: John said “I was rehearsing Bring Him Home with Claude-Michel in a room backstage at the Barbican. We were running through the song when he suddenly stopped playing the piano and looked slowly around the room with a quizzical look on his face. Then he looked at me and said in that wonderful French accent of his: “Wait…zis room…it is where I wrote zis song!”  What a fabulous memory to have!  I was also interested in which non JVJ songs our JVJ’s liked (or wish they could sing in the show) and John’s choice was Fantine’s I Dreamed A Dream, saying “I think it’s the best song in the show”.

As mentioned earlier, John is currently playing the Phantom in the West End and he will shortly (this week) be appearing at Bryn Terfel’s 50th birthday celebrations at the Royal Albert Hall and in Broadway to the Bay in Cardiff (click here).   His latest album, Rise, is available here:

JOJ Rise

I had the great pleasure of reviewing it earlier this year – click here to read.

thanks for reading and sharing – next week’s JVJ is Peter Karrie

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