Monday, 19 October 2015

Big Interview: Ben Forster

Ben Forster is starring as Buddy in Elf The Musical at the Dominion Theatre between 24th October 2015 and 2nd January 2016. 

Ben returns to the show having played Buddy during Elf’s runs in Plymouth and Dublin last year. Based on the beloved 2003 New Line Cinema hit starring Will Ferrell, Elf The Musical will also star Kimberley Walsh as Jovie.

After completing his run in Elf, Ben will take over as the title character in the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre from 1st February 2016.

Ben recently reprised his performance as Brad in a limited West End run of The Rocky Horror Show at the Playhouse, starring alongside the show’s creator Richard O'Brien. A special gala performance was broadcast to cinemas around the world.

In 2012 Ben entered Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ITV reality series ‘Superstar’ and won the title role in the UK arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. He later reprised his performance for the production’s Australian tour and for a second tour of the UK.

Ben’s theatre credits also include: El Haj in La Cava (West End), Doody in Grease (West End/ international tour), lead vocalist in Thriller Live (West End/international tour), Brad in The Rocky Horror Show (40th anniversary UK tour) and Magaldi in Evita (West End). Ben has also produced two acoustic albums and is currently working on original material for a third album.

I recently spoke to Ben during a break from Elf rehearsals about feeling festive, falling in love with Buddy and why he’s thrilled to be starring opposite Kimberley Walsh. We also discussed why reprising his performance in The Rocky Horror Show was a mad experience, how it feels to be taking over as one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre and the incredible support he receives from fans…

The last few months have been crazy for you with three West End shows lined up at the same time! Have you had the chance to take it in or has it all been a bit of a blur?
It has been amazing! As an actor I couldn’t ask for more. It’s so amazing to have stuff lined up like that, I’m incredibly lucky! I was doing the music rehearsals for Phantom, then the next week I was rehearsing for Rocky Horror, then we did Rocky Horror, I finished it on the Saturday and I started rehearsals for Elf on the Monday. It has been absolutely manic, but so rewarding! In an ideal world this is exactly what I would want to happen.

So let’s discuss Elf – having done the show last Christmas was it an easy yes when you were asked to reprise your performance in the West End?
Oh my goodness it was a very easy yes! Buddy has such a beautiful personality and is such a lovely character so he’s a gift of a role. In Elf The Musical he is onstage the whole time so it’s full on, he’s like a bullet – the speed of light the whole way through. I like that, I’m a workaholic so if I’m in a theatre I just want to be on. When I played Agustin Magaldi in Evita last year it drove me totally wild, I was like ‘Oh my god I just want to be onstage!’ but I was just kind of sitting around, chatting to people backstage. So for me playing Buddy is like a complete dream.

Ben in Elf The Musical

How do you think Elf translates on stage?
I love it! I think the music is amazing and the book is amazing. I’m really proud of the production so I couldn’t be happier! It’s just Christmas wrapped up, the music really captures that and it’s just so beautiful. 

What do you think people who know and love the film can expect?
I think the musical still has the same heartbeat as the movie. It has the same essence and that amazingly fun element. You’ll definitely get the Christmas spirit! Everything is highlighted by this amazing score – the music is really something people should check out. We’ve just made the UK cast recording which I don’t think is released until the 24th (October), but the Broadway recording is online and the music is undeniably brilliant! The lyrics and the melodies and the big band 1950s Broadway sound is just lovely. I think it’s the perfect musical and it’s a shame it can’t run all year round because I would be addicted to it! You do some shows where you say, “Oh yes it’s really nice and everyone should come and see it” but you have to smoke some things over [laughs], but with Elf I can’t tell you how much I genuinely love it! I’m not just bigging it up because this is my gig at the moment, I really do think it’s such a fantastic piece!

Ben with Kimberley Walsh
Are you feeling ridiculously Christmassy in mid-October?
You just can’t help it! Last year was worse because I knew I was doing it from June so was listening to all the music and trying to learn and familiarise myself with it. I was literally in Christmas mode the whole summer! It was awful! Thank goodness this year my Christmas started a little bit later [laughs]. But it’s good to be in the Christmas spirit! 

What is your leading lady, Miss Kimberley Walsh, like to work with?
She’s lovely! Me and Kimberley have actually been friends for years! We’ve always said that it would be lovely to work together one day, and then Elf came up and I told her it was a really good show. We both have the same manager so it came together – it’s the perfect opportunity for us to work together. I love her! She’s such a nice, grounded, down to earth person and is super talented. I think she’ll really surprise people – people don’t realise her level of commitment over the last few years and her level of determination. It has really translated to her becoming an amazing West End leading actress!

You’ve just finished playing Brad in Rocky Horror’s West End return. Not only were you starring alongside Richard O'Brien, but also a whole bunch of Rocky Horror legends! What was it like to step out on stage and experience the crazy response from fans?
There’s nothing like it! I’ve got to be honest, for the fifteen years that I’ve been performing I’ve never experienced anything like Rocky Horror. Even when I did the 40th anniversary tour it wasn’t as magical as the run we just did in the West End. We had Richard there plus David Bedella and Haley (Flaherty) and all these amazing people. Then on the gala night we had Stephen Fry and Anthony Head and even more amazing people. The whole thing added this extra excitement and you could feel it. 

How did the audiences react?
When the curtain opened on the first night me and Hayley were sitting in the car and as soon as the music started we could hear this roar, and you don’t usually get that in the theatre. You get that kind of roar in a stadium. When I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar in arenas we had that kind of roar and excitement and you can feel their energy, but it’s very rare to get that in a normal theatre. Rocky Horror always gets an incredible response; it’s an amazing show and completely stands alone as a unique piece of theatre. I was totally thrilled to be a part of it again! It was such a highlight!

