InDepth InterView: Julian Ovenden Talks RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES, SUNDAY In Paris, DOWNTON ABBEY, SMASH, 1ST NIGHT & More
Today we are talking to a charming and affable presence onstage and onscreen who has scored in a wide range of roles in the West End and throughout the UK, from his work in the Olivier Award-winning Donmar Warehouse MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG to GRAND HOTEL, MARGUERITE, the very recent FINDING NEVERLAND and many more to, now, starring in the Theatre du Chatelet production of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE in Paris, playing the title role - Julian Ovenden. In addition to revealing many details about the Paris Sondheim production, Ovenden also offers thoughts on his Sondheim work in general. Additionally, Ovenden illustrates his impressions and recollections of participating in two spectacular small screen ventures - essaying the role of JFK in the musical-within-the-series, BOMBSHELL, on SMASH as well as preparing to play a pivotal role in the new season of international soap smash DOWNTON ABBEY. Most importantly, Ovenden shares his deep affection for the music of Rodgers & Hammerstein and discusses his participation in the stupendous RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES concert and details his continuing collaboration with master conductor John Wilson. Plus, Ovenden muses on potential future musical theatre characters he would consider taking on, shares details of his time in Maury Yeston's DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY Off-Broadway, outlines working with Sarah Brightman on the new feature film 1ST NIGHT - and much, much more!
More information on RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES is available here.
Julian Is Bustin' Out All Over
PC: How did you first become involved with singing the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hammerstein? RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES is absolutely spectacular, I must say.
JO: Oh, thank you - well, let me see, I think my first real exposure to singing Rodgers & Hammerstein would have to have been through John Wilson. Of course, we have worked together quite a lot over the last five years or so, but he introduced me to that music in a new way.
PC: How so?
JO: Well, when you are working on that sort of music and working with him on it - which, as far as I am concerned, is the best orchestra in the world for that kind of material; and you are working with all of the original film orchestrations, as we were in the case of RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES...
PC: It was an ideal convergence.
JO: It really was. It was heaven. Of course, we've done other Rodgers & Hammerstein material in the past, but to hear these movie orchestrations coming from that orchestra - I mean, they are even more exciting and sonorous than the theatrical versions!
PC: Rodgers & Hammerstein super-sized, as it were.
JO: Precisely. John knows them all so well - and he is so focused on it all. And, that music has had a sort of renaissance in the last few years, too, I think, so I am especially fortunate to be singing it now, when I am. I mean, looking back at those great singers like Gordon MacRae and Howard Keel - they have such a specific kind of style that it seems like we don't really appreciate anymore.
PC: The old-fashioned musical theatre leading man.
JO: Yeah, I mean, it seems like pop singing has sort of influenced musical theatre in so many ways - you could argue good or bad, really - and musical theatre is written for that style so often, which is a completely different style. So, I don't know - I happen to think that music is just glorious.
PC: The best of Broadway.
JO: It really is. I mean, CAROUSEL, OKLAHOMA, SOUTH PACIFIC - the way the lyrics work so effortlessly and so beautifully with the melodies; it's just wonderful to be able to do that with such an extraordinary orchestra and conductor like John.
PC: The John Wilson Orchestra is as good as it gets.
JO: It really is - I am honored to get to work with them on a concert and then to have it be documented on an album like this.
PC: Their songs have been described as having the comfortable feeling of always having been in existence somehow. Do you agree?
JO: I do - they do; they do. I think it's interesting to do them as new pieces - you know, not as an archive piece [Heavy Sigh.]...
PC: That can rob them of so much energy and verve.
JO: It can. I think that it's important to breathe new life into them as much as possible whenever performing them - to approach them as an actor would. So, it's been great fun doing them and recording them with John and I'd love to do some full productions of Rodgers & Hammerstein someday soon.
PC: What about playing Billy Bigelow in CAROUSEL?
JO: Oh, I'd love to do it - Billy in CAROUSEL? I'd love it. Unfortunately, I'm a little preoccupied at the moment... [Laughs.]
PC: Just a little bit!
JO: It's one of those things where I can't really complain that I am busy at the moment, but hopefully one day I will be able to do something like that.
PC: Or maybe even SOUTH PACIFIC - either Lt. Cable or De Becque?
JO: That, too! [Laughs.]
PC: Hopefully you can do one with your RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES co-star Sierra Boggess - you two make quite a magical pair.
