How was it to perform in Phantom of the Opera? Are there any other roles or shows that stand out as very memorable experiences?
JJ: I remember my opening night in Phantom of the Opera, I remember standing in the wings and hearing the overture strike up and it was magical. Because up until that point, you go through rehearsals and you’re incredibly busy and you don’t really have time to think. And I remember it vividly, it was the first night, and I was very nervous, as I always am, and it gets worse over the years- for anyone reading this who’s thinking of getting into the industry, it gets worse over the years rather than better! But I was standing in the wings and I heard that overture strike up and I thought, “my God.” And I was all of a sudden aware that not only was I in Phantom of the Opera which had been a dream of mine as a teenager, but that I was in the original production and the set, these walls, these curtains had been part of that Michael Crawford production, and that was breathtaking.
With regards to other productions I’ve done, my years at the Glasgow Citizens were magical. Philip Prowse’s designs and directing was breathtaking. That period in my life was when I was learning the ropes as an actor and I used to sit in the wings and watch these great actors perform. I used to watch them do monologues and I’d learn from them, it was a real schooling. But it was a schooling of my peers you know, I was a legitimate member as they were so it was a nice boost of ego, but at the same time I was learning.
I could list them all really, I’ve been very lucky. I can’t think of a production I’ve done where I’ve gone “God, I’m miserable”, I mean I’m sure it will happen at some point in my life, but it hasn’t yet. I mean, I find actors to be quite personable people anyway, I can’t remember in 15 years ever having a blazing row with an actor, it just hasn’t happened. I think we’re all very aware that we’re damn lucky to be here and that our names are on the brochure so we better make sure this works.
You are a director as well as an actor- what have you directed? What do you like to direct?
JJ: I do a lot of stuff like A Song for Syria, I haven’t done one for about a year. The last big one that I did was in London the year before last, it was called In Carnation and that was a huge event as well. I enjoyed it, it’s hard work, you are the go-to person for X, Y and Z and so you have all these people wanting this information from you and you have to provide that for people. So it requires a focus, it requires an iron faith that things will just work out because they have to. And when things go wrong, it requires flexibility, you can’t jump up and down and say that’s not what I wanted, you have to say OK, well it’s not going to happen so how can we find a solution to this. And you have to have, I’ve discovered, the real talent of any producer/director, I think of any person in authority in any industry or business, is to know who’s good at something you’re not. To surround yourself with people who are good at those things. And I think if I have any talent, that it might be that. Because this concert would categorically not be happening if it wasn’t for the team I surrounded myself with. There are no two ways about that, I say it in the program. So I’d say I very much enjoy it but it is the skill of being able to juggle balls and to be able to not be a control freak and to actually trust people.
A Song For Syria looks like a fantastic event- what prompted you to organise such an event?
JJ: I woke up a few weeks ago now, and the first thing I do, to my shame, in the morning, but I grab my phone and I go onto Facebook. I don’t like that I do that, I think that means that I’m addicted to social media, but it’s what I do. And my Facebook feed was full of pictures of that little boy lying face down, fully clothed, on a beach, like he’d fallen over. Except he wasn’t going to get back up. And I was appalled, I was upset, I was disgusted and I was angry. And I’m quite a socialist anyway, I shouldn’t nail my political flag to the mast but for what it’s worth, I am. And I think, I don’t want to get too political but I think humanity, where abundance exists, has a duty to serve humanity where abundance and safety do not exist. And so I spoke to a friend of mine and she said “Why don’t you do it?” And I thought she’s right, and I called up the Actor’s Church in Covent Garden and I spoke to wonderful Charles Grant, the concert director, and from that day, they were behind us 100%, they gave us the venue and couldn’t have been more helpful.
So I surrounded myself with a team to do it with and from the first day, the tsunami of support from the industry, all aspects of the industry, was phenomenal, I was overwhelmed. It became a much bigger event than I had envisaged actually, it kind-of took on a life of its own. And so I had an idea, but it’s the collective that are making this happen. But my motivation for that idea was that horrific photograph of that little boy.
