At the time of the interview, Michael Burgen was performing as Patsy in Spamalot at the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End. “Honestly though, it is the most fun two hours you can have. I don’t know another show like it out there. Literally, it is just a gag machine. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it.”
Michael’s stage roles include The all-male Pirates of Penzance Australia tour, Spamalot UK tour, all-male Iolanthe and all-male Mikado. The all-male Pirates of Penzance won the “What’s On Stage” Best Off-West End Production in 2010.
I hope you enjoy our interview with Michael and also get the chance to go along to see him in Spamalot!
You are currently performing in Spamalot. You have been in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe at the New Vic and you have just been in the all-male Pirates of Penzance. Can you tell us a bit about how you first discovered that you wanted to be on stage?
Well I joined a youth theatre group when I was eight years old, but then it was just a sort of hobby, once every Sunday, and we would do a big musical at the end of the year, Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, that sort of stuff. I went away to university, enjoying the musical theatre society and absolutely loved it and thought if I can make a career out of it, why not?
You trained at The Central School of Speech and Drama and graduated in 2008. What were your favourite memories from your training?
Well, probably the Olde Swiss, which is the pub just outside of the Central. I have great memories from there. No, really, drama school… I was just there for a year, so it was pretty intense, but it is that thing where you sort of love what you are doing all day every day, but you are in that bubble of a sort of security so it is like all of the peaks without the unemployment. That sort of thing, you know. Memories… yeah, sort of finishing on a Friday and absolutely letting go of the stress in the Olde Swiss.
So, moving on from Central School of Speech and Drama, you made your professional stage debut quite quickly after your training; tell us a bit about that show and your experience.
Well I was quite lucky, just before I graduated, a friend of mine knew the Musical Director of The all-male Iolanthe at the Union Theatre; and he said go along and audition, and that was my first audition and I went to the Union, which is a beautiful place. A big shout out for the Union, they do some great work there! I went there, and for those who haven’t been there, it is just a little café, you walk through it and it is an abandoned warehouse, and I thought: what is going on? Okay, so I did the audition, did the job and it was just brilliant; working with amazing professionals. I learnt so much in those three weeks, it is almost like the Union was a sort of apprenticeship, and it was just incredible. It is a little 50-seater, but they create some absolutely stunning work, and the Fringe in London is great. Everyone should go and see stuff in the Fringe, as well as in the West End. With regard to The all-male Iolanthe, that show sold really well, got great reviews, and yeah, I owe a lot to that show and the people I met there for what happened after and where I am now.
Just talking about all-male casts, you have performed in several all-male productions, what are your feelings about the same sex casts, what are the pros and cons of that?
Well, I’ve done an all-male Iolanthe, all-male Pirates, and all-male Mikado, all at the Union and it is just a director’s choice. It’s not just a gimmick, they think they can offer something different with that show. Each cast, you get a list of names, and I don’t notice any real difference in the sort of balance of it. There were 20 lads in a dressing room upstairs at the Union and it was great fun. I don’t pursue same sex-cast, but the director thought that would work with those shows, and I think it did.
The all-male Pirates of Penzance toured Australia, can you tell us about this?
It was probably the most challenging thing I have ever done because for those who know Gilbert and Sullivan, I would play a pirate, which is my tenor range, a policeman which is lower base, and also a woman where you have to use falsetto – so there was a whole lot of vocal gymnastics going on. So you have to look after your voice – it is very tempting when you are in Sydney to have some fun, but you are there to work, and with that show, you get so much reward from it because it is great.
Pirates of Penzance won the “What’s On Stage” Best Off-West End Production in 2010. What do you think was so special about the show that made it such a success?
The director made a choice there, it wasn’t just a gimmick; he wanted to offer something new in the world of G&S and putting an all-male cast did. And I just think with Pirates it just works. There are so many lines and references in the show which just make it spark. It has got a real big following now – starting from the Union – the little 50-seater, and then to Wilton’s Music Hall with it, a beautiful space in East London, and then to Australia, where it picked up. The show has got a fan base now and I have been graduated now for four or five years and that is like the one that is very special to me because I was a part of it. It has now had its fourth incarnation in Australia and I was part of all of it, it was really great to develop and be part of something like that from the beginning and yes, people just love it, it’s fun.
So moving on from one comedy to the next, you recently toured with Spamalot and you are currently playing it in the West End. You were swing as First Patsy, First Sir Robin, Second Herbert, Historian and Musician and two ensemble roles. Can you tell us a bit about what it is like to play Swing, in a West End Production?
