The Interview: Jonathan Roxmouth, SA musical theatre's hottest property

2013-05-19 14:00

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Jonathan Roxmouth won’t agree, but he is the hottest property on the South African musical-theatre circuit. Gayle Edmunds caught up with him

Extra jugs of chocolate sauce for your ice cream. The masks created out of cinnamon by baristas on your cappuccino.

These are the perks of being The Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera that Jonathan Roxmouth recounts with relish of the South African production’s tour of the Philippines.

He’s the youngest actor to take on the role in history and he was so good he has not only this year’s Naledi and Fleur du Cap awards to show for it, he also has a Broadway World Award for the role.

This was handed to him on stage in New York in January after a performance of A Handful of Keys with that show’s co-creator, Ian von Memerty.

“To be able to go to New York to perform is one thing; to be able to do A Handful of Keys is another and to be able to go with someone like Ian, who is not just my mentor but an authority on New York ...

“I hate clichés, but New York is what they say it is. I got bitten, quite badly,” says Roxmouth, whose handsome face fills with enthusiasm as he recounts the story.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt and a black leather jacket, he speaks in a voice that is like velvet: melodic and hypnotic, just like his singing voice. Tall and dark, he’s the epitome of the archetypal good-looker, but there’s much more to his appeal.

He’s intelligent about his career and engaged with not only his world, but with the South African reality.

The entertainer bug bit Roxmouth early and he has been on stage since nursery school.

He was lucky enough to attend a high school that put as much emphasis on theatre as it did, inevitably, on sport.

He says his drama teacher insisted that if the rugby boys could tour, so could the drama boys. “By matric, I’d done five musicals.”

This is perhaps why, despite only beginning his professional career in 2006 at 18, he’s about to take on his fourth lead in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Sunset Boulevard, and has notched up an impressive 17 productions since his break as Vince Fontaine/Teen Angle in The Barnyard’s Grease.

He doesn’t like the references to his youth or to his being South Africa’s hottest musical theatre property. He puts it down to hard work, luck and a growing audience interest in theatre.

“Our audiences are open-minded, which is exciting because you can create a niche for yourself. Think of Pieter-Dirk Uys, he never sat down to wait for the agent to call. I’m lucky that my hard work is recognised by people like Pieter (Toerien) and Ian (von Memerty).”

He says he often gets asked when he’s going to get a real job, and he jokes that he’d have been a criminal lawyer, but we don’t have a jury system – “no audience, you see”.

While he admits it’s not a career choice to be taken without serious contemplation, he says the rewards are great. “In what other job do you have two hours to get to know a roomful of strangers intimately?”

Despite his incredible success, he is emphatic there is “no such thing as being given the job” when I ask if auditions have become less gruelling since he’s found leading man success.

He also hands much of the credit for his fine performances to those he trains with.

Von Memerty is chief among them, but also the likes of Nicholas Nicolaides, without whom he “wouldn’t have been able to sing Phantom twice a week, never mind eight”, and he gives Meatloaf’s albums a mention too when talking about getting his Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar to rock.

His taking on the role of The Phantom came with some controversy in theatrical circles.

Though cast as the young lover Raoul, he took over the lead when Andre Schwartz damaged his vocal chords on opening night at the Artscape.

His age counted against him, but he soon silenced the naysayers and replaced their grumbling with standing ovations.

Not content to sit on his laurels and take on the big roles, Roxmouth has also written and performed a trio of musical revues.

Topsy Turvy is a rather smart update of Gilbert and Sullivan’s music, and Hats Off!, which is enjoying a return run at the Studio at Montecasino, is a hilarious, energetic rendering of the songbook of Flanders and Swann.

Who, many might ask, are they? They were a musical comedy duo who performed in the 1950s and 1960s (I had to look them up too), but Roxmouth and his co-star make them come alive again.

Of their relevance, Roxmouth says “it’s cyclic ... There’s a new interest in vintage stuff,” which is why Sunset Boulevard is also likely to do well. It will again be a “bonsai” version, pared down for a smaller stage the way Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were.

The musical is based on Billy Wilder’s film of the same name about a fading silent-era movie star and the young scriptwriter whom she picks up with to restart her career in talkies. “It’s the same era as Downton Abbey.

It’s glamour, the sexy 1930s, the sugar mummy ...”

Besides, says Roxmouth, “I get to smooch Angela Killian eight times a week and she gets to shoot me 24 times a week!”

Roxmouth stops talking to return an SMS to his grandmother, Didi, whom he is off to see after our interview.

He’s to help her hang pictures in her new home and says he spends a lot of time with her and her African Grey parrot, Zazu.

He has a nasty bite on one finger to prove how well he and Zazu get on. Other than that, he says, he leads a pretty ordinary life off stage. He likes to play Super Mario on his Wii and he has “a wall of books and likes to read biographies”.

While he may not agree, he is a talent who stands head and shoulders above most of his generation. His career could already be described as brilliant, but it’s really only just begun.

»Hats Off! is on at Montecasino’s Studio Theatre in Johannesburg until June 23. It then moves to Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from June 25 to July 7. Sunset Boulevard opens at the Montecasino Theatre in Johannesburg on August 21 until October 20, then moves to Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from October 28 to December 7

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