Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Really Useful People - Adam Ellis

So what is “Really Useful People” all about? Simply put, it’s a new feature where we get to find out about people connected to Really Useful and/or the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Our first subject is performer Adam Ellis. Adam graduated from Laine Theatre Arts in 2003 and has been in “Barnum”, “Do I Hear A Waltz” and “The Pirates Of Penzance” over the last few years. Most notably Adam has appeared in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Starlight Express” both in Germany and on the UK tour where he holds the distinction of being the last person to perform the lead role of “Rusty”.

To begin I asked Adam if he could remember the first musical he ever saw, and if this influenced him in pursuing a career in theatre?
Yep, it was Tommy on tour, can’t remember much about it to be honest, but the first west end musical I saw was Miss Saigon at Drury Lane and watching this definitely was the decider that I wanted to be an actor. Just a great cast, beautiful story and Music.

Are there any other shows that had an influence?
When I was auditioning for Colleges here in London I watched Starlight Express and I honestly remember thinking playing Rusty would be my dream part.

What do you recall of the first role you ever played? (And school plays count!)
Well my stage debut was as the all singing all dancing Donkey in a school production of Meredith the Camel!!!!! I received great critical acclaim for that. Professionally my first job was Tom Thumb in Barnum. I left College a few weeks early to start rehearsals, it was all very exciting and new and just remember thinking “I’m actually doing this now as a living” Great Job but it didn’t make me want to join the circus.

In the world of theatre who has inspired you ?
Performers would have to include Peter Joback, Daniel Evans, Jenna Russel, Ruthie Henshall, Idena Menzel, Joanna Riding, Bernadette Peters, Adam Pascal, but there are so many other great performers I’ve seen who have truly moved me and made me realise why I love this profession.

If you could play any role in any Andrew Lloyd Webber musical which one would you choose?
Well getting the chance to play Rusty in Starlight Express was a dream role for me and one I’d always wanted to play.

Who would you like as your co-star and why?
I loved working with Jane Horn who played Pearl with me, we had such a great time and she is so talented. I’d love to work with Bernadette Peters in something, maybe she could play my mum.

You have performed as “Rusty” in “Starlight Express” many times, what did you enjoy most about the experience?
My Rusty Journey started as an understudy, I did get on quite a lot but actually getting asked to be Rusty in the Final UK cast was amazing. Singing “Starlight Express” every night was amazing and the last night was really emotional.

What were the major differences between playing “Starlight Express” in Germany and the UK?
I never played Rusty in Germany but being involved in the German production is far more about the spectacle, it’s HUGE!! It was really daunting when I first got there having never skated, and it was also very strange singing in German. The UK tour for me was far more about telling the story of the show and introducing the characters in it. However the audiences seemed to love the 3D goggles and races and I honestly didn’t miss racing one little bit, The show is hard enough anyway.

If someone was going to see “Starlight Express” in Bochum where should they go to eat?
Well there is a street there called Kortum St which is a long pedestrian street full of Café’s and restaurants. My faves (if they are still there - because I was there in 2005) were Salsilitos, and The Living Room.

What show tune most sums you up?
“Why Should I Wake Up?” from” Cabaret”, it’s good to dream.

Outside the world of theatre who inspires you and why?
Cliché, but true, my parents. They have been so supportive of everything I’ve done.

If you weren’t a performer What do you think you would be?
A door to door salesman.

What makes you really happy and why?
Sunshine, being with my mates on holiday, and a bottle of Corona. Sometimes being in this business we get so wrapped up in what’s coming next we forget to enjoy what we are doing now.

What makes you really angry and why?
People walking slowly in London taking up the entire pavement drives me mad. Mad I tell you!!!

Shoes or Skates?
Shoes are more practical but skates are much quicker!

Spring or Autumn?
Spring every time because Summer is on the way

Summer or Scarlet?
Haha, of the Strallen Variety?? Scarlet is great but Summer is a really great friend of mine so of course I’d pick her, and she’s a great Maria in Sound of Music!

Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
Hollywood as an A list Actor. Well someone has to be!

Do you know the way to San Jose?
No, but google maps are very informative

And finally can you share a handy household hint with us?
A happy working song really does help get those chores done.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Reviewing The Situation

Small pleasures? Well some things are more of a guilty pleasure. Cream cakes, Marks and Spencer’s crisps, facebook and of course “I’d Do Anything” all definitely fall into that camp. What often amuses me is how much my facebook friends seem to obsess over the television search for “Nancy”. They are joining groups announcing their support of a particular contestant and their status often bemoans that weeks performances. A couple of weeks ago one of them even said “First Boris, now Sarah – what are the public thinking?” You’ve got to love it! So when it came to write a little something about the show I thought it only fair to canvass the opinions of these facebook friends.

My old friend Debra Jackson, a soon to be forty regional business manager (OK so I know she will kill me for that but she’s got a few months on me so I am going to milk it!) told me she absolutely adores and loathes the programme. I think we all know what she means! Anyway she asked if she could comment and be hideously bitchy. Well why not, after all that’s half of the fun.

