Friday, 30 September 2016

Big Interview: Billy Cullum

Billy Cullum is starring as Mark Cohen in the 20th anniversary production of Rent.

Jonathan Larson’s musical will launch a UK tour on 21st October at Theatr Clwyd. The tour includes a Christmas season at the St James Theatre where the show has broken box office records.

Billy recently received huge acclaim for understudying the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. For his performance as Jesus, Billy was nominated for West End Frame's 2016 Understudy of the Year Award.

His credits also include: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (Theatre Royal Drury Lane), Matilda (Cambridge Theatre), Merrily We Roll Along (Theatre Clwyd), Spring Awakening (UK tour), Godspell (Union Theatre), Hair (Ljubljana Festival), Ten Plagues (Royal Court) and Pieces Of String (Waterloo East Theatre). Billy is also a singer/songwriter and is currently working on his debut album.

I recently sat down with Billy during a break from rehearsals to discuss why Mark is a dream role, his whirlwind experience in Jesus Christ Superstar and his desert island musical theatre songs…

Rent means a lot to so many people, is it a show you’ve always wanted to do?
Yes, and Mark is actually the part I’ve always wanted to play. I think the film came out when I was in secondary school and I remember talking about it with a couple of my friends. The first musical I ever saw was Cats and I loved it, but Rent and Little Shop Of Horrors were the two shows that really got me into musical theatre. I watched the film and said “I really want to play Mark”. I was more into pop music and rock rather than musical theatre, so I guess that’s where my love for the show came from because it’s a different style. Rent made me realise that musical theatre can be cool… although I definitely wasn’t cool [laughs].

So fast forward to 2016 and you’re playing Mark in the 20th anniversary production!
Well… it’s funny because I hadn’t really listened to the show properly for a while, and when we came in for the first day of rehearsals I was like ‘S**t, Mark has a lot to do!’ I didn’t realise that it was such a big role [laughs]. It’s exciting, but also daunting because I care for the show and a lot of other people do. I want to put a lot of work into it and put my own stamp on it. 

Is it hard not to think about all the people who have played the role before you?
What’s good is that I haven’t become that person who’s obsessed with it. I love the show, but I wouldn’t say I know it inside out. I’m coming into it with a fresh take. I want to put myself into Mark; I’ve only seen it onstage once, the Rent Remixed production. Mark has always been the character that annoys me most, and I said that in my audition. I don’t know what it is, I’m trying to find out. He’s come into this bohemian life where most of the characters are so liberated, whereas he’s come from a more middleclass upbringing and doesn’t naturally fit into this world. 

What scenes/songs/moments have been standing out for you in rehearsals so far?
On the first day of rehearsals we started with ‘Seasons Of Love’ and the room was electric. Everybody involved has a love for this show. You can’t not love this show because it stands for so much and is still so relevant. It is always going to be relevant. I also love singing ‘No Day But Today’ every day, I mean… those lyrics are unbelievably powerful.

What has everyone been like to work with?
We’ve all absolutely hit it off straight away. They’re all so ridiculously talented and right for their parts, you can feel already that people are going to bring something new and exciting to their roles. The ensemble do a hell of a lot of work; the dancing is full on. Lee Proud’s choreography is worth the ticket price alone. We’ve been working on ‘Tango Maureen’ and I think it’s going to be very different to what it has been like before. Bruce (Guthrie, director) has been to New York and was hanging out with Jonathan Larson’s people. He’s got first-hand knowledge and keeps reminding us in so many moments that “this is not a musical, this is real-life”. 

Tell me about what the last few months have been like for you… some show called Jesus Christ Superstar was a very big deal!
[laughs] It has been mental! The whole thing was mental! I had been auditioning for ensemble and cover Jesus, and I really didn’t know the show that well. In the audition room they gave me ‘Gethsemane’ and told me to do my thing with it, I was just casually like “sure ok” [laughs] and started jamming away in the audition room. Then I found out I had been offered cover Jesus; going from playing an Oompa Loompa to understudying Jesus was a big deal. [jokingly] It’s quite a big step, isn’t it?! It had been quite a while since I’d had text to play with. I had done Godspell and Spring Awakening quite early on in my career and they were meaty parts, but I hadn’t had anything like that to grip onto for a while. It was Pancake Day when the offer for understudy Jesus came through; I was eating pancakes and was like ‘woaah this is scary but amazing’. 

