Thursday, 9 April 2015

Big Interview: Gary Watson, starring as Nick Massi in Jersey Boys

Gary Watson recently joined the West End production of Jersey Boys at the Piccadilly Theatre as Nick Massi. 

Jersey Boys has been seen by over 19 million people worldwide and is firmly established as one of the West End's longest running and most popular shows. It tells the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and their rise to stardom from the wrong side of the tracks.

In 2013 Gary finished as a runner-up in West End Frame’s Understudy of the Year Award for covering the role of Zach in A Chorus Line (London Palladium).

His West End credits also include: Rudolpho in Matilda the Musical (Cambridge Theatre/RSC), Marius in Les Miserables (Queen's Theatre), Evita (Adelphi Theatre) and Saturday Night Fever (Apollo Victoria Theatre). 

Gary’s further credits include: Norman in Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (Stratford East), G.K Chesterton in Finding Neverland (Leicester Curve), Claude in Hair (Slovenia), Sky in Mamma Mia! (International Tour) and Rum Tum Tugger in Cats (National Tour).

He also recently appeared in the television adaptation of Victoria Wood’s That Day We Sang (BBC2), Kenneth Branagh’s film of Cinderella (Walt Disney Productions) and Kiss Me, Kate for the 2014 proms, the performance was later televised on BBC2 on Christmas Day.

I recently spoke to Gary about joining Jersey Boys, taking over BBC2’s Christmas schedule last year and why understudying Zach in A Chorus Line was one of the most terrifying things he has ever done… 

When was the first time you saw Jersey Boys?
I saw the show very early on at the Prince Edward, I think it was during its first year and I hadn’t seen it since. I loved the show, it’s a great show for guys and I have always had my eye on it so feel very lucky to have got this role!

Was Nick the character you always had your eye on?
Yes, I was really drawn to him. He’s got some great comic moments; he’s this dry and sort of quirky character so I’ve always really liked him and when we started auditioning I was like ‘this fits me really well’. I’m really enjoying playing him so far. I think it all starts with the script because that’s your first point of reference. Your agent sends through the material and, I’ve been saying it from day one, Jersey Boys is so well written that the first time you read it out loud you know how you’re going to say it. With certain scripts for shows you have to work quite hard with the material to make it natural or whatever, but with Jersey Boys the text is so brilliantly concise and funny and sad and witty and powerful. It leaps off the page so it’s just a joy to perform.

How did it feeling going into rehearsals for such an established show?
It’s an interesting one because obviously with the four guys three of them stayed on so I was like the new boy in town. It was scary! For me it was one of the added pressures, especially because there is so much to learn. The choreography is so intricate and the four part harmonies are so detailed. So on top of that I was joining these three guys who have been doing it for a while. Michael (Watson) is quite new but I think Jon (Boydon) has done it for five years and Edd (Post) has been doing it for about three years and they are all absolutely slick and know exactly what they’re doing – they’re wonderful at what they do. I was approaching opening night and just about finding my feet knowing that I was going to have to get up there and be as tight and slick as them! 

Michael Watson in Jersey Boys
Did they welcome you in?
Definitely, I think it’s nice for them too. Jon, who is in his fifth year, was like “I love fresh approaches to the text because it changes the dynamic of the group” so I think it’s really positive for everybody. They’re great guys and luckily we all get along, there’s plenty of banter.

What is the atmosphere like backstage here at the Piccadilly? 
It’s really good fun! There were eight of us in total joining the show, but it’s quite a small onstage cast anyway so about half of us are new. It’s actually gone – touch wood – very, very smoothly! We’ve integrated really well. Sometimes these things aren’t as smooth [laughs], but the atmosphere has been great and already we’re having a lot of fun. The show moves so quickly that you sort of don’t have a lot of time for chatting – you’re on, off, on, off doing costume changes and so on. I was just chatting to one of the girls and she said she has twenty-five changes in a show [laughs]! How is that possible? She has to change her wigs and everything. It’s just insane! 

Can you even begin to put your finger on the secret to the success of Jersey Boys? Usually when I ask this question people tell me it’s because Jersey Boys is nothing like your stereotypical jukebox musical…
Yes, I think it’s because it’s so rooted in the truth. The whole project started off with them wanting to make a Mamma Mia with Four Seasons songs, but Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio sat around with the writers who said something like “we want to tell your story because it’s so much more interesting than anything we can make up”. It’s such a good underdog story – these four lads end up making it big. It has got a lot of heart, but also deals with these really gritty themes. Obviously the main star of the show is the music and all of these songs are still current because they’re always being used in adverts or being covered by people – they’re still fresh. The music is just incredible and the script is literally ‘bang, bang, bang, bang’ so by the time we get to the end of the show the audience are inevitably up on their feet because they’ve just gone on this rocket of a ride. Obviously I watched it a few times just before I went into it, and it’s just a joy to watch.

