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BWW Feature: WE SAW THEM FIRST/THE MUSICAL ACTORS - Five Musicals Whose Male Performers Later Became Stars

We look back to when Hugh Jackman was Curly, Adrian Lester was Bobby, and more

BWW Feature: WE SAW THEM FIRST/THE MUSICAL ACTORS - Five Musicals Whose Male Performers Later Became Stars We've looked across the past few weeks at a range of plays over time that offered crucial opportunities to an array of then little-known men and women who have since hit it big. Now, it's time to cast a glance at those stage musicals in London that brought to the attention of keen-eyed playgoers various people whom the world would get to know later, in some cases as major names indeed.

It's tempting to mention en route the blink-and-you-miss-them appearances made by a then 17-year-old James Corden in the ensemble of Martin Guerre, or Richard Armitage back in the day scampering about in Cats, which seems an odd credit for a TV heartthrob whose stage choices of late have embraced heavyweight titles by Arthur Miller (The Crucible) and Chekhov (Uncle Vanya). In noting them, we nonetheless give pride of place to five men remembered from their comparative dotage who have gone on to dazzle us in the years since.

Clarke Peters, Guys and Dolls, National Theatre 1984 and 1996

The American actor Clarke Peters was a regular, and invaluable, presence on the London stage well before he joined the cast of the iconic HBO series The Wire, playing Detective Lester Freamon. Since then, he's been an invaluable asset to the ensemble casts of Harriet (as Harriet Tubman's father), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and current Oscar hopeful Da 5 Bloods (seen in conversation about that film below). I first encountered his protean gifts in not one but two iterations of Richard Eyre's historic National Theatre revival of Guys and Dolls, where he took over as Sky Masterson the first time round and then refreshed the roll from scratch a dozen years later, bringing his signature charm and elan to the roll of the high-stakes gambler both times round.

Adrian Lester, Company, Donmar Warehouse 1996

The Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical from 1970 is a curious beast - a celebrated show featuring a central character Bobby (or, in the recent gender flip on the part, Bobbie) who can often seem a passive presence in a musical all about finding a soulmate for him (or her). But I shan't ever forget the ease with which the dazzling Adrian Lester put Bobby at the deserved heart of Sam Mendes' revival of Company, which lives on in a filmed version. Lester also made history as the first Black performer to take on this role in any major production, a fact that may not seem any big deal now but was momentous at the time. So, too, was Lester's soul-baring performance, for which he won an Olivier.

Hugh Jackman, Oklahoma!, National Theatre, 1998

You had to be there, and how lucky for those of us who were. I'm referring to the thrill of encountering a little-known (in the UK, anyway) Australian performer by the name of Hugh Jackman who was first heard as Curly in Trevor Nunn's seminal National Theatre production of Oklahoma! and minutes later seen as the character loped into view - a double whammy for the ages, since which time the rest really is history. Jackman never took Oklahoma! to Broadway (Patrick Wilson inherited the role there), but instead became both a bona fide movie star and Broadway stalwart who will be giving us his Harold Hill in The Music Man early next year to mark the giddy return of live theatre to the city. We're counting down the days now, trust me.

Bertie Carvel, Parade, Donmar Warehouse, 2007

This chameleonic actor has become a name via such TV gigs as Doctor Foster and The Sister and won both Tony and Olivier Awards for playing the media mogul Rupert Murdoch in Ink, a play that itself cries out for a screen transfer. But his questing intelligence and fine voice were put to memorable use earlier on as a Southern Jew suspected of murder in the 2007 London premiere of Jason Robert Brown's dark and disturbing Parade, for which Carvel was nominated for an Olivier. He went on to win one for his fearsome and funny turn as "the Trunch" in the premiere of Matilda but seriousness matters to this actor and his Leo Frank, brooding and compelling, was something to behold.

Jonathan Bailey, The Last Five Years, 2016

Jonathan Bailey lent invaluable support to the National's vaunted 2013 revival of Othello, playing Cassio opposite none other than Adrian Lester, and he was amongst those circling the fearsome (and often undressed) figure of Matt Smith in American Psycho at the Almeida. But several years before his gender-flipped Jamie in the Marianne Elliott-directed Company won him an Olivier, Bailey played a very different Jamie in composer Jason Robert Brown's self-directed Off West End revival of The Last Five Years at the St James Theatre (now The Other Palace). Bailey has more recently been found bringing sauciness and wit to the breakaway Netflix hit Bridgerton, which should transform an ever-welcome London theatre presence into an international star.

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From This Author - Matt Wolf