The only man to win the best actor in a musical Olivier three times, Philip Quast still felt it was necessary to fly from Australia to audition for Follies, rather than send in the requested tape. He tells Mark Shenton about the ghosts the National Theatre houses and why this might be his final appearance in the UK.
Three-time Olivier-winner Philip Quast was home in his native Australia, where he divides his time between teaching, directing, occasional acting gigs and fishing, when he heard that the National Theatre in London was reviving Follies.
Despite considering retirement from musical theatre roles in 2015, Quast was determined to audition for this production of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 musical masterwork. Instead of sending a tape, he caught a flight to London to appear in front of director Dominic Cooke in person.
“They asked me to send a video, but I just wanted the experience of being in the rehearsal room with him [Cooke] and the musical director Nick Skilbeck, who I’ve come to really appreciate as a wonderful calming, ebullient, gentle, caring person,” he says. “I had a couple of hours with them where we worked and rehearsed, and I came out thinking I’d given it my best shot.”
It’s chastening that even with Quast’s track record – no one has won more than his three Olivier awards for best actor in a musical – he still has to prove himself.
His landmark performances in the UK include playing Javert in the now legendary 10th-anniversary concert staging of Les Miserables at the Royal Albert Hall and his role in The Secret Garden, which started in Sydney before heading to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and subsequently the West End.
In 1990, he originated the title role in the National’s British premiere of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, for which he won his first Olivier. This was followed with statuettes for The Fix in 1998 and South Pacific four years later.
Other highlights include his star turn in the National’s 2004 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and as Judge Turpin in the 2015 staging of Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum.
That last show was a turning point. “After I’d sung Pretty Woman with Bryn [Terfel, as Sweeney], I thought I wouldn’t sing again. After you’ve done that, what’s there that’s left to do? Apart from Sweeney himself.”
There had been a possibility of Quast playing the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with the Sydney Theatre Company, “but it didn’t work out and I wouldn’t do it now. I’m too old,” the 60-year-old says, adding the part was suited to someone aged 40 or younger. “It would be just too tiring and the demands I’d put on myself are too stressful.”
Then Follies came along. It is a musical about coming to terms with the past, about life’s missed opportunities and the wrong roads taken.
He’d taken this particular road himself once before, in a one-night concert performance of Follies at the London Palladium in 2007 opposite Maria Friedman, with whom he’d co-starred in Sunday in the Park.
“I found it quite emotional – when we did Too Many Mornings, it all came back. Like a lot of things, you’re so filled with fear and the terror of being so exposed, you don’t have time to enjoy it when you’re doing it.”
Being reunited with Friedman in Follies reminded him of the joy of Sunday in the Park. “Like a lot of classics, you don’t know what they give you until you’re down the track.” And here at the National was a chance to, in turn, revisit Follies. It was a way of bringing his musical theatre career in London full circle.
Follies is a show full of ghosts, both literal – each character is shadowed by a version of their younger selves – and figurative. And returning to London’s South Bank, Quast has met a few ghosts of his own.
“We are on the Olivier stage. I go on that stage and it’s full of ghosts for me,” he says. “I’ll remember walking past that for Stuff Happens [David Hare’s play about the Iraq war], or there for South Pacific.”
It was also at the National that he was first introduced to Sondheim’s work, and to the composer himself. He was in London in 1989 to play Javert at the Palace Theatre, a role he had previously held in Australia. When fellow cast members Matt Ryan and Clare Burt heard him sing, they both exclaimed he sounded like George, the title character in Sondheim’s musical about pointillist painter Georges Seurat and his grandson.
He explains, “When I go high, I sound like Mandy Patinkin,” who originated the role. Quast acknowledges today: “A lot of the way shows are formed comes down to the very first cast. Doing Sunday in the Park With George, I was inheriting Mandy Patinkin’s footprint. But Sondheim said he originally wanted George as a bass baritone and Dot as a soprano, but because of who was cast they swapped them around.”
Honouring his predecessors is an important part of developing a role for Quast. “We are borrowing the parts from the people who originally played them – they’re on loan to us. That’s why lineage to me is important – a lot of the shape of a show was shaped by those actors who originally did the role. A lot would be tapered to that person, for their specific voice. So we are taking on those ghosts as well.”
