Alex Gaumond has become one of musical theatre’s most popular leading men with rôles in Queen’s We Will Rock You, Legally Blonde and Matilda. He is currently swapping the bright lights of the glittering West End for the a stint in the ever-raining surrounds of Manchester in a brand new in-the-round revival of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. John Roberts went to meet Alex and chatted to him over lunch.
Where did your love of musical theatre come from?
I had a really weird career path as I wasn’t ever going to be a performer, I was heading for a career in Business Studies back home in Canada. Where I grew up having a career in performing arts isn’t really part of the culture. However, I have played the piano since the age of six and I started singing at the age of 14, so music has always been a strong part of my life.
Performing in musical theatre came about when a friend of mine was playing in an orchestra for a college production and said I should audition, I landed a part in a musical called Les Misérables – I had no idea what this show was about [starts to laugh] and found myself on stage acting for the first time. I loved it, and did another show with them, then my father had an opportunity with work to move to the UK so, as a family, we all moved across together… but it was my girlfriend in Canada at the time who said “isn’t the UK one of the best places to train for musical theatre in the world?” so I started to really think that this could possibly be a valid career choice, so I applied for a school (Guilford School of Acting) and suddenly I found myself studying musical theatre and not business studies. A very eventful twist of fate that changed my whole life.
Guildford School of Acting has a reputation for creating some of the biggest names in musical theatre – what do you think is so unique about it?
I don’t know how the other institutions run their courses but, when I was at GSA in the first year, whether you are an acting or musical theatre student, we all had our classes together… So the first year becomes all about building the foundations of a good actor for everyone. Then when you get into second year you start to branch out into your chosen specialism and I started to have more classes in singing and dancing. So maybe it’s to do with that foundation work in building you up as actors first. For me personally it was great coming from abroad and not living in London. Guildford is such a beautiful town and having my classes spread out in various buildings around the town, really meant I got to soak in the atmosphere of the place and study without the pressure of living in a major city.
You had your first professional rôle 13 years ago in The Full Monty…[Laughs] rôle… yes, but first professional job out of drama school was the Asian tour of Miss Saigon where I was part of the ensemble and understudied the rôle of Chris; however, my first real rôle was in The Full Monty.
In those first few years as a performer what was the biggest learning experience for you?
Landing my first job in Miss Saigon straight out of drama school and performing in another culture was really unique but I guess I found myself really learning from the more experienced performers around me, applying some of stuff I got taught in the classroom – which started to actually make sense when applying them practically every day rather than a few times a week at drama school. When I landed the job in The Full Monty I quickly learnt how much discipline is needed to look after yourself as a performer. Obviously the same applies being in the ensemble but you can’t get away with as much when you’re leading a cast and have big solo numbers, the pressure is always there on your shoulders.
Then you have the issue – especially if you are in a long-running show – of keeping the lines as fresh as the first time you’ve said them; in the ensemble or a swing it’s a little different as you understudy or get to perform lots of different tracks within the run of the show. But when you’re in a rôle… what you say is what you say and that never changes for the length of your contract.
So what do you do to keep the rôle fresh?
It’s tough… I’ve been very lucky to have done a lot of long running contracts, It’s about finding a balance. If you try actively to keep everything really fresh and re-inventing the wheel at every performance, you will drive yourself mad. There is, of course, a million ways you can say a line and make it different, but there needs to be a consistency to allow the scene to work, but it’s about reminding yourself that, as an actor, you are there first and foremost to tell a story and what is it that I have to do to tell that story the same for everybody that comes to see the show. It should never be about “How can I change this line or do this differently to alleviate my boredom.” We are there to perform for the audience, not ourselves and people have paid vast amounts of money to see the same show as the person the night before.
Over the past few years, you have become a strong advocate for new musical theatre writing, do you think in the UK we are doing enough to support new work?
I guess we are never doing enough and in any industry you want to support and nourish new talent. BUT… there are great initiatives out there trying to help from Musical Theatre Network and Mercury Musical Development, S&S Awards and a new company just launched by Neil Marcus called The Stable. I’ve been lucky to do many workshops with Simon Grieff (SimG Productions) who has been a major champion for new musicals for many years now alongside companies such as Perfect Pitch… so there are companies out there doing stuff to really boost new writing, but as always there are other factors that have to come in play such as funding. Just where do we get the money to put the workshops on, to help incubate new writing talent etc, so all the initiatives – such as twitter competitions and seasons of new work that get put on all help the cause. It’s tough especially if you’re not a big jukebox musical or have a name attached, but we have a lot of talent in the country and that will always shine through.