Swing is never boring. I think it is something that everyone should try and do at some point. It just gives you good discipline and yeah, you sort of wake up and you never know what your manager is going to text you through with who you are playing. I think the first time I went on, Marcus Brigstocke, who was our King Arthur at the time, his train had been hit by a tree, and they left it as long as possible and at five in the afternoon I was told I was going on for my very first performance, so literally five minutes. I was rushed to get on, straight on, so it can be that, but that is fun. It’s you know, the grass is always greener, you always want to say “Oh I’d like to do something different”, and when you swing, you get it, you get to have a chance. It’s cool.
So that is great you really enjoy that side of the business but what are your likes and dislikes about being on tour itself?
It is quite tiring, touring… we were doing a weekly tour of Spamalot; so you get one day off a week but that is usually to travel. During one week we had to travel from Cornwall to Manchester which was a six to seven hour drive, but I absolutely loved touring, I miss touring. It is so much fun. You get to see new cities, and every time you move into new accommodation, new digs it is always that sort of heart-beating moment, your breath stops, and you go “oh please let me have a nice place for a week”. So you have got all that, and you are like a little family on tour. When you are in town everyone has their sort of very separate lives, their home lives and that, whereas on tour, you are this little family troop going round, and see all different parts of the UK. We have a beautiful country, and we get to see it.
You are currently appearing as Patsy in Spamalot at The Playhouse Theatre. Can you tell us about your character and how he fits into the storyline?
Yes, I am playing Patsy, and Patsy for those who don’t know the film on which the musical is based, is King Arthur’s Liege, his servant. I also provide the horse sound effects. I’m not a horse, but I provide the horse, and I am the trusty companion of our loyal King, and am loyal to King Arthur.
What do you enjoy most about appearing in the show?
Oh, it’s just the most fun two hours you can have on stage and watching. Every show is different because it relies on the audience, so no two shows are really the same and it has got the ability to throw up different things every night.
Are there elements of improvisation in the show depending upon what you get back from the audience?
Yes, there are moments that are more free and the actors sort of get to do what they wish, and sometimes you get different audience responses, so there are moments which are different ever night.
Why should everyone come to see Spamalot?
Because it is the best show in town, that is why. Honestly though, it is the most fun two hours you can have. I don’t know another show like it out there. Literally, it is just a gag machine. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it. If you go see Spamalot and you don’t have fun you need to go to the doctors because there is something wrong with you. But I promise you will have the time of your life. And you can quote me on that, yeah.
You recently performed at the Songwriters Union at the Union Theatre, singing a smashing number called I Won’t Leave You Alone, how important to you is promoting new material and developing your career as a solo artist?
I think we are at a bit of a crossroads in musical theatre, as there is a lot of new stuff happening this year, a lot coming over from America. You have got Once going into the Phoenix Theatre, you’ve got The Book of Mormon coming over, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I think is a good thing. It’s nice to have the main stage shows, but it is good that theatre is changing and evolving. People need to see new types of theatre and I just think we really need to get behind new writing. I think it would be a great time for a new piece to come out. For example, I sang at The Songwriters Union and it is a comedy song, about a stalker (written by Kit Orton) who is also in workshop at the moment for a show called My Land’s Shore which you should follow on Twitter and keep your eyes and ears open for – because it is brilliant and people need to get behind new writing.
What for you makes new writing a cut above the rest in terms of it being good or better than other things?
It has to have a good story. That is it. People will pay to watch a good story. You can have all the talent on stage but if they are not there to tell a good story, then it is not going to work. It is not getting behind new writing for getting behind new writing’s sake, it is getting behind good pieces and what drives that is always a good story.
As well as Spamalot, what are you looking forward to in 2013?
I had a great 2012, I went to Australia, I was touring around the country with Spamalot, so if I can have any repeat of that – I love travelling… So when my time in Spamalot ends I would love to have the chance to explore more of the world. There is lots of new stuff coming out this year, so I am excited about that. So, hopefully 2013 will be just as good as 2012.
And have you got any message that you would like to send out to those people who are following and supporting your career?
Well, I don’t know how many there are… but thank you for the support, and it is really touching and nice that people can follow on Twitter, so to those people who have followed and supported me, it means a lot, or those that go and watch me at the Songwriters Union and then go and watch me in Spamalot as well, it does mean a lot, so thank you very much.
We think you are fantastic and we wish you all the best for 2013, and the rest of your career.
Great! Thank you very much. The video of this interview is below: (apologies for picture quality)
Updated 27th November 2015