“I believe in lineage more than anything,” he says, and this partly drives his relatively recent passion for teaching. When at home in Sydney, he tutors at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the Australian drama school where he trained in the mid-1970s. He considers it a personal responsibility to pass on what he has learned along the way.
Today he is providing a personal masterclass in how to approach Sondheim. “He is a dramatist, basically,” he tells me. “People still have discussions about the melodies. But he won’t sacrifice sense for musicality. When you hear the songs without the lyrics, they are beautiful. But you get this juxtaposition where you get a moment of musical release after a complex thought, and that’s an absolute thrill.”
What was your first job? Adam in the Wakefield Mystery plays in Adelaide, and I had to appear nude. I’ve still got my first fan letter from a woman who said: “You were great, but you realise Adam wouldn’t have been circumcised?”
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That nothing is that important. Just finish a job, don’t linger, and move on.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I have to say my wife Carol and our three kids. We met 42 years ago, and have been married for nearly 40 years now.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t pre-plan them at all – deal with the unexpected because that’s what life is about.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? A carpenter, a fisherman or a chef.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I do get funny about people saying the Scottish play or whistling backstage – it’s because older actors have passed that on to me. It’s no different to being conditioned by your parents in Australia not to go into the grass because there are snakes. It is based on some form of truth.
There are also deep technical challenges in switching between English – or Australian – speech patterns and American ones to ensure the rhythms of Sondheim’s work is right. “He doesn’t worry if you go a bit flat, but he’s emphatic that rhythm is everything.”
Sondheim attended the first preview of this revival of Follies. “He gave me a note afterwards that I was slightly back-phrasing something – he said: ‘It has to have a tick-tock rhythm. The reason is that if you’re slowing it up, you are pre-empting the moment the release comes. So you have to do it as is written.’ ”
That is one of the luxuries of working on a Sondheim show: the exact precision of its writing does a lot of the work for the performers. “When I first did Sunday in the Park With George, I didn’t quite understand that,” Quast says.
Previously he had worked on shows such as Les Miserables, where a performer “really has to work at making sense of something where the music and the lyrics don’t quite match”.
He continues: “There’s a whole weird juxtaposition of words that are stressed in the wrong places, and Trevor [Nunn, who co-directed Les Mis] solved it by getting me to speak the lyrics and putting stress on the words that aren’t in the music. You spend so much time in rehearsals trying to act it, but in the end you have to just sing it as well as you can.”
When performing Sondheim, the demands are greater, but so are the rewards. “It was a real hard process for me to understand. It was Stephen who explained to me that he writes in speech patterns and that he stresses the words you stress in speech. It took me a long while to get it.”
Quast also struggled with finding the right rhythms. He recalls his first audition for Sunday in the Park, which was held on a West End stage. He had never met Sondheim, but the composer was sitting somewhere in the dark auditorium. “I wasn’t getting the rhythms right, and I remember Stephen telling the piano player: ‘Give him more left hand.’ Then I knew where I was.”
Sondheim rang him personally in his Les Mis dressing room at the Palace to tell him that he had won the role. Ryan and Burt, who had exclaimed how his singing was perfect for the role, were all crowded in the door as he took the call. Sondheim told him: “You’ll enjoy the part. It will offer you more challenges than you’ll have ever had.”
When Sondheim held my son, I swear he had a tear in his eye that fell down and landed on him, but I may have made that up
Quast’s wife Carol was pregnant at the time with their first son Edwin. “He was born when we doing Sunday in the Park. I remember Carol brought him to the theatre, and Stephen asked if he could hold him. He looked down at him and as he stroked his forehead, I remember him saying: ‘Children and Art’ [the title of one of the songs in the show]. I swear he had a tear in his eye that fell down and landed on Edwin, but I may have made that up.”
That baby is now 27, with two younger siblings, and he attended the first preview of Follies a couple of nights earlier with his French girlfriend, who was surprised by the Sondheim fanatics delighted at the revival of the show that received its London premiere at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987.
“The French have no understanding of musical theatre, so half of her shock at seeing it was being in that audience with people who are obsessed by this show. But of course it is no different to people who go trainspotting, or are interested in Formula One or football and know it inside out.”
This is the first time Follies has been staged at the National and there is a huge buzz around the production, not least because its stars include Imelda Staunton, who thrilled West End audiences with her Momma Rose in Gypsy.
Set in New York in 1971, it follows the Follies girls who, 30 years after their final performance, attend a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre, which will be demolished the following day.
