Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Big Interview: Dean John-Wilson, starring in Songs For A New World

Dean John-Wilson is currently starring as Man 1 in Adam Lenson’s production of Songs For A New World by Jason Robert Brown at the St James Theatre.

Written when Jason Robert Brown was only 25, Songs for a New World broke the mould of the ‘showstopper’ Broadway musical. The show debuted off-Broadway in 1995 and has since been seen in hundreds of productions around the world. It received its UK premiere in 2001 at the Bridewell Theatre.

Weaving characters, locations and time periods together in one extraordinary evening, this production also stars Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple/Sister Act), Jenna Russell (Urinetown/Merrily We Roll Along) and Damian Humbley (Forbidden Broadway/Merrily We Roll Along).

Most recently Dean starred as Aquino in the UK premiere of Here Lies Love at the National Theatre. His theatre credits also include: understudy Prewitt and Maggio in From Here To Eternity (Shaftesbury), Zack in Bare (Union Theatre) and understudy Pablo and TJ in Sister Act The Musical (UK tour). He also reached the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2008.

I recently spoke to Dean about why this production of Songs For A New World is going to surprise people, the beauty of Jason Robert Brown’s music, his path into the theatre world, why Here Lies Love was a dream job and his upcoming concert with Scott Alan, plus much more…

How familiar were you previously with Songs For A New World?
I think Songs For A New World has been part of every young, tenor’s life since drama school – everybody knows the American cast album. To be honest, I was aware of it but had never actually sung any of the material. Well I did one of the group numbers back in college when I was sixteen, but never sung any of the solos; I had just listened to them. Now I’m really going back to the text and getting thoroughly involved in it. It’s quite fulfilling actually, I’ve suddenly seen a completely different side to my perception of it from when I was younger.

What can people expect from this new production?
Well I think people are going to be in for a little bit of a surprise because it’s the twentieth anniversary and when Songs For A New World is done professionally across the world nobody has ever done it as a piece – like as a musical. It’s normally set with four mics and four singers who get up and act through the songs, but our director Adam Lenson has put a different take on it where there’s now a through-line so everyone has their own individual characters and journey. We’re doing it for the first time ever as a musical – there’s movement, there’s set and everything that a musical has.

Dean in rehearsals with Cynthia Erivo

Jason Robert Brown’s score is so incredible, the way he pinpoints human emotion is so unique!
Exactly! I’m trying to stay true to all his notes and note values, I’m trying to respect all those. In the recording Ty Taylor, who plays the role that I’m playing, ad-libs and interprets it in a way that is not strictly the dots. I’m trying to stick to what Jason has written, with a kind of Dean John-Wilson stamp on it. 

What do you think is Jason Robert Brown’s secret?
The beauty of Jason Robert Brown’s music, especially with this piece, is that it’s brilliant for actors. It’s all about the lyrics and the rhythms – he writes rhythmically perfect for thought changes and thought processes. There are so many lyrics, all the songs are like six or seven minutes long, if ever I’m struggling I go back to the libretto and just look at the text which really helps. The other day I was struggling to learn ‘King of the World’ which is such a massive, long song. I was going over the bridge and thinking, ‘Why can’t I get this rhythm?!’ Then I picked up the libretto and thought, ‘What am I actually saying?’ I read his lyrics literally as a monologue in sentences, really focussing on the punctuation and the thought processes and it really helped to make the penny drop. I was like, ‘Oh, I see what he’s trying to say there!’ It’s awesome, the way he writes really helps out.

Dean in rehearsals
You’ve got an insane cast! It must be so nice to be working alongside Cynthia before she heads off to Broadway, and then you’ve got Jenna and Damien who are both at the top of their game. What has everyone been like to work with?
We’ve just got such a lovely bunch. The other three have done amazing, incredible things but there aren’t any divas amongst any of the them [laughs], we all get on like a house on fire. There are only four of us, so we’re all quite close and are spending a lot of time with each other. We help each other if someone’s not quite getting something – it’s been a real collaboration. We’ve been very supportive of all the solo work. It’s really nice to be part of such a close-knit family. It’s a real joy, it’s been really fun.

You finished Here Lies Love at the National a few months ago. The buzz surrounding the show was incredible – I’ve never seen anything like it!
About two or three months before it came to London I heard about it through a friend and knew it was in New York at the time, so I emailed my agent and said ‘I know I want to be seen for this show because it sounds perfect for me’. With Fatboy Slim’s music and David Byrne’s lyrics, everything just sounded really groovy and I thought it was perfect for my casting. I was seen for it, and then I went to New York for my birthday and actually got the chance to see it off-Broadway at the Public Theater. I got to see the character I was up for. I knew it was perfect but knew I was going to have to go through eight or nine auditions… I was hopeful because I really, really wanted it. I watched my character the whole way through the piece and was just like ‘yes’ [laughs]. 

