Interview with Andrew Alexander: Richard Hannay The 39 Steps

At the time of the interview, Andrew was starring as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre.
Having studied history at university, Andrew subsequently found his forte at the Royal Academy of Music where he discovered that “… if I could get paid to lark around then that would be the ideal job”.

Since making his stage debut in pantomime Andrew Actor Andrew Alexanderhas performed in various theatres across the country, as well as in the West End. He has also co-written and starred in a comedy production Off-West End.  Apart from theatre, Andrew has achieved success with the musical quartet Teatro, with a Gold Disc award for their album.

Earlier this week, Andrew took time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions about himself and his career.

When were you first recognised as having a talent for singing and acting?
Still waiting.

You read History at King’s College London. What were your career aspirations at that time?
As soon as I got involved in student theatre I knew that if I could get paid to lark around then that would be the ideal job.

You graduated from the Musical Theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music. What are some of your favourite memories of your time there?
In improv classes we had a improvised ‘Soap’ called York Gate which I loved. I played a misanthropic doctor with a penchant for harming his patients. I ended up in court tried by a judge –  my good friend Ron Crocker, now Assist. MD on Shrek –  who wore an exercise mat as a judge’s wig. Silly and Fun. Fond memories of friends there and studying at such a prestigious establishment. Also laughing at myself in the mirror in dance classes.

Where did you make your professional stage debut?
In Beauty and the Beast – a Pantomime at Windsor Theatre Royal. My first review compared my portrayal of the ferocious Beast to the Disney character Eeyore – a gloomy, depressed, old, grey donkey.

You played the part of Nanki-Poo in the musical comedy Hot Mikado. You must have had a lot of fun with the show. Can you describe your character and share some memories?
It was a Watermill Actor/Musician production. Three weeks to rehearse scenes, songs and LEARN THE ENTIRE UNDERSCORE OFF BY HEART. Somehow it all happens. I don’t know how.

As well as starring in the West End, you have also appeared in several shows in regional theatres.  What are the highlights of your time touring and playing in theatres outside of London?
Sheffield at Christmas was (surprisingly) beautiful – especially the Peak District.

You have performed in Beauty and The Beast and Snow White. What do you like about pantomimes and which other roles would you love to play?
I like the interaction with the audience. The breaking of the fourth wall, if you will. There is something extremely exciting about that connection between audience and actor, something very live and present. My very favourite moments are when things go horribly wrong.

You co-wrote and starred in a new adaptation of Box and Cox at the Hen & Chickens Theatre in Highbury. What is the play about and what was it like re-creating something in your own style?
Box and Cox is a Victorian play (later turned into a Comic Opera by Gilbert and Sullivan) that is about 2 men who rent the same room, unaware of the others’ existence as one works in the day and one works in the night. The original language is slightly antiquated so it was fun trying to adapt it (with Gabriel Vick) into more of a ‘contemporary’ Blackadder style. It is fascinating writing comic skits and seeing which jokes land and which, er, don’t.

What is it like performing in smaller theatres where the audience are ‘up close’?
Quite scary to be honest.

As a member of the band Teatro, the group’s debut album achieved gold record status and number 1 chart positions around the world. The group also performed for Her Majesty The Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. Can you tell us about your musical journey with Teatro and what more can we expect from the group?
The group was put together by Sony BMG after auditions around the world including the West End and Broadway and by coincidence I ended up in it with Simon Bailey (Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis) – a good friend of mine from school. It was all great fun – recording the album (I now have a gold disc on my wall – amazing), TV/Radio appearances, parties, premieres and concerts all over the world. Perhaps we’ll do a reunion tour in 20 years that no-one will care about.

You are currently starring as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre. How would you describe your character?
Richard Hannay is the original British Spy Hero, James Bond with a Pipe. But he is completely and utterly hopeless with women; British stiff upper lip and all that. Not too good at expressing the old feelings but pretty bloody special at saving the world, what?

There are 4 cast members performing 139 characters in the comedy, with a lot of fast action taking place. What is it like being part of this brilliant comedy?
Honestly it’s a joy. I feel very lucky to be working with a superb cast and to be playing the lead in a Tony and Olivier Award winning West End Play. It’s the dream.

Looking at your career so far, there seems to be a theme of ‘comedy’ roles. Is this a deliberate career choice?
I just get the most pleasure out of performing in Comedies. I Love Comedy. On a basic level as an actor the thrill of getting a laugh in unison back from the audience or, hopefully, a round of applause – nothing beats it. But I’m also fascinated at how Comedy works – the rhythm and the timing; there’s almost a science to it, a structure and compositional technique. And when it works it is magical.  On another level Comedy can also expertly explore the ridiculousness and tragedy of human behaviour, interaction and existence.

How do you like to prepare before the start of the show each night?
Sometimes quick gym and steam room before the show. Then at 7pm a physical warm-up with the cast followed by private musings in my dressing room with Fawlty Towers (hands down my favourite sitcom ever) playing in the background.

Do you have a favourite line from The 39 Steps or any of your previous roles?
Oh Bugger.

What do you like to do to chill out away from the stage?
Spend time with my girlfriend (now Fiance…) and Friends

Why should everyone go and see The 39 Steps?
Because 1) it’s funny 2) you can get £10 tickets from Monday – Thursday till the end of November and 3) X Factor is terrible this year. Don’t stay in.

