BWW Interview: Ryan Molloy On Karting With Simon Cowell and New Musical 27
Actor and musician Ryan Molloy won praise for Jerry Springer: The Opera, Taboo and On the Town, but he's best known for playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys for a record-breaking six years in the West End and on Broadway. He's now working in the more intimate Cockpit Theatre, where he stars in the world premiere of Sam Cassidy's rock musical 27, beginning previews on 8 September.
How did you come across 27?
After coming out of Jersey Boys, this big show, it's been fantastic getting back to some grassroots stuff - finding young people, putting together new ideas and new writing. It's really exciting to be involved with that.
Sam [Cassidy] and the production team over at 27 really seduced me into this role with their passion and energy for this new show. Given where we are today, it's fantastic to see such bravery from this production.
Is it important to use your profile to support new projects?
Anything I can do to help when it comes to getting involved with people who really believe in something, and want to get a new idea out there, I'll definitely do it - it's very inspiring for me.
We've got fantastic actors, like Cassie Compton, from American Psycho, the brilliant Greg Oliver and Jack Donnelly, plus lots of new performers, and Arlene [Phillips] has put together this great piece with strong choreography. That combination really convinced me to follow this tribe.
Tell us about your role
The story is about rock stars who self-destructed and died tragically at just 27 - people like Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse. So we descend into this underworld, and I'm playing Hades, plus I'm also the CEO of a record company. It's about the trials and tribulations of being a rock star - the passion, the hunger for fame, and how it can all fall apart so easily when you get sidetracked by insecurities, drugs, all of that.
Could you relate to some of those cautionary tales?
Absolutely. As a recording artist, my career started out being signed to Simon Fuller, and I hung out with Simon Cowell. We actually went karting together, and he was very hardcore on the track - he wanted to win even there, so he cut across me and dodged me off!
It's a crazy, intense industry. People in it need protection and guidance - without that they go off the rails. When you watch the amazing documentary about Amy Winehouse and see what happened to her, you feel like all her peers let her down, we all let her down. People made jokes, like calling her "house wine", and this is an artist crying out for help. 27 reflects that.
Do you think there should be more official support for performers?
Yes, the industry needs more safeguards. You're working with human beings who want to go on this huge emotional journey, so you have to be careful with them. It takes a long to get into that headspace, and producers and managers should be looking after artists, not thinking about how many tickets they can sell.
What do think of the reality TV side of the industry?
Shows like X Factor make a good shop front for lots of talented performers. But you see these people getting fame and money and adulation - what you don't see is one year later, when they're not getting the attention or the gigs. What happens when they have to return to the real world? It's almost like PTSD. No one cares for artists when they come out of the spotlight.
What do you like about Sam's writing and music?
What really attracted me was his energy and belief - I love meeting someone with that drive. This piece isn't what's going on in the West End right now. There, people are getting employed because they're on TV shows, and producers are juggling numbers around - like who's got the most followers on social media. But it's an illusion. True artists work from the heart, like Sam, and that can't be measured.
In terms of the score, there are lots of different musical inspirations, which I find really interesting. There's that aggressive rock element, as well as some beautiful songs - Cassie has a really moving number, and Greg and Cassie have this great duet that tears your heart out.
I'm definitely getting the best lines, which I love! It's great to play a character like this, something totally different and which requires total commitment. I'm going back to those acting roots and pushing myself to venture into this world without restraint. Lots of shows, you have to work within certain parameters, but here I can experiment and get creative, building the character from the ground up. The encouragement from the whole team has been fantastic.
What's it like working in a fringe venue - is it less pressure?
Weirdly it's almost more pressure with a show like this, because everyone wants to do well in it - they're working from the heart, so it's an emotional commitment, rather than just how much you're going to get paid at the end of the week.
I took a show up to Edinburgh and the vibrant energy there really drove you forward every day. It made you feel that what you're doing is worthwhile, and you're lucky to be an artist.
What's the legacy of your six years in Jersey Boys?
