Shows that he’s been involved with over the years include some of the West End’s biggest hitters - The Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Hairspray, Ghost and Starlight Express.
He has also worked on all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV casting shows, including Any Dream Will Do, I’d Do Anything and Over the Rainbow .
Their latest project together is Superstar, which begins broadcasting this Saturday and will find an actor to play the title role in a forthcoming stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. The winner will join a cast that includes Tim Minchin as Judas, Melanie C as Mary Magdalene and Chris Moyles as Herod.
Whatsonstage.com’s Glenn Meads will be live blogging Superstar, so look out for his entries from next week.
What's your thinking behind the casting of Superstar?
Well initially we thought wouldn’t it be fun to look at reinventing the show to make it more of the original rock concert that Andrew and Tim first conceived. So we were looking at non-conventional people to do certain roles, but needed to know they could sing it.
We met Tim Minchin at the press night of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. He was sitting in front of Andrew and said, “I’d really love to play Judas – I love this role, I love this show. It’s the whole essence of why I love musicals, the show was a benchmark for me.” He was so excited by it. And in the interval again I got collared by him saying, “I want to play Judas.”
So anyway, we went to the party and had a great time then a few weeks later we were talking about various names and by that time Andrew had taken Tim out for lunch and got to know him properly. He rang me and said “What about Tim then? He’s passionate for the show, and for the role.” I said I wasn’t sure because I didn’t know his voice, but I made a couple of phonecalls and was told that he knows his voice so well that he wouldn’t be putting himself up for it if he couldn’t sing it. And then we did a session with him on the piano and it turned out, of course, that he can sing it.
How did Mel C and Chris Moyles get involved?
I remembered Mel from when we did Over the Rainbow - we gave the Dorothys some girls to work with and she was one of them, because she was doing Blood Brothers at the time. I went to see her in the show and loved what she did with the role, she was great. Also, she seemed to come over really well off stage, which is important. Anyway, she initially got involved as a panellist for the auditions but then Andrew said “why doesn’t Mel play Mary?”. She certainly ticked the boxes, not least because she’s played big stadiums as part of the Spice Girls. So we asked her to do a session round the piano with Andrew and the rest is history.
Chris was Andrew’s idea. He’d met him a few months back and knew that he could sing. We wanted a character who was a bit larger than life and he fitted the bill. But he also had to come in and do a session round the piano. You must remember that everyone we cast in a show, whether it’s Michael Ball in Hairspray or Amanda Holden in Shrek, has to come and audition. Poor Michael when he came in for Edna said “but I’m Michael Ball, it’s me”, and I said yes, but the Americans don't know who you are and you’ve got to come and prove it – and bless him, he did. And so did Chris - you’re going to get a shock when you come to the arena and hear him sing!
This is now your fifth TV casting show. What exactly is your level of involvement?
I go up and down the country with my team of casting directors searching for people who we think will be right for the TV show and for the show itself that we’re casting. It’s a difficult balance because we have to make sure they are good on TV. We see thousands of people – since we’ve started the numbers have gone up dramatically because they know what the prizes are and that we’re not there to ridicule them, like some other reality shows. We’re there to make sure that the people we have are the most talented and varied group we can find – and, of course, that they can sing the role.
Some people have said that casting Jesus this way is a bit tasteless
It’s a role in a show. It’s a character in a production that just happens to be called Jesus. It’s one of the major shows – it’s one of the major singing roles that any tenor would give their right arm to play. And I have to say that this has been the most difficult one so far – it’s tricky because they have to sing a certain number and they have to hit certain notes and those notes cannot be changed. I think we had around 3000 applicants initially – I never thought we’d get that many because firstly, we’re looking for a man and secondly, we’re looking for a tenor. So it’s a tricky thing to find. I think we’ve found a very good ten people that you will see on your screen shortly.
Are you looking for something specific for each role?
Well who is Nancy? Who is Dorothy? The great thing is that we can go into the shows with an open mind and see what we come up with. We didn’t want a Judy Garland look-a-like or a Georgia Brown copy. And similarly, we have an iconic vision of what we think this character called Jesus is like, but that doesn’t mean he was like that – let’s see what else we can find and see what other elements we can bring to this character.
How have you found the transition to ITV?
It was difficult for me at first, because I didn’t have the team that I normally have, but the team at ITV have been very good to me – they’ve let me do, not exactly what I wanted to do, but a variation. Overall it’s probably a bit glitzier, and the shows will obviously be on a much larger scale. We’ll have a live rock band on stage and the numbers they’ll be doing are of now.
Do you think stadium musicals are the way forward?
I just think it’s an interesting way to go. If people do want names in shows, it’s difficult to get names to actually commit for longer than three months and to the eight performances a week a West End show demands. Doing something like this, in an arena, they only have to commit for a month to six weeks. Also, they are playing big stadiums so they can earn a substantial amount of money as well. Plus, isn’t it exciting to play an arena in front of thousands people? I did Andrew’s Starlight Express, which we took to Japan and Australia in the late 80s. It was the first time one of Andrew’s shows had been in an arena and I’d never heard anything like all those people screaming.
You’ve had an amazing career and worked on some of the biggest shows of the past few decades. Any particular highlights?
It’s certainly been interesting. I get something out of all the shows I’ve done and Andrew has been a big part of that. You try to do the best you can and sometimes the critics like it and sometimes they don’t. It’s difficult to pick out particular high points but Hairspray was very close to my heart. Recently I adored doing Ghost as well, seeing what Matthew Warchus has done with it. And I’ve also been working on the new Spice Girls musical Viva Forever, which is a wonderful new challenge. But I also love doing the scholarship stuff with Andrew’s foundation – we go round the country and pick ten students a year to be given a scholarship to train in musical theatre. It all came out of doing the TV shows, and it’s incredibly rewarding to facilitate the discovery of new talent.
Who is the greatest musical theatre performer you’ve worked with?
Oh gosh, I can’t.
I’ll re-phrase: What makes a great musical performer?
Star quality. I don’t know what that is but it’s when a person enters the room and your eyes all turn at the same time, they open their mouth and then it’s just what I call ‘honey’. Their voice just sounds like honey. Also they can make lyrics work - good storytellers hold the audience.
What advice do you have for any aspiring actors?
Know your craft. Just know what you’re doing. Today I was doing an audition and somebody actually came in and said, “oh sorry, I’ve left my music on the tube”. And I'm sorry, but in this day and age the competition is so strong you have to at the very least be prepared and ready. And that’s all I can say is be prepared, make sure your voice is warmed up, make sure you are in good physical shape, make sure you know your song. It’s a job interview. However you’re looking at it, it’s a job – it’s going to pay the mortgage, it’s going to pay the bills and you want to be the best person out there to get that job.
Superstar begins broadcasting on Saturday (7 July 2012) at 7.25pm. The tour kicks off at London’s O2 Arena on 21/22 September, before visiting: Glasgow SECC (25 September), Newcastle Metro Radio Arena (28 September), Manchester Arena (30 September), Cardiff Motorpoint (2 October), Birmingham NIA (4 October), Belfast Odyssey (9 October), Dublin O2 (12 October), Liverpool Echo Arena (16 October), Nottingham Capital FM Arena (19 October) and Sheffield Motorpoint (21 October).