Since making his West End debut in Les Miserables, the actor has cemented his status as a musical theatre star, but he has taken detours from the genre and boasts an eclectic CV that also spans plays, films and writing. As he returns to musicals in Young Frankenstein, he tells Mark Shenton about his passion for the art form and creating opportunities
Hadley Fraser was marked out for musical theatre stardom the moment he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, immediately landing his first professional role as the dashing juvenile lead Marius in Les Miserables. Achieving the status of a musical leading man was only a matter of time. He would return to Les Mis a decade later, this time as Javert, and played Raoul in the 25th-anniversary performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall. He also starred in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of The Pajama Game and City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse.
Actors are often boxed into niches that come to define them, but this could hardly be said of Fraser, who was unafraid to take unexpected detours from the usual trajectory – and occasionally typecasting – of a musical star.
He appeared in Coriolanus at the Donmar with Tom Hiddleston and The Winter’s Tale, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, at the Garrick, as well as new work like The Vote and classic plays including Harlequinade and Saint Joan. Next, however, he is returning to musical theatre.
“It’s funny, I never thought of myself as particularly in one box, or another,” he says. “My second or third job was in the premier of Arnold Wesker’s play Longitude at Greenwich.”
He continues: “But that was pre-social media, and with coming of the social media age, it feels that your career becomes quite defined by what you were doing at the beginning. At that time, I was in Les Mis and Phantom’s 25th, so that’s what sticks in people’s minds.”
His wife, Rosalie Craig, has a similarly eclectic CV as a performer from musicals such as Ragtime and The Light Princess to Wonder.land, The Threepenny Opera and As You Like It.
They even starred together in City of Angels and soon they could be taking roles off each other. Craig was recently announced in the gender-swapped role of Bobbi, the lead in Stephen Sondheim’s Company in the West End next year.
While Fraser admits the role of Bobby would be a natural fit for him, he insists there is no competitiveness with his wife over roles. He would much rather play Sweeney Todd or the lead from Sunday in the Park with George.
“We don’t need another male Bobby,” he says. “It’s been done and I don’t think I’d do anything more than Adrian Lester or Raul Esparza did with it… I can’t wait to see what Rosie does with the part.”
The pair met on a 2009 production of A Christmas Carol at Birmingham Rep, married, and almost a year ago their first child, Elvie, was born. Craig was still appearing in The Threepenny Opera on the National’s Olivier stage until a month before, “which was a bit ironic given she was supposed to be a virgin”, Fraser says.
The baby’s arrival was not great timing for Fraser, as it came on the first day of rehearsals for Saint Joan at the Donmar. The theatre was “fantastic”, he says, as they gave him the first week of rehearsals off.
Around that time, Fraser was working on Committee, the Donmar’s verbatim musical staging of a parliamentary enquiry into the collapse of charity Kids Company. He worked on crafting the lyrics out of the pages of transcripts from the hearing, with composer Tom Deering. Elvie would occasionally be in the competition room during the process, her second musical experience after months of The Threepenny Opera in utero.
“She has these very angular scores in her blood somewhere, so I reckon it will be quite nice for her to come to listen to Young Frankenstein now and hear something more conventional and more melodic.”
What was your first non-theatre job? I was a barman in a little restaurant in the village where I grew up and was pretty terrible. In Ascot week, which was around the corner from there, I had to open a £200 bottle of wine at the table, which I did without corking it, but then I threw the entire contents over this guy’s shirt.
What was your first professional theatre job? Marius in Les Miserables.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You can’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to be self-sufficient and try to find a project. It doesn’t have to set the world on fire, but you never know where it might lead. I write music, but don’t count it as my bread and butter. I’m working now with jazz pianist Will Butterworth, and I’ve written with Ramin Karimloo. Who knew he’d end up selling out the London Palladium singing songs we’d written?
Who or what was your biggest influence? Richard Eyre, Josie Rourke and Kenneth Branagh. I owe a lot to them. My career shifted quite significantly after working with them. In terms of who I’d like to emulate, I know its gooey but I would also say my wife, Rosie. She’s so ridiculously talented and she’s able to straddle the worlds of plays and musicals as well.
