Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Big Interview: Benjamin Yates, star of Tommy & Cats

Benjamin Yates is currently playing a Pinball Wizard in The Who's Tommy at the Blackpool Opera House. 

Based on the iconic 1969 double-album rock opera, Tommy is an exhilarating musical about hope, healing, and the human spirit. The cast also includes X Factor winner Joe McElderry, Blue's Antony Costa, Ashley J Russell, Will Barratt and Melanie Bright.

Benjamin most recently recreated the role of Mungojerrie in the first West End revival of Cats at the London Palladium, working alongside the original creative team including Trevor Nunn, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gillian Lynne. He previously played the role in the musical’s UK and European tours. 

Benjamin’s theatre credits also include: title role in Aladdin (Loughborough), ensemble in Jesus Christ Superstar (UK and Australian Arena Tour), Sonny in Grease (Ljubljana Festival) and title role in Jack and the Beanstalk (Loughborough). He is also currently supporting West End Bares, having posed for this year’s ‘Take Off’ promotional images.

I recently spoke to Benjamin about why he’s thrilled to be belting out a rock score in Tommy, what it was like to meet his idol whilst starring in Cats and what his nana thought of his West End Bares photoshoot, plus much more…

Had you seen Tommy before?
I had never even seen the film! I didn’t know much about the music although obviously I knew the classics like ‘Pinball Wizard’. I didn’t really know anything so when this came up I thought, ‘This will be interesting!’ I listened to the soundtrack and it’s the complete opposite to Cats, which I’ve just finished, and it’s quite nice to do something the complete opposite. Also, I didn’t sing a lot in Cats, so it’s great to go into a rock musical! Obviously now I know what’s going on, but at the beginning I had no idea what it was about!

[laughs] What do you think people can expect?
They will come away feeling like they’ve just watched a rock concert. There aren’t many scenes or much text, it’s pretty much completely sung through. Joe’s (McElderry) voice is beautiful, it’s effortless!

The cast of Tommy at the Blackpool Opera House

You’ve got an amazing cast! What has everyone been like to work with?
That’s what I love about these short little gigs, they get really good people. In between the UK and Australian tours of Jesus Christ Superstar I did Grease in Slovenia and couldn’t believe that I recognised so many people in the cast! There were quite a few people I had looked up to and it’s the same on this, it’s always a nice feeling when you can say “I loved you in this…” on the first day of rehearsals. The cast are lovely; it’s always nice when you’ve got a great group of people. Especially when it’s just a short run, you want to get to know everyone really quickly. Before you know it you’re on stage together and then it’s over and done with!

As you mentioned it’s completely different to Cats and also very different to doing Jesus Christ Superstar in arenas or Grease in Slovenia – do you like being kept on your toes? You definitely haven’t been typecast!
No I haven’t and I think that’s a good thing. When I did Cats I got nervous about being branded as a dancer… I was actually in the bottom set for dance at college! I could not dance! When all my friends found out I was doing Cats they were like, “Shut up, you’re lying!” I want to sing, I think of myself as a singer and I love musicals like Phantom where you really get to sing, getting to sing that epic score in Jesus Christ Superstar was a dream. It was great being able to do something completely different in Cats, but after eighteen months I could feel myself itching to sing again. So singing these massive rock songs in Tommy is perfect! I loved Cats, but the little singer in me was definitely going, ‘Can I sing now please…?’

Ben & the cast of Cats
…and wanting to join in with ‘Memory’!
[laughs] Absolutely! I think if you can be as versatile as possible you can do more.

Right let’s talk about Cats. When you were cast as Mungojerrie in the UK tour did you ever think you would end up recreating the show with Trevor Nunn, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gillian Lynne for a run at the London Palladium?

How were you all told?
I remember the day, I started in the January and we were supposed to finish in November. Cats is just the most epic show to be a part of – physically, mentally and emotionally – so by the time we got to November I was ready to rest my weary body [laughs]. We were in Canterbury and had this meeting. The producers came and told us they were taking the show to the Palladium and I remember me and Dawn (Williams), who was my Rumpleteazer, looked at each other with a mixed bag of emotions. We were like ‘Oh my god this is amazing, we can’t say no to this’. So we looked at each other and set ourselves up for more pain [laughs]. It was crazy because we knew it was going to be such a massive deal, the show hadn’t been in town for so many years. Then the rumours started about who was going to be Grizabella… it just made the whole experience even more special to be a part of. 

What was it like working on all the changes?
It felt like we were a part of the first-time cast, and you don’t get that experience very often. I think we were all very spoilt, we’re so lucky to be able to say we were a part of it and able to work with the original creative team. Gillian and Trevor were in there every single day.

Isn’t Gillian Lynne the most amazing person?!
She is the most fearless woman I’ve ever met in my life! She broke her ribs just before our press night. It was horrible, Trevor made the announcement over the tannoy after a preview that she’d fallen and wasn’t going to be able to make press night and was devastated. She came back in a couple of weeks later to give us notes and plonked herself down with her legs in the splits! Working with Gillian was so inspiring; she made the rehearsal room so incredible to be in.

"When you asked if I wanted to do an interview I was like ‘Why would anyone want to know about me?’"