Many thanks for taking time to answer a few questions about yourself Andrew, and best wishes for The 39 Steps!

You can follow Andrew on Twitter at @andalexander

Interviewed by Neil Cheesman
Follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

Updated 11th October 2014

Interview with Andrew Corcoran

Interview with Andrew Corcoran: Assistant Musical Director with Chicago

Chicago is the winner of the 1998 Olivier Award for Outstanding Musical and is the longest ever running Broadway musical in London’s West End. It is a fabulous musical and deserves to hold its place in the heart of the West End. This award winning production is filled with superb choreography written by Bob Fosse. The show is about murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, violence, adultery & treachery, so begins the musical.

Andrew was born in July 1982 in South Manchester and attended a Catholic Boy’s Grammar School in Hale Barns, Cheshire.

Andrew Corcoran

With a father who was touring in musical theatre it was no surprise that Andrew showed an interest in music at an early age, and subsequently became an accomplished musician. At the age of five he taught himself by ear to play the Jesus Christ Superstar theme. His parents started him on weekly piano lessons in September 1987 and while still at primary school Andrew could play the entire score of Chess.

Moving on from school, Andrew went to the University of Huddersfield where he graduated in 2004 with a 1st class Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree in Music with Theatre Studies and was also awarded the Crabtree Prize for All-Round Achievement.

Since leaving university, Andrew has worked in London’s West End and around the world as a keyboard player, rehearsal/audition pianist and musical director.

His impressive career to date includes working on the following shows;

Chicago the Musical, Evita, White Christmas, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Cinderella, White Christmas, Cabaret, Fame, Jerry Springer The Opera, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The King and I, Les Miserables, Love Never Dies, Oliver!, Wicked, Scrooge and much more!

For a full list of Andrew’s musical accomplishments visit his website at http://www.andrewcorcoran.co.uk/

I recently asked Andrew some questions about himself and his career.

Where did you go to school?

St. Ambrose, an all-boys Catholic grammar school in Hale Barns, Cheshire. Very much about religion and rugby, but there was a great music department hidden in there as well at the time!

What was the first musical instrument that you played and at what age?

My dad was touring in various musical theatre shows throughout my childhood. I was about 5 when I taught myself by ear how to play the Jesus Christ Superstar theme. My parents started me on weekly piano lessons in September 1987.

Did anyone in particular inspire you to play a musical instrument and work in theatre?

Well as you can see it’s pretty much all down to my dad’s line of work! I remember my school holidays were largely decreed by wherever he was working on tour at that time. I distinctly remember him in a summer season in Paignton on the Chess tour around 1993. I got to sit in with the orchestra, at the lighting desk, with the DSM, everywhere. That’s when I caught the theatre bug.

Did your parents and music teacher agree with your choice of instrument?

I was a quick learner on the piano because I loved making my way through my dad’s vocal scores. I could play the entirety of Chess while still at primary school (I remember the head teacher telling me off for bashing out “Endgame” too loudly on the piano in the school hall one morning). I almost gave up lessons when I hit adolescence but everyone convinced me to persist and my piano teacher dutifully endured me playing him various vocal scores for a few months before we could get back to focusing on technique.

Can you remember the first piece that you played in front of an audience and at what age?

There is home video footage of me playing the theme from Snowman. I think I’m about 6 or 7 years old. Note-perfect, too!

What was your first professional engagement?

I deputised on the UK tour of Scrooge while still at university and was lucky enough to be offered a keyboard chair on the tour of Joseph starting the week after I finished, in the summer of 2004. I’ve been busy ever since! I’ve now done over 1,500 professional performances on various musicals.

What is it like playing in such a high profile musical like Chicago?

First and foremost, getting to play a real piano on a show is such a rarity these days! It makes you work like a proper musician, whereas keyboards can easily be programmed to take shortcuts for you, or be badly programmed and require you to have expert computing skills. Also it’s fantastic experience to work on such a classic, well-worked and much-loved production. It requires you to hit the ground running and slot in with the high level of talented theatre-folk already working on the show.

Chicago has to be at the height of anyone’s career, but is there a play or musical that you would one day love to be a part of?

Well, working on a big professional production of Chess would bring my life full-circle, that’s for sure! One objective many people in this industry aspire to is to be part of the creative team for an original, hugely successful, new show that you will then always be associated with. That would be nice some day.

What does your role of Assistant Musical Director involve?

For me, it is to offer assistance and be there for the Musical Director you work with. A good relationship is essential on any long run of a show, and means you get treated with the respect you deserve. Never deem the AMD title to have a sort of automatic authority. The rest of the musicians don’t usually like that, and it can make your job harder on those few occasions you have to get up and conduct them! Every AMD job I do is a chance to watch and learn from each MD, adapting and improving my conducting or piano/conducting techniques. I never treat it as some sort of lower-middle management position.

Do you have anyone as a role model that you aspire to be like?

No-one in particular, no. My aspirations are based on qualities I like and dislike in various musicians and MDs I’ve worked with, as well as combating my own distinct failings!

Are there any long-term ambitions that you have either to do with theatre or not?

