DEATH BECOMES HIM
Julian Ovenden doesn't go overboard with pre-show prep for his title role in Roundabout Theatre Company's new musical Death Takes a Holiday, the show where Death takes a few days off to learn what it is like to live as a regular Joe. "I'd love to tell you [my preparation] is an hour of watching very long Ingmar Bergman films," he says, "but I generally have a cup of coffee, eat a sandwich, sing a little bit and then I'm ready."
The smooth-singing Brit, seen on the short-lived ABC ensemble drama "Cashmere Mafia" in 2008, has been in several TV and stage shows in his homeland and had his Broadway debut in Butley with Nathan Lane in 2006. Death, with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, gives him a chance to use his classical and operatic training in a romance that literally defies Death.
How much fun is it to play the guy we fear the most?
I'm having a lot of fun. I find it a big challenge. When I first received the script, a little over a year ago now, I thought the most difficult thing about it was to try and let the audience into a character that doesn't really exist and is a dramatic device. Whether it's possible to gain any kind of sympathy for someone, something, that generally creates so much fear and grief in people's lives. So it's been a very interesting journey, but I have to say, it's been a really fun one. He really runs the gamut of emotions: first self-pity, and then joy as he experiences life. Then, love of course.
That's one of the great things about it. It's a hybrid of a piece, really. It's neither fish nor fowl. In one sense, it's quite an old-fashioned musical comedy, but in another, it has an underlying spiritual dimension to it and it's very romantic as well. It's very interesting how different audiences relate to it and respond. Some, I think, don't quite know where to place it, and some get quite excited by the adjacency of comedy and tragedy in close proximity. I'd like to see it, actually, as an audience member. That's one of the most frustrating things about being a stage actor. You really want to know exactly what's going on onstage. I'd love to see it and whether it successfully creates what we're trying to do.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
It was a film in the '30s with Frederic March, and later adapted as "Meet Joe Black" with Brad Pitt. I was interested to see how the surreal and allegorical elements would work in a musical. There were strong anti-war elements in the original piece, for instance.
Yeah, what I think [director] Doug Hughes has done very well is not trying to hammer home some kind of big metaphysical or philosophical message. The big themes in the play are treated with a light touch, because, let's face it, the story is a fairly simple one. I think the humor in the piece is needed to put the larger themes into relief. …It's a musical and I think it would over-egg the pudding, as it were. It's quite a delicate piece, in a way, quite fragile.
Which is more interesting from an actor's point of view? The darkness of the character or the moments when he's taking joy in human experiences?
What I find more fun is the joy, the newness and novelty of life, the discovery. That's great fun to play. I've got a 21-month-old son, and I have used him as inspiration for a lot of the early parts of the play. I see his joy of discovery every day — language, being in New York, for example. Pushing him through Times Square is an amazing experience. The colors and sounds and tastes and new people. It's a tall order to try and pull off. You're given great dramatic license to behave in any way you want to, which is really fun. But also I enjoy playing it without trying to be too arch, too Batman-villainy. It balances out quite nicely, I think.
Can you talk a little about the amazing cast you're working with?
It's a superb cast. Highly proficient. Very experienced. People who have been on Broadway for many years in leading roles. We have a wealth of great people in the cast — Rebecca Luker, Jill Paice, Matt Cavenaugh, Mara Davi. You know it's a very, very strong acting musical ensemble of people. If we were doing this show in the West End, I don't think we'd have such a strong cast. New York seems to be absolutely filled with brilliant people. What I enjoy is a collaboration. Working with other like-minded people. People who have brilliant minds and big hearts.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
You mentioned your son being in New York. You've been here for Butley, and "Cashmere Mafia" was filmed here. Do you have regular hangouts in the city?
I like downtown. Unfortunately I'm at the Roundabout [in midtown], so I can only stretch so many trips to the emporiums of SoHo and TriBeCa, but I really enjoy the vibe downtown. I just love New York, I love the people. The energy of the place. I really feel energized working here. I've always been made to feel very welcome, and it's a tremendous city.
You had a musical upbringing. Was that by your choice, your natural inclination?
I guess right in the beginning my parents enrolled me in a school. I was a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. That was when I was seven. I guess I showed some kind of musical proclivity. I don't really know how much. We didn't have a huge amount of money so it was a great way of getting a fantastic music education. All the kids at that particular school were on scholarship. From then, that gave me a great grounding to get further scholarships to secondary school and then university. I've had a very privileged musical education.
