BWW Interview: Rob Houchen Talks West End Does The Magic of Animation Concert
Rob Houchen is one of the three directors of the new event company called West End Does, which has its first concert, The Magic of Animation, on 6 May.
The Guildford School of Acting graduate is best known for playing Marius in Les Misérables, Fleet in Titanic, and his many concert performances. Houchen has also released two EPs, featuring covers and his own original music.
Did you grow up going to the theatre?
I used to visit the theatre a lot. I actually only started singing when I was about 17. It was an after-school thing in sixth form. It was just a joke with my friends that we were going to have fun and sing a few musical theatre songs in this club. It turned out to be fun and something I found I had a passion and a talent for. Then I started doing theatre outside of school. It all happened really fast to be honest.
What was going to the Guildford School of Acting like?
I actually did a summer school programme and a guy who taught there said, "I teach at this school called GSA". I didn't know anything about the school. I wasn't even planning on properly auditioning and he said, "You need to audition". Me and my mum went to GSA and had a look around and I auditioned for a couple of other schools. Luckily, I got in and I just basically was very lucky to get into a school that I saw as very me and I was very welcome there.
You started playing Marius in Les Mis soon after graduating from school. What was making your West End debut in such an iconic role like?
I went to Germany for six months to do a Twelve Tenors tour and sang a lot of different music. When I was there, I was in Frankfurt and I got the call. I actually had to fly back about four or five times from Germany to London to audition for Les Mis. If I didn't get it, I would have spent quite a lot of money on flights, but it was worth it in the end.
There's a lot of pressure around not only being in the show, but also playing a character that so many people have played before. There's pressure that you put on yourself, or at least I did. I wanted to make sure I brought something fresh and different to it after 30 years. You know, people have seen it and there's a lot to live up to.
Also, there's the pressure of the fan base, which Les Mis has a lot of, and the way it touches people and it moves people and the story relates to people. There's a bit of a legacy to carry on, so I wanted to make sure I upheld that.
You also took part in the 30th Anniversary Performance. What was that like getting to celebrate such a milestone?
I was extremely lucky to be there at that time, not only because of the campaigns they were doing but because when you're in Les Mis, there's a lot of press and a lot of different events. There's always things that are exciting going on every month. It was a big deal to be around when they did the gala and all the old cast came up. I got to meet such amazing people and celebrate the show.
I also was part of the 30th Anniversary in Toyko. They invited me to sing there and it was just amazing to celebrate that show, which means a lot to me and means a lot to a lot of people in different parts of the world. And to speak to Claude-Michel [Schönberg] and lots of people involved about it and learn more about the show. There's a strong bond between me and the show that I couldn't shake off if I wanted to.
You've released two albums and a few singles. When did you start writing music?
I did Titanic after Les Mis, and after Titanic, I had some spare time. I wanted to challenge myself to writing music because it's something I've always wanted to do. I like to keep my fingers in as many pies as I can.
I'm not incredibly brilliant on the piano or anything, but I've got a great friend who helped me with my EPs. I was just really surprised and happy that people enjoyed it. The first one was mainly covers but people were very fond of my own single that was on it, so that's why I wrote more music. I found a real love for it. I want to do more, but I'm just going to focus on this for now and the company and other jobs that I've got coming up.
Tell us a bit about West End Does and why it was created
There's kind of two sides to the coin. One is why we're putting it on for the audience and that's because I know that they enjoy special, one-night-only events. I've been a part of quite a few. I know that a lot of people put on musicals in concert, but we wanted to do a series, not just about one specific musical. It can be about a type of musical or a composer or we're doing a genre one to start, just nights that are a kind of events rather than just being a concert.
I know from an actor's point of view, contracts last for a certain amount of time and even if you're in a show, it's really nice to dabble in other things and be a part of these events because they're so special. And to get share the stage with people.
Like the other night with Carrie [Hope Fletcher at her concert at Cadogan Hall], we hadn't sung together since we were in Les Mis and it was just so nice to sing with her again and we may be singing together again in this upcoming concert; that's on the cards.
People think you're just an actor, but you're also part of an industry, which is a big community. You all link with each other; you're all friends. You can tell when people are friends, like the other night, and it just shows the family of theatre. That's something I enjoy a lot about theatre and I wanted to reflect that in our company.
What exactly does the name "West End Does" mean?
I just wanted some kind of prefix that could be used in the series to do a lot of different themes and a lot of different ideas. I know, I'm a bit of a grammar freak, and technically it should be "The West End" because it's an area, but it's not as catchy.
I wanted a catchy title that could come before various types of things that we've got coming up. We're pretty sure we're having a West End Does Halloween that plays into our idea of it being an event, not just any old a concert. We want it to be not quite a party, but a concert with a theme and things going on that aren't your average concert.