Ben in The Rocky Horror Show

After Elf you are casually taking on one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre, The Phantom of the Opera. Has The Phantom always been one of your dream roles?
Ahh! I’ll be totally honest with you – Phantom was the first West End show I ever saw. I went to see it with my mum and dad when I was ten and I came out of the theatre and was like, ‘That is what I want to do, I want to be The Phantom! I want to be a singer and I want to be in shows’. It’s really iconic for my parents because they totally remember me saying that, and I remember saying it too. 

Has it felt like something you’ve been building up to?
I’ve been in London for so long working in this crazy game of show businesses and there have been so many moments when I’ve thought, ‘I’ll never get to do that. I don’t even know how to get to the level to be considered for that part’. I have worked really hard for the last fifteen years and everything that happened over the past few years with Jesus Christ Superstar has highlighted me and allowed me to develop and grow. I’ve learnt so much over the last three years! It has been an amazing journey for me. I didn’t think I would be able to play The Phantom of the Opera until I was at least another five years older, but I’m good friends with Ramin (Karimloo) and he started as The Phantom when he was twenty-nine! I’m thirty-four now. I just feel like ‘Oh my god… I’m going to play The Phantom of the Opera… I’m old’ [laughs]!

Celinde Schoenmaker in Phantom
[laughs] Not at all!
I still feel eighteen in my head! I feel like one of the kids, still a little bit silly and a little bit stupid [laughs]. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m going to be The Phantom of the Opera. I’m really excited! I’m looking forward to bringing my vision forward and I think Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and Cameron (Mackintosh) are quite excited about that too. 

Are you nervous?
I’m nervous because it’s so iconic, it’s kind of the same as playing Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar – you draw on so many comparisons when you take on a role like that. I was so nervous about doing Jesus Christ Superstar because people were going to compare me to people they’d seen play Jesus in the past. It’s the same with Buddy! People are coming to the theatre hoping to see someone like Will Ferrell, but you can’t go onstage and do an impression of somebody else – you can’t try to mimic people. You’ve just got to do what you believe is right and honest as an actor. With Phantom I’ve got to portray what I think Erik would feel like. I’m excited to discover more about him. I’ve done the music rehearsals already, but I’m looking forward to getting onstage properly. I had a meet and greet with Celinde (Schoenmaker, Christine) and Nadim (Naaman, Raoul), but I haven’t met anyone else yet. It’s going to be like getting to know a new family, I can’t wait!

Right, time for a stagey question! I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Well I would take ‘Gethsemane’ because it used to be one of my favourite songs anyway, but I feel like it marked a big turning point in my life and if I got to the point on a desert island where I didn’t think I could survive any more was going to give up, I would put it on and go ‘life is worth living, you can achieve anything’. Standing up and doing ‘Gethsemane’ at the O2 was one of the most amazing, incredible moments of my life. 

I would take… I would take… hmmmm… I think I would take ‘Bring Him Home’ because it’s one of my favourite songs. I just completely love it!

Is Jean Valjean a role you would like to play one day?
Yes I would love to, of course! Who wouldn’t?! 

For my last one I would probably take ‘The Music of the Night’ because I’ve got a new-found respect for that song. I’ve obviously always thought it’s a beautiful and amazingly written song, but I had never realised how hard it is to sing! Until you dissect it and try to sing it in one go you don’t realise that it’s a really hard song! You’ve got to have so much control and be able to really hold back and give at certain moments. So I would take ‘The Music of the Night’ so that I could practise it [laughs]. 

Ben in Jesus Christ Superstar

Finally, you have so much dedicated support behind you from fans who will come and see you in absolutely anything you do. What’s it like to have that kind of support behind you?
It is amazing that people even care! I still find it weird – Twitter and social media and stuff is amazing. I’ve got a lot of respect for the people who follow me, they are so loyal! People wait at the stage door ten/fifteen minutes in the rain, in the cold and in the wind whilst I’m just inside packing my bag, finishing my cup of tea. I try and say hi to everyone and give them a special moment because they deserve that. They’ve travelled and spent money, and it’s amazing if someone wants to meet me and wants my autograph! I will always give people the time; I think that translates to them and I think that’s why people have been so loyal to me. 

I do try to always reply to everyone on Twitter and people know that I’m listening to what they’re saying. It’s amazing that people have that level of commitment to support me and I really do feel the love! I love being on Twitter, it’s a really brilliant obsession for me. I’m not on Instagram and I’m not really on Facebook, but I always put time into Twitter. It’s like a little community! I feel like I kind of know everyone’s faces and all the regular people. 

People fly from Australia – I have a whole Australian group of fans who watched Jesus Christ Superstar and came over to see me in Elf last year in Dublin and saw me again in Jesus Christ Superstar in London, they came to Evita and have already booked to see Elf again. These people are travelling from the other side of the world and that’s pretty amazing!

It’s such an amazing feeling for me because we’re not rockstars – I’m not Robbie Williams or Olly Murs. I’m just an actor in theatre so to get that level of support is a wonderful thing. It’s really amazing!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Elf The Musical opens at the Dominion Theatre on Thursday 5th November 2015 (previews from 24th October) and runs for a strictly limited 10-week season until 2nd January 2016. Please visit for further information and tickets.

Ben takes over as The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre from Monday 1st February 2016. 

Photo Credit 2: Alastair Muir 
Photo Credit 3: Matt Crockett

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