Belinda Roberts, the Founder of WeDO Scotland was fortunate enough recently, thanks to WeDO member Peter Ferguson of PDF Productions,?to interview West End and Broadway star?John Owen-Jones.? ?John was at The Playhouse in Edinburgh playing the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary tour, a role that he has played nearly 1400 times.
He was an absolute delight to speak to. ?In many ways, he shares the WeDO Scotland ethos of sharing knowledge, ideas and experience as you will see from some of his replies below. ?An extremely charming, charismatic and down-to-earth person despite his tremendous success, she feels very honoured that he gave up his time to speak to her and he even offered her a chocolate!
John will be back in Edinburgh singing at the Usher Hall at PDF Productions?An Evening of Movies & Musicals at Christmas?on Saturday the 24th of November alongside Edinburgh’s own?Keith Jack, West End & Broadway star?Ruthie Henshall?and the cream of the UK’s musical talent. ? A percentage of ticket sales is going to WeDO Scotland’s nominated charity Aberlour Child Care Trust?and tickets can be bought ranging from ?22 to ?41.80 by CLICKING HERE.
We hope you enjoy reading Belinda’s interview as much as she did doing it.
What age were you when first appeared in a musical? ?
“I started in school doing school plays, I’d never really wanted to do it for a living I just fell into it. ?I enjoyed drama classes and I did a conceptual piece that we wrote in drama class and that was the first performance that we did. ?I played a policeman, I was 11.
A couple of years later I did A Christmas Carol and was given a song to do in it and like all Welsh people I thought I could sing! ?I had to play a drunk character and as I was walking off one night a bit of set was sticking out behind a curtain and I fell over. ?It brought the house down so I kept it in and had a bit of savvy to know that if they liked it then we’ll put it back in tomorrow night and they’d think it was meant to be there. ?That’s when I got the bug and realised that you can control an audience and get people to like something and enjoy it by doing something like that.
Then I joined a youth theatre, my first role there was in a musical but I had a non-singing role. ?I didn’t really think I could sing, I just sang along to stuff but then when I was doing a cabaret night and I was singing in the ensemble, the Director heard me and said “you’re going to have a solo” to which I said “no way!” ?I was 16 and had long hair because I was a rock fan. ?He said I’ve got the perfect song for you, you can duet with Gill. ?And I thought, Gill, the girl I really fancy! ?Not only did I have to sing the duet with her but I also had to kiss her at the end. ?So my first live solo singing was tough enough as it was and then I had to kiss this girl that I fancied and that’s when I decided I was going to do this for a living!
Before that I was going to be a butcher, my parents are butchers. ?My brother still owns the shop. ?I used to help out. ?I’d never go back to it … hands covered in blood, fingers cut with knives, it’s very hard work but I do know my way round a piece of meat now!”
What made you choose the drama school you went to in London?
“I got into several, RADA, Mountview and The?Central?School of Speech & Drama?but Central had the right vibe. ?RADA was the place to go but it wasn’t really my scene. ?I got on well with the people I met at Central, it had a more down-to-earth, working class vibe and also Judi Dench had been there as had Lawrence Olivier.
I lived with Judi Dench for 2 years because her daughter was in drama school with me in the same year and I ended up being a lodger with them. ?Then I ended up living in the house rent-free for a year on my own. ?I was basically the caretaker of the house, not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining, it was amazing! ?I’m still friends with Finty, Judi’s daugher, they live around the corner from where I live in Surrey. ?I haven’t seen Judi for a long time, she’s a busy woman.
So Central felt right and it also turned out to be the cheapest. ?At that time it cost a lot of money to go to drama school and my parents weren’t rich. ?Central had a vocational course so you go and train to be an actor because that’s what you want to do. ?Whereas, if you went to do a drama degree at University you’d get funding for that. ?We got a discretionary grant but they changed it half way through so I was then able to pay my way through drama school without any expense to my parents.
If that hadn’t happened then I wouldn’t be here, I probably wouldn’t have pursued it, I might have tried probably but I’ve gone down the traditional route. ?You do amateur dramatics, youth theatre, drama school, then you work in Rep, go to the West End and you get lead roles. ?I learnt my craft, a lot of kids that I see now (and this is going to sound extremely bitter and old of me!) but they really think that they’re owed a living. ?They come out of drama school, they get straight into a good role in the West End where they’re chewed up and spat out. ?Then they become bitter and they give the business up because they haven’t learnt & watched and seen how it works.
At the end of the day it’s a business, it’s a machine. ?Certain shows like this and Les Miserables and all the big musicals, they need cannon fodder as it were. ?They need people to come in, otherwise they can’t survive and kids are willing to go in and do it for very little money and they get great experience, then they think they’ve made it. ?They don’t really know.