My “ambition” as I came to the end of my university life was to be able to live off the money I earned as a musician, which amazingly happened straight away, so I’ve set myself a pie-in-the-sky new ambition: to work on the music for big blockbuster movies, either as a session musician or on the creative side. Achievable, no?!

Are there any actors/actresses that you would like to work with?

There’s a lot of exciting onstage talent in theatre at present, I always get excited by the prospect of working with new and established principals. I loved it when David Bedella joined Chicago recently as Billy Flynn! There isn’t anybody in particular, though.

Which is your favourite part of London that you like going to?

The Theatre District is my playground! I guess the South Bank is always lovely to go to on a sunny day. I’m still relatively new to London, though, so every fortnight or so I go off and explore a new area of the capital. I love all the nooks and crannies around the City of London.

What is your favourite musical & film?

Rent had a bigger effect on me than I expected when I first saw it as a teenager. The recent DVD release of the Broadway stage version is one of the best show recordings I’ve ever seen! (That and the Broadway filming of Into the Woods, which is hilarious.) Singin’ in the Rain is a good example of a movie I didn’t expect to like, but richly deserves its labeling as a cinematic classic.

Thanks Andrew for giving up some of your valuable time!

As well as visiting Andrew’s website you can also follow Andrew Corcoran on Twitter @AndrewCorcoran

Article editor Neil Cheesman – follow me on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

Updated 11th October 2014

Interview with Andrew Langtree – Carl Bruner in Ghost the Musical

Actor Andrew LangtreeI don’t really think of [Carl] as a baddy at all. Just as someone who has a slightly wonky moral compass.”

Andrew Langtree studied at Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts.
Shortly after graduating, he became part of the original London cast of Mamma Mia in 1999, originating the role of ‘Sky’.

He has appeared in numerous productions at Birmingham, Clwyd, Oldham, Glasgow and  The Manchester Royal Exchange.

Andrew is also a well-known TV actor and has starred in popular programmes such as Hearbeat, Holby City, Cutting It, Coronation Street and Emmerdale.

At the time of the interview, Andrew was performing as Carl Bruner in the new London West End musical Ghost at the Piccadilly Theatre, a role he also originated.

Despite his very busy schedule, Andrew kindly answered a few question about himself and his career. Enjoy this fabulous new interview!

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a singer/actor?
I think probably when I was around 12 years of age, I started to do improvisation in drama classes at school. I was quite shy, but had no problem with getting up and making people laugh. I was hooked. The singing came later as I did musicals for am-dram companies, though I still don’t really consider myself to be a singer, per se.

Did anyone in particular inspire you or have you got any role-models?
I don’t know that inspiration is the word, but my drama teacher at school, Ann Brian pretty much coerced all the lads into doing drama. She promised if we didn’t do the school shows, that she’d arrange it so that we couldn’t play rugby for the school. We believed her and all the boys were involved somehow. Ann and I remain good friends today.

In terms of actors, I’d have to say my biggest inspiration is Dustin Hoffman. To play Benjamin in The Graduate, then Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy within the same year is a hell of a transformation. Throw in his performance in Marathon Man and you get the picture of the kind of actor I aspire to be.

Is it true that former Prime Ministers wife Cherie Blair asked you to sing in front of Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace? What was it like?
Well, she didn’t exactly call my mobile to see if I was free, but yes, she’s from Liverpool originally and I suppose she thought it would be a good idea to have some students from LIPA to represent. We did a few numbers from a musical called Closer Than Ever, which we were performing at the National Student Drama Festival at the time (we came down from Scarborough early morning on a mini-bus. Back that night.). I recall being barged out of the way by a photographer at the palace, eager to get a picture of our friend, Julie, laughing with the Queen. Julie had shocking pink hair at the time. The next morning, back in Scarborough, I went to the shop for a pint of milk and there was the picture on every front page on the newspaper stand, with the headline ‘Cool-Britannia’. It was surreal.

Actually, I’ve performed for the Queen three times, once when she wasn’t even present, but that’s another story.

You studied at Sir Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Please share a memory or two.
There are too many brilliant memories from my time at LIPA to choose from. I was one of the lucky first intake of students and recall just being over-awed by this fantastic building that two hundred or so students had the run of. I suppose my fondest memories are of working collaboratively with all the students from the other disciplines, music, dance, management, design and so on. There was a real collaborative nature about the whole place, which, in itself, promotes a healthy way of looking at the world of work I think. I do recall looking around at my classmates, just before we let in the audience to a promenade production of ‘The Caucasion Chalk Circle’ by Bertolt Brecht. There was a cool look of absolute confidence about the whole company. We knew we had something that was going to blow the audience away and all of us cared about the show so much. It’s a rare company feeling in the professional world. I’m pleased to say I experienced this most recently with Ghost. I am very lucky.

