James Fox made a name for himself through the BBC TV talent show Fame Academy, and went on to represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004. He then played Judas in the 2004/5 UK tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, where he was seen by the Movin' Out producers.
As well as working as a session singer, he's entertained British troops in Bosnia and the Falklands, and has toured as support for Liberty X.
The hit Broadway dance musical Movin' Out, featuring pop classics by Billy Joel and choreography by Emmy Award winner Twyla Tharp, receives its European premiere at the West End’s Apollo Victoria, where it has a limited run from 10 April to 17 July 2006 (previews from 28 March), ahead of a continental tour. Fox stars in the leading role of Piano Man, a part he played in the show’s North American tour and on Broadway.
Date & place of birth
Born 6 April 1976 in Cardiff.
Lives now in
West London. We’ve actually just bought a place when we came back from the American tour. We moved in two weeks ago. The bed just came yesterday, so we’d been sleeping on the floor.
I played piano and had lessons from the age of seven, so I guess that counts. I had piano lessons and music theory lessons. I taught myself guitar by just picking it up really.
First big break
I’m a big snooker fan but I’ll resist the pun… To get involved on this level in the last couple of years I guess it was… this is painful. I was in a boy band in Blackpool playing on the Pleasure Beach, and one of the guys was Kevin Simm who was a fifth of Liberty X. I ended up sharing a flat with him and Tony. Kevin and I were both in the Boy Band and he auditioned for Pop Stars, the first one, and he put me in touch with his manager who was looking for a guitar singer for another band, a German band called Worlds Apart who were huge in Germany and France. So coming to be involved with that management company and then auditioning for Fame Academy all came from being in that boy band really.
What inspired you to enter Fame Academy?
The industry at the time was – and still is - very led and driven by the TV element. I’m not a fan of Pop Idol and X Factor and the more manufactured stuff, but Fame Academy had the right idea. The principle of it was to take people who could write and play their own instruments and then get them to work with people like Elton John and Sting to develop and nurture the talent rather than just manufacture it. I was never a fan of the idea of ‘selling out’, for want of a better word. I’d been a gigging musician for ten years prior to that so I always thought I had to do something like that to put myself out there. You just hope you don’t win these things, which I didn’t, thankfully. So you put yourself out there, and if you’ve got enough talent to back it up, then you might survive. I was very sceptical about doing it – and the same with Eurovision. But the industry has got to that stage where these are the ways to get yourself out there. To me, when you win those things like Alex (Parks) found out, it can set you up. You’ve had ten weeks of primetime TV on BBC1. You can’t ask for anything more than that. But when you leave, you’ve got to have your own material and things and you’ve got to be the real thing. For me, I’d written songs, but they really weren’t… I’ve kind of grown as an artist really in the last three years. My writing’s improved and I’m glad I’ve got the opportunity over this summer to release my own stuff because three years ago it probably wouldn’t have cut it to be honest. I’ve been kind of lucky. I’ve got away with it all to get to this point. I loved doing Fame Academy. If they ever asked me, I’d do it again. It was one of those things; for what it was worth. I took my part in it seriously, the actual music side of it, but it was just good fun, it was a really good couple of months. It’s all led to this so I look back on it fondly, but Eurovision is just hilarious.
What made you switch from pop to musical theatre?
Basically, it happened after Eurovision on the Saturday night. The Monday morning my manager had a call from Bill Kenwright to say he watched Eurovision and would I consider playing Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. I was at a bit of a loss, the record company and myself. They had some material, but everything was up in the air so this came along and it seemed like, “OK, this is what I need to do now”. I watched the DVD of Joseph and thought it was a great challenge. I’d been doing the same piano and guitar music since I was about seven and this was completely different. I had never considered acting at all, it was very hard work. If I’d known what was involved beforehand, I probably would have said no. I’m very glad I did it now, but the rehearsal process is so tough - Judas kills himself and he’s crying and screaming at God and it is really heavy stuff. It’s one of the hardest roles in musical theatre. It was really chucking me in at the deep end, a case of sink or swim.
Career highlights to date
I did a Festival of Remembrance in the Royal Albert Hall in front of the Queen, because I do a lot for the forces, it was basically on the back of an Iraq trip. We took some footage of the gigs out in Iraq in the Falklands at the time and it was great. Troops have played an important part in what I’ve done in the last five years. Sitting and watching them with the Queen was amazing.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become a musician?
I’d just be doing it at a different level. I’ve been lucky enough to never work a day in my life. I’ve never had to do a normal day job since I was in school bands at the age of 15, and we were gigging three or four nights a week. I only did music because I couldn’t get into the football team! I’m into pub sports, pool and snooker. My best mate is Mark Williams, the snooker player. So maybe I’d want to work with him if I wasn’t a musician. It wouldn’t be anything academic - I used to hide out in the music room whenever I could at school.
Are you keen to perform in more musicals in future?
