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Where’s Young Wally?

Where’s Young Wally?

Above: Will Young in Strictly Ballroom The Musical. Photo by Johan Persson

The irony certainly isn’t lost on Will Young’s triumphant return last week to Strictly’s ballroom after his shock exit early on in the celebrity dance show’s 2016 series. In reality of course Young’s latest venture is nothing of the sort, although he can legitimately now lay claim to being part of the phenomenon that re-named the BBC’s flagship Saturday night show for the modern era..

What is pleasing to see is that since the former Pop Idol winner recently cited personal anxiety as a major factor behind his withdrawal from the dance floor two years ago, he’s now back on top form and arguably much happier in his more familiar comfort zone of relying on his smooth and unmistakable vocal cords.

Even more delightful is Will’s relaxed and good-humoured approach to that worrying period. When he spoke at the launch of the West End’s biggest musical opening this year he was more than happy to see the funny side of a bad situation. “The people who are involved are so talented that it actually makes you feel a bit inferior,” he disclosed referring to the company of gifted dancers who he currently shares the stage with… “I’m just opening up my vulnerability here. ‘Will Young feels inferior in Strictly hell!’ No, that headline’s already been!” We all laugh… And as easy as that, we move on.

While the new West End production of Strictly Ballroom the Musical certainly isn’t the Will Young Show, the singer-come-musical-theatre-star is performing in an exclusively created role that you won’t find in 1992’s iconic film or even the original Australian stage production. “I’d love to say it was written just for me but I don’t think that’s the case,” is Young’s modest answer, although I’m not sure I believe him. “I think there is such a history around this show and the film, way before I turned up on the scene and when I met with Drew [McOnie, Director & Choreographer] and Carmen [Pavlovitch, Producer] to have a chat and discuss what possibilities there were and what could be done, I was just very excited about collaborating musically – what my other job was – and that excited me.”

Will has the genius that is Drew McOnie to thank for dreaming up the dream role of Aussie bandleader Wally Strand. As a kind of narrator/MC, Young sings all of the show’s famous numbers and breaks down the fourth wall to speak to the packed auditorium – who now have all become Wally’s ballroom audience. When I saw the show at the Piccadilly Theatre on its glitzy opening night last week, Will Young was a sensation; incredibly funny as well as the owner of such a sublime set of pipes. With all the songs from the film featured – and more – I’m not sure I can think of any other performer who could produce such a beautiful rendition of Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time quite as well as our Mr Young.

“The script also excited me, as an actor, as did its heritage,” he tells me, but I’m having none of it. Wally Strand was created for one person and one person only! “I don’t think I can sit here and say hand on heart that the part was created for me… although you’ve got free licence to print what you want, ha ha ha!” Enough said.

Will’s in a good place at the moment and appears to be back to his generous self. When the show’s two leads join us – Jonny Labey who plays Scott Hastings and Zizi Strallen as Fran – Will is very quick to sing their praises: “What pulls me into any job is me thinking, ‘am I excited by it, does it scare me and who else is in it?’ These two guys… I’m like a clapped-out Beetle and these two are like Ferraris! Honestly, it is such a pleasure to sit and watch them together – I just couldn’t do what you two do.”

He’s not alone; neither could most of us! Zizi hails from the near legendary Strallen sisters. Her siblings, Scarlett, Summer and Sasi (Bonnie Langford’s nieces) are all leading ladies. While Summer is currently playing the lead in Young Frankenstein just around the corner at The Garrick, Zizi comes to the new show after touring Mary Poppins. Her onstage partner, Jonny Labey, will be instantly recognisable to EastEnders fans although his smart new haircut might fool a few initially. Together, these two are simply outstanding and more than a little excited to bring such a famous story to the West End. I sit back while they both chat about their characters and the undeniable chemistry that oozes from such a dynamic pairing…

Jonny: “Scott is a very interesting character. He does compete at a high level, and wants to win the hotly contested Pan Pacific Open Amateur Five Dance Latin American Final. That’s really important to him because obviously he’s come from a ballroom family that takes it very, very seriously, but at the same time he wants to do his own thing.”

Zizi: “It’s hard for Scott actually because he’s perceived as the best and everyone keeps telling him so; he needs to win and is ‘going to win.’ So at the start of the show he is definitely seen as quite arrogant and at the top of the tree, but when Fran – a complete beginner – comes along and suggests he dances with her then we see him go on a journey, and she really softens him. At the same time of course Fran goes in the opposite direction; from being completely self-conscious, to plucking up the courage to talk to Scott, to really growing in self-confidence and happiness when she dances with him.”

