Interview with Darius
Beware - there’s a phenomenon sweeping across the television screens of Britain – musical talent searches. Like them or hate them, programmes such as Pop Stars, Pop Idol and The X-Factor blast into our living rooms and bring us the good, the bad and the downright abysmal musical wannabes that the UK has to offer.
1. What made you decide to give theatrical life a go?
I was in the middle of recording my third album and I’d written a song on my second album called ‘The Devil in You’ and it’s a throw back to ‘Cole Porter’ and the great jazz standards from the Sinatra era. One of the producers heard the song and they liked it – they saw a photograph of me and it was an American producer who puts on the show on Broadway. He said “that kids from Scotland… we’ll get a good tall Scottish boy to play in the West End”.
It literally sprung from there – a phone call later (I was in the middle of recording in LA). They asked me to come in to audition – which I did. It’s coming up to the eighth birthday of one of the most successful musicals in the West End and on Broadway and they’ve asked me to be the youngest ever person to play Billy Flynn ever to take to the stage. I’m absolutely over the moon.
2. Believe it or not, some people don’t know a lot about the musical. Can you sum up the kiss and tell storyline for me quickly?
Chicago is a wonderful story set in the 1920’s in the era of jazz and cabaret and liquor. It’s a jazz inspired score that tells the story, I suppose of an obsession with fame and celebrity of a character called Roxie who will do anything – beg, borrow, steal and even murder to make her way to the top.
Billy Flynn is the hotshot, smooth talking crook of a lawyer who’s only ever in it for the money. He manages to wheel and deal her through the various twists and turns of the story. There’s a rivalry between Roxie and the established jazz singer and fellow cell mate Velma Kelly (who in the film was played by Catherine Zeta Jones). Overall, it’s a wonderful story of death, sex and corruption.
3. Your character is a smooth talking lawyer… do you find it easy enough to slip into character?
I love the character Billy Flynn – I loved the Richard Gere role in the 2002 film of the same name and I thought that it was so apt that despite the fact that critics sometimes call him a crook, he’s actually very straight. If you really listen to what he says you see that when he says to her:
“I’m not interested in sex, I’m not interested in you. You mean one thing to me; and that’s $5,000. That’s it”
She’s offering him her sexual charms to represent her and he turns her down. He’s very aware of the smoke and mirrors that are evidently very much at his disposal in the court-room. He points out that:
“Not everything is as it appears to be”
He’s very much the man that conjures up the story that manages to get her out of being hanged. The other thing I love about Billy is the fact that he’s so very astutely aware of the perils of the fame game. When she says:
“They love me, they love me – I don’t need you anymore”
He turns around and replies:
“You’re a phoney celebrity kid… in two weeks they won’t even know who you are, and that’s Chicago”
It’s so relevant to today – to this celebrity obsessed fame game of Big Brother and people wanting to be famous for the sake of being famous. They’ll do anything – more than milk a cow… they’ll even masturbate a pig on national TV. It’s unbelievable what people will do for fame.
I only ever go into this business (which is a wonderful business) for the sake I think, of writing music and writing songs. One of the reasons I’m doing Chicago is because I love Kander and Ebb, the writing team who wrote Chicago and also came up with some of the wonderful jazz standards that Frank Sinatra sang. I just love music and I got into this business for very different reasons and reasons that don’t always require fame. Sometimes my favourite thing to do is to sit in my bedroom and write songs and play my guitar.
Of course, it’s great to be on stage performing to an audience – and that’s why I’m here.
4. Terrence Maynard played the part of Billy before you – what has his advice been? Have the existing cast been welcoming?
I’ve just started rehearsals and Terrence is somewhat of a legend – he’s an ‘old school crooner’. I’d love to tell you the advice he gave me but I can’t because it’s too rude!
5. Richard Gere played the role in the film – what an act to live up to! David Hasselhoff, Marti Pellow and Sacha Distel have also played the part on stage. It must be quite challenging to replace someone. What are your tactics to make the character of Billy your own?
Coming on to an established hit musical is somewhat like jumping onto a moving train. It’s already in motion – it’s hurtling along. It reminds me of the scene in Indiana Jones where he’s galloping along on horseback and through sheer will and faith in his ability, he grabs hold of the train. That’s kind of what I have to do with Billy Flynn.