Bitchy isn’t the half of it! The comments of the people who aren’t watching it were downright nasty. “Beat the Stylist’s” John Scott merely asked “Does anyone watch it?” but box office manager, Berni Green said “sorry i dont watch cruise liner singers and ugly people, my TV wont allow it.” Meeow! Then there was performer Marc Joseph who commented “I refuse to watch it- makes my stomach turn, but then maybe i'm bitter coz I always saw myself playing that part - !!” Hmmmm

But of course there are some of us who are watching the show and loving it. The last two years have seen major talents discovered in Connie Fisher and Lee Mead (not to mention the burgeoning television career of the lord himself) so now the contestants really have an understanding of what’s at stake and how a win could change their lives forever. This makes for an entertaining show that’s just perfect for a Saturday night and also does a good job in getting people to come to the theatre who otherwise may not have done.

Anyway enough of the back ground , it’’s time to dish! I think we will begin proceedings with Deb – what does she think?
“I love the Irish bird - the stage-school/beauty school reject one (Jessie) dances like a puppet but far less fake than the rest. MY BIG Fave
Oldest contestant (Jodie) , ex- weight watcher of the year - would be great as an Elvis impersonator, good lip-curls - seriously over-acts, cries on demand.Niamh - whippet-like bird, looks nice in a dress, looks like she needs a good feed; can u imagine her matching Bill Sykes, she looks so young, Rachel? - if this is the black-haired one, with the crooked mouth, then I like her sincerity, but she reeks of desperation, never a good smell.”

Poor Jodie! Elvis impersonator???? The other feedback I had was very much at odds with Deb’s comments. Former “Chicago” cast member A.J. O’Neill is very much a Jodie fan
“It should be Jodie. She just IS nancy. Sam should be shot quick before she gets the job and they realise that she's a pop singer who is too young and inexperienced and just cause she's hot and has the support of an entire island she'lll never be in the bottom two. Gah” Hmmmm the bitchiness keeps coming back!

Box Office clerk Nic Myers joins the praise for Jodie….
“Best choice look wise and she is a strong singer, but her belt is not great at the top....Sam is a friend so (I am a ) little biased, but she is more suited to pop, or rocky musical, and she is a strong talent, but far to young.I thought at the start Rachel was best choice but she’s not done anything startling the last few weeks, and I think she slipped (out of) the public favour”

Current bookies favourite, Jessie is also not immune to A.J’s criticism.
“(She) can't do the accent or move. lovely voice but no. Way too early in her career, though she will have one. and probably be great. WHY OH WHY are Niamh, Sam and Jessie still in it after Sarah (Lark) was kicked out? Ridiculous. Admittedly she's not very Nancy either but you can't FAULT her performances. Sigh ….

Box office manager, Alan Ferris, too is firmly in the Jodie fan club.
“I believe that she will come across as a strong woman, with honest working class charm and heart. I can believe in her sexual attraction to a Sykes type and her compassion for Oliver. She seems to wear her heart on her sleeve which is an absolute necessity for Nancy. She has the laughter and the life.
Jessie has spent far to much time practicing being a singer with her hairbrush and bedroom mirror - it shows in her stance and that awful grimace she makes while singing. I see her abilities but not her heart.
The others (are) far too young or as in Rachel's case too practiced. So for a true reading of Bart's Nancy it has to be Jodie. Plus they can then say we found a singer and made her a West End Star. Most of the others were or would have been anyway! Jodie is a find! “

But these are the opinions of people who work in the theatre industry (and I must admit I agree with them) . However, I did get a late response from Tony Davies. Now Tony is a chiropodist – not show-biz at all!
“Jodie is the Nancy for me as she has that warmth of character that makes her the surrogate mum for all of those urchins; she's a woman of the world too.Samantha is a little too sweet to be wholesome for the role - she'd be great as Sandie in “Grease”. Rachel could be Nancy, yet she has a hardness of look that doesn't do her justice - she needs to smile more and soften her facial expression a little Jessie is not Nancy because she is too clumsy on stage, cannot dance and curls her mouth in that way that the panel were critical of Craig of in 'Any Dream Will Do', yet none of them have picked up on this. My money's on Jodie!”

So the bookies favourite, Jessie, seems to be scoring low with the facebook fans – with the exception of Debra. I guess this all goes to show that it’s anyone’s game. In just over a week the winner will be crowned and we will know (now that Niamh has been eliminated) which of the remaining four contestants is that lucky winner.

In conclusion? I guess I will give the last word to Debra who says…..
“I say Barrymore for Nancy, better singer, better looking, looks fab in a dress x”

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Why Can't The Past Just Die?

A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away……well actually just a short way across the west end…..I set foot in a theatre box office for the first time. Before I say anything else I should probably clarify that I was VERY young. In fact I was just eighteen. It wasn’t the first time I had worked in a theatre either, as I had worked at the Palladium as an attendant for the previous three school summer holidays, however I had left school and moved to London full time. The time was 1987 and the place was Her Majesty’s Theatre on the Haymarket. Oh the glamour of it all!!! Oh the naivety of youth!

