Mark Shenton: My top 10 UK musical theatre actors

Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd with Imelda Staunton. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Something funny has happened on the way to the forum: we’ve lately lost no fewer than four of our leading men of musicals to the US. Ramin Karimloo – now wowing them in Les Miserables on Broadway – has moved closer to home (he was brought up in Canada), but he was joined last week in the show by Gavin Lee, also now resident in the US, who has taken over as Thenardier.

Tam Mutu, recently in City of Angels at the Donmar, has swapped Covent Garden for Broadway, too, where he has a starring role in the new musical Dr Zhivago that opens in April. Also now newly based on New York are Mark Evans and Oliver Thornton, both of whom had been building steady profiles in West End musicals.

It’s a risk: there are even more men vying for fewer jobs on Broadway than there are in the West End. I can understand the impulse, though – the West End musical is a very small pond, whereas the opportunities (and rewards) Stateside are much bigger.

Also MIA from the London stage for the last few years (though making not one but two imminent temporary returns) is Philip Quast, a three-times Olivier winner, who would be at the very top of my list but for the fact that a couple of years ago he relocated to his native Australia. I’m looking forward to seeing him reprise his New York performance as Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum at the end of the month; and in June, he reprises the role of Pozzo in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting for Godot on its transfer to the Barbican.

Previously, I’ve nominated my top 10 (and beyond) leading ladies of the West End. Today it’s the turn of the men who, in the criteria I also used for the women, I would never miss in any musical.

1. Michael Ball

It’s onstage that he regularly tests his musical muscle

There’s still no British musical theatre star quite like Michael Ball. Though he’s gone for the ‘popular’ vote by establishing himself, like Elaine Paige did before him, as a touring concert star as well, it’s onstage that he regularly tests his musical muscle, and he never did so with such ferocious intent as when he played Sweeney Todd at Chichester three years ago, before transferring to the West End (and winning his second Olivier Award). He has also graduated effortlessly from juve lead (he was the original Marius in Les Mis) to leading man – and even leading woman (as he did in Hairspray). He tests himself with each role he does, from Sondheim to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Next up: he plays Mack in a revival of the forever troubled Mack and Mabel at Chichester this summer. Will he rescue this tuneful show and finally turn it into a hit?

2. Hadley Fraser

Hadley Fraser has somewhat followed in Ball’s footsteps – he’s also played Marius and Raoul in Phantom – but he’s also got a more edgy presence that has lent grit and gravitas to such roles as Javert and most recently Stone in City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse. He was also fantastic in The Pajama Game at Chichester but didn’t move to town with it as he was committed to an acting run in a new play at the Manchester International Festival. We’ll draw a polite veil over some of his earlier shows, like The Far Pavilions, The Pirate Queen (on Broadway) and The Fantasticks.

3. Michael Xavier

Michael Xavier took over from Hadley Fraser when The Pajama Game transferred, and is the go-to guy now for dashing leading men of the old school, lending his sublime voice and dreamily handsome looks to shows like The Sound of Music at Regent’s Park a couple of summers ago and the original production of Howard Goodall’s Love Story.

Killian Donnelly in Memphis. Photo: Johan Persson
Killian Donnelly in Memphis. Photo: Johan Persson

4. Killian Donnelly

Killian Donnelly has emerged as the best new rock guy on the block, after break-out starring roles in The Commitments and (currently) Memphis. I can’t wait to see what he’ll do when he’s in a really great show, too.

5. Damian Humbley

Damian Humbley has one of the best, most assured voices in British musicals. He was recently seen to hilarious effect in the Menier’s Forbidden Broadway (that subsequently transferred to the Vaudeville) but the Australian-born actor has also been remarkable in shows like the British premiere of The Last 5 Years, Merrily We Roll Along (which transferred to the West End) and Life of the Party, all starting at the Menier as well.