Your wife is opera singer Kate Royal, a lyric soprano. When you're at home, is there always singing or do you vow never to sing?
Oh, God, we never sing… [laughs] no, no, no, no. To be honest with you, when we're rehearsing, we take turns and have a music studio at home. We don't spend a lot of time singing when we don't have to. It's great to be with someone who doesn't do exactly the same thing but has a great understanding of what you do.
I also read that your father is personal chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II. What does that entail?
He lives in Windsor. He is in charge of conducting all the services that she attends when she's in residence in Windsor. He's had that post for 13-14 years now.
Can you show up at Windsor, and knock on the door and say I'm here to see my dad?
Oh, yeah. We got married, for example, at the Queen's private chapel last year. We've spent a lot of time in Windsor, yeah.
That's a nice perk.
Yeah, it was lovely.
Finally, did this show get you thinking heavier thoughts about death itself?
Yeah, in Dylan Thomas' words, you rage against the dying of the light. Absolutely. If I've taken anything from it, you seize the day. You live each day as if it were your last. That's probably what I'll take from it — the zest and the discovery of life that my character has at the beginning of the show. That's something I see in my son and that I would love to keep until I die.
ENJOY THE SILENCE
Brent Barrett has been looking for someone sleazier than Chicago's Billy Flynn to play, and what better role to bite into than Hannibal (The Cannibal) Lecter in the Hunter Bell-penned musical Silence! The Musical, the parody of "Silence of the Lambs," now Off-Broadway.
The always-working Barrett, like Ovenden, has appeared on Broadway and the West End, done TV, and was pulling double duty learning his lecherous Lecter while he finishing up a stint as Flynn on Broadway. This month also sees him doing a couple shows in the U.K., performing the music of Lerner & Loewe. (Fans treasure a 1992 studio recording of Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon featuring Barrett as Tommy and Death Takes a Holiday's Rebecca Luker as Fiona.)
It's been a couple of years since we've chatted. Silence! was a Fringe Festival hit. How did you get involved with it?
I was in Las Vegas doing Phantom, so I didn't see it at the Fringe. I'd heard glowing reports about it. It's very funny; it's very naughty. They wanted me to come in and audition, and I did, and they asked me to do it. So there we are.
Now you're playing a famous psychopath.
Yes I am. Of course, it's a musical spoof, so I'm not exactly sure what people expect when they come to see this show. Other than the iconic mask he wears. Not your average tenor part.
It's something that I haven't done in New York. I haven't done a lot of very broad comedy like this... I'm usually the leading man. I guess I am the leading man in this, too, although it's the sociopath leading man.
|photo by Carol Rosegg|
Chicago-wise, has anyone played Billy Flynn more often than you? Could you do Flynn in your sleep?
At this point I think I've probably played Billy Flynn more than anyone else. You always have to be on your toes. The minute that you think you could do it in your sleep, the page in front of you goes blank and you go up. You always have to be on your game, otherwise you get tripped up. For a show that has been running this long, you have to be careful not to go onto autopilot.
Tell me if you can about your upcoming Dublin and U.K. concerts.
I've been working with a conductor over there, a wonderful, fairly new conductor called John Wilson. For a couple of years, we've been doing a series of concerts around the U.K. We did a Rodgers & Hammerstein last year, and this year we're doing Lerner & Loewe. We're doing Dublin and Liverpool and Newcastle so far. I'm sure there will probably be several dates added onto that. I love it. It's great to go over and have this full symphony orchestra singing this music. Kim Criswell and Anthony Andrews will also be there.
You've done the West End. I'm always interested in a comparison between Broadway and the West End, from an American's point of view.
You know, I think it all depends on the show you're doing. I think sometimes we have this image of England as being much, much more classically minded. We kind of elevate what goes on in England over what we do here in the States. That isn't necessarily the case. I love performing in London…they just have a different sensibility than here. They're better at listening in England than they are in the States, sometimes. But as far as preferring one over the other, I love performing in England and I love working on Broadway.
Silence! The Musical is at Theatre 80 at 80 St. Marks Place until Aug. 27. Visit www.silencethemusicalnyc.com.
Tom Nondorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.