“I think there should be a place for everything in the West End , as long as there’s a space for a new show to come out. If it doesn’t last, it doesn’t last but it’s had its shot.”
Stephen Ashfield is a young actor and musician from Scotland. He trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music in London and was made an Associate of the latter this year.
In 2002, Stephen made his West End debut playing the lead role of Boy George in the popular musical Taboo.
Stephen was one of the original London Jersey Boys and won a WhatsOnStage Theatregoers’ Choice award for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL in 2009 for his impressive portrayal of Bob Gaudio.
A few weeks ago before the evening show, Stephen kindly answered a few questions about himself and his career. Enjoy this fabulous interview!
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a singer/an actor?
Actually, it was quite late on in school because I had always had that dream of being a pilot. I was always going to be a pilot until at the age of 13 or 14 I had to sit a lot of tests and realised I was colour blind which meant I couldn’t be a pilot. So I was wondering what else I could do, what else I was interested in and it was always going to be music but not necessarily singing. I had had piano lessons since I was about 12 when I started auditioning for the music colleges in Glasgow they said: Why don’t you sing as well? That’s when I suddenly realised I could sing as well.
Do you have any role models?
Not really….people have asked me that before. I’m not really that kind of person who sees someone and thinks ‘oh I really want to be you’… I admire a lot of people but no, I haven’t got any role models.
You studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama & the Royal Academy of Music in London. Please share a few memories.
I remember doing a lot of concerts and Elton John coming in a lot. When you graduate from Royal Academy of Music, they give out these honorary doctorates and degrees at the end just to make you feel really good and Elton John got an honorary doctorate and I think Madonna got something that year as well but she wasn’t in my graduation. But Elton John was there!
When I started Royal Academy, I hadn’t done much acting or drama – I’d really just been a classical singer and musician until then so I was terrified when I started there and suddenly had to do drama classes and get up in front of each other. It was almost like a competition to see who could be the funniest and because there were people there from mixed backgrounds who had been actors before, I stood up there and was really self-conscious about myself. It took me a good few months to become relaxed enough to stand up there and think everybody is judging you all the time. But it was a great experience.
We did some great shows at the end of the year at the Academy, like The City of Angels. That was one of my high points.
You made your West End debut in 2002 as Boy George in the musical Taboo. Please tell us about this experience.
That was pretty terrifying, to be honest, because I’d been auditioning for only about a month when I’d come out of college and it was one of the first auditions that I’d been put up for and I thought ‘This is a bit crazy!’ Especially for the role of Boy George! I’d been to see it, and I thought it was just amazing and Euan Morton’s portrayal of Boy George was just phenomenal so I thought ‘Really? Can I do this?’ You know, you go to two or three auditions down the line for the same job, and then they said ‘The next audition, we’re gonna dress you up; we’re gonna put some make-up on you…’
And of course Boy George was in the show so he was there at the same time during the audition. So I had to read as him while he was just sitting right there and I thought ‘Why on my first auditions does this happen?’ As I said, it was terrifying. There was one point where in the auditions, he had a Polaroid camera and he said ‘Can you pose a little bit, like this, copy me, copy my poses!’ It was the most surreal thing ever!
And then they dressed me up, with all the make-up and this long dreadlock wig and I caught myself in the mirror and I thought ‘God, I could get this!’ And by the time I got home I’d already had a phone call from my agent, saying that I’d got it…after 25 minutes on the tube.
There are a lot of stories but Boy George being in the dressing room (we all shared one, the theatre was tiny) , him being made up there as someone else and me being made up as Boy George here by the same make-up artist…that was crazy but great fun. And a great break for me, straight out of college!
You originated the role of Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys. What was this theatrical journey like for you?
It was great. I knew it was going to be a challenge for me but it’s one of those things; the audition has just kind of crept up on you and suddenly you find you got the part and you had a sneaking suspicion all the way through, which I tend to do. I go ‘Yeah this is the one I’m gonna get or this is not the one I’m gonna get’…I kind of know.
So obviously I was thrilled. Working on a huge big American musical like that was always going to be daunting when planeloads of American creatives come over from the States and sit there in a room, you know. They know exactly what they want the show to be like but with Jersey Boys they wanted us to find it ourselves.
Obviously the show existed already on another continent but they really wanted us to find our own journeys, which makes for a much better show anyway. There’s something to do with the experience of the four of us coming together and almost being like a band and treated like a band, you know, the four original London Jersey Boys. We kind of had that hype around it which was great. You know you see these boy bands being manufactured – it was kind of like that, we spent so much time together and rehearsed and went through so many dramas that kind of pulled us apart and then put us back together again.
So although the show is amazing, it’s got amazing songs, a great story – for me it was more about the four of us guys coming together and the camaraderie we felt when we were on stage together. It was just electric.
You won a WhatsOnStage Theatregoers’ Choice award for BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL in 2009. How special was this for you?
You don’t really think about awards.
