We recently caught up with The Woman in White star and posed your questions to him.
How did you first get into musical theatre?
I have a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre from the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. That’s where Hugh Jackman went to drama school – he’s our most famous graduate! I graduated in 1990. I was going to audition for theatre, but I missed the deadline so someone suggested I audition for musical theatre, I didn’t really know much about musical theatre at that point, but I wanted to go to drama school so I turned up on the first day of term and was completely blown away – I had a feeling that this was what I had been looking for all my life without even knowing it.
What musicals have you been in before The Woman In White and which one did you enjoy the most?
I’ve been in Barnum, Wizard of Oz, Aspects of Love, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, West Side Story, South Pacific, Les Miserables, The Rink, Pal Joey, Oh What a Night, Hair and something called the Man From Snowy River Arena Spectacular which I did in Australia.
I have enjoyed various roles, but in particular I loved Joseph. I came straight out of Aspects of Love to go into Joseph – I did three months in Sydney and I was the alternate Pharaoh – it was so colourful and good fun.
How long have you been in the UK?
Although I am British I grew up in Australia – in Perth, then moving to Sydney. I came back to live here in 1996 and was here pretty solidly for five years before going back to Australia. I returned to London again about two years ago.
How did you get the role of Walter and who were your competitors? How many auditions did you have?
I don’t know who my competitors were. I was filming a TV movie and I was desperate to get over to LA to catch the end of the pilot season in March last year. I got a couple of emails from my agent telling me about The Woman in White. Eventually he said that Trevor Nunn wanted to meet me the next time I was in London. I had met him before, very briefly, I think he thought I was someone else at the time! So I met him in London before going on to LA. I was literally only in London for five days and had booked my flight for the day after our meeting. I was asked to postpone my trip, but I had commitments. Andrew (Lloyd Webber) was going to come out to LA but then he got held up with The Phantom movie, so I eventually did a recording in LA with Nigel Wright as my audition. I sung “I Believe my Heart” and “Evermore Without You”. The CD got sent to Andrew. He received it on the Friday and the offer came through on the Monday. So it all happened in LA which was very exciting! Then I eventually met with Andrew in LA they day before I had an audition for a series of TV movies which Stephen Spielberg was making and he then watched my show-reel.
Did you do any research or read The Woman in White to get into the part of Walter Hartright?
I did read The Woman in White, and as far as research went there was a fairly extensive appendix at the back of the version of the novel that I read, which provided plenty of information about Wilkie Collins and his encounter with the real Woman in White. Then the first thing Trevor said on day one of rehearsal was that we didn’t have to read The Woman in White because we were producing such a different version of the story!
How did you like working with Andrew Lloyd Webber in the creative process?
“Evermore Without You” was originally a second or third lower than what it is now. We’d been working on it in rehearsal and when Andrew heard me sing he suggested we should consider taking it up. We hadn’t previously worked together and he hadn’t heard me sing before so he didn’t really know what my range was. We agreed it could certainly go higher. I think if you are going to sing the big “money number” it’s better to use the top end of your voice rather than make it sound as it is in the middle. I was utterly fascinated to watch the development in the rehearsal room and to witness the creative process. You would need a bit of music for something and he would just go away and come up with something! Obviously, having done a three year course in musical theatre to then work with one of the greatest names in the genre was fantastic.
Did you have to learn any sort of new acting style for The Woman in White in particular?
I have never played a British character. Although not an aristocrat Walter is a well spoken Englishman. This was a new skill to master.
What is your favourite song from The Woman in White (doesn’t have to be one you sing!)
I would have to say that it IS one that I sing! I think that “Evermore Without You” is – in my opinion – probably the best song in the show, not just because I sing it! I think it is beautifully written. I like the way it builds and lyrically and melodically it is just a great emotional piece. Having been in that heartbroken state before in my own life it expresses it very well.
What is your favourite part of the show?
The interval! No, really I enjoy the fight. I actually like Walter’s character’s structure in the show, in that he is on stage for 45 minutes without leaving and then gets nearly an hour off stage before he comes back. You get to do an extensive lot of work, then get a break and then come back to the show at a completely different stage of the journey. If you compare that to something like Marius (Les Miserables), I think Marius never leaves the stage because he is in the ensemble, then he is on, and then the barricade scene lasts an hour and it is just exhausting! Whereas with Walter you get to do a lot of concentrated work as he is with the audience the whole way through the build up. So, in answer to the question it is the structure, rather than a particular part of the show, I like best.