JO: I love performing with Sierra - she is absolutely brilliant. She is exceptionally talented and possesses a wonderful personality, too. [Pause. Sighs.] She's got a stupidly brilliant voice - just stupidly brilliant.
PC: That is a very apropos way of putting it, I think!
JO: She's a brilliant, brilliant performer. We actually are trying to do something together at some point, but it is kind of difficult with our schedules right now and in the foreseeable future, but I do think we will do something together one day.
PC: Is there a song in Rodgers & Hammerstein's vast catalog that you particularly enjoy performing the most?
JO: Well, there's that song from ALLEGRO - "Come Home". That is one of my favorite songs. I love singing that - I just think it's just a beautiful, beautiful song.
PC: You were fantastic in DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY and it was a wonderful score, though of course that experience did not end particularly well, looking back, correct?
JO: Oh, why, yes - thank you for saying that! I'm glad you enjoyed the show and saw me. Yes, that was a total nightmare, though. You see, I got injured - as you know, I pulled a muscle in my neck the day before the opening.
PC: A catastrophe.
JO: Yes, and we had done about 400 previews by that time - or what seemed like it - and then what happened next was that I had gone swimming in the ocean and I remember being hit by a rather large wave and feeling totally fine afterwards. Then, I remember the next morning - I think it was a Monday or a Tuesday morning, the opening week - I pulled a muscle in my neck that made singing anything above a C almost impossible. [Laughs.]
JO: It really was. I remember that I went back to London and they tried to fix it but we just couldn't get it fixed in time. It was such a shame, really, too, because having had created the role I then never got a chance to do it for the rest of the run, which was annoying.
PC: Would you be interested in taking on the show again someday?
JO: Oh, yeah - I feel like it is unfinished business, really. It certainly was so fun to be working for the Roundabout and to be working with Doug Hughes, who was just fantastic - and what a company we had!
PC: You can say that again.
JO: You know, it's always great to be creating something fresh and new. So, in the end, I felt like I let everybody down, but there was not much that I could do about it. It was a freak - freak - occurrence.
PC: What about playing Guido in Yeston's NINE someday?
JO: Oh, yes, I love that show - that's a fantastic show. That's a great role. [Pause.] I think that's something that I would love to do - absolutely.
PC: Sarah Brightman recently did this column and spoke glowingly of working with you on 1ST NIGHT. Was the affection mutual?
JO: [Laughs.] Oh, yes! [Sighs.] Sarah - Sarah is crazy in all of the best ways, isn't she?! You know, she's going to space!
PC: Isn't that nuts?
JO: Yes! It's totally mad! But, in a wonderful way - a wonderful way. She's one of the great English eccentrics these days, actually, I think. She has such a wonderful nature about her, too. But, yes, that film was another sort of crazy project, actually - a film about an opera company doing an opera in a country house in England.
PC: A pretty unique modern movie concept, for sure!
JO: It was like Four Weddings AND A FUNERAL meets COSI FAN TUTTE. [Laughs.]
PC: So, it was an enjoyable experience for you onset?
JO: Oh, yeah - it was fun; it was a lot of fun. You know, it was sort of a romantic comedy sort of thing and it was a good experience for me to do it, I think. Definitely.
PC: Did you know Ruthie Henshall from A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL, before you two worked together on MARGUERITE, or was that TV project when you first met?
JO: Oh, yeah, Ruthie was in that [A CHRISTMAS CAROL], too, wasn't she... [Pause.] Well, let me see, I had worked with the director of that [MARGUERITE] before, Jonathan Kent, and he suggested that I meet Michel [Legrand], Claude-Michel [Schonberg] and Alain [Boublil] when I was in New York and so we met up and we talked about it. Philistine that I was - and that I am - I did not really know much about Michel Legrand and then subsequently I became a total, raving, mad fan of his.
PC: He's one of the few modern musical masters, for sure.
JO: He is. I mean, all of his music is just so glorious! All of it. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT, then the songs in YENTYL - it's just a musical language that has affected so many people and it is so important.
PC: What was he like one-on-one?
JO: Oh, it was amazing! He was amazing. I mean, the part required me to be playing jazz on the piano, so I got to do quite a lot of work with him, one-on-one, doing that kind of thing. Playing that music - and singing that music - every night was just glorious for me to get to do.
PC: Many of the cast members of A CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MUSICAL have spoken about working on that project. I was curious if you had a great time doing it, too?