Shortly after your graduation, you originated the role of Sky in the London production of Mamma Mia. Please tell us about this experience.
When I trained at LIPA, there was no musical theatre course as such, but people in the outside world seemed to think that that’s all I’d studied. I actually got my highest marks at drama school for Shakespeare and I still bore my friends with the fact I’d love to play Iago to this day. Therefore I was as shocked as anyone to find myself three months out of drama school in a West End production of Fame the Musical and just about to embark on some crack-pot idea about weaving Abba songs into a full scale musical. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea at all and was certain my career was over before it had begun. Come first preview and the audience reaction was just incredible. A lovely actress by the name of Eliza Lumley was stood holding my hand during the bows and as I stared at the screaming, standing ovation in shock, she said to me ‘Well darling, it looks like we’ve got a hit on our hands’. The House Full signs went up that night and never came down for the rest of the year’s contract. The rest, as they say, is history.

You have appeared in numerous productions at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. Please tell us about your time there.
When I decided to move from musical theatre into what might be referred to as legit theatre, the rep companies seemed like the places to go. I could audition for roles I might never be seen for elsewhere. I played parts at Birmingham, Clwyd, Oldham, Glasgow. I got around a bit. But the best theatre I ever played was The Manchester Royal Exchange and I’m really grateful to them for letting me have so much fun. I’m especially grateful to Jacob Murray. The main house and the studio are both great spaces, but I really think there’s a magic to the energy in the main house. This seven sided glass module that sits in a great, marble hall. Making your first entrance into what feels like an arena, with the audience completely surrounding you could be a daunting experience. Thankfully I made my first entrance there naked, on an electronically automated bed, whilst pretending to fellate someone, so the audience were of little concern to me. They invited me back and within a few years, I played a bullied young man from the wrong side of the tracks in Sydney, a 21-year-old Jewish New Yorker in a Neil Simon play, a nineteenth century conman, hoodwinking the  London aristocracy and numerous Americans with varying degrees of mental stability. It was a lot of fun and I learned a hell of a lot.

You are currently originating the role of Carl Bruner in Ghost the Musical. Can you describe your character to someone who has not seen the film?
If you haven’t seen the film, then I really don’t want to say too much. Tony Goldwyn is one of the reasons I wanted to take this job. He did such a great job in the movie. My job in playing Carl for the stage is to explore what’s going on between the lines. Carl has a history which no one else in the piece would ever imagine could be possible. I wanted to explore with Carl, just how easily a sane, normal person like you or I could take a slide out of control with just a few poor choices and the right/wrong environment.

What’s it like to be playing the ‘baddy’?
I think playing the ‘baddy’ is fun and difficult in equal measure. Although, because I have found feasible reasons why Carl would do the things he does, I don’t really think of him as a baddy at all. Just as someone who has a slightly wonky moral compass. In fact I’m often quite shocked by the audiences reaction. They sometimes seem to genuinely hate me by the end…… That’s one of the fun parts.

The lighting, special effects and choreography are amazing. How would describe the spectacle that is ‘Ghost’ from an actor’s point of view?
During rehearsals, we had a fairly basic mock-up of our incredibly complex set. So when it came to the start of our four week technical rehearsal, the cast were as excited as it’s possible to be in a tech. I tried to describe the show to some of my friends during that time and eventually gave up. It’s indescribable. We’ve had an incredible team working on this show and when it all comes together at 7.30 every night it’s really something special. I feel proud to be part of it.

What’s your favorite Ghost song?
I think it has to be ‘Nothing Stops Another Day’. Not just because Caissie Levy could stop your heart by singing the phone book, but I particularly enjoy her singing the lyric; Because the tallest mountain cannot stop the tallest stream, Winter can’t hold back the Spring, no matter how dark it may seem. Come what may, nothing stops another day. It seems to sum up something of the optimism that runs, quietly, through the whole show.

A lot of people have seen – and love – Ghost the film.Why should they go and see Ghost the Musical?
Although the show sticks fairly closely to the script and plot of the movie, it’s a different telling of the story altogether. The fact that the story requires some pretty incredible special effects to be staged live, takes it to a whole new level. We certainly don’t try and copy the movie. What would be the point? We tell the story for an audience of today and with old and new technology, enhance it.

What other roles would you love to play and why (in any musical/play)?
As I mentioned, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare. There’s something very satisfying about expressing yourself through his text that no other writer seems to get close to, although, Schiller, Chekhov, Brecht and Williams are satisfying in different ways. Team that with the fun I’ve had being so insidious with Carl and I’d still have to go for Iago in Othello. Yep, that’d be fun.

What is something embarrassing or unexpected that happened to you on stage?
I always try and chase the perfect show. That’s a performance where you leave the stage and realise that you hit every mark and did everything to the best of your ability. It doesn’t often happen, so I was thrilled one night at the Royal Exchange when I came off stage with the knowledge that I had absolutely nailed my performance on….. Then I looked down and realised that my flies were gaping wide open and nobody  probably cared about a word I’d said. I check my flies all the time now.

If you could go and see any West End musical or play tonight, which one would it be and why?
I’m ashamed to say that I’m still yet to see War Horse. I lived away for a couple of years when it opened and just never got round to it, despite what great things I’ve heard. Warhorse, definitely.

You are also a well-known TV actor. You played Leon on Coronation Street (2009) and Justin Gallagher on Emmerdale (2010). What’s it like to star in a soap opera?
Soap is fast! You know, things can change on the spot with TV, but particularly with a soap. The producers have to be sensitive to current affairs and the concerns of a massive viewing public, so you have to be on the ball as an actor to cope with that. There’s such a massive difference from stagework when you go into a soap. You even use a different part of your memory to store your lines and they’re gone almost as soon as the director calls ‘cut’.