What’s your best advice for auditions? I wish I’d listened to my own advice, which is that the audition panel wants you to solve their problem.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done? I sort of studied English at university with half an eye on journalism, but that’s just as precarious as being an actor.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’m very pragmatic. But I got into the habit with Les Miserables of having to sing Stars in the dressing room before I went out and did it. But I was setting myself up for a fall, as I then got the words wrong.
Fraser is taking the title role in the new musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ film comedy, which opens in the West End on October 10. This comes a decade after its original Broadway outing.
“There’s always a certain amount of trepidation involved in launching a musical, especially with the history of this show,” he says. “It came into the Hilton Theatre straight after I’d appeared [on Broadway] in The Pirate Queen. I was dealing with the sinking of the good pirate ship at the time so I never got to see it, but I knew about it as a result.”
The director/choreographer of that original adaptation, Susan Stroman, and Brooks have taken a fresh look at the show, scaling it down and swapping in some new songs. The venue is also scaled down from the Broadway house that had more than 1,800 seats to the West End’s Garrick, which has fewer than 800. Its new home, Fraser says, is “the perfect house for comedy”. He adds: “Doing Harlequinade here was one of those things where you could really feel that smaller looks and slightly finer beats would land.”
Stroman is revelling in this second run at the show. “She is enjoying the British sensibility we are bringing to it, making it come alive with a sense of vaudeville and music hall,” Fraser says.
“We’re a nation that understands the set-up of pantomime. It’s not that we break the fourth wall – we don’t go that far – but Mel’s comedy is not too far from it. It feels very much like it has found its rightful home here.”
Fraser had not been a particular fan of Mel Brooks films before taking the role of Frederick Frankenstein “with all the love and respect that come from knowing him as I do now”.
After two years of more serious work, “and specifically trying to do a lot of plays”, he had not done a show like this for a while. “I was keen to exercise that muscle again and to remind the industry I could do this stuff. I want people to know that I have these particular strings I can still pluck, I’ve not done anything like this since The Pajama Game.”
That show, directed by Richard Eyre, originated at Chichester in 2013, though he skipped the subsequent West End transfer a year later. He has enjoyed supporting stars including Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons in Bristol Old Vic’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night – also directed by Eyre – and Gemma Arterton in Saint Joan since, “but then something comes along where they ask you to be front and centre; it felt like the right time to do it”. He adds: “I feel like I’ve grown as a performer and grown as a man to be able to say I think I can do this again now.”
As he returns to musical theatre, he talks of his passion for the form and the ones he’s performed in. “I have a great love for those shows. Les Mis has been a big part of my life and always will be.”
He had auditioned for My Fair Lady while still studying at the Royal Academy of Music but didn’t get the part. However, Cameron Mackintosh promised to bring him in when they recast Les Mis. “He was true to his world and I got Marius. I landed on my feet.”
It is a show he returned to again and again – first as Grantaire in 2010 for the 25th-anniversary concert at the O2, and a year later as Javert in the West End.
Mackintosh offered him the part, saying Fraser had matured as a performer since playing Marius a decade earlier. “I’d never thought of it – at 31, I wondered if it was the right thing to do. But I’d always admired Roger Allam and Philip Quast, who both played the part, and I held them up as inspirations for their ability to do different things, both musicals and classical theatre. So I went for it.”
He says of Javert: “It’s such a beautiful, lovely part – Valjean has to climb uphill the whole time, but with Javert you have time to recover off stage. You come out and have some glamour moments, but then I’d be in the dressing room with a cup of tea while Ramin [Karimloo] or Alfie [Boe] were whacking out a top C.”
He appeared with Allam in an episode of Endeavour earlier this year. The older actor had starred as Stone in the original West End production of City of Angels, which Fraser reprised at the Donmar in 2014. “He pulled me aside and started recounting one of Stone’s speeches perfectly.”
After playing Javert, Fraser left his agent, a move he says was “instrumental” in how his career developed, though he added it was “no disrespect to my former agent, who was terrific”.