JO: Well, what I remember most about filming A CHRISTMAS CAROL was that we filmed it in Budapest and it was supposed to be winter so I remember lots and lots of fake snow. [Laughs.]
PC: Which can be a bit troublesome!
JO: It can. But, you know, it was supposed be 35 degrees or whatever, so it was fun trying to recreate that atmosphere. It was a great cast to work with - Jesse L. Martin was in it and he pops up in a couple of the same episodes of SMASH that I am in, so it has been nice to see him again on that. I haven't seen him since Hungary, actually, so I think it's kind of nice that in your careers as you go along you sort of re-meet people you worked with ten years ago and it's nice. It's a nice feeling.
PC: JFK is such an iconic character to play. Was it a thrill to portray him in BOMBSHELL on SMASH?
JO: Oh, of course! Let me tell you the story about SMASH: I was on a plane back from somewhere and I was reading an interview with Steven Spielberg about the creation of LINCOLN and the fact that they wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to do the part and so he phoned up Daniel Day-Lewis and Day-Lewis said, "Well, I'm going to need a year to find the character; to find his voice," or whatever. So, then, the next day, I got this call from my agent saying, "Oh, they really want to put you on tape to see if you can play JFK on SMASH."
PC: What were you supposed to perform?
JO: They wanted me to do the inauguration speech - and they wanted it by that night, too! [Big Laugh.]
PC: No pressure, right?
JO: No pressure! So, then, I ended up having to turn it right round - rather than having, you know, a year or whatever to prepare - and I ended up having to morph myself into JFK in a matter of hours.
PC: Not quite the Spielberg/Day-Lewis presidential treatment.
JO: No, but, you know, I worked with Scott [Wittman] a little bit before and I am a great admirer of Marc and Scott's - I think they are very, very smart writers - so, I was happy to be doing SMASH with them.
PC: They are so talented.
JO: Yes, they really are. And, so, again, it was great to be a part of SMASH with them - and, you know, shooting in New York is always so much fun and the cast is just terrific. Also, I think that the girls - Katharine [McPhee] and Megan [Hilty] - are just fantastic. I really enjoyed working with each of them.
PC: You are one of a host of fabulous guest stars this season, as well.
JO: Yes, it's a crazy - crazy - amount of talent on SMASH.
PC: How many episodes will you be appearing in all in all as far as you know?
JO: I think I am in three of them - so, there is still more to come! You'll see what happens. [Laughs.]
PC: In remarking upon small screen ventures, you will be playing a big part in the fourth season of Downton Abbey coming up soon, as well, will you not?
JO: Yes, I am going to be on the new season of DOWNTON ABBEY. I leave to do that after I finish up SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE - we are still in rehearsals with that, so I am slightly worried... [Laughs.]
PC: Doing SUNDAY in Paris - at the Theatre du Chatelet, no less.
JO: Yes, in Paris - I get to see the Eiffel Tower and the Musee D'Orsay from my dressing room, actually. So, I finish up SUNDAY on the 26th and then I go straight to England to do DOWNTON like three days later.
PC: Are you looking forward to filming it? You've done quite a bit of series work before.
JO: Oh, absolutely. It's very exciting to get to join that show. I am honored to have been asked.
PC: Will you be singing on the show at all, as far as you know?
JO: No, unfortunately I will not be singing in this part, I don't think.
PC: Kiri Te Kanawa will be singing, though, correct?
JO: Yes, she is - I think she is actually playing Dame Nellie Melba [the Australian opera star] in an episode or so. My character has nothing to do with music, though - that's about all I know so far, really, though! [Laughs.]
PC: We can look forward to you in several episodes of Season Four, then?
JO: Oh, yes, certainly. I will be in episodes this season and then we will see what happens after that...
PC: Let's hope your character, Charles Blake, and Lady Mary hit it off, then!
JO: Yes, let's hope! [Laughs.] We will have to see. But, first, I have some wigs to worry about - we are going to be looking through the wigs after we have finished, actually, as a matter of fact!
PC: Speaking of Sondheim: you were absolutely magnificent in the BBC Proms Sondheim concert a few years ago. Was that exciting to do?
JO: Oh, thank you for saying that- yeah, it really was a great night. There were some wonderful performances, I think.
PC: What can you tell me about your relationship with the work of Sondheim, now having done his music there, as well as the Donmar MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG and now SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and much of his material in concert and so on, as well?