What do you like about working in front of a camera?
At first I didn’t like it at all to be honest. Watching the rushes back would be painful, as you never have the chance to be quite so critical of yourself in any other job. At first, so much of it is about learning the parameters of the medium. You’re constantly saying to yourself, ‘Ok don’t do that next time. You’re blinking too much.’ etc. Once you get the hang of it though, it’s fantastic. you can get a certain level of reality sometimes, safe in the knowledge that if you do dry or muck up, you can have another go instantly.

How does performing to a live audience compare?
Nothing ever beats the thrill of a live performance. Sometimes you can just accidentally alter an inflection here and there and hear a thousand people all respond in the strangest ways. Laughter and tears are the least exciting audience reactions to me. I played the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie a few years back and one night in Malvern, I said ‘You think you’re the only one who’s disappointed? Just look about you, everyone is disappointed.’ And I swear, every woman in the audience and a few of the guys too, without a missing a beat and in perfect unison, went; ‘Uh-huh!’…… I hope it wasn’t a reflection on the show.

Is there anyone you’d would you really like to work with (TV/film or stage)?
Dustin Hoffman.

What are your long-term ambitions.
I have always wanted to be as versatile as possible, exploring different mediums where at all possible and exploring as many varied character roles as possible. I think after Ghost, I’d possibly like to persue something more on screen, although I tend to change my mind as often as my shirt. Who knows?

What do like to do when you’re not working?
I don’t like not to be working. Although I’m acutely aware that I haven’t travelled nearly enough and I think that would do me a lot of good. Otherwise I like to walk and I like to run. It’s good for the grey matter.

The only thing I’d like to add is that I feel really lucky that I love my job and I hope to be entertaining the readers for many years to come. Thanks!! x

Many thanks for this fantastic interview, Andrew! I wish you all the best  for Ghost’s continued success and for any future projects!

Interview by Sandra Palme (Twitter: @LondonTheatre2)

Updated 11th October 2014

Interview with Anna O’Byrne: Christine Daaé

Actress Anna O'ByrneAt the time of the interview Anna O’Byrne was performing as Christine Daaé (at certain performances) in The Phantom of The Opera, having made her West End debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre. She originated the role of Christine in the Australian production of Love Never Dies, and also covered and performed Christine in the Australasian tour of The Phantom of The Opera.

Earlier this week Anna answered some questions about herself, her career and her role in The Phantom of The Opera.

Did anyone in particular inspire you towards a career in the performing arts?
My sister. She is a rather brilliant lawyer these days, but I started falling in love with theatre when I saw her performing in plays and musicals at school. My first drama teacher was also a huge influence on me as a performer and as a person – I still use what she taught me onstage, and more importantly, in life.

You trained at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia. What are your favourite memories of your time there?
I have so many fond memories of my four years at the VCA, and I feel very lucky to have been there at that particular point in time. The VCA is unique, I think, because it’s quite a small college, but you’re surrounded by people from different areas of the arts – animators, directors, musicians, printmakers, actors, composers, the list goes on. It was a very inspiring environment to be in, and the performance opportunities were amazing. I loved just mucking in and singing at every chance I got. There were only 11 students in my year, all of different ages and from different backgrounds, so we were a very diverse group but also very close. We laughed a LOT. The VCA also brought me to an incredible lady, Anna Connolly, who is still my singing teacher and mentor to this day.

Anna O'Byrne as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera. Photo Credit Alastair Muir
Anna O’Byrne as Christine Daae
in The Phantom of the Opera
Photo Credit Alastair Muir

Shortly after completing your degree you were cast in the Australian production of The Phantom of The Opera where you covered and played the role of Christine Daaé. How did it feel to be cast in such a role so soon after graduating?
It was completely unexpected – a real surprise. I had been offered about a year’s worth of work in the opera world, which I was over the moon about, but it was actually one of my opera coaches who suggested me for Phantom when the opportunity came up. I had 12 hours to prepare for my audition, and once I had been offered and decided to take the role, I was on tour and learning my parts within a month. It was a very hard decision between Phantom and working for the various opera companies that had offered me roles – but I always believe you have to follow your gut instinct. Phantom is such a fantastic show to “learn the ropes” on – I really feel that I did my apprenticeship there, so to speak. It was a great company to be a part of. I barely remember the first time I went on as Christine, I was running on pure adrenalin, but I do remember it being just the most exhilarating experience. Touring can be exhausting, but it’s so much fun. It was a really happy time in my life and I made some firm friendships and great professional relationships that last to this day.

