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Brief Encounter With ... Noel Sullivan

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Welsh actor and singer Noel Sullivan rose to fame as a member of the pop group Hear'Say, who were formed by winners of the 2001 reality show Popstars.

Since the band split in 2002, Sullivan has carved out a successful career in musical theatre, starring in touring productions of Fame, Love Shack and Flashdance among others. He also recently featured in the tour concerts of Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) to preview excerpts from Moonshadow, the debut musical by the acclaimed singer-songwriter.

He's currently making his West End debut as Danny Zuko in Grease at the Piccadilly Theatre, where he stars alongside Siobhan Dillon as Sandy and Toby Anstis as Teen Angel.

Congratulations on making your West End debut
Thank you. It's been a long slog to get here – I didn't want to waltz into a West End show off the back of Hear'Say. I felt I had to earn my stripes so I went out on the road and worked with various productions. Seven or eight years later, here I am in the West End – it's nice to feel I've made progress and it's nice to walk in to rehearsals and work with people you know and have worked with before. It's much nicer than being thrown in there with no experience.

So when you left Hear'Say you felt you wanted to prove yourself?
Yeah, absolutely - I wanted to build a career and something that can last. I've done flash-in-the-pan fame and it was an amazing experience but you need something solid that's going to pay your mortgage, and if I can make an income out of performing, then I'm happy.

Do you have fond memories of your time with the group?
It's odd, as you get older different stuff comes back to you. Now, I look back on it with fond memories but briefly afterwards it was a really hard thing to go through. I was 20 years old and to be picked up, shown an amazing world and then dropped was an emotional thing to go through. It also shifts everything in your life; every relationship you have and every friend, it all shifts, so when I went back to Cardiff everything was different. I think the best thing I ever did was go back to theatre because there's a great therapy within theatre; it's the type of place where you can talk about anything and no one bats an eyelid. You can literally bring any subject up and say it and nobody cares. They'll listen and they'll move on, you don't get that in a lot of jobs - some of the things we discuss back stage just wouldn't get discussed in an office!

Did you feel at all used by the reality TV experience?
Yeah, I suppose in some senses used is a good word. I didn't personally feel used; I had to take the positives from it and move on. It was an amazing experience and it's given me a platform to work from and also, to be fair to it, in theatre I've had to fight against the fact that there's a lot of celebrities out there who can't cut the mustard. It makes it difficult because people have certain preconceptions, but it's also great as I get to prove myself. Now I'm starting to do the varied kind of work which actually I'm not doing because I was in Hear'Say, but because I've proved I can perform. I did Latitude festival last year for Theatre 503 and people are surprised to see me doing things like that but at the same time, they are the kind of things I want to do.

Working with Yusuf Islam on Moonshadow was a big step forward for me as well. I had to audition my arse off for that - I'd been learning the guitar for about ten months and I took it in and played a song I'd written and it was all very nerve-racking. To get the lead in that was an incredible experience - Yusuf Islam does not care about Hear'Say!

Do you think Moonshadow will come to London?
He wants to get it in to town – I not sure about the concept, that's all down to opinion, but the music is just incredible – to hear those great songs sung in choral style, it was just made for musicals! If he gets the story right, he's got a hit on his hands there.

Do you come up against a lot of negativity that you're just another reality TV star?
Oh, yes. There's loads of snobbery within theatre that I think needs to change if there's a hope for it in the future. I hear people complaining “Oh, they're chewing up another old film and making it a musical” but if we want it to survive then it needs that staple of commercial theatre, so you can't be snobby about it! I just have a problem with it if the people going in to the roles can't do the job, but if they're putting bums on seats, it's difficult to argue with.

How did you feel when you got cast as Danny?
It's funny, because Grease was actually my first professional theatre role. It was a production in Jersey and I thought 'no one is going to see it here' so I just went out and had an amazing three months! Clare Buckfield was my Sandy and it was a great cast and an amazing experience. I didn't really know a lot then so it was nice to come back to the role after eight years of touring knowing my stagecraft. You forget how much fun it is to play Danny Zuko, it's just a great part and so many people have played it in the past. My mum was bawling her eyes out on opening night. We recorded the cast album for Moonshadow in the morning at the Old Vic, and she kept saying “Is that Kevin Spacey?”. I was like “Yes, mum. Shh”. And she came to see me in this in the evening and it was too much for her, she said “I don't understand where this came from”.

Is it a difficult role?
It's hard work! I've never been so tired on a job, ever! The dance track is full on and I made a specific request when I first started for an extra couple of weeks on the dancing - I'm not a trained dancer. I'd seen it on tours where Danny doesn't do the dancing and it just isn't right, so I put in a bit of extra time. Mind you, with all those lifts and everything I was nearly in hospital every week. You love it at the time but in the mornings your back kills.

Have you got a favourite song or moment in the show?
I love “We Go Together” because we're all on the bleachers doing the hand claps and when I watched it, it looked so impressive. I really like that and funny enough, also the megamix, which I realise is not everybody's cup of tea. I love a megamix when I see a show to wrap it up nicely!

Are there any moments that you dread?
Making the quiff! It started off as a 45-minute thing every day and then I had my haircut and now it's down to about 25. But still, that's 25 minutes of my day, every day that I'm never going to get back! I approach it with a Zen-like attitude – put some music on and get in the mood. All the new ensemble boys have quiff lessons and then for three days they're all crying but we're learning to love that!

You're nearly 30 – are you not a bit old to be playing a schoolkid?
Well, because they cast the movie so old, people expect to see older people play the characters. There's almost more fun in the fact that there's a twinkle in our eyes at some of the stuff we're talking about, because we're all too old to be talking about it. I think it would be weird if you had an actor the actual age playing the role.

Do you get many stage door fans?
I do but because I haven't done TV for a while, generally the people at the stage door are people who have seen the show so it's not as bad. I find that quite nice as it's an instant reaction to the performance you've given rather than someone creepy following you around.

What's your advice to up-and-coming actors?
Don't copy me! My story's not like that of many other people; I still think there's a place for reality TV shows, it's a platform for talent if that's the kind of thing you want to do. I still think the best route to take is your degree in musical theatre and get on it like everybody else does. If you're good enough then you'll break through. The competition is fierce; now I'm seeing open calls for musicals with hundreds and hundreds of people - all brilliant and all looking to do the same thing, so have a back up plan!

What are you plans for the future?
There are some bits and pieces in the pipeline, but they're still to be confirmed. There's a possibility I might be part of Flashdance in the West End. I'd love to be part of that because I had an incredible time on the tour creating the role and if I was part of an original West End cast I'd feel like I'd really stamped myself on something. It's an exciting time as now people are actually starting to consider me for things that I always wanted to do. And I've still got music on the go too, I'm writing and I play with a band. I haven't been based in London for years, so it's really exciting to be back.

- Noel Sullivan was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Grease is currently booking to 4 September 2010. Ice skater Robin Cousins takes over as Teen Angel from 29 March.


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