Beyond Sondheim’s cult appeal, the composer also speaks to more universal truths about the human condition that are profoundly moving. Quast plays Ben Stone, who still harbours feelings for Staunton’s Sally, the chorus dancer he dumped in favour of fellow Follies girl Phyllis, played by Janie Dee. Sally feels the same, despite having husband Buddy in tow for the reunion.
Early on, Ben sings a powerful song, The Road You Didn’t Take, which sets the tone of the entire show. “The funny thing when you are doing it is that you don’t know what is happening to you. It’s over before you know it – there’s no time to actually act it,” Quast says.
“It is almost a stream-of-consciousness – it’s full of rhetorical questions that aren’t answered, and then it is answered by Sally at the end. I make a journey in it, but the bigger journey is made by Sally, who is listening. I have the same thing when she sings In Buddy’s Eyes and I fall more in love with her. It’s the observer who moves as much as the performer.”
• Read the classics.
• Write as much as you can and understand form. When I look at actors I admire, such as Simon Russell Beale, his understanding of form and structure informs everything he does. You can’t be an architect and build a building unless you understand how it stands up.
• It’s a struggle but try not to gossip. Stay away from social media and don’t read your reviews.
It’s a complex show to understand, and capturing its changing textures is sometimes elusive. “I’m still trying to nail The Road You Didn’t Take,” he admits. “The stress on everyone is enormous. You can see why it makes a great concert – everyone sits in their dressing rooms, then comes out and does their bits. But here they have no time to go back to their dressing rooms – there’s nowhere for any of us to go and hide, we can’t go back to our rooms and get ready. We have to be in the party – and then we’re on and then it’s over, and it’s terrifying.”
Though Sondheim himself recently characterised Follies as a character-driven, plotless musical, Quast feels there’s a lot of narrative development. “You can’t underestimate James Goldman’s book, which is very filmic. It’s a great story.” It lays out an impressionistic night of memories flowing in and out of each other, in which the characters ultimately resolve some long-standing inner and external conflicts.
There are no divas in the show and yet we’re all divas
That sense of conflict hasn’t extended to the company itself, Quast assures me. “There are no divas in the show and yet we’re all divas. In fact we’re all terrified and we all carry a group responsibility to make this work.”
He is a consummate performer who is unflappable on stage. It came in useful when he came to the rescue of his stage wife Dee, who had a costume malfunction in one of the previews.
For Quast, who had been dealing with notes from the previous night, “it became the biggest part of the night for me – dealing with things that happen, finding a solution and moving on”.
That has become a personal mantra. He’s suffered crippling depressions in his time, but has now learned not to linger on the past or a particular part. Quoting a Sondheim song from Sunday in the Park, he says: “Stop worrying if your vision is new / let others make that decision / they usually do / Move on.”
That’s exactly what he’s done himself. He’s moved on from the acting life that used to consume him, but will Follies mark the end of his musical theatre career? He says: “I’m in sort of semi-retirement. I have a good, quiet life in Australia now. I teach and direct at NIDA, and I go fishing a lot. I don’t know why I’ve come back – I suspect it is my last hurrah here.”
Audiences will hope he is, for once, not as good as his word; leading men like him are in short supply.
Born: 1957, Tamworth, Australia
Training: National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney (graduated in 1979)
Landmark productions: Les Miserables, Australia (1987); West End (1989); Royal Albert Hall, London (1995), Sunday in the Park With George, National Theatre (1990), Saint Joan, Strand Theatre, London (1994), Troilus and Cressida, Royal Shakespeare Company (1996), The Fix, Donmar Warehouse, London (1997), The Secret Garden, RSC (2000), South Pacific, National Theatre (2001), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum/Stuff Happens, National Theatre (2004), Evita, Adelphi Theatre, London (2006), La Cage Aux Folles, Menier Chocolate Factory, London (2007); West End (2009), Sweeney Todd, Lincoln Center, New York (2014); London Coliseum (2015)
Awards: Olivier for Sunday in the Park With George (1991), Olivier for The Fix (1998), Olivier for South Pacific (2002)
Agents: John Grant at Conway van Gelder Grant (UK), Sue Muggleton, Cameron’s Management (Australia)
Follies runs in the Olivier, National Theatre, until January 3 and will be broadcast live to cinemas later this year by NT Live