You created the role of Christine Daaé in the Australian production of Love Never Dies. How do you feel the role of Christine had evolved?
I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to develop Christine’s character in Love Never Dies. I also felt, and still feel, a great deal of responsibility, as I know how important these characters are to a lot of people. Our rehearsal process on Love Never Dies was quite collaborative, in the sense that Simon Phillips was very open to the actors having opinions and ideas on how to take these characters forward. For example, there is a point before the Phantom reappears to Christine after 10 years – initially, in the libretto, Christine was meant to wind up a music box that her son has been playing with and it plays one of The Phantom’s main musical themes. I said to Simon that I felt very strongly that the music box should start playing of its own accord, as soon as Christine is alone. The next day at rehearsal, Simon made a comically annoyed face at me and said he had been up half the night talking to our designer and props team, figuring out how to make the music box play by itself! They did figure it out, and that’s the version that is in the show today. In terms of character though, the biggest evolution was playing Christine as a mum. It was extremely fulfilling for me to explore that relationship with the eight boys who played Gustave in our production. They all played the role slightly differently, and that in turn would influence how Ben Lewis and I played our relationship as The Phantom and Christine. It was so beautiful for me to see Christine as a parent. The Phantom of the Opera is so much about Christine dealing with the grief of losing her father and desperately searching for guidance from the male figures in her life. But seeing her come into her own by the end of Phantom of the Opera, and then to see her become a parent herself in Love Never Dies and share this wonderful connection with a little soul that she would ultimately give her life for – for me that was the most incredible thing to play each night.

You are a successful opera singer and concert artist. Which performances would you say are the most special to you?
All of them!

I understand that you have a passion for French Art Song. What can you tell us about this?
I fell in love with French Art Song during my time at the VCA. I ended up writing my honours thesis on Francis Poulenc, who wrote some seriously beautiful art songs. I adore his music and still sing a lot of it!

You are currently performing as Christine Daaé in The Phantom of The Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre London. How has this differed from you playing the role in Australia?
Well, obviously I am performing the show with a completely different group of people and in completely different circumstances. I was determined not to shoehorn my previous experiences with Phantom and Love Never Dies into this one – I tried to wipe the slate clean. Fortunately, I learned the show here with a new Phantom (Marcus Lovett) and Raoul (Simon Thomas) – as well as many other new company members – so we really had the chance to develop our own relationships with the roles and with each other. Of course I have strong opinions on the character of Christine and her growth through the course of her story – but I never walk onstage thinking “Oh, this is how I’m going to play Christine tonight”. We have a wonderful Resident Creative Team at Her Majesty’s who all care very deeply about the show, and we are all allowed the freedom to experiment.

How do you try to make Christine unique to you?
It’s always been important to me that Christine has an intense passion within her. I love playing the feisty side of her – to me, this fire is what draws her and connects her so intrinsically to The Phantom. She is also a character that has a profound, sort of strangely beautiful sadness about her. I have loved discovering her innocence and impressionability again. It’s also very important to me that she has a sense of humour – I remember Simon Phillips saying to me in a very early rehearsal of Love Never Dies, “I want her to laugh as much as possible” – so we put in these silly “mum” moments where she and Gustave would wiggle each other’s noses, or she would do a funny little walk to make him laugh. In Phantom of the Opera, I like to show her being a bit giggly and mischievous with Meg. Simon felt that she should “laugh ruefully” – I like that concept to describe her. But ultimately these things are organic and who knows how I might be playing her a few months from now! That’s part of the fun of it all!

What is it that you like best about playing the role of Christine?
Different things each night. I love her compassion. I love her relationship with music. I deeply love singing both scores! The role of Christine (in both Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies) is a huge challenge – physically, vocally, emotionally – and it’s so satisfying to find the stamina to face that challenge head on!

If you could choose your favourite characteristics from The Phantom and from Raoul – what would they be?
They both love her unconditionally – I think that’s a pretty endearing characteristic! I love The Phantom’s passion and intensity, and I love Raoul’s nobility and sincerity. They are both quite powerful characters and in a way they are like two sides of the same coin. I think that’s what makes the love triangle so effective.

Which is your favourite costume in either Phantom of The Opera or Love Never Dies?
Ah! Difficult question! I love them all! I adore the gold-shot satin in Love Never Dies and the “Beneath a Moonless Sky” white lace dress. In Phantom of the Opera, my favourite is probably the Countess/Rooftop dress and the blue “Wishing” Gown. I love the cloaks in Phantom of the Opera and the millinery in Love Never Dies.

If you could develop any other character in The Phantom of The Opera and write a musical based on them who would it be?
The Little Band – they are so playful in Masquerade, but they are also quite sinister.

Can the reaction of the audience influence your performance?
Not really. I always feel an initial “rush” from the audience when I first come onstage, but after that I figure we’re all along for the ride together.

What is life like backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre?
Lovely! Quite calm. Things have been ticking along very smoothly for 26 years now, so it’s very easy to slot into life backstage and just concentrate on giving a great show each night. Truth be told, I don’t get to spend much time backstage – it’s quite a busy show for me!

How does the London audience compare to that in Melbourne, Australia?
There is a much bigger tourist component here in the West End. It’s very cool meeting people at Stage Door who have flown internationally to see the show at Her Majesty’s. Melbourne is my hometown though, so it’s always a special experience to perform there.

I believe that you are an avid reader. What book are you currently reading?
I am! I just finished an anthology of Heinrich von Kleist’s short stories and I was blown away – they were written in the early 1800s but they are frighteningly modern and quite confronting. I churned through The Hunger Games trilogy when I was ill for a few days recently, and it more than lived up to the hype. I’ve just begun Loving by Henry Green and I am learning so much from how he writes dialogue – just brilliant.

