Exclusive interview with Tim Howar who takes title role in West End’s Phantom of the Opera this week
In between Chess, touring with Mike and the Mechanics and a third child, Tim Howar has found time to squeeze in one of the West End’s most iconic roles – the Phantom. He tells Nick Clark why, for him, it’s ‘all or nothing’
When the West End musical Peggy Sue Got Married closed in 2001 after two months, it left Tim Howar needing another job. The performer, who had relocated from his native Canada to London, found one selling tickets for other shows including The Phantom of the Opera. Now, 17 years on, he’s about to don the half mask himself and step on to the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre as its star.
“One thing I know about the business is that it’s up and down. One day you’re doing incredibly well and the next day that adulation has gone. You’re changing and the business is changing,” he says.
Howar was already an experienced performer – he had appeared in productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables around North America – but was not afraid to roll up his sleeves to make a living. “You can’t be penniless in London. A friend worked at Really Useful Group and hired me to sell tickets for the shows.”
Hard graft was never an issue for Howar. When he was trying to get a band off the ground after Peggy Sue closed, he worked as a dish washer, a waiter and a bartender. “You can’t be too proud,” he says. “I had tonnes of jobs just to keep going. Eventually I got what I wanted.”
‘There’s a lot of great history in the show, and great people attached to it’
That now includes one of the West End’s iconic roles. He opened as the Phantom on Monday and when we speak he is midway through rehearsals. “I’m still kind of dumbfounded I got the role,” he says. “It has caught me a little unawares. This is the biggest role I’ve had in London, I mean how much bigger can you get than the Phantom?”
He speculates that someone from either Andrew Lloyd Webber or Cameron Mackintosh’s office must have seen him earlier in the year as Freddie Trumper in the revival of Chess at London’s Coliseum. “You wouldn’t necessarily look at me and say: ‘He’d be a great Phantom’,” Howar says. “But Trumper was such a passionate role, and really maniacal – he’s such a bad person – maybe they saw something in that.” He was invited to audition for the Phantom, and after several rounds was offered the role.
Mackintosh said it was Howar’s “fresh take” on the Phantom in the audition room that got him the part. “It’s a heck of a role,” according to Howar. “You’ve got to get the notes right and you have to nail the character. You have to pull away the layers and see the human underneath. You want to get to the reasons behind the complexities, whether it’s mental health or social programming.”
Howar believes he can put his own mark on the role. “It comes from being able to access that vulnerable place. I don’t want to put too much of myself out there, but as an actor you have to build those layers on top of the reality that the child was abused because of his looks. And the more he was abused, the more he wanted to create this guise.”
His admiration for the creatives behind the show is clear. “Andrew has been at the top of musicals for a long time. He has looked after theatre so much, not just with his music but with his company. He’s done a lot of good and he’s a hell of a writer. What’s great is he’s never afraid of collaboration. Cameron too.”
‘You can’t be too proud. I had tonnes of jobs just to keep going. Eventually I got what I wanted’
Part of the reason he wanted to audition for the Phantom, and rarely turns down new opportunities, is that he has three children – two with his ex-wife and performer Ruthie Henshall – “so I’ve got to go up for stuff”.
In fact, the most recent arrival made headlines earlier this year. On the first preview of Chess – “I took the part as it satisfied my need to sing the big show tunes, I love great theatre music writing” – Howar had to leave at the interval and rush to the hospital where his wife Jodie Oliver-Howar had gone into labour.
“To have that happen on that first night was,” he pauses, “a lot. The understudy Cellen [Chugg Jones] is a great guy and he smashed it through the roof.” But after that, Howar didn’t miss another show. He would be performing, then getting around two hours’ sleep as the newborn Hamish made his presence felt. “It takes a lot to take me out of a show. It’s all or nothing.”
Incidentally, imitating his father’s impressive work ethic, Hamish has already made his West End debut playing the baby in Consent at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Howar grew up in Canada watching theatre, though he didn’t see musicals other than on film. “There were a few touring productions, but I saw theatre much more. When I was a kid I saw Maggie Smith do Chekhov… They all came to Edmonton.”
He is a “chameleon” when it comes to music, growing up with classical music and now singing rock for a living. “The basis of it is great storytelling.” He also trained in dance.
He says: “I started off doing musicals and had a good run of success in the US and Canada, and here when I first came over, but then I went in a different direction with a band.”
Over the past eight years, Howar had focused more on his music career. He is the lead singer of the reformed Mike and the Mechanics – “We’ve got to remind people we’re not a tribute band and we’re still here” – writing new music and touring. “I had been going in the opposite direction from theatre,” he says.
His timing in landing the role of the Phantom could not have been better. He has a tour with the band next year “and I needed something to fill eight months”. He’s excited about the prospect. “There’s a lot of great history in the show, and great people attached to it. I just don’t want to mess it up.”
CV: Tim Howar
Born: 1969, Northern Alberta, Canada
• Peggy Sue Got Married, Shaftesbury Theatre, ,London (2001)
• Tonight’s the Night,Victoria Palace Theatre, London (2003)
• On the Town, English National Opera, London (2005); Theatre du Chatelet, Paris (2008)
• Rock of Ages, Shaftesbury Theatre (2011); Garrick Theatre, London (2013)
• Edmonton Civic Award for outstanding achievement in dance (1990)
• Grand Prize at the Youth Talent International Competition, Memphis Tennessee, US
Agent: Hilary Gagan Associates
Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre London, is booking until March 2019. uk.thephantomoftheopera.com