Comedian and TV Star Jason Manford comes to Sunderland Empire from Tuesday 21 – Saturday 25 January starring in a brand-new UK Tour of the Tony Award winning musical CURTAINS. We caught up with Jason to chat about the show, and how he finds life in musical theatre compared to his roots in stand-up comedy.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about ‘Curtains’?
The show was a huge success on Broadway so it’s really exciting to be bringing this new production to the UK. It’s a comedy musical ‘whodunit?’ and I play a detective obsessed with musicals. When a murder happens in a theatre, he, along with the audience, turns up to discover who the killer is. It’s written by Kander and Ebb who wrote ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’, so the music is great and it’s a hilarious script.
Did you know the show before coming on board?
I didn’t know much, but as soon as I would mention it to friends in theatre they would say, “That’s one of my favourite shows!”. It’s a popular musical within the theatre community and I’m excited that we can share this love to cities all over the UK.
You’re playing the role of Frank Cioffi, a local detective and huge musical theatre fan. What appealed to you about taking on the role?
What I love about Frank is that he’s such a sweet guy, even considering he’s there to solve a murder! He loves theatre but hasn’t had the chance to be on stage, and that’s not dissimilar from how I started! I came from a different world, coming from the stand-up comedy and television world and was surrounded by these hugely talented actors and performers, so I can relate to that a bit! There’s something in him that is just fun to play with as an actor.
How will you prepare for the role? Will you be swotting up on famous detectives and big musical theatre numbers?
Yeah, I think so. The first thing to do is to adapt to the Boston accent. I’ve done New York a couple of times as I was Leo Bloom in ‘The Producers’ and Nathan Detroit in ‘Guys and Dolls’ so I know my way around a New York accent. However, a Boston accent is a new challenge. We get to work with an accent coach, and I’ve been watching lots of videos and films set in Boston to get an ear for it. We’ve also got a few dance numbers, so I’ve been hitting the gym to prepare for that!
Audiences may know you best from your TV and comedy work, but you’ve been part of many musicals over the years. What initially made you want to make the leap?
What I really love about theatre, which I didn’t realise at first, was how much I enjoy working with other people. You spend so much time alone when you’re touring as a stand-up. I mean, don’t feel sorry for me, I did very well out of it, but it’s a lonely job! So, in theatre it’s lovely to be part of a cast, a family feel, which I really love.
Do you prefer performing in theatre to stand up comedy, or do you find one or the other better suits you at different points in your life?
I just find that there are times when stand-up is number one, and there are times when it’s theatre. With stand-up I’m starting with a blank page – I sit down and think about what I want to tell stories and jokes about whereas with musicals somebody else is setting the parameters that I then get to explore and play in. There’s something quite exciting about that – someone saying here are the rules, a script, story, songs, and then you’ve got to use what you’ve got to collaborate with them, with what pre-exists. It’s actually a really good discipline, and I’ve been able to use some of the skills I’ve learned in theatre and translate them to how I perform stand-up comedy.
What was your very first experience of musical theatre, and when did you fall in love with it?
I remember being about nine or ten at school, and I don’t know how they got away with it, but they took us to see Sweeney Todd! It was quite an experience, and I remember thinking it was just brilliant. I was in every musical I could be at high school, whether it was my year group or not I would badger the teacher until they let me be a part of it somehow. Then when I got to university they didn’t have a drama society, so I actually set the drama society up at Salford University called ‘Almost Famous’ and that’s still going now and I get invited to stuff by them all the time which is really nice! I actually also wrote a couple of musicals myself when I was at uni.
Do you think you’d ever want to write any musical theatre in the future?
I’ve got a couple of things that I’m working on that I would like to develop but it’s a big world to dive into and a flop is a real flop, so it’s a big risk. It’s a lot of work but I’ve got a couple of nice ideas that I might like to explore more in the future.
Do you have a role you’d love to play, regardless of age or gender?
Yeah, I’d like to play Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at some point! That feels like the ultimate aim.
You’ve toured before with various shows, is it something you enjoy or do you find it a bit of a challenge?
Both really. I love doing it, it’s what I have always known. My family do notice that I start to climb the walls after a few months off. I’m a bit like a wild child if I’m stuck in the house for too long. I couldn’t do it forever I must say, and it’s tough being away from my family. Over the course of the year I probably spend as much time at home as any other parent does, but it’s spread out differently, and in blocks of time. The kids get it and they come and see me on tour, they’ve seen most of the shows I’ve been in.
You’re a busy man, but what do you like to do with any down time you get?
I don’t really have down time! Even when I’m off I like writing down ideas or music – even my hobbies are similar to my work but that’s a privilege really! I suppose my real down time is hanging out with my kids, they’re a good laugh and I love it.
Have you ever been given a piece of advice, or some words of wisdom that have stuck with you?
I’ve had quite a bit actually over the years! I remember Peter Kay telling me when I first started stand-up that the rest of the country is working a 40-hour week at least, so just because you work in show business why should you be any different? As a comic if you wanted to you could probably get away with working for 20-minutes a night, four nights a week but he was a real inspiration to get me to say okay what am I doing with the rest of my time? He made me write a lot more and do a lot more.
I also remember doing ‘Sweeney Todd’ and feeling really nervous around these incredible singers, dancers and actors and I said to Michael Ball that I feel like I’m winging it, that I’m on that TV show ‘Faking It’, and he said to me, “Darling, we’re all on Faking It” which I thought was good advice as it reassured me we are all sort of winging it to a point!
My Dad always used to say to me “Your horizon should become your middle distance” so that you aim for things, and when you get there you head on to the next thing. That’s a great piece of advice.
Finally, what can audiences expect when they come and see ‘Curtains’?
They can expect great music from the team behind ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Chicago’, a wonderful and talented cast, hilarious comedy and you’ll be questioning right the way through to the end, whodunit?!