We were so busy with Jersey Boys, doing a million appearances as well as doing the shows every week so when you’re told that you’ve been nominated for something, it’s amazing. It doesn’t really cross your mind, and to think that people had come to see you and remembered you so much that they’d nominated you is the most amazing feeling…and going on to win it was phenomenal.
You know, all my family came down to see the award ceremony, I was like ‘Oh please, let me win, now they’ve all come down…’ and I did!
And of course Bob was there because he collected the Award for Best Musical for Jersey Boys so it was great for him to actually be there as I was being presented the award for portraying him. It was great and that’s all thanks to theatre fans and sites like yours that are getting people really interested!
You were in Jersey Boys for three years, which is a ‘juke box musical’ based on songs by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons . You are also a supporter of new writing and appeared in Imagine This at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth in 2007. With a lot of musicals having to close early in the West End due to a lack of ‘bums on seats’ recently, jukebox musicals or those based on films have received some criticism in theatre circles. What’s your view on this?
It’s hard, isn’t it! It’s almost like the West End/Musical Theatre is its own market place. Things either exist or continue or fail, depending on the demand there is for it.
Producers have it very hard as well, especially in these economic climates.
With a show like Legally Blonde where it’s been a movie before – although it’s got a fantastic new score and an adapted script - of course you’ve got that name recognition.
With Jersey Boys, we had a lot of press at the beginning and people said ‘For a jukebox musical it’s really good!’ but you know, it is a jukebox musical but it’s so much more than that. It’s been so well crafted and thoughtfully put together that although you’ve got the back catalogue of the Four Seasons, it tells you so much more. The songs are thematically placed and not just shoehorned in. You can’t always see them coming a mile off.
I think with Jersey Boys, the vast majority of the songs are played the way they would have been played if you were watching a movie; they’re not trying to force a narrative through the songs. That’s why people leave the show saying ‘It was like a concert and a play at the same time, it was so well put together!’
So it’s hard…you can’t dictate what kind of shows there should be.
You know, I loved doing Imagine This. We spent a huge amount of time investing ourselves in that story, as controversial and dangerous as the topic was. We all invested so much in it and then you just want an audience to come and judge it. But if they think that’s not really what people want to see, how can you force shows to stay on? It has to be economically viable.
I think there should be a place for everything in the West End , as long as there’s a space for a new show to come out. If it doesn’t last, it doesn’t last but it’s had its shot.
You have just taken over from Lee Mead as ‘Emmett Forrest’ in Legally Blonde the Musical. You are the 3rd Emmett; Alex Gaumond originated the role. What is YOUR Emmett like – how do you put your own stamp on the character?
As soon as I pick up a script and start to read through it, there’s so much of me comes out already. You know, obviously you tweak things and you have to be someone else but the essence of yourself has to flesh out the character as well. That’s what I enjoy doing.
I certainly had not studied either Alex’s or Lee’s performance before, so much of it just comes from the script. Obviously, you want it to be different but I’m sure that much of it is just my own little personality coming through. It’s been great fun finding Emmett. It’s all about the relationship that’s growing between Emmett and Elle so it’s been great fun working with Carley just to find that.
What’s your favourite LB song?
The one I love and always sing around the place is ‘What you want’ – I don’t know why but it’s so catchy.
I’ve set myself a challenge of trying to play the first 25 minutes along on the piano in my dressing room because I’m not in the show for the first 25 minutes! I’m getting there! I love it when we get to ‘What you want’ because I have to make sure I have my costume on and everything ready to go on because that’s basically just before I appear.
My favourite song that I am actually in is ‘Take it like a man’ because it’s just so much fun.
What is it that makes LB so popular?
They describe it as ‘your guilty pleasure’. It’s such a feel-good show. It’s so much more than just the story and ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. I think people have to embrace the pinkness and the fluffiness of it and looking out at the audience, it never fails to amaze me how people just sit there with this massive smile on their face. The show bounces along. By the end of it, people are on their feet and really captivated by the songs and the story and the journey of the characters. It’s really Elle’s job to make sure that people relate to her right to the end of her journey which Carley does so well.
What other roles would you like to play and why (in any musical)?
There’s a show I’ve always wanted to be in and that’s Phantom! I’m still desperate to be in Phantom – I’ve always wanted to be Raoul.
Or in The Book of Mormon when it comes (but of course every boy in the West End is desperate to be in The Book of Mormon!). I’d love to play Elder Price. Can you make that happen?
Who would you really like to work with?
I’m a massive Celine Dion fan and I’m not ashamed! So if there was anyone in the world I COULD work with, it would be Celine Dion. I don’t know in what capacity that could possibly ever happen.
But if you could make that happen, I would be very ecstatic. I love her. I went to Las Vegas to see her show, in March when I finished in Jersey Boys. Just phenomenal!
What is something embarrassing or unexpected that has happened to you on stage?
Well in Legally Blonde, in ‘Take it like a man’ I have to take my clothes off, trousers off and on again. The other day there was an issue with some of the shirts that were supposed to be hung up behind me and somebody didn’t come on and finish it so most of the audience on that side got to see my backside…I didn’t notice until afterwards so at least there wasn’t an audible gasp!