Looking to the future, do you have any particular role you would like to perform or show you would like to be in?
I love Street Scene by Kurt Weill. I’m dying to do some Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein, or some Bernstein or Guettel. It will bring me great joy to go back to Mozart and Handel one day! I played violin for many years and I would love to be a part of a show where I can use that skill in some way. But the totally wonderful thing about our industry is that you never quite know what’s around the corner, and that can be the most thrilling ride of all.

Away from the stage, what do you like to do to chill out?
I’m blessed to have a very close family, so I love spending time with them and with my friends. You might have guessed that I read a lot! Writing is another huge passion of mine. I like running and yoga. I also like shopping! A little too much!

Any message to those that are following your career?
Thank you! Your support means a great deal to me. Please come say hello if you find yourself at Her Majesty’s. Much love.

You can follow Anna O’Byrne on Twitter @annaobyrne

Interviewed by Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

Updated 11th October 2014

 

Interview with Anna-Jane Casey

Actress Anna-Jane CaseyHaving worked in television, theatre and radio as a child, Anna-Jane Casey made her West End debut at the age of 16 as Rumpleteazer in CATS. She followed that by performing in the original West End casts of Children of Eden, Joseph and The Technicolor Dreamcoat and Grease. Her acting career has continued to blossom and as well as leading roles on stage she has also appeared on television in Holby City, EastEnders, The Royal and Heartbeat.

Anna-Jane has also performed nationally and internationally in cabaret, as well as recording for radio in the UK. Find out what Anna-Jane had to say when she recently took time out to answer some questions about herself and her career.

Who inspired you to take up a career in the performing arts?
I saw a performance of Swan Lake at Manchester Palace Theatre when I was aged 9 and knew I wanted to be on the stage. The next year I was! My first professional job was in Annie playing the orphan Tessie when I was 10 but I always loved watching the great musical films of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

Making your West End debut at the age of 16 you played the part of Rumpleteazer in Cats. What did you enjoy most about being in the show?
I loved getting into the audience and playing with people’s feet! But the best thing was being part of a company and performing with a live orchestra. I’d never seen a West End show before I got the part; and on my first day in London, the night before I started rehearsals I sat on the sound desk to watch the show, and wept all the way through, because I was so excited to be in such an amazing production.

You performed in Children of Eden, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Grease. What can you tell us about your most memorable moments in these shows?
Joseph was the first “mega-musical” and Jason Donovan was a big star so seeing the 100s of people at the stage door every day was amazing and the same goes for Grease, as Debbie Gibson, Craig McLachlan and Shane Richie were very high profile so we did great gigs like Royal Variety Shows and lots of TV performances. We all felt like we were in a show that was very special and the Palladium and the Dominion are such enormous theatres. They were full practically every performance which is unheard of now!

You had two enjoyable years in Starlight Express. What was it like being in a musical on roller-skates?
Starlight is the most physically demanding yet rewarding show I have ever done. Racing around the set at 25 mph with funking loud music was so exhilarating. You really had to trust your fellow performers because one slip and you could really injure yourself. The thrill of completing the show every night without killing yourself or anyone else was a real buzz and I still skate 17 years on from doing the show!

While on the national tour of West Side Story where you were playing the part of Anita, you met your husband Graham Macduff who was in the same production. What can you tell us about the show and how you managed to fit in a budding relationship at the same time as being on tour?
West Side Story always has been, and still is, my favourite musical of all time and it’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. I played Anita in a local youth theatre production when I was 13, I did the song America as my song and dance at dance festivals and I already knew all the choreography before we even started rehearsals! It was the first time I felt completely “in the character” when I played Anita and I fell head over heels in love with my “Bernardo” so much so that now we have two children and have been married for 14 years! The director had to try and calm down our snogging onstage (he never succeeded) and it was such a tight company as we toured for over a year then played the West End for another year after that. In two and a half years of playing the part, I never once got bored because I knew I was playing a part that is so special and iconic.

Having played the part of Frankie Frayne in On Your Toes at the Festival Hall you went on a Japanese tour with the show. What was it like touring in Japan?
I’d always wanted to travel to Japan and having Adam Cooper in the show, who is a big star over there, made sure that we were all treated like mega stars! The Japanese culture is so different to ours – you could leave an open bag of gold on the front seat of your unlocked car in central Tokyo and no one would steal it, it’s just not the done thing as you would dishonour your family by taking it! I wouldn’t try that in London!
We saw some fantastic sights, travelled by bullet train and ate the most incredible food and now I have lots of Japanese kanji tattoos on my body as I love the language and the people so much.

You played the title role in Sweet Charity, where you were nominated by the TMA for Best Actress. The musical has been on film and stage with several leading actresses playing Charity Hope Valentine, how did you make the role your own?
The production that Tim Sheader put together in Sheffield won lots of awards for its originality and innovation. The set and the lighting were incredible and the Crucible Theatre is my favourite place to perform. I tried to make my “Charity” really vulnerable and trusting so when Oscar leaves her at the end it would really break your heart as an audience member. Charity is one role I never had to force myself to cry as Neil Simon’s script is so heartbreaking and beautiful. I’d cry so hard I’d look like I’d been punched in the face on a two show day!