You must have got very close to Dawn, your Rumpleteazer?
I say this to everyone, if it wasn’t for Dawn I don’t think I would have been able to do it. She is a pocket rocket. It doesn’t matter how tired you are or how many shows you’ve done that week, you can never go on stage feeling like you can’t be bothered. Every performer in the world will admit to having those days where they just have to get through it, but you can’t do that in Cats because otherwise you would look like a complete idiot… especially when you’re dancing with Dawn Williams who is giving life every single day! She whipped me into shape. 

And you were spoilt for Grizabellas!
I was the biggest fan of all of them! Both on tour and at the Palladium we were so spoilt! Sophia (Ragavelas) and Joanna (Ampil) were phenomenal on tour. Joanna is one of the most beautiful people onstage and offstage, she is the kindest, warmest person ever – so genuine! Sophia is one of my best mates, she’s so chilled out; we went on holiday together and she made me a new person! I came back and everyone was like, “What’s happened to Ben? What have you done to him?” She completely changed my outlook on life and made me a much more positive person. She’s great!

Nicole, Kerry, Joanna & Sophia
Then Nicole came in for the West End transfer…
Everyone is obviously a huge fan of Nicole (Scherzinger). She brought a different vibe to the show, she has this quality about her that makes her an absolute superstar. I mean, she really is a superstar! Even when she walks into a room you can feel the energy change. She got right in there and worked her backside off, she was a real leading lady. What was really nice was how complimentary she was to all of us, she was blown away by what we were doing. I remember her going up to Joseph (Poulton) who played Mr Mistoffelees and being like “Babe, I don’t know how you do that! You dance for like one hundred and twenty hours, I take my hat off to you!” She was flawless… her acting was different every night, she fully committed to it.

And finally along came Miss Kerry Ellis!
...and then I met my idol [laughs]! Before I even went to college I remember I went to see Wicked once and asked her to sign my ticket… and I had it framed in my bedroom! I made the mistake of telling my friend Joel (Morris, who played Carbucketty). Straight away he went and told Kerry – luckily she came up and was like, “Babe don’t worry, I think it’s really sweet.” [laughs] She was a lovely company member, we used to sit together in warm up and moan about how much pain we were in. Listening to her sing that song every night was just amazing. We were very lucky, very spoilt and very blessed to have all four Grizabellas!

Can we discuss these pictures which are flying around theatreland at the moment..?
[laughs] With no clothes on? I was approached by Darren Bell (photographer) and asked if I wanted to be involved. I had just finished Cats and hadn’t been to the gym so didn’t think anyone would want to see me without my clothes on [laughs]! I was doing it with people like Oliver Savile and Jason Winter who live in the gym and look incredible for it! So the photos are for West End Bares who raise money for MAD Trust which is a great cause. I’ve actually never been to West End Bares before, so said I would love to be involved with the promotional photos. It’s was a bit of fun! We had a great day. I’m not performing in it, but I am going to go and see it this year. 

What do your friends and family think?
My friends are fine, my nana was less impressed [laughs]. But obviously when I explained what it was for she was like, ‘Oh that’s ok, I guess they’re tasteful’. I mean, everything is covered!

Ben posing for West End Bares

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?
[gets out phone] I’m going to see what I’m actually listening to at the minute. Ok, I think the ultimate stagey one for me would be – I was only introduced to this recently and I can’t stop listening to it – ‘The Music and the Mirror’ from the original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line. It’s Cassie’s song and just gives you a bit of a kick up the backside. It’s so stagey it’s ridiculous! I would take ‘Santa Fe’ from Newsies because if I was on a desert island I would just be walking around belting it out, plus I’m obsessed with Jeremy Jordan – he’s like my voice crush. And finally, I went to New York last year and saw IF/THEN. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen! I would take ‘I Hate You’ which is when she finds out he’s been killed, that would be my angry emotional song. So they are my three!

Are there any shows you’re itching to do? If Newsies came over..?
Ah, I wouldn’t be able to sing it like Jeremy Jordan so I wouldn’t want to do it [laughs]. I would love to do The Book of Mormon; I love Les Mis and would give my right arm to be in that show. Like I said I love music and getting to sing good songs – I love anything that’s epic, like Jesus Christ Superstar was the perfect musical. Les Mis is the same, Miss Saigon is another one. 

Finally, theatre fans are so loyal and so dedicated, what’s it like to have that kind of support behind you?
It’s so surprising! Even when you asked if I wanted to do an interview I was like ‘Why would anyone want to know about me?’ I think it’s lovely, it’s really sweet. Everyone, especially all the fans of Cats, has been so lovely and so supportive. I think it’s amazing when people make you things because they’ve gone out of their way and taken time to make you something. I still get messages all the time about Cats, especially from people who saw us on European dates of the tour. It’s so sweet… I always think ‘Are you sure you mean me?’ I guess it’s lovely that people take the time to say nice things and enjoy what I do. That’s the biggest compliment really, isn’t it?

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Tommy runs at the Blackpool Opera House until 26th September 2015.
Please visit www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk for further information and tickets.

For information about West End Bares, visit www.madtrust.org.uk.

Photo Credit 3-5: Alessandro Pinna
Photo Credit 8: Darren Bell

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