We caught up with London’s Phantom, John Owen-Jones, to find out how he feels about the character he’s played more times than any other West End actor… watch out for more to come from John, as in the second installment we’ll be putting a few of your most popular questions to him!
You’ve played the role more times than any other actor in the West End, how would you describe your personal relationship with the Phantom?
It has been a great show to be involved in, I remember when I was at drama school someone asked me what I wanted to do when I left and I said I wanted to play two roles – Jean Valjean (in Les Miserables) and The Phantom. Now I have done both and they are both very close to my heart. If I was asked which is my favourite and I would have to say, it is like trying to choose which of your children you like best. I happen to actually have two children – and both of them were born during my original run in Phantom, so the show is very special to me.
Has your portrayal of the Phantom changed over the years?
The way I play the role has changed as I’ve grown as an actor. I am much more confident as a performer now and more willing to take risks. I was terrified when I first took the role as it is so iconic – and people have a very definite view about how they think it should be played. There is such a fervent fan base and established love of the show, and initially I was terrified of getting it wrong. But then I realised that was madness, and this time round I am much more willing to take risks. I think now it is more a case of instead of me fitting the role, the role now fits me. I think that is the difference!
Do you remember the first time you performed as the Phantom?
If you could go back to it, what advice would you give yourself now? I can remember getting a standing ovation and being completely overwhelmed by that. But I do think I took it a little bit too seriously to begin with and I was very aware of the responsibility of it all. My advice to myself now would be not to take it too seriously!
What is your favourite part of the show?
My favourite part of the show musically is probably the Managers’ scene. The post-modern element is so clever, the way they are all singing about opera but are actually talking about the show itself. Performance-wise probably the Final Lair is my favourite – you can really let rip with that and take it as far as you like! The hardest bit is Music of the Night, by far, because it is the only male solo in the show so of course it carries a weight – and with the legacy of Crawford et all, you have to live up to all that, as well as it being the first time you see the Phantom. You have to launch straight into it and really hit the ground running.
If you could ask the original creative team any question about the show – who would you ask and what would it be?
I have been lucky enough to actually work with some of the creative team, like Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne. Gillian was here just the other day, she often she comes in to tighten things up. I’ve never really had to ask either of them anything – they TELL you exactly how it should be done – and they are absolutely right.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue a career in musical theatre?
I never consciously made a decision to pursue a career in musical theatre, I just sort of fell into it. I wanted to be an actor. I always loved singing and I thought everybody could sing – being Welsh it is part of the culture! So I started going to see Amateur Dramatics, and I joined my local group after doing some school plays. The first play I did was West Side Story but in a non-singing role. Acting – discovering and committing to the character – was the thing which really turned me on. It was much harder to me than singing, so I challenged myself to do that. I never even thought about musical theatre, but when I went to drama school to train as an actor someone said well of course if you can sing then you should do musicals because it is another string to your bow, and you need all the weapons you can get in this business. So pretty much ever since then, I have worked in musicals in the West End and Broadway. If you can work in ANY way as an actor, then you have to do it.
Where would you like to be in five years time?
In five years time I’d like to be on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here… no, not really! That would be my worst nightmare. I don’t know, I’m so busy at the moment with Phantom and having done Les Misérables 25th anniversary I just don’t get the time to think about things like that. But I’d like a recording career, I’d like to tour, to do film and TV – I’d like to do a bit of everything. I’m just happy to be working, and if I’m still working in 5 years time I’ll still be happy.
Do you prefer singing with a mask on or without it?
Here’s a rather intellectual answer to that – as an actor, I always wear a mask! No, obviously it’s easier to sing without a mask on, but when I played Valjean [in Les Misérables] I had a beard on, people didn’t see the real me. I think it presents a challenge, singing in the mask – you have to do a lot more ‘over the top’ communicating with the audience, you can’t be subtle because they can only see half your face, so you use the body more and it can be more physically demanding. But it doesn’t really make a difference when producing a sound – I tend to sing out the side of my mouth anyway, and as it happens it’s the side that isn’t covered by the mask. If you look at a lot of musical theatre actors they tend to sing out of the side of their mouth, I don’t know why that is. I know I do it!
What’s your dream role?
My dream role is the one that hasn’t been written yet – the one that’s written for me, that’s my dream if I’m ever lucky enough to have that happen. But I wouldn’t mind having a crack at a lot of other roles in musical theatre – George in Sunday in the Park with George, the Phantom in Love Never Dies, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, The Man of La Mancha, Billy Flynn in Chicago, now that would be a bit of fun. As I said, I’m really happy just to work – because I just love acting, I love being on stage, I love performing.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about actors?
That we’re lazy! I would say that we’re classed in much the same way as students, we don’t get out of bed in the morning and we only do a couple of hours work a night. In fact, that’s what I thought they were all like before I joined the business, it was one of the reasons why I became an actor, I didn’t really want to work for a living! But it turned out we actually have to work really hard… as an example, I’ve got a show tonight and I won’t finish till 11, I was doing a photoshoot this morning at 10, now I’m doing an interview. I’ve had a 12-hour day, and I don’t get to see my family either. So the biggest misconception is probably that people think we’re lazy when in fact it’s actually a really demanding job, it’s anti-social, the hours are long, and it’s also very lonely sometimes. When you work with a company it’s great but the role of The Phantom for example – I don’t mix with the company because I’m on my own most of the time, so it can be very difficult. I think people think it’s an easy life, but it can be difficult, and of course, it’s very precarious. It’s feast or famine.
Who would make you starstruck if you met them?
I don’t really get starstruck if I’m honest. I have idols. If Gene Kelly walked in here right now I’d probably faint – for two reasons, one because he’s dead! And two, because I used to watch all his films when I was a kid. And Tom Jones – Tom Jones is one of my big heroes. If I ever got to meet him, let alone work with him, that’s when my heart would be thumping. But mostly I can cope with it, because at the end of the day we’re all the same, we’re all just out to get through life. Some people have done it with great style – like Tom! I’ve also been very lucky to work with incredible people, like Sondheim and Andrew, but I’ve never got starstruck because I made a choice to be here. I’ve worked at it, and I feel like I deserve to be here. Also I realized about 10 years ago when I turned (whispers…) 30 – that everyone’s just making it up as they go along. As soon as you realize that it humbles everybody so that’s why I don’t get starstruck.
More to come from John next week.