BWW Interview: Declan Bennett on JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Actor and musician Declan Bennett has successfully maintained dual, often intersecting careers as a singer-songwriter and musical theatre performer. He's had chart hits both with band Point Break and as a solo artist, and has tackled several iconic roles, including Roger in a US tour and Broadway run of Rent, Guy in the UK premiere of Once, and now Jesus in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Timothy Sheader's new production at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which begins previews tomorrow, celebrates 45 years since the show first opened, and the intimate, gig-like experience - with performers playing instruments - promises to be very different to the recent arena tour.
When did your music career begin?
I joined a pop band when I was about 17 and did the whole record label thing - we had a single in the charts, toured the world. But early on I was also writing my own music and thinking about doing something more in that line.
Were you interested in theatre at that point too?
Definitely. Rent blew my mind. The soundtrack had been making its way around before we even saw it, like Hamilton is now. I lived in Coventry, and me and my mate actually bunked off school to go to London and blag it at an open audition. That piece was a revelation - I had no idea that style of music could exist in a theatrical setting. Of course, I didn't know I'd end up playing Roger on Broadway! So yes, I'd decided to focus on music, but always had theatre in the back of my mind, and those two worlds have since collided in the best way.
What kind of music did you want to put out there?
I was always really attracted to words, lyrics, music as a storytelling art - like theatre, I suppose. I like songs that have a beginning, middle and end, and I was inspired by the angsty female confessional stuff - Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, that kind of vibe. Women pouring their souls out on stage. I've always written from that point of view, though it's horrendous listening back to some of the stuff I did as a teenager!
The singer-songwriter seems to be on the rise again, with people like Ed Sheeran
I actually played gigs with Ed in a pub in Norwich, before he was massive. I watched him thinking "Wow, he's astoundingly good", but little did we know he'd sell out Wembley. Music's cyclical, so yeah the close storytelling's back in fashion. In theatre too, with shows like Once. That kind of music lives so well on stage, as people are drawn in by performers who are brave enough to share how they feel in that intimate way.
Why did you initially release solo work under a pseudonym?
I'd been in this commercial pop world with the band, so using the name sumladfromcov (as I'm a lad from Coventry) was a cry for anonymity - I'd been in magazines, on TV, and I wanted to separate myself from that. But it was difficult for people to understand, they couldn't find the album - someone asked if I was from Russia!
Is there a lot of pressure to define yourself as a performer?
Yeah, I actually put myself through the mill a bit, struggling with my love for creating music with also then wanting to be on stage. In your early twenties you do want to know who you are, and the industry wants to keep you in a box. Actually the theatre world welcomed me, but on the music side I was banging my head against doors. There's almost this shame attached to the idea of musical theatre, with someone like Simon Cowell or even straight dramatic actors saying "Oh, I don't watch musicals." Fine, but don't shame others who love it. Don't write it off.
How did Rent come about?
That was unbelievable - it completely sideswiped me. I'd done Taboo, which was such an incredible experience - telling Boy George's story, doing something with music but also in theatre, going on tour with him. Then I struggled with which way to go after that. Avenue Q was coming over to London and I got a call to audition. I met Evan Ensign, amazing director, and explained it didn't feel like my kind of thing. He said fine - come back anyway and sing "One Song Glory". I had no idea he was planning on doing Rent. Six months later I'm on a plane to the US, and I wound up playing Roger round the country and then on Broadway - I came over on a nine-month contract and stayed eight years! So that's a lesson that not every audition means what you think it does. You never know who you'll meet.
And then Once seems like that perfect music/theatre balance
I couldn't have wished for a better opportunity. I was feeling the pull to come back to the UK, but didn't want to come home to nothing. I'd worked with Steven Hoggett on American Idiot in New York, and I was a great admirer of John Tiffany. It just ticked all the boxes. I wished I could go back and say to my 21-year-old self "Chill out - you don't have to define yourself. Just follow your heart and things will align." I had a brilliant time on that show, and Zrinka [Cvitesic] taught me so much about performance.
Did you know the film?
Yes, I'd actually seen in a tent at Glastonbury at about 4am - I was blown away by its simplicity. When I heard they were doing a stage show I thought "No, leave it alone!", but it couldn't have been in a more perfect set of hands than that creative team. They translated a really special piece of cinema so sensitively. And all these people who wouldn't normally go to the theatre came because of the film, and had a beautiful experience.
Had you seen many productions of Jesus Christ Superstar before taking on this role?
I did a production of it with a youth theatre group, and I love the film, but I've never actually seen a professional stage production. You only have to Google it to see how many different versions there are, and all these epic people playing Jesus. I've listened to a few recordings, like the original concept album with Ian Gillan, Murray Head, Yvonne Elliman. But [director] Tim Sheader and [musical director] Tom Deering are so open with this new version at Regent's Park. They didn't want to recreate anything that's gone before - they want it sound like we've just come up with these songs.
How do you approach playing Jesus?
I had a lot of Roman Catholic churchgoing days up to the age of 17, so I'm pretty well versed in the life and times of Jesus Christ! Actually we've talked about it a lot, and what we're trying to share is the experience of that score - it's not like with Once, where you immediately find yourself in that person. The key reference point is music, music, music. When you listen to those songs you almost don't need the lyrics - the instrumentation tells such an incredible story. So we're really connecting to the score and using that as our way into character.
I have so many friends who are closet Jesus Christ Superstar fans - they're not theatre-heads, they're cool indie kids. But it's so rich, and that's the force of it. Music like that affects people in such a massive way.
Are all the cast playing instruments in this production?
I'd say about 60-70% are. For me, the guitar is an extension of myself. Because it's an opera, sung-through, that's really enabled me to use what I've developed as a musician and allow that to power my performance from the off. Hopefully that means I can create my version of him and find a new angle on this amazing piece. And Tom Deering is a phenomenal music director - his ability to bring people's souls out of them is second to none.
It's a pretty demanding score
Yeah, and you can't put this show on and half-arse it - you have to do it full on or not at all! Once it starts it doesn't really stop. I thought Once was hard, Rent too, but the dynamics of this are the toughest I've ever had to sing in my career - screaming and belting through to super-light singing. It constantly bounces back and forth. It's been a good lesson in technique - I'm not a technical person, more open your mouth and get the notes out, but with this show I've had to be. Especially performing eight times a week.
As a songwriter, what do you appreciate about it?
I love the intricacy - every time I hear something else. The way things are connected is amazing, like Pilate's dream being recreated at the trial in Act II. As a musician, I always strive to find things that are unique and interesting and don't just follow the norm, and there's nothing else like this, 45 years on. That's mad.
What's your favourite number to perform?
Actually my favourite is one I don't perform in! It's Simon Zealotes' song, and Joel [Harper-Jackson] who plays him has wicked style - he's properly cool. Drew McOnie's choreography across the board is just balls to the wall, but particularly in that song. I'm glad I can just stand back and admire it!
What do you think the park experience will be like?
I've never worked here, though I've seen a few things, and it's such a great time. It'll definitely be more intimate than past versions, and it's an interesting way to experience theatre, being outside - anything can happen. I think this will really resonate with a modern audience, as it'll be like going to a music festival. It's totally unique, and you can't really know what to expect. Just come along and find out!
Finally, do you have any dream future projects?
One ongoing thing is I'm writing a piece of theatre with music, working with Phil Griffin. It's called An Innocent Evening of Drinking and we've done two workshops - there's a third one later this year. It's constantly evolving, and I'm really excited to move into the creation of work I love as well as performing it.
Jesus Christ Superstar is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre July 15-August 27