I played Valjean in Les Miserables and I went to Broadway, I came back from Broadway and I didn’t work for 2 years. ?There was no work around. You’d think after doing something like that, you’d come home to a job. ?A lot of kids don’t get that, they get their first job and they think they own the world.”
Did that affect your confidence?
“There was a point after that when it did. ?I was auditioning but the problem was that it was the recession, shows weren’t opening; shows were closing; people weren’t leaving shows so there was nothing around. ?I thought maybe it was time to give it up, I’ve got as far as I’m going to get. ?I’ve moved between Phantom and Valjean for the last 10 years because people have asked me to. ?When I did Phantom for the first time having done Valjean, people asked me where I was going to go next and I didn’t know because I’d kind of got there by then. ?Unless new roles are written, I’m not really going to be satisfied.
It’s a bit like Michael Ball, he had a time in the wilderness, there wasn’t anything for him to do, he’d reached a certain level. ?Alfie Boe is a good example, what’s he going to do if he comes into the West End? ?He’d have to do a brand new show but nobody writes them any more. ?It’s a strange business to be in, it’s precarious but it’s interesting and it’s fun. ?It’s hard work too though, look at me, I’m only 22!”
What was your first big break?
“Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, I was understudy, aged 25. ?That role had always been on my bucket list, I knew when I left drama school that there were a couple of things that I wanted to do and I’ve achieved all of them.
Now I’m thinking about what I’m going to do next … I’ve worked on Broadway, worked with Sondheim, worked at National, played Valjean, played the Phantom, done a cast recording, released my own albums … in musical theatre I’ve pretty much done everything but I still feel that there’s more to achieve and more to do.
Valjean happened because the guy I was understudying had a motorcycle accident and I happened to go on that night for the first time. ?By coincidence, my parents were visiting me that weekend so they got to see my very first show whilst I was like a rabbit in the headlights wondering what was going on! ?The biggest part I’d ever played and in the West End.
After a few weeks, Cameron Mackintosh came in and saw me and offered me the job. ?Since then I haven’t really looked back. ?I’ve worked for Cameron almost exclusively for the last 15 years. ?He’s a very good boss, he’s been very good to me. ?And as I said, where do you go when you’ve played Phantom and Valjean?
After playing Valjean for the first time, because I love what I do for work and I don’t really care about the money and the fame, I went to work at Richmond Park open air theatre. ?I told my agent I wanted to audition there and he said there’s nothing there for you, all the leads are gone. ? I told him I just wanted to work there and do something in the ensemble. ?He called them up and they of course asked why I would want to go and work for them for ?300 per week when I’d just finished playing Valjean.
I wanted to do a job that I enjoyed and it was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever done, doing a bit of Shakespeare, a smaller part in a musical, working in the summer outdoors in Regent’s Park, it was brilliant. ?Also, the pressure was off. ?There’s a lot of pressure for you to perform all the time and it’s exhausting.”
How do you prepare for going on stage?
“I don’t need to any more, I’ve done it so often. ?I only get nervous if I’m underprepared. ?I was lucky enough to do the 25th Anniversary concert for Les Miserables and for Phantom and they’re big events but I wasn’t nervous at all. ?I knew what I was doing. ?I felt like I belonged there. ?I’d worked hard enough for it and I just went out and enjoyed it. ?That’s what’s key.
I’m doing the Usher Hall concert in Edinburgh in November and I’m doing my own concert in Swansea and it’s my name on the poster. ?That’ll be nerve-wracking because I’ll rehearse as much as I can, but, for that kind of show you need to have an audience to bounce off. ?It’ll be pretty scary because it’s my name!”
How different did you find Broadway compared with the West End?
“I was supposed to be there for a year but it was 3 months in the end. ?My family packed up everything and came with me, my wife gave up her job, my kids gave up their school places. ?We were ready to move, they were paying for my accommodation in New York and I had an American agent. I was in the process of applying for my green card and was thinking that this was going to be an amazing opportunity whilst the kids are young enough to move.
I started rehearsals on the Monday and on the Sunday they told us that the show was closing. ?I called my wife straight away and said don’t rent the house out (she was joining me a week later). ?She called the guy who was renting the house for us and he said had someone who wanted to take it there and then, but, as I said at the time, if we’d rented it out, given that I’d only 2 months left in that contract, we’ve had had no house, no car, no job, no income! ?But you take a risk, it would have been better if they’d warned me obviously but it’s just one of those things.
It’s a precarious business, even Cameron Mackintosh himself admits that it’s incredibly rare for a show to run longer than 2 years and he has these massive blockbusters that run and run and run. ?In times gone by, a show like Oklahoma for example was considered a big success if it ran for a year, it was unprecedented. ?You can’t expect anything long-term really.”
How do you keep your performances fresh when you’ve done them so often?
“It’s to do with the fact that it’s live, you never know what’s going to happen. ?The Musical Director who’s conducting could give it a different tempo, the actors you bounce off, the audience reaction or lack of it. ?All those things change what you do. ?Things can go wrong technically so it’s always new every time.”