Are you playing yourself in the musical or is your character completely different from your own nature?
I am not playing myself but there are certain aspects of myself in any role that I play. I think Walter is a very forthright young guy but Trevor pointed out that he was probably less worldly than I am. I admire Walter’s moral fibre and his selflessness. The fact that he is lost and desperate at the top of the show and doesn’t know where he is, he is scared out of his wits and yet he says to the Woman in White “I will help you”, even when he can’t seem to help himself. I would very much like to think that is like me….. but unless I am put in that situation I can’t be sure. I am a little more relaxed about life than Walter is. It is quite an emotional journey that he undertakes but to his credit he handles himself as a man very well. There are elements of that in me and, indeed, there are elements in me that come into my interpretation of Walter that you wouldn’t necessarily find in someone else’s portrayal.
What has been your favourite part of being involved with The Woman In White from the beginning of rehearsals to where you are now?
Being fortunate enough to work with such a high quality team. It is fascinating to watch the wealth of experience that they bring with them unfold. When we started rehearsal we didn’t know whether the show was going to be successful – although personally I think the creatives had a pretty good idea. Trevor would suggest just a small change, incidental pieces of music would be added, Charlotte would write a little extra scene to help the story telling along… and then that new way becomes what people watch several times a week. And it will stick with the show and become what happens on Broadway. Watching the development process of a completely new musical at this level was an incredible experience.
And what are the worst parts of being in a musical?
I have worked in a lot of different areas in the profession – television, plays, film….and the musical theatre as far as I am concerned is the most gruelling discipline of them all. I went from doing Les Mis to doing a TV series called Dream Team for two years and we would be up at 5.30 in the morning, on set for 7.30 in the cold of winter, filming through to 8pm at night and then have to learn eight more scenes for the next day as routine. That was tough and my fellow cast members would tell me how exhausting it was, but having come out of Les Mis I would just sit there quietly with a smile on my face, knowing inside that this routine was as nothing compared to eight shows a week in a musical. From an acting perspective when you work in a musical that’s entirely underscored you handover what would normally be your domain of your own acting skills, to someone else, namely the Musical Director. For example, if you are in a scene and you tell me a piece of bad news, if I don’t have the music underneath it I can take however many seconds I need to register the news and then come back with my response. In a musical I have someone else dictating how long I have to respond and this can be frustrating at times.
Does acting infront of the projected images in The Woman in White make you dizzy?!
How long did your fight scene with Sir Percival take to choreograph and rehearse? I’ve seen the show a number of times and even close up, the fight looks and sounds extremely realistic.
That’s good! We had a very good fight Choreographer (Malcolm Ransom) who has worked with Trevor before. He is one of those guys who is so good he seems to make no effort whatsoever but he makes the fight scene an art. “Heavy blows here and then we need a bit of struggle, struggle”. It then appears like a real fight. We probably spent about two or three two hour sessions with him getting it choreographed and then obviously we rehearsed it in the context of the rest of the show. I actually had a bloody nose one night! It bled all over the stage! It was at a moment at the top of the fight when I punch Glyde in the stomach and we got slightly out of line with each other and his shoulder hit me in the nose. It was pretty painful! And everytime I got hit I was spraying blood everywhere. But – so far – that’s the only incident!
What was it like working with such musical theatre “greats” such as Michael Crawford, Maria Friedman and now Michael Ball?
Absolutely a joy! One thing I have done all through this process is take myself back to drama school and to my memory of being a student because as you work in this business you have such big dreams and aspirations when you first come out of drama school of playing a lead role, although you are far from ready to play one. I was constantly thinking “here I am in a rehearsal room with Trevor Nunn, Michael Crawford…” and so on. Specifically with Michael Ball, because I had been playing romantic lead roles and when I was at drama school he was very much THE romantic lead role model. I played Alex in Aspects of Love, Marius in Les Miserables and so to actually be playing the role that he would normally be playing in the show (although I’m very glad he isn’t!) has been a great honour and such good fun.
Which one of your colleagues in The Woman in White could you say inspires you the most?
Certainly Michael Ball, as I mentioned, he is such a professional and has such great energy and love for what he does. It is always great fun backstage, but he has a serious work ethic. It is always about the audience. He never wants to let them down. He is exactly what I would aspire to. But, to be honest, the company that is assembled for the show, from the ensemble to the leads, I consider myself very lucky to be working with. And the backstage crew – including an incredible management team. If the going gets tough you can find inspiration all over the place! You are surrounded by people who are professionally getting on with it and making it happen!