They told me I had two dates where I would be going on. As we got closer to rehearsals I thought I’d better start looking over it all. I watched a version of the show and went “Oh my goodness… it’s really high!” I called my agent and said, “I can’t do it! I’m not going to be able to do it!” When we went into rehearsals it was completely different to what I thought it was going to be, it was like this amazing artistic music gig type performance piece. Rehearsals were exciting because everything about it felt so fresh, it felt like we were creating a new show. The voices weren’t your normal musical theatre voices, which is what was really exciting and quite comforting for me. When we opened the reaction was absolutely incredible! I loved it and didn’t want it to end.

What was it like going on as Jesus for the first time?
On the day of the first time I went on I was having a massage in Covent Garden [laughs], I came out feeling all relaxed and was just going to stroll to the theatre and pick up some juice along the way… but then I looked at my phone and had like ten missed calls. Immediately I went [whispers] ‘Oh no, this is it!’ I called them back and our company manager told me I was on as Jesus. I don’t really know how I felt, we had to get to the theatre for 6.30pm and I found out I was going on just after 5.30pm. I’m really glad that I just got thrown on; there’s not much you can do when it’s so last minute. If my first show was one of the scheduled dates I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much.

I literally can’t remember my first show! I remember people asking me if I was enjoying myself, but I don’t know if the part is enjoyable because you’re just working to this massive twenty-minute death. Stepping onto the cross for the crucifixion was insane… it was like having a breakdown onstage… and then the cast started throwing glitter on me as they were whipping me… it was really traumatic! I saw how Declan (Bennett, who Billy understudied) reacted to it in rehearsals and it wasn’t until I did it that I properly understood how he felt. I don’t know how Declan did it every night, he’s incredible. After each performance I did as Jesus I would just get into the shower and cry because it’s so much to take!

How does it feel to now be taking on a leading role of your own?
It’s really weird! I wasn’t really looking for it… it just happened! I was just happy and loving life and then this audition came up. I knew it was something I could do, but I never get downhearted if I don’t get something. Usually when I do what I think is one of the best auditions I’ve ever done I don’t get a recall [laughs], whereas when I think I’ve done a terrible audition I end up getting the job! 

I’m sending you to a desert island and you can only take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
Oh my gosh… right… ok. I think ‘Totally F****d’ from Spring Awakening is one of my favourites, and I mean it would be very apt [laughs]. I wasn’t actually in that number when I did the show, but I remember watching all my friends having an amazing time. It’s such a brilliant number. You could have fun with that on a desert island!

Next I would take ‘I’m Still Hurting’ from The Last Five Years because it’s a tear jerker, isn’t it? Sometimes you need to play sad music to get the emotion out. I would take Anna Kendrick’s recording because I just love her. Everyone’s going to hate me for saying that, aren’t they?! But I love Anna Kendrick [laughs]!

My last one… what’s my favourite musical theatre song? It’s probably between something from Hair or something from Hairspray. I’m going to take the song 'Hair' from Hair, I think it would be great to dance to on the sand.

You work on your own music alongside working in theatre, how do you balance the two?
For me the most important thing is to constantly create, and with my music I can do that. Matilda was my first year-long West End contract. I loved Matilda and it was the most amazing thing to be a part of, but I felt like I wasn’t creating enough so afterwards I took a year and a bit out and was just in the studio with producers and writers. I went to New York to record an EP which I didn’t end up releasing; I met with labels, but once you dive into wanting to make money out of the music world it gets very hard to be yourself – labels want to almost turn you into a puppet. They want you to write songs in a certain way or to appeal to certain people which makes it difficult to stay true to who you are… so I got annoyed with that aspect of it. Then I decided to be completely independent and write an album. It was finished, but I keep writing songs and then replacing them… it’s almost done and then I’m going to release it. After Rent I’ll go gigging with it and we’ll see what comes of it. What I want out of it is to be a writer, I would love to write music for other artists. 

Finally, what is it like to have so much support behind you from the theatre world?
It’s amazing! When I went on as Jesus people took time to come up to me afterwards and say I made their day and stuff like that; it’s quite special to be able to do that for people. It’s weird, but it’s amazing. One day I came out after playing Jesus and this woman was in tears and told me I’d made her year, and then I started getting really tearful too [laughs]. I was just sobbing with this woman I didn’t know! It’s crazy! Already with Rent the following is incredible. People seem to be really excited on social media… so I hope they like it! I’m really excited and already we all feel like we’re part of something special, so I can’t wait for people to see it.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Rent begins its UK tour at Theatr Clwyd on 21st October 2016.  The production runs at the St James Theatre between 8th December 2016 and 28th January 2017. Please visit for further information, full tour dates and tickets.

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