This one is weird for me. Movin’ Out is in the West End and it is a theatre show, but for me it’s a live gig every night so it’s really back to where I was as I don’t act as such in it. Tim Rice has approached my management company about other things. I would definitely do more musicals if I felt it was right. I’m really keen to do real music again, but theatre is not something I’d say no to. I did enjoy the process of working on the character of Judas when I did it and I got a big insight into it. I was offered Chicago last year. They didn’t think I was old enough but I looked really rough that morning so I thought I might get away with it. But that was at the same time as Movin’ Out came about and I thought it’s better to be the first in that than the 75th Billy Flynn or whatever. I’ve been offered things like Grease which I’m not sure about. I’m a big fan of people like Michael J Fox and sitcom actors. I don’t think I’d want to be in EastEnders or Coronation Street, but I’d have a dabble at screen acting.
Favourite after-show haunts
The only place I’ve really been around here is Embassy, the club. That’s about it, I’m not thinking of drinking my life away already!
I didn’t even read my piano and guitar books. I have the attention span of a goldfish. Someone could read to me… I can read, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t find it relaxing to sit and read a book. My mind wanders too much. People give me books that are really interesting, but after the first page I start looking around.
Favourite holiday destinations
Mauritius. It’s so lovely. We were lucky enough to get a gig there a couple of years ago, myself and Liberty X, and that was good.
If you could swap places with one person, who would it be?
Billy Joel definitely. For that back catalogue to be your own would be phenomenal. To be him for a day would be something else.
What made you want to accept the role of Piano Man in Movin' Out?
It’s kind of tied in with the Billy Joel thing. I thought, if it ever comes to the West End it has to be me, only because I’m such a fan, you know. I mean I’m sure there are plenty of people who are more than capable of doing the role, but I wouldn’t trust anybody else. I harp on about this guy in every interview I’ve done over the last three years. If somebody else did it in London, I’d be there in the front row with my pen ready to rip the guy apart. For me, I’m just so close to this stuff. The only reason I’ve ever been involved in music is this guy, he’s shaped my whole career and I owe him pretty much everything. When I even knew it was running and I wasn’t involved, I was angry about it. I met the guy who played it originally randomly three years prior to that in a piano bar in Vegas and he’s great, so I let him off. He said he was going to do a Billy Joel show and I thought, “well if it ever goes to London, it’s not going to be you, mate!”
How would you describe the show & your character?
It’s just a gig with this exceptional band. It really is phenomenal, to do it every night is great. One word you get from the show is energy. It really leaps off the stage like they say on the poster, it really does. You’re watching the band and then you want to watch the dancers and it’s all going on. People come back to see it twice – I think that’s how it’s lasted so long on Broadway because people want to keep coming back. The dancers are fantastic. I can’t do that kind of dancing. On BBC Breakfast, they wanted me to dance, but my days of boy band step clicking are miles away from this. What they put their bodies through and how they last more than one show a week amazes me. I want to learn some of it, though. Visually, the show is amazing. The dancers are like body builders with the amount of work they have to do… and they’re not an ugly cast, either!
What are the biggest challenges of this production?
For me, I’ve got so much respect for the music. I put pressure on myself. I think I just want to make sure it’s exactly how I want to hear it every night and do it justice as I’m such a fan. You can’t bag what it is about it, really. Billy wrote all the music and lyrics himself. He’s a complete story-teller, his lyrics speak for generations and will last forever. And he’s so diverse, every song on every album is completely different. He’s a master of his craft really. He’s up there with the Beatles. Lennon said himself that Billy’s up there with the best of them.
You played the role in the US before London. Do you think it will be any different here?
I did a month on Broadway first and then the tour. It will be interesting to see how it’s received here. It’s all very similar in the US, they all go mad for it, they love it. The nerves have stopped since the start. You kind of develop your voice to mould into the role. If I try singing anything else at the moment, no chance; it’s just all about the show. And I haven’t had any vocal problems. It seems to be sustainable, which is great. But you develop the role every time you play it, you just notice new things and add stuff in.
What’s the funniest/oddest/ most memorable thing that’s happened in your performances to date?
I had to climb a 30-ft ladder on the tour as the platform I’m on is already up there, rather than like on Broadway and in the West End where the platform starts on the stage and then raises up with the band already on it. I’m afraid of heights, so it was a huge ordeal to climb up there every night and I’d get up there shaking – people probably thought it was the nerves of the show but it was that climb I’d just gone through. Luckily, in London we get on at the bottom and it just shoots you up.
What are your future plans?
There’s an option to go onto a world tour, or maybe back to the American tour. But I’ll hopefully get my own album out towards the back of this run at the end of July or something. I really want to get some of my own stuff out there.
- James Fox was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Movin' Out opens on 10 April 2006 (previews from 28 March) at the Apollo Victoria, where it runs until 17 July 2006.