What’s been the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on stage?
“On this tour, I dislocated my knee at the end of the show so I was off for 3 days. ?It still hurts a lot now, I did it about 3 weeks ago but I should have been resting it for 6 weeks.
Also, I was set on fire at one point during the show. ?They fired the pyrotechnics at the wrong time and I was standing over one and it went right up my cloak & everything stank of smoke but you just carry on! ?That kind of thing is pretty rare though.
I’m always tempted to stop the show when people are texting or filming during the show. ?You see the blue glow on someone’s face or if they’re filming; ?cover the red light up, I don’t want to know! ?It’s so distracting if someone’s taking flash photos especially when we’re walking down the steps in the show. ?People can do what they want but that’s the only thing that would make me stop a show and I’ve been so tempted sometimes but you can’t.”
This is your last performance of Phantom today?
“Yes, my last hurrah! ?I went back before because I was asked to and you can’t say no to Cameron Mackintosh. ?I came back from Les Miserables on Broadway and after 2 days out of work, the 25th Anniversary tour of Les Mis came up, Cameron said I want you to do it. ?I said I didn’t want to do it unless it was brand new and not a re-jigged version of the original and he assured me it was new.
It was a phenomenal experience being involved in discussing why things were done originally and how we could change them and make them more interesting. ?We did that with Les Mis and now we’ve done it with Phantom. ?Cameron asked me if I wanted to go back and do Phantom in London for a year, then maybe come and do the tour and I agreed. ?I’ve kind of run out of steam now though!”
How do you cope with being away from home so much?
“I don’t. ?My children are 10 and 9 and it’s difficult. ?I don’t cope well with it all. ?I don’t think I’d be that keen on doing a long tour again but who knows, never say never, maybe I’ll go back to Phantom one day. ?I’m kind of all ‘phantom-ed’ out at the moment, I’m going to rest my mask for a while!”
What’s your favourite song in Phantom?
“Wishing You Were Somewhere Here Again, is probably the best song.”
Are other members of your family musical?
“Not really no, my brother sings and has played in bands and my sister was in choirs but they’ve not really pursued it. ?My Dad’s completely tone deaf, awful!
When I worked in the butchers shop, I used to sing along to the radio when I was through the back making sausages or faggots. ?My Dad used to come through and tell me off saying that the customers were complaining. ?Then my Mum would come out and say “Don’t be daft, it’s not him they’re complaining about, it’s you!”
What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to break into musical theatre?
“Learn your craft, get as much experience of live performance as you can in every genre because you’ll use everything.
I’m reading a book at the moment ‘Born Standing Up’ by ?Steve Martin and it’s interesting reading his route into it. ?Johnny Carson told him once that you use everything you’ve ever learnt and that’s a very important thing to know. ?Even how to tell a joke in a pub will come in handy at some point!
That’s another thing about having gone to drama school at Central, their philosophy is that they take from everything. ?So you do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and it all informs your route as an actor. ?There’s not one classical training; ?you learn how to mimic a penguin, how to write a speech, you learn how to do clowning, you learn kung fu, you learn ballet, tap, poetry reading , you get a little bit of everything (although I conveniently lost my tap shoes after one lesson!)
If you look at all of the reality TV shows that there are now, there are some really talented people out there, but, they haven’t got a clue. ?If they succeed, they end up being thrown into it. I’ve seen some of them turning up with a whole entourage with people to cater to their every whim.
Those of us who haven’t come through that route turn up with our own suit bags and our own lunch! ?What many of them don’t realise is that the cost of all of these people is coming out of their royalties. ?If they didn’t do that, they’d have more money! ?People think it’s part of the business but actually none of that’s important, it’s all about that one moment when you’re on stage.”
Have your children shown any interest in musical theatre?
“My daughter’s very keen. ?My son seems to have a predeliction for it, he’s naturally into it, but I don’t think he wants to do it. ?My daughter definitely wants to do it though. ?I said to my Dad that I’d give myself 5 years and if it didn’t work out then I’d get out of it.
I didn’t have anything to fall back on, just my butchery expertise! ?My daughter has rather sensibly said that she would love to be a musical therapist, one of her best friends is registered disabled & she loves dealing with kids. ?Who knows where that will take her but it’s a sensible way to do it.
I wouldn’t discourage her, but, there are more women than men in this business so it’s much harder for women and there are less roles out there. ?I’d definitely tell her not to become a ballet dancer, that’s such a hard way to make a living. ?It’s like being a professional football player, one thing goes wrong and that’s your career gone.
My parents were very open and encouraging with me and I want to do the same with mine, it’s important that they do what they want. ?As long as my kids end up doing what they want to do, whether it’s driving a lorry, working in a pub or being President of the USA, as long as they enjoy it then I’m happy to support them. ?My parents did that for me too.”
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