He continues: “Agents often don’t get the credit they deserve, and it opened a great many doors for me. Doing The Pajama Game set an awful lot of [things] in motion. It led to Josie Rourke asking me to do The Machine – she texted Richard Eyre to ask what I was like. I don’t know what he said, but it must have done the trick.
“It’s from working with both of them that my career started shifting quite significantly, as it did when I worked with Kenneth Branagh. They’ve given me opportunities that I wouldn’t have got in the preceding 12 years of my career.”
Not, he hastens to add, that he’s planned his career in any specific way: “I never set out with a big game plan, and my career hasn’t been laser-focused. I’ve just been lucky and worked hard and had the opportunities. Now I’m at a point where I realise I can’t rely on other people, so I’ve become more self-propelled at creating my own opportunities.”
He looks to Branagh, particularly at the start of his career, for inspiration. “He was always thinking about what he could be doing for himself next, and how he could propel his own career. There’s no set career path – there’s no one out there worrying about you as much as you are, especially these days when the competition is so stiff.”
Fraser talks of the lucky opportunities that have come his way – and in particular of the lucky start he had. “I had a beautiful education in the county school system – I had two separate singing teachers, and I hope that Elvie, my little girl, has the same opportunities that I had to have voice lessons at school.”
• Before it really matters, don’t say no to anything.
• While you’re young there are never enough classes you can do. Later on in life, money doesn’t go far enough to keep it going, and you run out of time.
• Don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s no reason to throw your weight around. I’m allergic to diva stuff.
Musical tendencies were evident early, after he picked up a guitar aged seven and then sang in the choir – “my mum was very keen that my brother and I tried many different things”. He recently found out that a fellow member of the choir was Jack Thorne, who wrote the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
He is still trying new things today, including his involvement with Committee, which came out of a drunken night with Deering and Donmar artistic director Rourke at the press night for The Winter’s Tale.
“She wanted to stretch the boundaries of music and music theatre at the Donmar and come up with an original piece. It’s crazy that she should take a chance on two idiots like us – but she told us to go away and write some treatments and sample stuff of what it could be. She stuck us in a room for a month and we came up with three songs, all of which are pretty much in the show.”
Today, he says the show needed more gestation time, “but it also had to be topical”, so the two creators had just 18 months from starting work to the first night. He adds that finding poetry in a three-hour select committee session was tough.
“I think it succeeded in places and probably failed in others, but what a wonderful first go. We were pinching ourselves all the way through – the Donmar has been home of so much great music theatre, and I suppose we felt the weight of that on our shoulders slightly. But it was also so different that we didn’t feel that we had to assume the mantle of Sondheim, either.”
And now he’s back on stage, as star of a West End musical again, and he takes the business of comedy seriously. “It’s lovely to sing again, but what it does mean is I wake up every morning worrying about my voice, which for two years I’ve not had to do.
“You have to become slightly more benedictine with your habits – you don’t necessarily have to take a vow of silence, but you become more devout about the care of it. And that’s part and parcel of the job – you’re getting paid to go and sing, so you better take care of it.”
Born: 1970, Windsor
Training: University of Birmingham (English and theatre); then Royal Academy of Music
Landmark productions: Les Miserables, Palace Theatre, London (2002 and 2011), The Pirate Queen, Broadway (2007), The Phantom of the Opera 25th-anniversary performance, Royal Albert Hall (2011), The Pajama Game, Chichester’s Minerva Theatre (2013), The Machine, Manchester International Festival and New York’s Park Avenue Armoury (2013), Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse (2013), City of Angels, Donmar Warehouse (2014), The Winter’s Tale/ Harlequinade, Garrick Theatre (2015), Long Day’s Journey into Night, Bristol Old Vic (2016), Saint Joan, Donmar Warehouse (2016), Committee, Donmar Warehouse (co-lyricist and co-book writer, 2017)
Agent: Sara Puro-Steele, Denee De Emmony at Independent
Young Frankenstein opens at the Garrick Theatre on October 10, with previews from September 28 to October 9