As anyone who actually works in a theatre would realise, glamour is usually in short supply for those of us who work front of house and behind the scenes. But this was 1987 and working at Her Majesty’s was never less than exciting. The previous year had seen “The Phantom Of The Opera” open to rave reviews, and the beginning of a phenomenon the like of which I doubt we will ever see again. Almost every day the news papers would run a story connected to the show. Wogan would have cast members appear on his TV chat show. Memorably, even “Eastenders’” Dirty Den got in the act when he said “I’m going to see the phantom of the opera – and I’m taking ‘er to the theatre”. Poor Angie! Well Den may be dead and gone (twice) but the Phantom is still going strong, and back in 1987 I stepped into this world of endless masquerades and opera ghosts shortly before its first birthday.

So there I am young and naïve (as we have already established) and starting my first day in a job which I still do to this day. Of course, to a novice like me, I expected to walk in, sit on the box office window, and start selling tickets immediately. That is usually how it works but there was one big draw back! There were NO tickets. For almost a whole year! The show was well and truly sold out. Not sold out like now where you can often go in and get single seats etc. but totally sold out. Actually we did hold back some restricted views until the morning of the show but that was because if we didn’t there may have been a riot. Most mornings there were between forty and sixty people queuing for them and quite a number would have been there overnight. Now that’s dedication!

Anyway, after being introduced to the box office manager – bizarrely he was from Texas yet had an impeccable English accent – I was taken to head office. For a month! The head office of Stoll Moss Theatres (as we then were) was in Leicester Square and called Cranbourne Mansions. The whole building reeked of theatre (by which I mean atmosphere not the smell of the greasepaint!) and there was probably nowhere else that felt quite so theatrical without actually being a theatre. I had no clue why I was there but was to discover that when it came to selling tickets this was the hub of the operation.

The only way you could get tickets was by postal applications. Boy, were there a lot of those. I began my career in a room with fourteen sacks of mail. My first job was just opening them up and throwing them in plastic containers. Next they were sorted into “Weekends”, “Weeknights” and “Wednesday matinees”. Then they were attacked with a marker pen as all the most important criteria were highlighted. Next they made their way to the important and uberstressed Judy, Amanda and Steve (a.k.a. the “crumbly muffins” – lord knows why!) who were in charge of allocating the seats. In due course some of the applicants received letters offering them tickets and giving them a deadline to pay for them by. The largest proportion of the letters sadly ended up getting “N/A” letters – as in nothing available. So this was my lot for the next month. Chief letter opener!

One month in and everything changed. Finally I was in the box office and just in time for the shows first birthday. So ok, life wasn’t that glamorous generally but there were exceptions and the first birthday was one of them. The party was very swish and was held at the art deco Roof Gardens in Kensington. Champagne flowed, flamingos strutted and Sarah Brightman shimmied as a wonderful time was had by all.

Only a week or so later Michael Crawford left the show to prepare for the Broadway production. The queues for “returns” had begun a week before and some people had been camped out all that time. Now that really is close to insanity! I remember one lady called Geraldine who had seen the show over a hundred times in the first year alone by queuing for returns. Of course we didn’t know her as Geraldine but as Dolly, because she had, allegedly, built a life size papier mache mannequin of Michael Crawford. You couldn’t make it up could you? I was lucky enough to be in the audience for Michael’s last night and the atmosphere was incredible. However, sacriligious as it may sound I much preferred Crawford’s successor in the role of opera ghost. Dave Willets joined the cast at the same time as a fresh faced Michael Ball became Raoul. Ball’s predecessor Steve Barton was to join Crawford and Brightman in New York. Returning to the role of Christine was the lovely Claire Moore. Claire was much loved by those of us in the box office, you couldn’t meet anyone friendlier or more down to earth. On one occasion I remember her even taking over the window for a while (whilst wearing her dressing gown!) so I could pop to the loo! Without the titian wig the audience really didn’t have a clue! We had a great relationship with all the cast but particularly Rosemary Ashe the original Carlotta who was very camp and even wrote her cheques in pink ink! I should also mention the late Mary Millar who was so effective in her role as the original Madame Giry and a truly lovely woman.

So what of our work in the box office? Well, I was there another two years and it was pretty relentless. Quite often the back log of post could be over forty sacks. We were usually absolutely sold out a year in advance. People would even buy up all the single seats just for a chance to see this show that had so much captured the public’s imagination. I doubt the West End had ever seen anything like it before and the industry has now changed so much that I doubt it would be possible for a show to have quite that level of success. It truly was astonishing. In these days of call centres with large numbers of staff it’s amazing to think what we achieved with just a dozen people in two small offices. What seems particularly absurd is that all of this was achieved without a computer in sight. The tools of the trade back then were a pile of manual plans, a handful of brightly coloured crayons and of course those brightly coloured tickets that really did look like theatre tickets!

So the decades have passed, the way we do our jobs has changed, and indeed the landscape of the whole west end has changed. However one of the few constants is “The Phantom Of The Opera” which continues to thrill audiences at Her Majesty’s Theatre and long may it do so!