This is your first time at The Royal Exchange, what attracted you to the theatre?
I have been to Manchester many, many times and I knew that the theatre existed but I have never seen a show here. It’s hard not to hear about the venue’s reputation it has a mythical air about it, it’s like the holy grail, in the same way the Royal Court is in London. It’s a venue that every performer wants to work at, so when the change came, I jumped at it. Obviously being able to play the Baker in such an amazing show certainly helped too, but foolishly I never realised it’s in the round.
We’ve been rehearsing in the rehearsal room upstairs, but only been able to poke our heads into the space to have a look, but we start rehearsals in the space next week, which I am really looking forward to. It’s such a phenomenal unique space. I had a hint of what to expect after doing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regent’s Park over the summer, but nothing can prepare you for doing a show in the round and not having the safety of a proscenium arch and the audience directly in front of you.
How has the Royal Exchange space affected how you as a performer approach a rôle?
It’s impossible to gauge fully as I would love to know what would have happened if I hadn’t of done Regent’s Park. I think that has really helped me transition between pros arch and in the round. There are a few cast members who have only done end on theatre and finding it tough to get their bearings in the space. As we don’t have your typical upstage and downstage, we do however have signs saying door one, door five or door seven for example so it does take a while to get used to it. Apparently it takes just as long again to get used to it practically when using the actual space.
As well as the practical aspects of working on the show, Sondheim provides his own challenges to the performer, what’s been the biggest challenge for you?
I think our Everest on the show has been the song Your Fault,which is a quartet between The Baker, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, which takes place after all the tragedy has happened, where the throw the blame of what’s happened on each other. It’s so well constructed but only works if everyone is perfectly hitting the timing correctly, you can’t hold onto the notes as it cuts off another performer. So that was probably our biggest challenge – then you have the other side of the coin which are the songs in the piece which drive the story and plot and its finding the way into Sondheim’s head and tapping into his own psychology on why he has written the music the way he has. Every song has a unique rhythm and tempo, which is so entwined into the character’s he writes for, and unless you can get into his soul it doesn’t make complete sense for the performer. Like the show, we also go on our own journey throughout the piece.
Director Matthew Xia has hinted that this revival will have many unique aspects to it… what can we expect from the production?
Well first of all the show is in the round, so unlike many productions who can have big set pieces and can do lots of crazy things like having a giant stomp on the set, we’re not able to do that, so we have to take the audience with us on a real journey of the imagination. We’re also surrounded by the audience, so there is no escape for the performer everything is on show. Matthew has also injected a real sense of now to the piece and how can this world relate to our society, and this is a production about how people of today have been thrust into this magical world.
What’s your favourite lyric in the show and why?
Wow, that’s a tough question, I guess specifically on the day of the Paris shootings we were working on the song No More, in which the Baker faces his own personal tragedy. So in this moment the character retreats into the woods and almost gives up on things – when the spirit of his dad appears which gives him the strength to carry on and face things. At the end of that song the following lyrics appear
No more giants waging war!
Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives,
‘Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore
All the witches, all the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies!
So it’s kind of saying life is full of all these horrible things, and we need to keep going, and it’s so poignant to be looking in depth at this song during those moments. And it makes you realise that even through the hardest of moments we have to pick ourselves up and keep going.
Finally, if you had to pick one character in the show to play other than the baker who would it be and why?
Milky White (Bursts into hysterical laughter) No, No… it would have to be The Witch – I’m getting withdrawals of playing a woman [Gaumond recently played Miss Trunchbull in Matilda] and I want to do it again… no in all seriousness, she is such a complex character, there is so much going on with her, and what we’re finding through rehearsals is she is not a “bad” person, but, in fact, she is the most honest character out of all of them and carries the most truth with her. So If anyone wants to do a rôle reversal production can they please cast me?
Into the Woods opens at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester on 4December 2015 and runs until 16January 2016 | Images: Contributed (main)/Jonathan Keenan (rehearsal)