The whole atmosphere was amazing – so unique…
As soon as you get in that space and you’ve got that music and that buzz surrounding you it’s just incredible! The music makes you want to get up and dance. God was on my side and I ended up getting it! It was incredible and I had an amazing time. The Filipino people were such nice people – obviously there were people in the cast from all over the world! I literally got on with everyone, I know that’s probably a cliché thing to say about all West End shows, but it was true. We did like literally everything together! In our spare time we’d go out and get food, have some Chinese together and go to the cinema, it was great. 

Do you enjoy the creative process when you get to be part of something brand new from the start, like From Here To Eternity?
That’s the thing – I mean I’ve been very, very fortunate and very, very lucky these past few years because pretty much everything I’ve done has been an original cast type-thing. It does give you much more scope and opportunity to invest as an actor. It’s not like a takeover where the director says “stand in this spot like the last person”. Like you say, you can be more creative and invent your own little things. It’s so much more enjoyable and so much more fulfilling. I hope and pray that I get the chance to do something like From Here To Eternity again in the future. To be honest, because Songs For A New World has never been staged like this I feel like… well we are doing it for the first time. It’s weird because when you come and see it you would never expect the through-line that we’ve done. People aren’t going to expect the characters that we’ve chosen [laughs]. We’ve gone quite deep and it all makes sense – it’s really fluid.

Dean in rehearsals with Damian Humbley and Jenna Russell

Looking ahead, are you the kind of person who says “I really want to play that role” or do you like to wait and see what pops up and comes your way?
Erm, I mean, there are a couple of things I would love to tackle musical-wise. I know that Aladdin’s coming to town; I’ve seen a lot of clips of it on Broadway and would love to play that role. It would be incredible! He’s got some amazing tunes. There’s a few things, it’s just about if and when I’m given the opportunity. There are a lot of people out there, so all I can do is go into an audition and be as prepared as possible and give it my best shot. 

You’re doing a solo concert with Scott Alan later in the year, how did that come about?
Me and Scott get on like a house on fire, we’re really close friends. I’ve done bits and pieces at his concerts and when I went over to New York I stayed with him for a bit he kind of said, “Look, we need to do a concert!” and I said, “Ok… yeah… I’d love to!” Then it was like I’m going to be on one of his albums as a bonus track, and then he emailed me with some dates for doing a one man show. I replied like, “Just me and you?” he said “Yeah” and I said “That would be awesome!” So he sent me over a load of tracks, both male and female, and what versions he thinks I should do. We’re putting some different spins on it and just having fun. We’re doing it at the Hippodrome on 7th September, it’s going to be an awesome evening! I can’t wait!

Dean in Here Lies Love with Natalie Mendoza
Right, 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?
[laughs] Musical theatre songs..? Right ok, I would take ‘Go The Distance’ (from Hercules) just because I’ve always loved singing it – the Michael Bolton version. I think when I went to Mountview it was one of the first contemporary musical theatre songs I ever sung. What else would I take? You know what… I would probably take, since doing it now, ‘King Of The World’ (from Songs For A New World). What other musical theatre songs do I like? I’m going to go with ‘What Is It About Her?’ from The Wild Party! 

It must be overwhelming sometimes to have so much dedicated support from theatre fans?
The fanbase has kind of come out the blue these last couple of years. I’m from a place called Middlesbrough. I didn’t really fall upon musical theatre, but when I started out at first I did academic stuff which I wasn’t that great at, I didn’t get that many qualifications and whatnot. I decided to do something that played on my strengths which was obviously performing. I went to a local drama school, college-thing for two years and still wasn’t sure what the next step was. I literally didn’t know anything about London and drama schools. It wasn’t until my second year of college when people started to leave and were auditioning for London when my friend – who’s in Phantom at the moment and Ross Hunter (The Book of Mormon) who I was also close friends with – shared some light on drama school. I was like “oh ok” and then I auditioned in the hope of getting in, but I knew I couldn’t afford forty grand. 

Did you look into scholarships?
Well sure enough I got offered scholarships at ArtsEd and Mountview which are two amazing schools. I decided to go to Mountview but was still a bit oblivious about what you do after training [laughs] – I wasn’t even thinking about the support you might get! I just knew that what I was doing felt right so I kind of just went with it. I got to the end of Mountview and found out agents come to your showcase and then you hope to get yourself an agent. Sure enough I got a lot of interest which was amazing, I was a bit overwhelmed by that, and I got a great agent. Then I started auditioning and getting jobs. My first few jobs were ensemble or ensemble and swing roles – I don’t regret doing them whatsoever because I think it’s made me the actor and performer I am today, I loved doing that. But because of that, I’m only just starting to kind of get recognised for what I do now which is weird. It’s surreal because I never once thought that would happen! The support is incredible and I try and give as much love and support back as I can. I think you should treat people the way you want to be treated; it’s just so nice to be a part of it all!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Songs For A New World opens at the St James Theatre on Friday 24th July (previews from 22nd July) and runs until Saturday 8th August 2015. Please visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk for further information and tickets.

Read our interviews with Cynthia Erivo and Damian Humbley

Photo Credit 2-4: Darren Bell
Photo Credit 5: Tristram Kenton

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