I think it’s because people know the music but know very little about the story – it’s pretty eye opening!
Exactly, it’s madness! It all actually happened; it really is quite bonkers when you think about it. It’s set in another time in another world. I love the time period, The Four Seasons were gods. The journey they go on is amazing. But then my character gives it all up because it all got too much for him.

How much did you research Nick Massi? It’s quite hard, there’s not much out there.
That’s right, there’s not a lot at all and the reason is because he died before they made the show. I think they had just announced the workshop or were about to start putting it together or something… so he knew it was going to happen, but unfortunately he passed away. With Frankie and Bob’s help they’ve obviously put his side of things into the story, but there’s not much out there about him. The height of their success was when they released ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like A Man’ and after that Nick only stayed with the group for three more years. Having done all that ground work he then left! He just had to get out. The thing is it’s a tale that rings true now – I’ve never really wanted to be famous. One of the main reasons is because 95% of people who achieve true fame get caught up in various things that we read about in the press every day. That’s exactly what happened to The Four Seasons, they all went through it in different ways from cheating and alcohol and drugs. Nick had enough, wanted out and went back to being a tailor. I can connect to him on that level because I love what I do but I wouldn’t want that kind of exposure or intrusiveness. What I like about theatre is that you put your hood up at the end of the show, get on the tube and nobody knows who you are… but for a couple of hours every day you can pretend to be a pop star – it’s great [laughs].

What are your favourite parts of the show at the moment?
I love it when we hit the big three – ‘Sherry’, ‘Walk Like A Man’ and ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’. That’s when the audience really start kicking off. We can play the crowd like they’re a real crowd which is something I’ve never been able to do before in a musical. I’m really enjoying it, usually you have to ignore the audience. So that’s a highlight. Obviously I also love Nick’s portion of the story – autumn, or fall I should say, which is the first half of act two which he narrates. That’s when you get to hear more about him and he has his big kick off moments which are so much fun to do – they are so brilliantly written. He’s a bit OCD and I’m a bit OCD too… it’s funny because I do actually really connect with him [laughs]. The more and more I learn about him I go ‘I’m a bit like that too’. I understand why Tommy gets on his nerves so much, I know people like Tommy [laughs] – there are so many in this business! 

So you had your eye on Nick for a while, are you someone who has dream roles or do you prefer to wait and see what comes up?
I’m very open minded, I’ve been very fortunate to have played quite a few of the roles people dream of doing when they are at college. What’s nice now is just exploring different sides of the business and different types of musicals. I’ve done more legit shows like Les Mis and Evita and stuff, but then I’ve also done the more dance-y ones like A Chorus Line. I literally just go with the flow. Last year was probably the first year I haven’t been locked into a big contract, but it was fantastic because I did the short run of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be at Stratford East and then That Day We Sang…

“…in my mind I am still a twenty year old guy fresh out of college.”

That was going to be my next question! How did you find doing a television job?
[laughs] I led you right in there! I hadn’t done a lot of TV, in fact I don’t really want to because I just love musical theatre and it’s all I really want to do. But That Day We Sang had an incredible creative team and an incredible cast. Imelda Stanton is genius and Michael Ball is wonderful – I’ve toured with him before and he’s just an icon. Then I also did Kiss Me, Kate at the Albert Hall. It was for the Proms but was then televised.

On Christmas day!
I know! It was lovely! What an experience.

You were all over Christmas TV – Kiss Me, Kate on Christmas Day and That Day We Sang on Boxing Day!
I’ve never been on TV before and then I was all over your BBC2 Christmas schedule [laughs]. It was great because I’m from the North East and my family are very supportive and come and see me in stuff, but my extended family and friends have never really seen me do much. The thing is, no matter how much theatre you do and no matter how respected you are, if you’re on the telly then you’ve made it… even if it’s just for five seconds – that means more than doing a year in Les Mis [laughs]. It was lovely for all of them to be able to see me do some stuff. 

When did you find out you were going into Jersey Boys?
Just before Christmas I found out I had got Jersey Boys and I was so happy to be going back into the West End with one of my dream shows. I’m thirty now and it gets tricky. Everyone goes through it, it’s that time when you’re too old to play Marius, but too young to play Javert. It’s a weird in between time and it’s hard for guys and really hard for girls, but Jersey Boys is one show which is perfect for guys in their mid-thirties. They want the weight of the characters. It has come along at a really brilliant time. 