And so many things happened in Jersey Boys! For example, we had this neat little lift that used to come up and down at the beginning and would magically bring the microphones up. There was a transition in the middle of ‘Walk Like a Man’ where the microphones were supposed to come up seamlessly but the lift came up to fast and they all started wobbling and literally all landed on our feet. Of course we just carried on doing the moves and there were four microphones lying in front of us! And then we turned and the microphones fell back down the lift!
The very first show that I did was Taboo. When I went and did that on tour, after the West End, the cringiest moment that’s ever happened to me was that there was an introduction for one of the last songs on the guitar. Literally, the guitarist had forgotten to put his capo on – or take it off (I’m not a guitarist) – whatever it was that made it higher than it was! And after singing it for six months you just know when something is not right but of course I had to come in anyway “From Bombay to Bangalore…”. Suddenly, he realized that the click track was going to start half-way through which was obviously going to be at the wrong key and the band would all play in the wrong key so basically, about 20 bars in as I’m singing, wondering what’s gonna happen, the band just suddenly stopped. And I carried on singing….so I just said ‘I think we’ll have that again’ and everyone in the cast was just wetting themselves, as I was standing there singing unaccompanied. The band suddenly popped back in and I don’t know if the audience quite knew what was going on but that was pretty mortifying and I wouldn’t like that to happen ever again!
Is there a musical or play in the West End right now that you’d really like to see?
I’d love to go and see Crazy for You at the Novello! Tim Sheader is the director, he directed Imagine This, he’s an amazing director. I keep hearing amazing things about it.
And then also, my old favourite play is War Horse – I’ve seen it twice but could go back and see it a million times. I just think it’s stunning.
What’s your all-time favourite musical?
One I love to listen to but have never seen is Chess. That is my all-time favourite musical to listen to. AND – this will be controversial – I love to listen to Lord of the Rings. I thought it was phenomenal and couldn’t believe it was closing! So Lord of the Rings MIGHT be my all-time favourite musical that I’ve seen.
You appeared in Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” in 2007. What was that like and would you like to do more film or TV work?
Yes, I would love to! You know, something like “Tim Burton/Sweeney Todd” can take pride of place on your CV but it’s a weird one. You know, it took five days to shoot just that section but all of it was cut. Tim Burton did actually turn up to tell us “I’m sorry I’ve had to cut it all but you’ll still be featured’. I suppose it was nice of him to come over and tell us.
But yes, I’d love to do more – and you know why? Because all of a sudden you get those cheques through the post, like years later, for DVD sales or repeats. Yeah, I’d love more of that!
What has been your career highlight so far?
You keep reaching these new things that you never thought you’d be doing.
I was asked back from the Royal Academy of Music a couple of years ago to sing a charity concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Elton John was doing the second half and he asked a few people that were doing really well in Musical Theatre and that studied at the Academy to sing in the first half. That was quite amazing really, to have your parents there and sing alongside Elton John at the Royal Albert Hall when he’s running through all of his major hits! That’s one of those things that I’ll always remember.
What are your long-term ambitions – on the stage or off it?
Just to continue to challenge myself.
Also, I’ve always wanted to do and have always been interested in new writing, I’m always waiting for the next radical musical that’s going to come out and hopefully do a play at some point. Just to keep pushing myself and not become complacent, like ‘this is what I do’ because I always want to do something else and something different afterwards. So hopefully I’ll still be in the business wherever that leads me. Time will tell.
What do you like to do to chill out?
I like to play the piano. I sit and play so much during the day and when I get home at night time, I’ve got a piano at home and play. I don’t actually listen to music very much – I much rather just sit and play my own or make something up.
Now I’ve got a few quickfire questions for you!
Beer or wine? Wine!
Oh what a night or Walk like a man? Oh what a night!
Opera or ballet? Opera.
Cat or dog? Dog. I’d love one but I’m allergic to dogs, which is such a nightmare because I’m supposed to have a really good relation with the bulldog [in Legally Blonde]!
Crisps – cheese and onion or ready salted? Salt and vinegar! Every time!
Rugby or footy? Neither!
Shakespeare or Arthur Miller? Arthur Miller.
The book you’re reading at the moment? Tales from the Fast Trains.
And anything else you might like to add, maybe a message to your fans?
I’m always amazed at how much support you get from people! I just go and do my job and people come and really identify with you.
I’m always amazed at the kindness and the loyalty of people who follow you from show to show – that’s what makes it all worthwhile, you know, to get all the applause and feel that buzz back. When people do that they really invest in you as a person. Like I said, with the award, when people show their appreciation in that way, it’s great – it’s priceless.
Thank you so much for this brilliant interview Stephen! All the best for your time as Emmett and for any future project!
Interview by Sandra Palme (Twitter: LondonTheatre2)
Follow Stephen on Twitter: @stephenashfield
30th November 2011