Jonny: “When we first auditioned for the show we were put together very early on and I was so pleased to have Zizi as a partner to audition with because instantly it was so easy and natural to go through the moves. That was a big help because there were obviously a lot more things to think about such as the ark of journey, the back story…”

Zizi: “… I remember you saying early on when you suddenly realised how, in the show, they struggled so hard to find Scott a new partner. You can’t just put any two people together; a new partner will suddenly feel completely different. They’ll hold your hand in a different way, and they’ll be a different height…”

Jonny: “…A lot of the show’s comedy is actually about finding the right partner, because out in the world if you don’t have the right person matching your status of Pan Pacific Open Amateur Champion – if you don’t have another Pan Pacific Champion then your world is going to fall apart. You can’t just settle for someone who is average, which is why so much comedy comes from it. And if you look at the real world of ballroom dancing, it is like that. Imagine if your partner just walked away from you; your world as a ballroom dancer shatters. You virtually spend your life with that person; no wonder so many ballroom couples end up getting married.”

Both performers are right up there at the top of their game. While Zizi of course has the added challenge of playing Fran as a novice: “Ha ha, I actually love it,” she beams. “I’m really enjoying doing the bad dancing, and actually had to do it once before when I played Penny in Hairspray – clapping on the 1st and 3rd beats. Actually, I probably love doing it so much more because I eventually also get to do the beautiful choreography at the very end.”

Will comes back into the conversation and we find ourselves talking about the bigger underlying issue behind the story: “They’re such good actors, and the script is so good too. They’re so real. Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the book with Baz [Luhrmann], is such an amazing writer. During rehearsals I’d be chuckling every day and a lot of that is because the writing is so good. And of course that translates into the audience because it’s all about believing it, believing the truth. There is a spirit in the show and the story is so important; it’s about individual freedom, and the show is grounded in that. I for one really believe in that message.”

Right on cue, the show’s visionary director and choreographer, Drew McOnie, sits down and enlightens us as to why Strictly Ballroom, for him has so much meaning: “I’m thrilled to be the captain of the ship of such an incredible story and it’s a real personal moment for me,” he tells me. “Growing up in a working-class family in Birmingham I had this moment where I saw the film Strictly Ballroom, and I really do think it was a catalyst, an igniting moment for me… seeing this young voice leaping forward and marching on for the desire of his own steps, his own voice in the world. At the time I was being dragged around the country competing in Latin and ballroom dancing where I had this habit of forgetting my dance steps and improvising on the floor. I’d always be in trouble with my dance teachers, ‘What are we going to do with him, he’s a nightmare!’ But the truth was I was in my bedroom rocking out to my own tracks and making up my own steps… So it was in the moment of seeing Strictly Ballroom that I thought, ‘D’you know what, I think maybe I could do this for the rest of my life.’ That led me into being a choreographer and a director, to be able to tell and teach my own steps, and to bring my own story to the stage.”

Still in his twenties, McOnie is already one of the most sought-after directors and choreographers in theatre. “So you can see why it’s an emotional moment for me,” he continues. “To be premiering my directorial and choreographing West End debut with the very story and message that made me get here in the first place. The story has a real personal connection for me. Listening to the gorgeous Will Young singing Time after Time always reminds me of when I used to lock myself in the studio when I was at ballet school and just choreograph over and over again – this really is a wonderful kind of bizarre circle that has come round here to be able to share that with you.”

When the film of Strictly Ballroom came out in 1992, people from all over the world fell in love with its message of hope which was delivered in such a comical yet heartfelt way. It’s creator, Baz Luhrmann (who also bought us Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet) was also a ballroom dancer in his younger days – in fact the domineering and driving force which is Scott’s mum, Shirley Hastings, was apparently based on Luhrmann’s own mother. I ask the show’s costume designer, and Luhrmann’s partner of thirty years, Catherine Martin, for some more info about the show’s origins.
“We feel so blessed and proud that we are able to hand on this story of youthful rebellion,” she poudly states in her Australian accent. “Actually I shouldn’t be taking the possessory ‘we’ because this show started many years before I ever met Baz Luhrmann. It was devised as a show in his second year at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts) with a group of actors. For us to have such an opportunity to see the show being made by young cast taking the spirits that is to be able to dance your own steps, to not live your life in fear and to rebel and triumph in the spirit and inclusion of love. Most particularly we see a parallel between the young Baz Luhrmann forging this work at NIDA and the young Drew McOnie who has helmed this terrific production with an extraordinarily young but experienced cast.”

