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Brief Encounter with... John Owen-Jones

John Owen-Jones, well known for starring in The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, is about to appear in Momentous Musicals with Gareth Gates

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John Owen-Jones
Tell us a bit about Momentous Musicals
Basically it's one of your musical theatre compilation shows, if you will, and all of the songs are from "Momentous Musicals". It's going to be fun, especially because I worked with Gareth on a "Momentous Musical", Les Miserables, and we had a great time. When he asked me to join him for this as a guest I jumped at it because I love working with him, he's great. The interesting thing about Gareth is everybody has this perception of him being a popstar, but he's so much more than that and really very entertaining and lots of fun to work with. So I'm looking forward to doing some stuff I've never done before.

How would you define a "Momentous Musical"?
Something that can move you, something that is a piece of art. Something like Les Mis, whilst it's incredibly popular, and people often define art as something that isn't populist, is a piece of art. It's perfectly crafted, it's got amazing music and lyrics and a great story. A "Momentous Musical" to me is something that moves you. Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera are popular for a reason, and that reason is that people connect to them.

Do you have ideal songs you'd like to sing?
This is going to sound clichéd, but I think "Bring Him Home". I absolutely love singing it, I love the reaction it gets; it's the one that I can never not sing. And let's do what my manager would tell me the answer to this question would be – anything off either of my albums!

What do you like about performing in concerts?
I like changing stuff, making things different every night. It's quite exciting to sing songs in a very different way which is completely removed from the storytelling. I do a thing now where "Suddenly", the new song in Les Mis that Valjean has, links into "Bring Him Home" - I couldn't do that in the show, but I can in the concert.

Would you return to Phantom or Les Mis?
Yes. I think it'll be a very long time before I go back to Phantom, if at all – I've kind of got it out of my system. But Valjean is more satisfying a role to play, the story arc is more interesting. I could definitely go back to that. They have asked me - I'm not ready to do it yet, but one day definitely.

What do you do to keep the roles fresh when you revisit them?
I just react to what's going on onstage, and the audience reaction. It's always different every night anyway because the actors playing opposite you are different, it's a very organic thing. I wouldn't go out of my way to change something for the sake of changing it. I see a lot of actors and directors do that, but if something works, just make it work very well every night.

Do you have any desire to originate a new role?
I was thinking about this the other day - Colm Wilkinson was a perfect fit for Jean Valjean, Michael Crawford was a perfect fit for the Phantom of the Opera. They were placed in the right roles at the right time. Often, a new musical might come along and I might get offered the leading role but it might not quite fit me. I would love to originate a role, but I'm waiting for something that's the right fit. I suppose in a way I kind of re-originated and re-imagined the Phantom and Jean Valjean, so I've kind of had a taste of what it's like to do a brand new show. Although obviously with those two I had the advantage of hindsight as well.

Were the touring productions of Les Mis and Phantom very different from the West End ones?
Yes, very much so. We went out of our way to make things new. One of the things with the Les Mis tour specifically was Cameron [Mackintosh] kind of recreated the conditions of the original production, and that was really cool. We got the script and the music and just built it from the ground up. We did the same for The Phantom of the Opera. One of the things we also had to do, because they were touring productions, was change the set and the designs because they all had to be moved very quickly. That of course then influenced what we did as a team of actors onstage. So yes they were very different.

John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables

Do you have any favourite musical theatre composers?
Yes, Sondheim. I did work with him once; I did A Little Night Music at the National Theatre with Judi Dench. Sondheim came to rehearsals one day and he said to me: "John, you sing with great style. It's the wrong style, but it's great style"'. I'd love to work with him more, he's a genius. I've worked with Andrew [Lloyd Webber], I've worked with Claude-Michel [Schönberg], the three big musical theatre composers. But I'd like to do more Sondheim because as an actor it's very satisfying to do the kind of stuff that he writes.

You've released a few albums. Do you have any more planned?
Yes, definitely, it's all in the planning stages at the moment. I'm hoping to have a Christmas single out, which we're working on now. And then there will be a new album in the spring of 2014. My first album was all musical theatre and my second album was about 80% musical theatre, so maybe the next one will be about 60%, because that's where I come from. I can't suddenly do a death metal album. I've got a list of songs I want to record, it's just a matter of how you put them together conceptually.

Have you got any tips for aspiring actors?
My tip to anyone that asks me is to get as much performance experience as you can. No matter what it is, you can use it. Even learning how to tell a joke in a pub or doing an impression of somebody will come in handy at some point. Whatever you do, no matter if you think it won't be, will be useful at some point. My dad's a butcher and I did some training as a butcher and that got me a job once. They wanted someone to slaughter a pig on film, and I was like "I'm able to do that". It's one of those things that you'd never think would come in handy, but it did.

What's next?
I'm kind of keeping my options open. I've spent a long time working in Phantom and Les Mis, but I've decided to step away from that and see what else is out there. As a result, I've done four TV jobs, where before I've never been available to do them. I'm keeping my options open very much. I'm not saying I'm never coming back to the West End, but I'm waiting for the right part.

Momentous Musicals runs at the New Wimbledon Theatre on 17 July before touring to Torquay, Bradford and Manchester