You've done several concerts at Cadogan Hall already, like being a guest at Carrie Hope Fletcher's and in The Railway Children. Are you excited to be returning to the venue?
Obviously it's quite a large venue for a launch event for a new company; a lot of people have looked at me with crazy eyes. But I just love the venue. The sound in that place is phenomenal. Alex Parker, who is musical directing it, also did Carrie's concert and The Railway Children. I did Candide there.
I've fallen in love with the place and the sound and the environment and the structure. It's a really beautiful venue. I just kind of pushed for it, to be honest, because although it's got a lot of seats, I think it will be the best kind of environment for this orchestral beautiful music that we're going to be playing.
What inspired the Magic of Animation concert?
Well it should be called West End Does Disney, but we don't have millions of pounds for the copyright so we had to skirt around that! And it's an excuse for us to do some of my favourite songs that aren't actually Disney like "When You Believe," "Journey to the Past" from Anastasia, things like that. The general idea of it is mainly Disney, but we're wanted to include a few others too.
We wanted to start with that theme because not only with the sound that the hall has but with the people that I have involved, it's just a perfect theme. It works with the people that are singing it, with musical theatre, with the time that we're putting the concert on and the families that will watch it. I've just always wanted to put on this theme of concert because I think the music is so amazing and iconic.
What kind of things can we expect to hear? Any sneak peeks you can give us?
Obviously on the poster, we've said there will be "Let it Go", "When You Believe", "Colours of the Wind". There's going to be a few classics. There will be some duets and it won't always just be boy and girl duets; it might be a couple of brilliant female singers together doing some mash-ups.
But I will admit that I've had an eye on singing "Go the Distance" for a long time and I don't think I can shake that off, so that might be a number to be listened out for. I'm sure there will be a lot of non-surprises that'll be like "Ah yes, I knew/hoped this was coming!"
Tell us about putting together your amazing list of performers for the concert
With the three directors, what we bring to the company is one is the business mind, one is the organiser, and I'm kind of the creative mind. I was putting together the set list and looking at the balance of female to male that we would need. I was thinking "Who are we going to contact?".
I basically was going through my phone book. It's people I'm friends with and people I trust and know are fantastic because I've worked with them. And people who would like to work with me as well; that's very important.
I looked through and asked them if they're available. Maybe because it's a Sunday as well, people like Bradley [Jaden] and Marisha [Wallace] who are in shows can make it. Me and Celinde [Schoenmaker] have been talking about it for a while and she's a very close friend of mine. She's so Disney it hurts; she's actually going to Disney World this week!
These people I've kind of had in mind and asked them quite early on about their availability. And we've been so lucky with the casting. It'll just be a nice dressing room environment if nothing else!
You're also raising money for Make a Wish with the concert. What sparked that?
When I was at Les Mis, I had a visit from a little girl called Ella and she wasn't very well. She came to see the show because Marius was her favourite character and that was her wish. It was a very memorable night for me. When I think about this theme that we've got, it seems very fitting to go with a charity like that.
Then I thought, why not have them on board the next few concerts we're doing? One concert can raise some good money, but with four concerts, you can raise a lot more. I'm very pleased to have them on board.
Can you tell us anything about what you're hoping to do with West End Does in the future?
As I said, West End Does Halloween is coming up around Halloween. We might even do some more, you never know, but at the moment there's four events already coming up this year.
Is there anything coming up for you that you can tell us about yet?
I've got a little gig going on the 27 May at 'Above the Arts' in Covent Garden and tickets will go on sale this week. It's going to be a very intimate gig. It'll just be me and a guitar and a piano. It's very exposed. I was inspired by seeing Eva Noblezada's concert at the Zedel and as well as a close friend, she's just fantastic and I was like "I need to do this". It kind of connects me to being me and a piano kind of vibe as well.
I've done concerts that are on a bigger scale and they're fantastic and like a different world. Like Carrie was saying on her Instagram, it's so different when you do a concert and have to get up and be yourself. These small gigs are even more like that. You have to get used to being you and it's daunting but I think it's useful.
And I've got some things lined up that I can't really say yet, but keep an eye out for it...
Any dream roles that you would love to play?
Right now, I'm in that funny middle bracket where you look 12 but you're actually 27! When I'm a bit older, I've got my eye on a lot of things. I would love to play George in Sunday in the Park with George.
I always wanted to be Tobias in Sweeney Todd, but I think I'm maybe pushing the age bracket now. We'll see, you never know. Maybe they'll just do a vocal recording and I can just sing really high.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actors?
I think, especially in this modern age, it's so competitive, but the great thing is how welcoming the world is to all types of people. I feel like you should always trust in your instincts and your own personality and yourself.
With social media and a lot of people trying to shape themselves to be other people or to be a certain thing they think they ought to be, I can say that you're most likely to succeed if you're unique in yourself and you're just proud of who you are. It sounds so corny, but that's my advice.