Billy is a very well rounded and interesting character full of depth. He has a smoothness and ruggedness to him and there are a couple of great songs and a third number that’s really quite a showstopper. He’s the kind of character where, you need to understand his motives and can sing his songs (I know I can do that part). it’s getting under the character’s skin and really knowing where he’s coming from.
One of the films I’ve used to help me with that is a little known but well acclaimed Coen Brothers film called ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’. It stars Billy Bob Thornton and is Billy Flynn through and through – his character, his motivations and his movements are very much Billy from Chicago. It’s a really interesting process.
6. You were lucky enough to be head hunted… was there an auditioning process nevertheless?
I auditioned and they said that my voice was old enough and deep enough to take on the role, previously only occupied by anyone over the age of 26. At 25 I’m the youngest but it’s something I really couldn’t turn down. It’s such a privilege and is a very flattering thing to be offered.
7. Is the rehearsal schedule gruelling?
The rehearsal schedule is at my mercy! Unfortunately for them, the music conductor and the dance choreographer are working EVERY night on the shows and then I have to say to them that I need to work early hours and late hours. They’ve been amazingly supportive and the cast have been great – they’re going to be performing with me soon and allowing me to fit in. It’s just a great cast and crew – it’s great to be part of something so special.
8. Have you found the jump from essentially being a pop star to a potential West End star intimidating? And honestly, are you nervous?
Honestly, I have a wonderful excitement that’s driving me through this. My first musical experience was actually performing with the Scottish Opera – which isn’t known because opera isn’t something that receives a lot of press attention. But it was perhaps, the most invigorating and awe inspiring introduction to performance.
I sang with the Scottish Opera and toured with them in the wonderful lavish production of Carmen. I was also part of the little known but fascinating operatic performance of the Trojans. That gave me a hunger for performance and for music that I haven’t ever been able to shake off. From there, I went to university and performed in amateur theatrical productions and sang with the Royal National Scottish Orchestra’s Chorus. I then moved on to do Pop Idol and perform pop songs.
My background is one of a mixture of different musical styles – from classical to jazz, to a love of rock through the Brit Pop Era and tearing away from the opera scene to actually get into a rock band and write my own songs. Although doing Pop Idol is the thing that people know me for, it was actually something that was one chapter of three or four introductions that had come before it. Now, I’m starting a new chapter because it’s such a privilege to be in the West End, at Christmas, performing a wonderful role on a hit show. I’m really looking forward to entertaining people and hope they enjoy the show.
9. Speaking of nerves… is stage fright a problem for you? I assume learning lines for a theatre performance must differ somewhat from performing your own songs?
It is very different. Knowing your own songs well enough means that you can always make the lines up if you forget them! I’ve often done it when I’ve been performing ‘Colourblind’ or any of the songs from the last couple of albums. The fans up the front sing along and often that puts me off so I deliberately change them – just to see the look on their faces.
Billy Flynn has so much text, performing in a show that is so well versed and so precise is a bit like a role from ‘A Few Good Men’. In the film, Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise have a very wordy court scene and there’s something very similar in Chicago. You find that you do lose your place… you trip up over your words and invariably land flat on your face. It is a distinct possibility – but you know, it happens when you do anything, from performance to extreme sports. I love to sky dive – and don’t ever plan on using the reserve. You just go out there, brace yourself and give it your best shot.
10. What’s your favourite moment in Chicago?
I love the moment when Roxie is coming face to face with Billy. She suddenly breaks and says “I’m nervous, I’m really scared” and he says “don’t worry kid, it’s all a circus… these trails, the whole world – the whole of showbiz is a three winged circus and the trick is to get ‘em all to jump straight through your rings”
It’s amazing; he treats it almost like a game or an act. And you know, he’s absolutely right. The trick with being in show business is not to take anything too seriously and to laugh and enjoy it. Enjoy each moment even when you have criticism – take it on board. I actually use it as a positive thing. You know, you can’t improve or learn without criticism… then it’s great when you’re praised because that’s the icing on the cake.