What is the funniest thing that has happened in rehearsal or while you were performing?
There have been several moments but incidents which happen on stage never sound as funny when they are recounted later! Things which happen on stage are funnier because you know you are not allowed to laugh!
Is it hard for you to keep performing the same role for many months?
Yes, it is hard, but that’s what the job is. You learn the discipline you need at drama school in order to keep it fresh. I keep a checklist that I go through for each scene to help me stay in the moment. I know when I enter a scene where I have previously been, where I am going and what I want. I have to say that once I am on stage in a scene it doesn’t matter how many times I have played it I love it! It’s what I love to do. Of course rehearsals become a bit wearing, but when new cast members come in they add a new, fresh energy.
As an Australian yourself, if there was a chance of an Australian production, would you perform the role of Walter in an Australian production?
I don’t have any plans to do this at the moment.
You sing brilliantly! Do you have any plans to release a solo album- is this something you’d like to do?
I certainly wouldn’t mind, but I would need someone else to be the driving force. Some people have a real desire to do this and know exactly which songs to choose. I would need someone to approach me to do it – if that happened I would work very hard at it.
I really enjoyed your portrayal of Marius in Les Miserables– (my favourite musical)- what is your favourite musical and is there a particular role (from any show) that you’d really like to play in the future?
I have encountered this many times at drama school where people have a burning desire to play a particular role but I have never felt this way. Even before Les Mis I had no real desire to play the role. When it came up I loved the experience, but prior to it although I would listen to the CD and love to sing the songs, there was no particular role I would really love to play. I did a cabaret recently and I did a couple of songs from a show called The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown who I think is one of the most amazing composers. I would love to do that, but I am very happy with seeing what life brings! I am a big fan of Sondheim. I love Les Mis, and I love a lot of Andrew’s stuff. I do love musical theatre!
You have performed some very successful cabarets with West End diva Joanna Riding recently. How did you come to work on the show with Joanna, and what are the key things you make sure you achieve, in terms of planning a good programme, when you plan an evening’s cabaret?
Joanna’s Producer David Goldman approached me and asked if I would like to be involved. We chose a theme of love which made it very easy to find songs! You need a bit of comedy, a bit of pathos, and a bit of personal experience in there. Then you need to be able to link it well. One of my friends said to me the best ad lib is a prepared ad lib – so you don’t want to be “winging it” on the night so Joanna and I scripted it together so that we could link smoothly. It is not just an evening of nice songs but a journey that you take the audience on. The first cabaret was on a Wednesday night after two shows that day! We are currently running at the Delfont and we are booked to do the New Players Theatre. With a cabaret, once you have perfected it (with the very gifted Douglas White on piano) you can reproduce it almost anywhere!
I recently saw you in Resident Evil, do you prefer acting on stage in front of an audience, or filming on a set of a film? Why?
I do like variety so after two years of television I was ready to do live theatre again. But I love film. I love the intimacy of the camera coming so close to your face which enables you to express something with the eye rather than having to try to project to the back wall of the theatre. But I would like to – along the lines of Hugh Jackman – alternate between the mediums.
As a child, what type of music did you listen to?
All sorts. My Dad used to have all kinds of classical music playing at home but then he also used to sing hundreds of silly little ditties which I remember! Both my parents were great fans of the theatre. They would be quoting Shakespeare at the dinner table! So my musical background was very varied. I didn’t really get into music until relatively late. I remember being at high school and hearing someone sing a line from the latest pop tune and me not having a clue what it was! There was a band in Australia called Cold Chisel – very rock’n’roll but with fantastic lyrics. Jimmy Barnes was my hero in my mid teens.
Do you have any advice for those who want to become performers for the musical theatre?
This is advice that I received when I was starting out. First of all make sure that it is what you really want to do. It is not glamorous and it’s not easy – it’s very hard work. I know that there is nothing else that I can do so I am very happy to put the effort and the hours in. Also, get to know the medium – know what musical theatre is, know who the composers are, know the repertoire, listen to different singers, different styles. It’s tough, but remember all the auditions you go to and all the roles that you may be rejected for – it’s all character building. Know as well where you are in the pecking order. You need to pay homage to actors such as Edward Petherbridge in the WIW cast who’s biography is as large as the phone book. You have to respect and admire all that experience. Remember whose company you are in. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut! Learn from people who have been doing it for years.
Are you single?
Many thanks Martin for your time and lots of luck for the future.
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