The past 18 months of Michael Xavier’s career have been so jam-packed that you’d imagine the words ‘out of work’ have never crossed his mind.
From Wonderful Town with Connie Fisher to the Stiles and Drewe musical Soho Cinders and a stint in Hello, Dolly! with Janie Dee, Xavier’s CV paints a picture of a very busy man. But, as the actor himself points out, there was a six-month period between Hello, Dolly! at Leicester’s Curve and his current role as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
So while it may seem as though he never stops, he does. And he notices it too. “The Sound of Music is my first job since January – that’s half a year,” he says. “My friends always say to me, ‘You never stop working’. But I say, ‘Come and tell me that when I am sitting at home trying to pay the bills’.”
He adds: “You learn to deal with it, but that constant uncertainty is something that always looms over you. It’s part of the job. And when people ask me what it’s like being in the industry, I say that the down times are low and the up times are high. When you’re not working it’s not the greatest, and ideally you have to have fingers in other pies – to be able to bring money in in different ways, so you don’t have to work in a bar. And it can be tricky.”
Xavier hasn’t had to work in a bar for a good 10 years, however.
Despite the downtimes, his stage work has been steady since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 1999. He has appeared in musicals such as Miss Saigon (playing Chris in the UK tour), The Phantom of the Opera and Oklahoma!
In fact, apart from one professional play (Rock, by Tim Fountain), Xavier has appeared solely in musicals. This is something he laughs about, especially because his training was in acting. In fact, he estimates he has only had 20 singing lessons in his life.
Musicals, he says, were never particularly on his radar, but after graduating from Manchester, he moved to London, attended an open call for a part in a musical, got the job and landed a musical theatre agent. “All of a sudden I was in musicals,” he says. “And now it’s difficult to get plays, because people think you can’t act.”
He adds: “I think I am pigeonholed a little. There is a snobbery about musical theatre – still – and a sense that if you are in musicals you probably trained at a musical theatre drama school, and that you therefore focused on dancing and singing and you can’t act. That is a generalised opinion from a lot of departments.”
Not that Xavier doesn’t love being in musicals. There is, he suggests, “a certain camaraderie” within the company of a musical that doesn’t exist within plays. “The music element we are all connected by is just evocative and moving,” he says. “It’s less cerebral and more heartfelt.”
He’s currently enjoying this camaraderie playing Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, a role that seems to have marked his move towards playing more mature roles. It’s a part he landed after auditioning for the show’s director Rachel Kavanaugh and musical director Stephen Ridley.
He had worked with them previously, on Love Story, the Chichester Festival Theatre show that moved to London. And knowing them as he did made the audition process just that much harder, he admits.
“It was more nerve-racking than usual because I knew them so well at that point,” he says. “It’s like performing in front of your parents in the living room, a strange feeling. It made me nervous, which is odd. You think it would be easier, knowing people on the panel. But I would rather not know anyone.”
Nervous though he was, Xavier landed the part and is now braving the elements every night – from hot, sticky afternoon matinees to the occasional damp evening.
His appearance in the musical marks his second time at the Open Air Theatre – the first being for Into the Woods three years ago. Back then, he says, he was obsessed with the long-range weather forecast and how this might affect performances.
“Now I just go to work, do my job and pray it doesn’t rain,” he says. And he believes that the outdoor setting – as well as being perfect for this particular production – helps keep the cast on their toes. “Every day is different,” he says. “It changes the mood and keeps it fresh.”
Like most musical theatre fans, Xavier has seen the film of The Sound of Music, albeit a long time ago. He decided not to watch it again when he got the part in the open air production, saying instead that he prefers to “do my thing from the script and hope that is good enough”.
Here he praises the writing of Rodgers and Hammerstein, claiming that there is nothing else that sounds like their music.
He goes on to say that children today can sing you a song from the musical, adding that the duo’s work has “transcended generations”.
“The songs are ingrained in your memory,” he says. “Everyone knows them. It’s incredible.”
The new open air production, Xavier says, is “simple and honest”, thanks to Kavanaugh’s direction.
“She has made it heartfelt without it feeling cheesy,” he adds. “And that’s a real challenge for this musical, as there is such an association with things like sing-along Sound of Music – and the cult following that has, with people dressing up as nuns. The challenge with this production was to strip it back and make it real. Because at the end of the day, it’s a true story. So we honour the family.”
The Sound of Music has had rave reviews – with Charles Spencer calling it the finest production of the musical he has seen. It remains to be seen whether it will transfer – as other productions from the park, such as Crazy for You, have.
Xavier is performing in it until September. Beyond that, he says he has nothing lined up – adding that he would like to diversify and do some work in television and film. But, if musical theatre were to remain the only option on the table, he would not complain.
“I love musical theatre,” he says. “I didn’t aim to be in it. But it happened. And I love it. When I’m in a show it’s the best feeling.”