JO: Well, I'll tell you, Pat: my second job was actually playing Franklin Shepard in MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at the Donmar and being directed by Michael Grandage in it. As you may know, Steve was pretty heavily involved with that production, actually, because we went back to the original version, which hadn't been tried out for a while.
PC: Was it particularly fascinating to participate in that, given the process?
JO: Oh, yes. It was an amazing, amazing experience that I will not soon forget - and, I just loved working with him. Subsequently, I have done quite a few concerts, as you know, and recordings of stuff - and, he is coming to see this, actually; he will be here for about a week to oversee this production and the opening of this production here and everything.
PC: Is there any reason in particular he will be there?
JO: Well, there is a new orchestration being used - the original orchestration was for about 12, I believe, and we have an orchestra of about 50.
PC: That will make a big difference in the sound, no doubt.
JO: Yes, I believe so! It will be quite interesting. We are going for a more opulent sound.
PC: Will the Chromolume be unique to this production, as well?
JO: Yes. The Chromolume sequence has been completely rewritten. It will be a whole new slant on it, which will be very, very interesting.
PC: Georges, in both acts, is such a rich role to play, isn't it?
JO: Oh, it is! It is. It's terrifying, actually - it's like climbing a large, steep mountain every time. And, to be honest, I can't get anywhere near the top yet. But, it has been so fantastic to work on it so far - I mean, to be honest, it's probably my favorite of his shows.
PC: A masterpiece.
JO: A total masterpiece. And, I think the music is just sublime and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to do it. As you know, there has been a fairly recent revival production which was done in London and then New York, so, after that, I was worried that, perhaps, maybe my chance had gone. So, I am so happy that there is this new production and that I get the chance to study the work and to perform it. It was a lot of work to do - and it will be a lot more - but I am doing my best!
PC: It's a short process, yes?
JO: Yes, we only have about six previews before the opening night - you know, on Broadway you have like 46 previews or whatever. We barely have any previews here - it's more of an opera sort of situation. We are flying by the seat of our pants, sort of... [Laughs.]
PC: That adds to the excitement, though, right?
JO: It can. It can.
PC: Baptism by fire a bit?
JO: It is - it totally is. [Laughs.]
PC: So, what is next for you after SUNDAY and DOWNTON ABBEY?
JO: Well, at this point, I don't really know - first we'll see how DOWNTON goes and that will take me through to September-time. Then, I am not too sure what I will be doing to be perfectly honest with you. You know, there is good and bad - advantages and disadvantages - with this career and you are never fully sure what is going to happen next.
PC: The future is always unknown for an actor.
JO: I will say that I am trying to get back onstage at some point before the end of the year - or maybe next year, if that's when it must be. But, no, I have no fixed plans. Not yet.
PC: Between SUNDAY in Paris, SMASH, Downton Abbey and now the album of RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES being released in the US, you certainly have already covered all the major bases in 2013, Julian!
JO: I suppose so! [Laughs.] When you put it like that, Pat...
PC: One last thing I wanted to add was that I absolutely adore your solo album, IF YOU STAY - easily one of the best of last year - and I wanted to know the origin of the song "Woman To Man"?
JO: Oh, that's so kind of you to say - yes, "Woman To Man" was a song that was devised by the producer I worked with on that. The album was really fun to do and I am quite proud of it, even if we do do a few things quite differently now live. It was fun to do something with a '60s, Bond sort of sound on some of the tracks - you know, we wanted a more muscular, masculine sound; the male sound that you don't always get in a lot of pop music these days. A lot of pop music now is sort of soft and bland a lot of the time, do you know what I mean?
PC: Undoubtedly - androgynous and robotized sometimes, too.
JO: Exactly. So, yeah, what we basically wanted to do with the sound of the album was to make it something more butch. So, I don't know quite else how to describe it besides that! [Laughs.]
PC: That sums it up perfectly, actually. Were there any particular inspirations for you?
JO: Oh, yeah - Engelbert Humperdinck, Matt Monro, Tom Jones; men who sang with body. That's the sort of contemporary music that I wanted to do and I think we got that across on the album.
PC: This was totally delightful in every way today, Julian. Thank you so very much and congratulations on all your current and upcoming projects.
JO: Yes, thank you very, very much, Pat. OK, I'm going to put on my beard now. [Laughs.] Take care. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, EMI/Virgin, NBC, ITV, Dewynters, etc.