John Owen-Jones has broken two records in two of the longest-running musicals in the West End, having been the youngest ever Jean Valjean at the age of 26 in Les Miserables and the longest-running Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, completing more than 1,400 performances between 2001 and 2005.
The actor's other notable London musical credits include Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the National and The Pirates of Penzance at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. He has also starred in Les Miserables on tour and worked extensively at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where his credits include The Boys from Syracuse, The Merchant of Venice, The Sound of Music, The Hypochondriac and Le Medecin Volant.
In concert, Owen-Jones’ appearances include the Les Miserables Tenth Anniversary Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, the Sweeney Todd 20th Anniversary Concert at the Royal Festival Hall and The Musicals at Christmas with Michael Ball at the Royal Opera House as well as a BBC Radio 3 concert performance of Carousel.
His television credits include guest appearances on Tonight at the London Palladium, The South Bank Show, The Bill, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, A Week in the West End, Backstage, Record Breakers, Pebble Mill, The Margaret Williams Show, Heno and Richard and Judy. Owen-Jones also featured as The Phantom in Behind the Mask, a documentary about the stage show in The Phantom of the Opera motion picture DVD.
Owen-Jones has now returned to the starring role of Jean Valjean in the West End production of Les Miserables, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Date & place of birth
Born 5 May 1971 in Burry Port, Carmarthenshire, Wales.
Lives now in
Surrey, with my wife and two children.
Central School of Speech and Drama.
First big break
Les Miserables really. What happened was I was understudying the part of Jean Valjean. Well, actually, I was more like first cover as there was another understudy before me. The actor playing the role at the time had a motorbike accident, which was very bad for him, but good for me - he’s completely fine now, so I can say that! I played his role a few times, and was then offered the job. It was great because before that happened I wasn’t really getting much of a chance to go on and do it, so that’s what started things off for me.
Career highlights to date
Les Miserables is definitely one of them - particularly singing it at the Albert Hall. I did a couple of outdoor concerts with Michael Ball, and that was a blast singing in front of 10,000 people. That was really cool. Playing the Phantom is another highlight; that was an absolute joy. But yeah, all of it really - that’s such a naff answer, but I’ve had a great laugh doing all the shows I’ve been in.
What made you want to become an actor?
Drama lessons at school first got me started. I used to find I enjoyed it and I could make people laugh, which is always good, and when you become a little bit popular you want to carry on with it. Then I got into it a bit more seriously, I joined a youth theatre and got into doing all sorts of plays. It was great.
If you hadn’t become involved with theatre, what might you have done professionally?
I was going to be a doctor, but then I realised you can earn a lot more money for a lot less work as an actor, so I did that. Well, that’s what I thought at first, anyway! Actually, being an actor is really hard work. The amount of pressure you’re under when everyone’s looking for you to be good every night is quite hard and also the fact you’re standing up there doing something in front of people who’ve paid to see you and you never want to be bad. I have bad days, but you just have to hide it and get on with it and hope the audience don’t notice, because that’s what I’m paid to do. I still get nervous before I go on stage. Not so much when I’m doing a long run because then it’s just part of your stream of consciousness, it just comes out. But I do get nervous with auditions, and when things go wrong the adrenaline starts pumping.
What sort of things have gone wrong on stage?
The show is so technical in The Phantom of the Opera, it’s always breaking down. The worst are things like knocking props over, because you have to think on the spot about how to build it into the scene. Actually, the worst was the time in Les Miserables in Southampton when my wig fell off. A new girl was doing it that night. There’s a quick change and she put it on incorrectly and it was just my hair in pin curls so instead of looking like a greasy convict I looked like some girl. I couldn’t just leave the wig on the floor, so I had to hide it under my arm and then somehow try to get it back on my head! It was very embarrassing! But then that’s what makes theatre so exciting. If it was TV, they’d just cut. Things going wrong also make it special for the audience in that it makes the experience more unique when a bit of set breaks down and you have to stop the show. That used to happen quite lot in The Phantom of the Opera, but it hasn’t happened in Les Miserables yet. If it all has to stop for a technical reason, you just stop for a while and then when it’s back on again there’s a big round of applause. And people remember- “I saw The Phantom of the Opera and it was great, AND the set broke down.”
I don’t really want to alienate anybody I’ve worked with by picking favourites. I think everybody has been great, pretty much. When you get to the West End, everyone is very professional and knows what they’re doing. Although I have to say, working opposite Judi Dench in A Little Night Music at the National was nice. I had to waltz with her, which was comedy as she’s about 5’ and I’m 6’2”. My mum and dad liked that a lot. They were very proud!
Coming back to Les Miserables I realised that I had forgotten how good John Caird is. Trevor Nunn is also brilliant. But the ones that are the best are probably the ones I learned the most from. Geoff Ferris and Jimmy Patterson on The Phantom of the Opera helped me though my initial stages on the show and I learned basically how to play a leading role. People are expecting a lot from the guy in the role of the Phantom, and they helped me get through that. Toby Jones who I worked with at the West Yorkshire Playhouse was also excellent. He’s an actor - he won an Olivier (for The Play What I Wrote) actually - but he sometimes directs. I would like to direct in future perhaps, but the way my career’s going at the moment I’ve got no time. It takes years of working and experience, for me anyway. Some people can just do it, but I need to take some time to think about it. I can see now from a director’s point of view how things should be, whereas before I was thinking just as an actor, so I suppose I’m getting closer.