Being in Jersey Boys was an extraordinary experience, and it gave me the luxury of being able to choose great things, rather than just doing stuff for financial reasons, so I've been looking for roles that stretch me. It was fab meeting Sam and talking to him about the role, and what I could contribute. It's a challenge, and that's what I want - something to challenge my soul. My ambition now is to get involved in great work with great writing and great directing.
What's the tone of 27? Is it quite dark?
It does have a dark element. It's a very truthful piece, and it doesn't pull any punches - they're not softening it to sell tickets. It's a real story about what happens to real people. That's a brave choice. I hope the audience will find it refreshing to see a theatre piece that stands out and asks those big questions in an unflinching way.
I do think there's more respect for musicals now, with a lot of shows on Broadway especially tackling big ideas. And more crossover too, with people like Norbert Leo Butz doing TV series or A-list actors coming into musicals.
Were you a fan of the musicians featured in the show, like Amy Winehouse?
I've got a very eclectic background when it comes to music. I was definitely aware of these stories - it's like Greek tragedy meets soap opera, playing out in the newspapers and on TV shows. But Amy, Hendrix, Morrison - these were real people, put in situations where they couldn't escape those personas they projected in their professional lives.
Have you ever faced a similar challenge?
I think every performer has to some extent. It's a 100% commitment to any creative project, mind, body and soul, and often it brings up demons you have to face and overcome to make that performance honest. Then the comedown from that is very hard, trying to regain your equilibrium and get your feet back on the ground, so you can be you again and walk down to road to Sainsbury's.
Does it help having close contact with family?
That's absolutely essential - family, someone you care about. They'll always put you back in yourself.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I've had a fantastic year. This was my first year writing and starring in my own musical, Che Guevara's Night Off, where I got to play the ultimate revolutionary. It's a cross between Father Ted and Meet Joe Black - a true story about his plane crashing in Ireland. I had a great time touring that round Ireland, working with some fantastic actors and musicians, and I'm hoping to take it to the Opera House in Belfast.
I've also been auditioning lately, and getting back into that mindset - finding your person in the room, overcoming the daunting feeling of stepping into that audition space. After all that time in Jersey Boys, it's a bit of a shock to go back to prepping your ballad and your up tempo. But I've really enjoyed getting back out there.
What have you auditioned for recently?
I met with the RSC last week, which was so rewarding - I have huge respect for them. I'm looking for anything new that challenges me, whether it's musicals, plays, TV, film. As long as it's a great piece and a great crew. You give up a lot of your life, so I don't want to do something just to fill time until something else comes along. I immerse myself in the process.
Any dream roles?
I'd love to be Mr Fox in Fantastic Mr Fox - that would be a great role. Sam Holcroft has written a fantastic script, adapting Roald Dahl, plus Maria Aberg's directing and Annelie Powell is casting director. That's a dream team, with those three strong women - they're so talented, and they'd take you to a new level. It would be totally fulfilling, so that's a very exciting prospect.
Would you like to work more in the US?
I've got my green card now, so I can go over there and work. I'm doing a trip to LA in October. One thing that looks really interesting is they're turning the Westworld movie into a TV series - I'm definitely going to track that down. The whole idea of it is human beings going to this amusement park to interact with robots. It's 'the vacation of the future today'.
But whether it's in the UK or the US, I believe you have to visualise your goals, follow your heart, and your dreams will open up to you. It's a big world with lots of talented people in it, so take responsibility and seek out those life-changing roles.
Finally, why should people come to see 27?
You'll see some phenomenal performances, amazing voices, a roller coaster ride of truth, and you'll learn things you didn't know about the life of an artist. It's not all jetting to Monaco, drinking free Champagne in the club - we're showing you the other side, and that's an eye-opening experience. I hope people come away with a newfound awareness of what artists go through to achieve something emotional, and how those beliefs can be twisted if they're not supported in the right way.
Watch the 27 trailer below
Photo credit: Nick Ross