6. Jamie Parker

May yet prove to be the most versatile of all

Jamie Parker, one of the original cast of The History Boys at the National (that also included Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett) may yet prove to be the most versatile of all of them. He’s since been seen in Shakespeare at the Globe and proved to be a brilliant musical leading man when he played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls at Chichester. Since then, he’s sung in a one-nighter of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Palace and recently starred in the Menier’s Assassins. Now I can’t wait to see him in High Society at the Old Vic in May.

7. Richard Fleeshman

Richard Fleeshman in Urinetown The Musical. Photo:  Johan Persson
Richard Fleeshman in Urinetown The Musical. Photo: Johan Persson

Richard Fleeshman made a big impression when he starred in the original London production of Ghosts, before reprising that show on Broadway. More recently, he starred in the UK debut of Urinetown at the St James.

8. Brian Conley

Brian Conley is someone who is regularly forgotten as a leading man since he made his name in TV light entertainment, but he’s been brilliant in musicals from Me and My Girl and Jolson to Hairspray in the West End, and is currently propelling Barnum to triumph on a UK tour.

9. Stewart Clarke

Stewart Clarke made his West End debut in the short-lived Loserville in 2012, but since has gone on to prove to be a winner in shows like the tour of Ghost, The Return of the Soldier at Jermyn Street Theatre and most recently Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory. He’s a star in the making.

10. Alex Gaumond

Alex Gaumond in Legally Blonde The Musical Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Alex Gaumond in Legally Blonde The Musical Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Alex Gaumond has been quietly progressing through the ranks for a while, but I first noticed him in Legally Blonde the Musical and recently was very impressed when he took over in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He also showed supreme versatility by taking over also as Trunchbull in Matilda. He’s a solid, charming leading man.

I’m also keeping a keen eye on:

Oliver Tompsett has specialised mostly in rock/pop musicals like We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages and Wicked, but last Christmas he demonstrated an old-fashioned leading man quality in White Christmas at West Yorkshire Playhouse that showed he’s able to do it all.

Nigel Harman originated the role of Lord Farquaad in Shrek the Musical when it opened in London (and is now directing the tour). He was also a terrific take-over as Sky Masterson in the Donmar Guys and Dolls in the West End.

Jamie Muscato nearly made my top 10 list on the basis of just one leading role: the lead in Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Jon Robyns is one of the most reliable British musical actors, great in everything he does from Avenue Q to Memphis (he’s in the ensemble but also covers Killian Donnelly).

David Thaxton first made a splash when he starred in the Donmar revival of Passion (and won an Olivier Award for his efforts), and has since been in the West End in Love Never Dies and in Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Simon Bailey was wonderful last summer in Marry Me a Little at the St James, and has been steadily climbing through the ranks of such shows as Phantom and Les Mis. I Can’t Sing! saw him break-out as Dermot O’Deary [sic], though the show was a mis-step.

Simon Lipkin in Avenue Q in 2006. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Simon Lipkin in Avenue Q in 2006. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Simon Lipkin, who was also in the original cast of Avenue Q with Robyns and I Can’t Sing! with Bailey, is often seen attached to a hand puppet, but he’s great in his own right, as he recently demonstrated in Assassins at the Menier.

Ben Forster won the ITV Superstar! reality TV contest to play the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar for the 2012 arena tour, making him one to watch. This Christmas he’ll be in Elf at the Dominion.

Daniel Boys was a finalist on the Any Dream Will Do TV contest to find an actor to play the title character of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. He subsequently took over in the West End’s Avenue Q, and has also starred in Spamalot.

David Hunter was a finalist on the Superstar! TV contest (won by Ben Forster above), and I’ve since seen him be brilliant in both The Hired Man at Colchester and more recently taking over in Once in the West End.

Fra Fee was only in a supporting role of Courfeyrac in the film of Les Miserables, but the camera absolutely loved him and he featured regularly onscreen. He played the title role in the Menier’s Candide and was wonderful in A Man of No Importance at Salisbury Playhouse.

Who have I left out (consciously or not)? Please leave your suggestions below…