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James Hayes: Even after 55 years, nothing prepares you for the thrill of being in a musical

James Hayes as Baptista in Opera North's production of Kiss Me, Kate. Photo: Tristram Kenton James Hayes as Baptista in Opera North's production of Kiss Me, Kate. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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After 55 years as an actor I have, somewhat belatedly, embarked upon my first musical. I have done decades of ‘straight’ theatre, from rep seasons in the 1960s to seasons with Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic in the early years of the National Theatre.

This was followed by dozens of productions at the NT on the Southbank, working on the fringe, various West End productions and seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I have never auditioned or performed in a musical before. So I decided to finally break my musical duck: playing Harry Trevor/ Baptista in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.

After finishing a four-hander, my first rehearsal in this new (to me) genre came as a shock. First of all there were about 50 people in the large rehearsal room. Apart from Jo Davies, the director, who I have worked with at the RSC, I didn’t know a soul.

There were opera singers alongside West End performers and dancers. Apart from myself the only other ‘actor’ was Malcolm Ridley. The difference to the usual rehearsals I’m involved in was the people who aren’t normally in the room. Like the conductor, with an assistant, the choreographer and his assistant, and a chief repetiteur. There are five repetiteurs at Opera North. I’m so green I can’t even pronounce the word.

The following day we were joined by 24 members of Opera North’s chorus. I could only admire as the unflappable director worked with nearly 50 performers. She suggested dozens of complex entrances and exits, bits of business, moves and so on.

James Hayes

What was really wonderful was listening to the singers. As the music came up, Aiesha Pease launched into Another Op’nin’, Another Show. Three voices joined. Then 40 more come in behind. Forty. The sound was astonishing. There is nothing in theatre, nothing, to beat a great musical number. And this is with piano accompaniment. “Wait until we are joined by the 48-piece orchestra,” Jo said.

On top of this we have our two opera stars, Stephanie Corley and Quirijn de Lang. Watching both singers cope with the many physical battles Kate and Petruchio inflict on each other was impressive – but way more impressive was their ability to then open their mouths and pour forth the most beautiful sounds.

What was I doing during this time? All I had to do, in a number of short funny scenes, was rehearse my part as the actor Harry Trevor, who then takes on the role of Baptista, utter some Shakespearean lines and, when the singers are in full flow, add my voice to one or two numbers.

Meanwhile, 14 dancers were working on a fiendishly complicated dance sequence that would become a seven-minute section. There was a balletic part, with much sweeping, swirling movement, the boys lifted the girls gracefully into the air, followed by a dazzling tap sequence.

What have I learnt from my musical debut? Well, as in any large or small theatre company, the talent, the commitment, the work ethic and professionalism in the musical company is exactly the same. The qualities of the singers, the dancers and the chorus are different, but equal in every way. Sadly, as I am in my eighth decade, it is highly unlikely that another musical offer will come my way, but should it happen, I would jump at the chance.

Despite playing in big Shakespeare productions, in Aeschylus in Epidaurus, in Friel at the Donmar, nothing prepares you for the fun and excitement of performing in a whacking great musical. Unforgettable.

Kiss Me, Kate runs at London Coliseum until June 30. kissmekatethemusical.co.uk

James Hayes’ Shouting in the Evenings is published by Matador.

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