In 2005 you won the TMA award for best performance in a musical for Mabel in Mack and Mabel at the watermill theatre. How important is it to you to be recognised for your performances and what was so special about this role?
I never used to think it mattered to be awarded anything for your work… only the opinion of your family, partner and close friends should matter. But then winning the TMA changed that! Hahaha… To be nominated alongside performers you really respect is a great thrill and honour and as I’m getting older, I realise that for any organisation to recognise what you do is really special.

You have performed as Velma Kelly in the musical Chicago at both the Adelphi and Cambridge Theatres. Why do you think that Chicago continues to be a success on Broadway but not in the West End?
America is the birthplace and spiritual home of musical theatre… it’s held in so much higher esteem over the pond than it is here… so I’m not surprised Chicago is still playing on Broadway. Also, Broadway producers and directors don’t necessarily cast their leading actors and actresses by the level of fame they have, they cast by who is best for the job, which means a show can play for a long time without having a “star name” carrying it.

You have performed in Heartbeat, EastEnders and Holby City. How does working on TV compare with the stage? Do you have a preference?
Stage work is quite regimented in the fact that you have a warm-up at the same time every night, a half hour call then the show comes down around 10.15pm and you can go home. TV calls are very different – you can be in make-up at 7.00am then you may not be used for 3 hours, your scenes are dictated by how much work the lighting/camera/sound/continuity departments need to do and you can be at the studio all day to be used for 20 minutes! It’s a very different discipline than theatre and I’m terrible at waiting around, as I’m a complete control freak, so although it’s great to be involved in television productions, getting an immediate reaction from a live audience then getting home at a regular time, suits me better!

You are a successful cabaret artist. How important is it for you to perform cabaret, away from the regular commitment of an 8-shows-a-week musical?
I played a lot of cabaret at the Savoy Hotel during 2010/11 and it really made me learn how to work an audience who aren’t necessarily coming to listen to “Anna-Jane Casey”, they were just listening to a “performer.” It’s a great skill to be able to make people invest their time and attention on you and once you have them on your side, it feels great! I now play my ukulele in my cabarets and having that skill really makes people respect you as a musician and listen so much more. Also, I always say, unless you are Liza Minnelli or Chita Rivera, no one wants to hear stories about when you were in this show or played that part, it’s just not interesting so I try to make my cabaret audiences laugh and feel like a friend so I choose songs that are fun, easy or exciting to listen to.

The Lady of The LakeYou are playing the part of the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot at the Playhouse Theatre. What can you tell us about the character and how she fits into the storyline?
The Lady is an amalgam of all the divas you have ever known like Minnelli/Streisand/Bassey and is a mystical figure who gave King Arthur his sword “Excalibur” (the only sword with its own name!!) she helps the knights and especially King Arthur, on his quest to find the Holy Grail.

What attracted you most to the role of the Lady of the Lake?
I’ve always wanted to sing the role and first auditioned for it in the West End in 2007 but wasn’t lucky that time. I enjoy opening my trap and singing those great songs like “Find Your Grail” and “Song That Goes Like This”. Also my gorgeous hubby is in the show too and although we don’t really have much interaction in the production (he marries Prince Herbert and not me), there’s lots of snogging backstage!!

How do you both feel about this reunion on stage some fifteen years after your first encounter?
Most people say they couldn’t bear to work alongside their partner but we are thrilled as it means we can get to be “Gray and AJ” again for a few hours every day and not just “Daddy and Mummy”, hahaha.

Why should everyone come along to see Spamalot and not some other West End show?
It’s absolutely hilarious for a start and everyone loves a good laugh and the cast are phenomenally talented. Stephen Tompkinson is a great King Arthur and Jon Robyns, Adam Ellis, Robin Armstrong and Rob Delaney are all fantastic comic actors. Oh and Graham Macduff looks great in his sequined jockstrap!

Your sister Natalie has previously played several comedy roles. Following Spamalot will we see you challenging her for this type of role in the future?
Ha! Natalie is the funniest woman I know but she says I’m the second funniest so maybe we can do a Channel 4 sitcom together!

What do you like most about the humour of Monty Python?
It’s intrinsically British and it’s been part of my life forever as my parents are big Python fans so the Flying Circus was always on in our house when I was a kid. It’s the silliness and surrealism that I love.

What else have you planned for 2012 and beyond?
I’m doing some fantastic concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in December and as well as 8 shows a week of Spamalot, having a 6-year-old and a 6-month-old daughter keeps me busy!

Away from the stage what do you like to do to chill out?
I love to run (doesn’t sound very chilled I know) and I’m running the Berlin Marathon in September 2013 so I’ll be training for that when I can. I also love making an “AJ shaped” dent in my sofa while drinking Earl Grey tea and eating homemade choc chip cookies!

You have two young daughters. How do you make sure that you have enough time for your family as well as being on stage?
Once you have children, your life becomes a military operation and every woman should be told that there’s never a lie-in for the rest of your life at their first antenatal appointment! You just have to learn to exist on about 5 hours sleep and plan everything to the absolute minute!

Any message to your followers?
Keep smiling because if you don’t, the wrinkles on your face will just make you look dreadful… they may as well be laughter lines rather than worry ones!

Follow Anna-Jane Casey on Twitter @AnnaJaneCasey

Interviewed by Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

Updated 11th October 2014