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Brief Encounter With ... Michael Xavier

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Michael Xavier is a musical theatre star whose stage credits include Mamma Mia!, My Fair Lady, Miss Saigon, Spamalot! and Phantom of the Opera. He led Chichester Festival Theatre's 2009 revival of Oklahoma! as Curly and more recently was seen there in Stephen Clark and Howard Goodall's Love Story.

Xavier has also experienced the unique Regent's Park Open Air Theatre playing duel lothario roles of the Wolf and Prince in the Sondheim fairy-tale Into the Woods this summer, a role which sees him nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical at the 2011 Whatsonstage.com Award.

Having completed a successful run at Chichester, Love Story transferred to the West End's Duchess Theatre, opening 6 December (previews from 27 November 2010), with both Xavier and co-star Emma Williams in their original roles. Produced in the West End by Michael Ball, Love Story is currently booking until 30 April 2011.

Here Michael tells us about being part of the popular film's stage adaptation, working with director Rachel Kavanaugh and, most importantly, that impressive pasta routine.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about Love Story and the character you play?

A lot of people obviously know Love Story from the movie. We're not trying to disassociate ourselves from that version but we have taken a step back from it by concentrating more on the book that was written by Erich Segal. The story revolves around the two central characters, Oliver and Jenny.

He's a jock from an upper class family and studied at Harvard, while she's studying at Radcliffe. They lead very opposite lives but their paths cross and they fall for each other. The story ultimately leads to her death from leukaemia. It sounds incredibly morose, but there's actually a lot of humour and fun to be had.

The story also revolves around the paternal relationships. Jenny's father and Oliver's father have completely different ways to show their love to their children, or lack of love as it may be. The end of the show is an open ended question about whether good can come out of such a tragic situation; and the potential good is that it helps to repair the relationship between Oliver and his father.

Have you spent a lot of time reading the original novel or watching the film?

I've read the book because Stephen Clark used it when adapting the story for the stage. I found that quite useful as a character reference but I haven't watched the film and I don't want to. I generally don't want to watch films of shows that I'm doing because I like to take the character from the text and not from somebody else's interpretation of it so I can give a true performance.

You created the role in the Chichester production, how long have you been involved with the show?

I auditioned for it with Emma after I got a call from my agent saying "Are you up for Love Story the musical," I thought, "God, it sounds awful!" but got the script through, read it and thought "actually, there's great potential in this". I then heard some of Howard Goodall's music and just thought that this could potentially be something fantastic. With Stephen Clark's writing and Rachel Kavanaugh's direction they've managed to craft it into something really beautiful. Stephen's been very open and flexible throughout the whole process and having someone like that helps the whole creative process to flourish. Rachel Kavanaugh's also been an absolute joy to work with. She's an incredible director with great vision and has been going over it all meticulously to remove all the schmaltz.

The show seems to have you and Emma on stage for the whole performance, what is it like to hold a musical together like that?

The two roles are fantastic and the thing about it is that you don't really notice the time passing by, the show goes so quickly that all of a sudden we're in the final scene. It's a whirlwind particularly when you're backstage doing a change, and there are a ridiculous number of quick changes. Thankfully I've got three fantastic dressers who rip things off and put things back on for me while I just stand there. Everyone involved in this show really cares about it, which I think is reflected in the production.

It's not usual that you come into a piece where the dramatic climax at the end is one of the main characters dying, and yet with Love Story the opening number tells the audience that Jenny is going to die. Did you have any thoughts on the format and how it affects the rest of the piece?

Initially, when I first read the script, I thought "Oh, they're giving it away! It'll ruin it!" Now I think that knowing what's going to happen just heightens everything tenfold. It makes you realise the stakes. It's quite interesting actually, a friend of mine came in to watch the show in Chichester not knowing much about it and his mother's very poorly at the moment with cancer so I was quite worried about whether he was going to completely fall apart. However, when I came out at the end he was absolutely fine and said that actually it's an incredibly life affirming show. He told me that the worst parts for him were the happiest bits such as when they get married and that's because of what you're told at the beginning.

The show includes a scene where you and Emma very quickly cook a pot of pasta live on stage - how long did it take you to rehearse that pasta routine?

Longer than you can imagine! It was quite interesting in the first rehearsal when they had the ingredients for us and we said "OK, let's give it a go". It was incredibly difficult to rehearse but we worked through it very, very slowly, almost a word at a time, making sure we knew exactly what we were doing. Now it's second nature. If we changed it it would be horrific. It's a joy to do and we both love the number.

I know you have to eat what you cook, but what does it actually taste like?

Actually, it's nice! I don't usually get a chance to eat it, but it's fine. Emma could have sliced her finger off a few times in the chopping process so sometimes it's better not to eat it as it may have bits of her fingers in there.

Michael Ball is one of your producers. Does he have much involvement with the show?

He did initially. He's currently doing Hairspray as well so he's backwards and forwards. He's a busy man but he's been great, very hands on, and he has been guiding us through.

Congratulations on your Whatsonstage.com Award nomination!

Thank you. I wasn't really aware of the nominations even happening at the time so it was great when I heard that I'd been nominated. I'm absolutely thrilled with it. Into the Woods was really good fun.

And both your characters, the wolf and the Prince, were taken in unconventional directions by the designer and director. Where did that come from?

I know that Simon Thomas' prince was very much based on Russell Brand and Johnny Depp in Pirate's of the Caribbean with his dreadlocks. It was great to have the antithesis of the prince which didn't seem to match in a sense but actually made the parts more interesting to play.

Love Story opened at the West End's Duchess Theatre on 6 December (previews from 27 November 2010) where it is currently booking until 30 April 2011.

Michael Xavier is nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical at the Whatsonstage.com Award for his roles in Into the Woods at the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park. Click the link below to cast your vote for Michael and all of our other nominees.



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