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BWW Interview: Lewis Griffiths On Playing Johnny In DIRTY DANCING

Lewis Griffiths' numerous credits include tours of Jersey Boys, Legally Blonde and Ghost - The Musical and Priscilla Queen of the Desert in the West End. He's now tackling the iconic role of Johnny Castle in the new UK tour of Dirty Dancing opposite Katie Hartland, making her professional debut as Baby.

When did your passion for performing start?

When I was at school - I wasn't good at anything else! I was a bit of a jack of all trades, so I fell into a hobby that became a career, which was very fortunate.

Where did you study?

I went to local drama studio Ridley in Leigh-on-Sea and Tiffany Stage Academy, and then I took it further and went to London Studio Centre.

Did you always want to sing as well as act?

I've always considered myself an actor - that's where my passion lies. Someone said to me if you have a voice you're most castable, and I did love singing and music, plus if you can dance as well you can go for those triple threat roles. I've definitely fulfilled the singing part before, but playing a role like Johnny I've really had to push my dance ability. Though it's a meaty acting part too.

Everyone loves Patrick Swayze - I'm one of quite a few guys now in the shadow of that performance. It's so iconic, people know it and adore it, so you either have to replicate it completely or go back to the drawing board. You don't want to deviate totally, because the writer loved Patrick very dearly and I really respect that, but she wrote Johnny, the character, so that's what I've had to get my head around.

How did you react when you got part?

Shock and disbelief! My agent was over the moon, and said it would do wonders for my career. Then I realised what an absolute mountain I had to climb. I grew up watching the film with my older sister, who loved Johnny of course, and she saw the musical in London with the original cast. It'll be a bit strange for her seeing her little brother doing the part she was drooling over...

I was astonished they wanted to see me. I consider myself an actor/singer who can dance, rather than "a dancer". But the producers said they've got down the route of technically trained dancers and sometimes the acting falls by the wayside a bit, so they want to be truer to the story with this production.

What was your way into the role?

Patrick was an incredible actor - underrated in this part - as well an incredible dancer, and incredibly good-looking! I'm not putting myself in that category. But I wanted to see if I could raise my game on the acting side with this, as well as doing the dancing.

I'm kind of coming at it from the opposite end of Johnny, in that's he's this confident, calm dancer but a bit more manic in his life, and I'm the other way round - manic in the dancing and in my comfort zone with the scenes. But it's a great opportunity to build this connection and try to make the right choices for the story.

The dance numbers in the show are inherently dramatic, like the "Cry to Me" sequence

Ah yes, lovingly referred to as the sex scene! We actually did that in rehearsal with the writer Eleanor Bergstein there - watching us perform her work, which was really intense. But it was amazing to get all this backstory from her. She wrote these characters, she knows what they're thinking and feeling, the intention behind every single thing. It might just be thought of as the naughty bit in the film, but there are so many layers to it.

It does sometimes get dismissed as "chick flick" material, which isn't fair

Yes, there's some really fascinating commentary there, and intricacies like all the mirror images. When Johnny develops this connection with Baby's father Jake, you start to realise he almost sees himself in Johnny, and Johnny sees himself in Baby - what he wants to be versus the things he's had to do. He's a victim of his own stereotype.

How has it been working with Katie?

I feel like I've known her forever. You don't have time to be awkward on a show like this - you just get stuck in. Everyone says we look completely natural in each other's company. She's nine years younger, but it feels like she's got 20 years' more experience than I do. Her instincts are incredible.

And how are you getting on with the big lift?

We've been doing it daily! There's no getting around it. It's warm-up, and then "Katie and Lewis - do the lift." It's taken me a while to get used to it and prepare for all the contingencies. It's drilling it until you don't have to think about every element, like learning to drive.

Do you have a routine on tour?

Every tour is different. I did say when I finished Jersey Boys it would be the last time, because I like working all or nothing, so it means hardly seeing friends or family. You can't let standards flag, because people around the country have paid to see that show.

I used to go to the gym quite a bit, but I'm getting a workout already with this one! I've been sweating like you wouldn't believe in rehearsal, so I'm definitely getting my cardio in. I'll just make sure I know where I am, what I have to do, keep eating properly and not getting carried about partying. It's a job and you have to treat it with respect.

Are you ready for the fan response?

When I say I'm planning Johnny, people do say "Oh, you're Patrick Swayze, your feet won't touch the floor." I'm a bit nervous about living up to expectation, but I'm looking forward to getting to each venue and hearing the response. We did "Don't put Baby in a corner" in rehearsal and the place just erupted.

I'm also conscious about being a good lead, maintaining my work ethic, and having respect for everyone in our amazing company. I was one of four leads before, so it's been a great progression to this point.

How long do you think you'll stay with the show?

I'm contracted for a year, with an extension to be negotiated. I don't want to commit too far in advance - I would never want to feel I'm not doing the part justice.

What's your advice for budding performers?

If you're looking for a big break, don't. It'll find you as and when you're ready. I'm 31 now, and I never a million years thought I'd be playing this part in this show. It's taken me a long time to get here and I couldn't be happier that it's now. It's like geology - it takes time and pressure.

'Dirty Dancing' is currently booking until August 2017. See full venues and dates here

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