11. Are you a theatre buff yourself? What’s your favourite musical/play?
I love the theatre. I love Shakespeare because I grew up with a love of books and studied English Literature at University. I also studied Shakespearian performance for years and learnt a great deal. It’s a great love of mine.
12. A-Listers and pop stars are sometimes given some flack for appearing in musicals… sceptics seem to argue that it’s more of a novelty to get punters in. I saw As You Desire me last week starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins and I have to beg to differ – it was astounding. Have you encountered any negativity?
No, I mean Bob Hoskins performing in the West End is actually kind of where he’s from. It’s really weird but people have a certain of perception of a performer... whether they be a pop star of actor and if someone wants to add another string to their bowl or to indulge in something that’s a dream for them. Or, maybe they simply want to return to something that is their natural love – if that in turn, brings a wider audience to something that is a great show then I think it’s wonderful thing.
Hugh Jackman, who everyone knows from the X-Men and Swordfish, is a great actor and a great screen idol. The reality is that his love of performance came from the stage. In fact, he won a Tony for being on Broadway in ‘The Boy from Oz’. That’s where he was discovered – on Broadway. If someone were to turn around and say “Hugh Jackman is an amazing singer” you wouldn’t necessarily associate that with him. You associate him with Wolverine and with having big metal blades coming out of his hands. It’s part of the wider scheme of show biz in that, if you can perform and if you can do it in a music video or on Top of the Pops then maybe you can do it in a different way on the West End.
13. You took time off from your singing career to care for your father who was terminally ill with cancer - 18 months after the diagnosis he is in full remission and you’ve decided to resume your career… he must be one proud man. Has it been a hard decision to make after an understandably uncertain year?
No, it’s wonderful – I am very lucky in that I have a wonderful family that are very supportive; we communicate with one another. My dad was diagnosed with a very bad cancer that had spread from his lymph glands to his bone marrow to his spine. Clinically he died… his heart stopped and thank God he came back. He got stronger and stronger and beat the cancer through a series of very heavy and full-on conventional treatments and also through complimentary medicine. Now as a doctor, he is writing a book about a doctor’s perspective on cancer recovery and I’m helping him a little bit with it.
In January we were so lucky in that a song that I had written for him ‘Live twice’ was released and went on to be a hit (my 5th top ten in the UK) and he was alive to see it and hear it and that was a dream come true. So, I’ve been working on my third album and I can’t wait for my family to come down from Scotland and see Chicago – they’re all dying to come down and see it. They’ll be there on opening night – my brothers and mum and dad. It’s a great thing to be able to share happy moments with the people you love the most.
14. Your album, Live Twice was a big hit; five top ten chart hits is no mean feat. You’re also releasing a third album next year. Not to mention performing in Chicago. Where do you hope to go from there? Is theatre the future?
Well, if you’d asked me just a month ago what would I be doing this Christmas I would have told you I was going to be in Los Angeles, with my family having turkey roast in the sun. That’s not going to be happening because I’ll be on stage, performing eight shows per week until the end of January!
As you can see, my life takes many different turns and often they are unpredictable. There are a number of opportunities that I embrace and enjoy and try to learn from as much as I can. So what I try to do is to live each day as it comes – something that was particularly underlined when my dad became ill. Now that he’s well, my aim is to spend some quality time with my family and aspire to improve as a songwriter.
I also want to work closely with charities that are close to my heart. The Lymphoma Association is a wonderful charity that raises awareness and supports those who are diagnosed with one of the fastest growing and most misunderstood cancers. The Princes Trust is another that I am an ambassador for and which I support because I think it’s one of the most inspiring charities in the UK. In terms of its support of young people who perhaps have not had the chances that they needed in life, or have been abused, hit the streets or have been in trouble with drugs. It gives the opportunity to help them so that they can help themselves and it’s something I’ll be doing for years to come.
As for performing, it’s the love, the heart and the passion of what I do and I hope to be entertaining people in different ways for many years to come.
Good luck on your debut night Darius – steal the show! The lastminute.com audience voted Chicago their favourite musical in the 2003 and 2004 Big Star Awards. Maybe with your influence we’ll see you in there next year.