Favourite playwrights/musical writers
Stephen Sondheim is my favourite musical writer. I loved working on Sweeney Todd. And my favourite playwright is Samuel Beckett. My favourite ever play is Waiting for Godot. There’s so much humour in it, in a good production anyway.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I have a whole list! George in Sunday in Park with George, Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, Billy Flynn in Chicago. Five years ago if you’d asked the same question, I’d have said I would have loved to do The Phantom of the Opera. I want to do some more creative roles now, though. I’d really love to do new stuff, I would love to create a role and make it mine, not do a role where people say, “Michael Crawford did that and John Owen-Jones is doing it now.”
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
The best thing I’ve seen that recently… um, I don’t know. I don’t seem to manage to get to the theatre that often, it’s a bit like a bus man’s holiday. I think the last thing I remember really thoroughly enjoying was His Dark Materials at the National, but that was back last year. Now you’ve brought that up, I feel really bad because I haven’t been to the theatre for so long. Oh wait, there was… no, it’s gone now. Can’t have been that brilliant.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give actors tax cuts. Actually, give the whole lot of us tax cuts. They should start with a flat rate tax - but if I get into that it’s going to get very political. The thing is, as an actor, it’s very complicated with business and finance. Actors aren’t mathematicians, we’re all a bit thick then it comes to that, that’s why we’re actors. If the government would make things easier, that would be cool. And more subsidised theatre like the National is very important. If they can make it more of a national theatre and have a permanent home up north as well as in London, that would be great. There are people up there who would have loved to see Michael Gambon in Henry IV, but they don’t want to travel 800 miles.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Oh my God, that’s a bit deep. Wow. Um, thinking about it, probably Cameron Mackintosh just about the time he was getting people to invest in Cats. Why on earth would anybody want to put money into a show about dancing cats? What was going on in his head when he thought that would be a good idea? It sounds mad. Amazingly, it was very successful, and is the longest-running show ever, so well done him. I actually really enjoyed it. I can see why people would go even though it’s not my cup of tea in terms of acting. But a show about dancing cats? Mental.
I’m re-reading The Stand by Stephen King and that’s brilliant. It is one of my favourites, but it is not THE favourite. I don’t know. I do read an awful lot as it takes about an hour by train to get to work so I’ve got plenty of time. I think my favourite book is possibly The Dice Man by Luke Rheinhart.
Favourite holiday destinations
Wales because I don’t live there but I want to. I can’t live there because I’m a working actor and London is the place to be, but I am always going back. I also love Florida because I’ve got kids. I haven’t been there with them yet, but I will when they’re older. My wife and I have been there a couple of times. I’m a big rollercoaster fan. In fact, I used to be a member of the Rollercoaster Club of Great Britain - interesting fact! I’ve spent a lot of time trying to coordinate holidays to incorporate theme parks into my beach holiday.
Whatsonstage.com! I’m also very much into rock so I look at ironmaiden.com a lot and the sites for The Darkness and Metallica. Oh, another good one is aintitcoolnews.com for film gossip. It can be kind of worrying because everyone on it seems to get feverishly excited about things like who the new Spiderman is, but it’s run by this guy who gets all the gossip from Hollywood, so you get first dibs. I’ve also got my own website.
Why did you want to return to Les Miserables?
When I left before, I was the youngest actor to ever play the role of Jean Valjean. Looking back, I think I couldn’t bring the depth to the part that it needed. I could sing it and act it, but I’m quite different now to how I was. Now I’ve got a family, I’ve had the experience with The Phantom of the Opera and I’ve really grown as an actor. I wanted to prove to myself that I’m good enough to do it. And now I think I am - well, the audience response leads me to believe I am. Before it was a case of managing to do eight shows a week, and now it’s about doing eight shows a week brilliantly. And I love the show. I met my wife when I was working there and it’s my parents’ favourite show. They have seen it loads of times because I went on tour with it, and my mum and dad ran bus trips specially from Wales. They’ve spent a lot of money coming to see their boy!
Les Miserables celebrates its 20th anniversary this week. Why do you think it has been so successful?
The story is the main thing really. The book is pretty old and that’s still around. The characters are so good, and the rich tapestry that makes up the plot - it is thrilling and romantic. It’s the same kind of thing with The Phantom of the Opera. All the ingredients came together at the right time, it all came together with the talent that created the show to begin with, and it’s still going because the people who started it knew what they were doing.
Would you ever reprise any other roles?
I’d have a go at The Phantom of the Opera again - not for a while though. If they asked me to go back tomorrow, I wouldn’t do it. I’ve had a family and I’ve had things go wrong in my life and I’ve learned from it and those things changed me as a person. So maybe if I do The Phantom of the Opera again, it will be a long time down the line when I have changed and can do something new with it. It might be a totally different interpretation. With regards other roles, no, I don’t want to do anything else I’ve done before because they are not so creative. You don’t want to stick to the same thing all the time.
What are plans for the future?
I’m doing Les Miserables until next summer. After that, I’ve got a few things in the pipeline, but I can’t say what they are now in case they don’t work out and then I look like a liar! My immediate concern, though, is Les Miserables, which I am loving being part of.
John Owen-Jones was talking to Caroline Ansdell
Les Miserables opened on 8 October 1985 and is still running at its third London home, the West End’s Queen's Theatre. The Phantom of the Opera celebrates its 19th West End birthday at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 9 October 2005.