BWW Interview: Star Ben Forster On PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's 30th Anniversary
Ben Forster became a household name when he won Andrew Lloyd Webber's Superstar TV competition and went on to lead the UK arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. His West End work includes Evita and Elf: The Musical, and he's currently starring as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary.
What was your first theatre experience?
Watching my sister Abbey perform in local theatre shows - I think one of her first was Annie. The magical moment for me, when I knew that theatre was my calling, was when I first saw Phantom of the Opera, around the age of 10 - I remember being so enthralled.
Where did you train?
I trained at the Italia Conti Performing Arts Academy, on their three-year musical theatre course, however I left in my second year and I got my first West End musical, La Cava, at the age of 18. I mostly think I learnt on the job!
What was your first professional acting job?
When I was 10 years old, I filmed a TV commercial for Newcastle Building Society. I remember thinking it was completely amazing that I got paid to do it. I got £300, which was so much money for a kid in 1990, and all for one day's work! I still have that money in the Newcastle Building Society account - I've never touched it 25 years on.
What did you learn during your Superstar experience, and what would you say to people who criticise those programmes?
I learnt to deal with immense pressure, more than I had ever felt before. It was an exciting roller coaster experience and one that I will never forget. To people who feel negatively about those types of TV programmes I would say that they should have more of an open mind. The tour generated over 500 jobs for the industry and was successful over the course of two years internationally. It ignited a new generation of musical theatre fans who then go on to love and support our industry. The way I see it, it really only has positives. Theatre and the West End in general is open to so much more outside investment, and investors and producers are taking risks on classic, old and new theatre projects because our industry is booming. I do that's partly due to the fact that Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber created so much new interest and engaged the public in these theatre TV shows.
How well did you know Phantom before going into the show? Is it an intimidating part to take on?
I knew Phantom fairly well, as the music and story are so famous - I grew up with the music and songs. When I was asked to play this role of course it comes with so much pressure, not only to keep the original creators and the producers happy but also the dedicated fans who have seen the show many times over the past 30 years. It's a pressure that I still feel every performance, which is one of the reasons why it's so exciting to play.
What do you think you bring to the role?
I think that with any role I take on I try to bring honesty and an element of reality. With Phantom I had to look deep inside a crazed mind of a victim and look to see why he would be such a deviant, and then work out how and when the right moments are to try and get the audience to side with you and feel the compassion that's needed to make the story and tragedy real.
How does the score compare with your previous experiences of performing Andrew's work?
It is a different style. In some ways it's an easier sing than say Jesus Christ Superstar, but it's very demanding in other ways.
What's your favourite number to perform?
I think "The Final Lair" is most exciting, as it's so emotional and demanding to perform.
What's it like being part of the show on its 30th anniversary?
I feel honoured to be part of the show when it's going through such an historic time. Moments like these seldom come in one's career.
What does it mean to you to raise money for the Music in Secondary Schools Trust?
It's very important - it's an incredible charity that Andrew set up. I had immense support from charities, Government funding and local organisations and the Lottery Fund, as well as support from family friends and my family. Anyone coming into this industry needs support and encouragement and these very basic things that we can learn in secondary school only help us thrive and prosper. We need to keep investing and supporting young people so that our industry continues to grow.
Yours is an incredible Billy Elliot story. Do you think it's getting tougher now for people of different backgrounds to get into theatre?
I think it's always been tough and always will be tough to enter an industry that you need to dedicate your life to. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents, amazing teachers and a great local community that helped me.
Any future dream roles?
I would love to do an original production at some point. I've done a few of these in my time, but the opportunity to create a role and a character really excites me.
Finally, what do you love about performing Phantom, and why is it so enduring?
I love how iconic the role is, the music, the incredible love story and the incredible tragedy. The sets and the costumes and everyone's team effort behind the production are what creates the magic of the show. It's one of the greatest musicals of all time.
Photo credit: Johan Persson