Producer, Carmen Pavlovitch gives me an insight into how they brought Drew McOnie onboard: “I’m really committed to the next generation of theatre makers, and I find it really thrilling to find someone who is happy to take risks; that’s everything our company aspires to,” she says in admiration. “I first met Drew with a view to him being choreographer on the show, so I rang him and asked if he could come to Australia, to which he said that he could but it would have to be tomorrow – and it was already about 11pm. So I called him back and asked him if he could get up at 5am as there was a car coming to take him to the airport? I flew to Melbourne and met him where he saw the show twice. I thought to myself that it was all very well him being an up-and-coming young director with a new approach to the work, but did he have any good ideas… My God, I was almost pinned to the wall as he threw all these wonderful ideas at me. He had this great vision for the piece, insisted that it was also his story as a child, and basically he just said, ‘you have to let me do this!’ I was so moved by his passion and his quirkiness which I immediately felt was right for the show. We moved on quickly.”

Drew sees it from a slightly different angle: “It’s funny, when I first took a call from Carmen I acted all nonchalant like I hadn’t even noticed they’ve been working on it – when in reality I’d virtually been stalking the entire production. So on the phone I just said, ‘Oh yes, that story.’ So I got in the plane with just a few hours notice and sobbed all the way there as I watched the film over and over again. I had the air stewardess come up to me asking if I was okay, was I feeling sick?”

One of the other areas of the show – which stays faithfully to the original film’s plot – is the story of Fran’s family who are from the Spanish community. “When you think of Strictly Ballroom it’s easy to picture sequins and a lot of glitter and sparkles,” says Carmen. “But of course an important part is also the Spanish world and the immigrant family that Fran belongs to. Culturally the Spanish immigrants were very important to Australia, running corner stores and little businesses, but behind the facades there were passionate and hot-blooded parties going on. As the daughter of an immigrant in Australia it was certainly very reminiscent of my own childhood as people came together in dance, food and community.”

“It’s fundamental to the story and the drama that our hero Scott has a dance epiphany by being welcomed into this community, particularly Fran’s father Rico who teaches Scott the spirit of Spanish flamenco dancing.” explains Carmen. “It was a very difficult role to cast as the part was originated by the devastatingly talented Fernando Mira; we auditioned all round the world and never found anyone that came close to Fernando. So we were lucky to cast him in the West End production too.”

The pre-interval explosion of flamenco dancing is a sight to behold, the mention of which makes Will, Jonny and Zizi jump straight back into the conversation which goes like this:
Will: “Fernando’s flamenco dancing at the end of act one is astonishing. You just can’t get more authentic than that.”
Jonny: “…The first time I witnessed that was in front of everyone when he was staring me down and doing this whole Paso Doble routine. I couldn’t help but get completely overwhelmed, and that’s with us all dressed in normal rehearsal gear in the studio with a guitar in the corner. But it was that powerful, and the way they’ve structured it so it builds up is just magical.”
Will: “I’ve seen it again and again and it gets me every time.”
Me: “Are we going to see you doing a little bit of that on stage?”
Will: “Absolutely not! In the small amount of time that I was at ArtsEd doing musical theatre…”
Jonny: “I didn’t know you were at ArtsEd!?”
Will: “Yeah, I was really shit!”
Everyone laughs!
“I was in the bottom class, ha ha. My tap was not my strong point. I’m an all-right dancer but there’s no way I could do that.”
Zizi: “Jonny and I have to do some flamenco dancing so we had some workshops, and it’s really, I mean really hard. We’d never done anything like it before. I know it sounds like just stamping your feet and clapping your hands but getting it synchronised in exactly the right rhythm, while getting faster and faster, is something else altogether.”
Jonny: “The ensemble cast are the best in the business too, plus they’ve got some incredible characters as well.”
Zizi: “… Most of them play these really strict ballroom dancers; it’s their whole world. And again that’s where a lot of comedy comes from. It’s so funny. In the first bit they’re going for it so much with every single ounce of their body, and they’re all pulling these crazy faces. I would laugh so much in rehearsals.”

Will: “They do say that you’re as good as the company you keep, and the company I’m keeping at the moment is of an extremely high level, ha ha. I’ve worked with Marius de Vries, who’s just won a Grammy, but I’ve never worked with people like… well, I knew of Baz, I knew of Catherine Martin, I knew of Drew’s work, I loved Carmen as soon as I met her. That’s what’s exciting!”

I’ll give the final word to Mr Drew McOnie: “I know I’ve spoken about my own relationship to the film, but I actually think a lot of people had a really strong personal experience with the movie. And I think it’s because whether you’re a dancer or not, in whatever capacity you see yourself, I think what the film did so brilliantly was that it recognised the little freak in you and celebrated it. It’s really about anyone who wants to have a voice, anyone who wants to stand up; it’s about David and Goliath. In today’s times where there are a lot of questions about speaking up and speaking out and standing up things that you don’t believe in, I think it’s become more relevant almost than it ever has.

“I really feel pressure on my shoulders that there’s a whole new generation of people of any age who right now needs to hear the message of this show. And if there’s just one small kid, who can come out and say, ‘one day I’m going to do something that makes the world listen to my voice,’ then we’ve won.”