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Interview: Hadley Fraser On His Tony Bennett/Bill Evans Show

Hadley Fraser

Hadley Fraser's work ranges from Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera to Coriolanus at the Donmar and The Winter's Tale at the Garrick. He's collaborated with pianist Will Butterworth on a show that imagines Tony Bennett and Bill Evans did a third album together; the result is a mix of jazz, Broadway and contemporary classics, performed at Zedel on 1 April.

What first sparked your love of performing?

The moment I knew I wanted to try my hand at performing was watching my brother in West Side Story at our secondary school. I'd done the odd bit of stuff before then, but hearing "Dance at the Gym" for the very first time made a huge impression on me. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Heat, sweat, passion in a little school hall in Bracknell.

Were you a musical family, or did it come as a surprise? Dad's Welsh, so that's as good as being from a musical family. My brother has a fine voice and was a decent musician. I guess my folks were very keen for us to try our hand at a lot of things. He ended up in the army - a product of us both being in Scouts too.

When did you decide to pursue it professionally?

I suppose at some point toward the end of university. I didn't want to get a few years down the line and think "What if?". Further education was still relatively affordable then, so I did a postgraduate course to prepare myself. It makes me angry to see how much debt current students have to saddle themselves with - especially in the creative arts, where stability is a distant prospect.

Hadley Fraser as Javert
in Les Miserables

What was it like going straight into Les Mis, and what did you learn from that?

I think I'd seen Les Mis once before I did it, and to be honest it hadn't made much of an impression on me. I wasn't a Les Mis devotee, so I had little expectation or baggage going in. I treated it as a great big adventure, and I learned more on that first, wonderful job than I think I ever have done in any other year.

Did you bring a different perspective/experience to the show when you returned to it later on?

Age is a great teacher I suppose. I returned to play an older part, and so that made sense. I also brought ten years of working in the industry and not taking so much for granted. I'd grown up a lot, as a human and a performer.

How do you find your way into established roles, like Javert or Raoul in Phantom?

Personally, the two are quite separate experiences. Javert I did for a year and had a normal rehearsal period for, so I went back to the novel and tried to draw out from the character what felt right for me as a performer. Musically, too, Claude-Michel gives you many hints as to the direction in which you might head.

As for Raoul, that was a different process for me. I had two weeks to rehearse for the 25th anniversary for three performances, and being one of the cast who'd never been in the show (and still hasn't) elsewhere meant I had no muscle or creative muscles to fall back on, no familiar synapses to fire to get me into character. I had to rely on gut instinct with that one I suppose.

How hard was it transitioning from musical theatre to straight plays?

Not hard at all. In fact, I don't think that I have really transitioned. Given that I studied Drama at university, a lot of my training was in the world of plays and playtexts. My second job was a play. In fact, I've always done plays alongside musicals.

Before Twitter came along, I was doing a play at the National Theatre of Ireland, the Abbey, and was in the original cast of Arnold Wesker's Longitude - both alongside musicals. Funny how if you do a number of musical shows you become know for that.

In the past few years I've done more plays and screen work - but not because I've fallen out of love with musicals. I regard myself as an actor who sings. Not the other way round. And I'll always strive for variety in my professional life.

When did you begin writing your own music, and do you have plans for more albums or musicals?

I started really concentrating on writing music around 2009/2010 I suppose, for various reasons. I've not been able to devote as much time to it as I'd like recently - but have music-led projects that I'm excited about (like my collaboration with Will Butterworth) that scratches that particular itch. We're intending to record our work at some point down the line, so that'll be the next album.

As for the next musical - I have no idea. There will be one at some point - watch this space.

What was the origin of your show with Will?

It was our mutual love of the Bill Evans/Tony Bennett albums - they are full of beauty, spontaneity and subtlety. I love the interplay between these two incredible musicians and we wanted to explore how they might go about making more music today.

I suppose the project has morphed slightly - Will and I have found something of our own direction within our collaboration. There's a sense of momentum within the music that we're drawn to as a partnership - movement, a rolling back and forth between voice and piano.

How does your collaboration work?

I think we come from a very clear mutual understanding of what is beginning to work for us as a duo: both in rehearsal and onstage. We're still in our infancy as a creative project - but the shared desire for improvisation and varied expression is one that we both cling to. It's as much a listening project as it is a playing or singing one.

Is it tricky to create something that pays musical homage without doing pastiche?

I think if we were covering all the same tracks from their albums we might be flirting with pastiche. But we quickly moved beyond that as a duo - I'm not sure any of the Evans/Bennett material will be on the set list in April. I hope that way we're sending something original out into the world - despite the fact they're all standards/covers.

Do you have a favourite song to perform?

With Will - maybe "She's Leaving Home".

Any future dream roles or collaborators?

My favourite collaborations and projects have been the ones I haven't expected. I'd like that trend to continue.

Finally, any advice to budding performers?

If there's anything else you can go and do happily, go and do it.

Hadley Fraser and Will Butterworth at Live at Zedel on 1 April

Photo credit: Alastair Muir, Johan Persson

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