This is an extended version of our interview that appears in this week's edition of The Big Issue - click here for further details
Can you give us an overview of From Here to Eternity?
The show is based on the James Jones novel which spawned the famous 1953 film starring Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra. Essentially it's a story of love and passion, set against the backdrop of the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. It's written by the legend that is Tim Rice and is one of the few new, original musicals to hit the West End in recent years.
What are the main differences between the novel and the show?
The novel was Jones' masterpiece, giving a real insight into the hearts and minds of the people who died during what, prior to 9/11, was the most shocking attack on US soil. Certain issues it contains, such as homosexuality and prostitution, were skirted over in the film version and are explored in much more detail in our stage version.
So it's a much racier adaptation than the film?
It's got some of the raciest scenes I think a West End audience will ever have seen. But they're not there purely for shock value, they're just part of the reality of the story. For example the movie is probably most famous for a beach scene, where the lovers clinch on the sand. But it's not made explicit that what they're actually doing is making love.
Tell us more about your character, Warden
Warden is like an oak tree. He's solid and he's unshakeable in the face of whatever weather befalls him. He's very rooted in strong principles, he's a noble leader of men. And he's been hurt in the past so has not allowed himself to fall in love. But then he meets Karen, the wife of his Captain, and they engage in an illicit affair. It's a big risk because if it's uncovered Warden faces 20 years in prison.
Have you done much research into the wartime period?
I spoke to my great uncle who fought in the Second World War, and I was also lucky enough to meet some veterans of the Battle of Britain. There was a sense that these incredible events that they saw and took part in were ordinary to them. Their acts of courage and bravery seem extraordinary to us now, but these were just everyday men with incredible principles who were willing to lay down their lives for their comrades.
We're saturated in Second World War stories – do you think there are particularly modern resonances for this one?
I do, especially when you consider the similarities between the Pearl Harbour attack and modern-day terrorism. It was an attack that was completely unprecedented and the soldiers were totally unprepared; it would be the equivalent of us waking up and finding that London was being bombed from the sky. So it draws strong parallels with the increasing number of surprise attacks that have taken place in recent years, from 9/11 through to Syria.
Is Pearl Harbour shown in the production?
Yes it is. We've got the most amazing set designed by Soutra Gilmour. She's created this incredible playground in which we actors can live and experience the lives of the characters. When the attack comes it's done in a very powerful way. There was not a dry eye in the house when we did our first tech run. Staff in the theatre came up to us afterwards in tears and said "I was not at all prepared for that".
Can you give us a flavour of the music?
The composer Stuart Brayson, using some of Tim Rice's best lyrics, has achieved something that's very hard to crack. And that's songs that are instantly catchy and popular, yet at the same time feel classic. It's no mean feat – as a song writer myself I've been really encouraged by the fact the music is so strong. It's a big part of why I wanted to take this role on.
Is it daunting to launch a brand new musical in the West End?
Creating a new show is without the doubt the greatest thing an actor can be part of. You have the joy of creating a new character, and you become part of a family who forge relationships through the storytelling. The craft you learn is completely different from that of jumping on board something that's already established and defined. We're using the whole preview to shape and highlight the most important areas of the story, rewriting as we go. It's flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants fun!
It's your director, Tamara Harvey's, first West End musical
Tamara's taken a renegade approach to her first big musical, in that she's applied principles of storytelling you might associate with something at the National or RSC and applied them to something that at its heart is very popular. I'm learning every day from thanks to the freedom that she's giving us, and from the eclectic cast and creative team which includes incredible experience and success and also lots of new talent as well.
Working with Tim Rice must be quite something?
Sir Tim Rice, or Tim as he insists I call him, is incredibly quick-witted and very down-to-earth. He doesn't have any airs or graces. He believes in getting to the core of the story, and has managed to research the period of the story so beautifully that he's come up with some of his absolute best lyrics. He's a bit of a legend, and it's such an honour and a daily joy to work with one of my heroes. From Here to Eternity is going to form a big part of his legacy.
And it's opening at the same time as Andrew Lloyd Webber's new show Stephen Ward
Indeed. It's great to see, like the battle of the bands in the Britpop era! Oasis v Blur. It's a real clash of the titans.
You've done pop, you've done theatre, what's next for you?
As with anything you do as a performer, you try and embrace it with passion and live in the moment. If you don't, your performance won't be any good. For me it's never been about thinking about the next thing, but about enjoying what I'm doing and throwing my heart, soul and body into it. If you'd asked me a year ago when I was filming Beauty and the Beast in Vancouver what I'd be doing in a year's time, I wouldn't have believed you if you'd said I'd be taking the lead in a Tim Rice production in the West End. So I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity and hope to be entertaining audiences for the foreseeable future.
From Here to Eternity is currently in previews and premieres at the Shaftesbury Theatre on Wednesday (23 October 2013)
The Big Stage is a joint venture between WhatsOnStage and The Big Issue magazine. Edited versions of this content appears once a month in the magazine, as well as online at www.whatsonstage.com and www.bigissue.com.