What is it that draws you to certain roles now?
I had a weird turning point when I did Matilda. I played Rudolpho and suddenly discovered that I love doing characters. Up until that point I had often played the young romantic lead – Sky and Marius and things like that. I had a lovely time but when I did Rudolpho it opened my eyes to doing different things like making the audience laugh. It made me want to step into more character roles. Nick is a strong, real character who is complex. He’s introvert and doesn’t say anything but then explodes. I really enjoy these types of roles because over the year you can change it up and have fun with it. There is a lot of text which means there is more you can change up and explore, but if you’re in a sung through show like Les Mis or Cats you’re bound by that tempo and the way you have to sing it. This is more flexible, we have more freedom to keep it fresh.

We have to talk about one of my favourite shows, A Chorus Line. It was an extremely special production, how does it feel now to look back?
It was the most extraordinary experience. The rehearsals were like nothing I’ve ever experienced, every day we were doing an hour conditioning boot camp type thing and then we would dance all day. Sometimes I felt like I was in a film with people’s feet bleeding and people crying – it was like being in the real life Chorus Line documentary. It was so strange! The show was incredible, it only lasted eight months but obviously it was a massive house. I’m just so glad I was part of it. It’s a very niche show, a lot of your ‘average public’ were taken by surprise because there was no set and the costumes were so basic. Obviously for anybody in the business A Chorus Line is like a love letter. It was just incredible.

The West End cast of A Chorus Line

And then you were nominated for West End Frame’s Understudy of the Year Award for understudying Zach!
I know – thank you very much, that was great! I loved that! I really enjoyed playing my role in the line and then covering Zach was a different challenge. John (Partridge) left early so I got to do it for the last couple of weeks. I think playing Zach is the hardest thing I have ever done. It was so unusual being sat at the back of an auditorium on your own, but surrounded by the public, trying to stay focused for two hours without any break. It was extraordinary, but I loved it because it was such a challenge and took a lot of work. It actually gives me a bit of a headache just thinking about it [laughs]. 

Do you remember going on for the first time?
It was a Saturday night because John was presenting the lottery so I knew it was coming. The day before I was in the line standing there doing my role, but also listening to what John was saying and checking in my head that I knew all the words and marks and so on – as you do. I literally thought I was going to collapse, the blood drained out of my face and I thought I was going to be sick. I was having this anxiety attack but was onstage so couldn’t leave [laughs]. I came offstage during one of the little gaps we had and just lay down and thought ‘I don’t think I’m going to be able to do it’. I woke up the next day and just felt ill because of the pressure. No matter how old you get and how much you do and how experienced you are, in my mind I am still a twenty year old guy fresh out of college. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it!

How did it go?
[laughs] It was great! It went really, really well and fortunately everybody was happy with it. It obviously got easier and I was very lucky to do the last couple of weeks. I think part of the reason I was so terrified was because I had never really understudied before, apart from when I did my very first job. It’s a show I will treasure for ever and ever. 

Finally, I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three are you going to take and why?
Oh god! The thing is I don’t actually listen to much musical theatre. Here we go… let me think… well one of my all-time favourites, because I got to watch it a lot, was my friend Scarlett Strallen doing ‘The Music and the Mirror’ in A Chorus Line. It’s one of my all-time favourite songs and obviously I love the dance that goes with it. That means a lot to me, there was something amazing about sitting there and watching her do it. I would have to take ‘Quiet’ from Matilda – it’s one of the most beautiful songs. Matilda is my favourite show in the whole world and I could probably take every song, but I remember watching ‘Quiet’ for the first time at the RSC studios in Clapham. This tiny little girl stood up and sang it and I literally… I don’t think I’ve ever been more in awe of a performance… I was broken hearted but at the same time exhilarated. Oh my god – it is absolutely stunning! What would be my last one?

You’ve got something up-tempo; you’ve got something reflective…
I’ve got a few and I can’t decide which one I love listening to the most. This is really stagey, but one of the only albums I listen to is the Bernadette Peters Live album that she did. I’m a big fan so it would probably have to be something from that… I know – one of my other favourite shows in the world is Gypsy so I will probably – this is so stagey, I feel a bit ill [laughs] – have to go with ‘Some People’ because it really does it for me. It’s kind of like the song I wish I could sing [laughs], do you know what I mean? Maybe I need to do one of those West End Recast concerts so I can sing ‘Some People’… there you go [laughs].

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Jersey Boys is booking at the Piccadilly Theatre until Sunday 25th October 2015. 
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 2: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
Photo Credit 3: Manuel Harlan

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