The reason for doing this concert was twofold, it was to raise funds, yes, but I also wanted to show these people that my industry, the entertainment industry, which is probably the most, certainly one of the most visible industries in this country, that we’re here and we support you and it’s not hollow support either because here’s some money as well. We’re not going to raise, well I don’t think we’ll raise millions of pounds, we do have a donation page and that’s there for people who cannot make the concert but would like to donate.
I can only imagine what I would feel like if god forbid, the same situation happened in this country. These people don’t want to be in this situation anymore than anyone else does but they are and they’re in trouble. It’s a small thing, A Song for Syria is not going to fix these problems but what it might do is it give hope to some people, you never know who you’re going to reach.
What would you like to achieve in putting on this event?
JJ: I think for the charities, it’s putting their name out there, the International Rescue Committee is a fairly large charity, Hand in Hand for Syria is not, it’s a very small charity, so I think we want to achieve some publicity for them and their work.
But I think it’s also important that people know that they’re not coming to a wake, we want people to come and have a good time as well. The industry has said “Look, this is what we do. We sing, we act, we play, come and enjoy a night on us.” Because it’s not all going to be doom and gloom, there’s some wonderfully upbeat numbers and music. It’s going to be a fantastic night, so I think it’s important that we entertain people as well, because that’s what we do, that’s what we are, we’re entertainers.
It’s not about coming together and being sad, it’s actually about coming together and being incredibly joyful. It’s about coming together and proudly standing together and saying we are here, we’re going to show you what we do and let’s raise some money and some awareness in the process. So I think it’s important that people know that it’s going to be a fantastic concert, we have a fantastic line up. Come along and enjoy it, come along and have a good time, a glass of wine and know that you’re raising money and awareness at the same time. I think if we can achieve those three equilateral points, we’ll be successful.
A Song for Syria is not going to fix the refugee crisis, what it can do is it can raise awareness and can raise some funds which will change some people’s lives, possibly. That’s all I can do, that’s all we can do.
Have you found a lot of artists and performers eager to participate, people wanting to be involved?
JJ: Yes I have, I mean I wouldn’t say casting has been entirely easy, most of that is because of the calibre of the actors we’re working with, we’re dealing with the best in the business and therefore people are busy and they’re working. So that’s been naturally and understandably hard, people’s schedules change and everything is subject to availability.
But where people have been available, people have been so generous. And I’ve tried to be generous back, particularly with the actors, the readers, I’ve tried to let them choose what they want to read, within certain parameters obviously, but I’ve tried to do that as a courtesy to them. So I think it’s definitely not restored, but boasted my faith in my industry that I work in. I don’t know of, I’m not saying there isn’t, but I don’t know of any other industry that does as much charity work as the entertainment industry. Maybe it’s just because it’s so public, I don’t know.
So to summarise, why should people come to A Song for Syria?
JJ: We have a line up of performers that you will not see on the one stage probably for the rest of your life. These performers are the crème de la crème of what they do, both the acting and the West End musical theatre. You’re not just getting songs, you’re getting people performing and acting as well. The set list is fantastic, so it’s going to be a very unique and one-off evening. But let’s not forget what it’s for. I want people to come and enjoy themselves, but let’s remember that it’s about helping a fellow human or two along the way and I would like that to be the motivating reason. Yes, it’s going to be great show, yes, there are big stars doing it, yes, you’re going to hear wonderful singers and orchestra but please let your motivation be that the ticket money (we have raised the money separately to run the event), 100% of that ticket money goes to the charities. So please come for that reason, you have an opportunity here, where the tickets range between £22.50 and £65 to see all of those people you’re going to see in West End shows, collectively, doing amazing stuff. But you know that, that money is going to go make a difference as well. And I think if there is any motivating factor for people coming, it would be to support that.