As John Owen-Jones brings his first ever solo cabaret to the West End this week, I took the opportunity to grab a coffee with one of musical theatre’s leading men and to find out a little more about the talented Welsh tenor. With more appearances under his belt (or mask) than any other Phantom and having performed Jean Valjean on both sides of the Atlantic, Owen-Jones occupies a respected and lofty viewpoint from which to comment upon theatre today, as well as to offer some choice reflections upon his career to date.
There’s a hint of romantic good luck that surrounded his early days in the business. Leaving the (as was) Central School of Speech and Drama in 1994 Owen-Jones was the only actor to graduate without having secured an agent. What followed however was that rare turn of events that saw his exceptional abilities combine with some remarkable moments of good fortune. After an initial couple of roles in Yorkshire, an ensemble part in the West End’s Les Miserables swiftly followed, that in turn led to an invitation to join the National Theatre company to play the Liebeslieder in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed A Little Night Music. The stellar cast of the National production included Judi Dench as Desiree Armfeldt (her reprisal of the show’s Send In The Clowns being one of the highlights of the RNT’s recent 50 year anniversary celebration) and Owen-Jones valued the opportunity to work in a leading theatre company alongside industry greats. He observes however how cossetted the subsidised NT’s rehearsal process was, or is, in contrast to the harsher regime that faces commercially staged productions.
As well as offering him a chance to work close up with Stephen Sondheim, his stint at the National saw him well placed to be pitched into a return to Les Mis when his South Bank time was up. Working back at the Palace Theatre and cast in the minor roles of Factory Foreman and Grantaire as well as First Cover Valjean, a terrible road accident rendered Phil Cavill (the incumbent Valjean) out of action. Owen-Jones was called to step up to the part, Cameron Mackintosh was impressed and almost immediately the young Welshman was cast as the youngest Valjean in the show’s history. Owen-Jones reflects even today upon how it was due to Cavill’s misfortune that he was catapulted into stardom, sanguinely acknowledging that one has to grab opportunities as they arise.
From Les Mis, Owen-Jones was put up for auditions for Phantom Of The Opera and whilst he was expecting to be cast in the modest role of Piangi and auditioning against John Barrowman, he was surprised to be offered the lead. There began an association with Lloyd Webber’s gothic, tragic anti-hero that was to last for almost 12 years. It was a part that Owen-Jones loved, though whilst he acknowledges that he could one day be tempted back to Cameron Mackintosh’s barricades, (maybe as Javert?) his days in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera are on hold. Married (to a schoolteacher) and with children of 10 and 12, Owen-Jones found the demands of a lengthy Phantom tour conflicted with family life, convincing him to hang up that particular mask for a while.
|Owen-Jones as the eponymous Phantom|
Aside from Phantom, recent years have seen the performer promote his international reputation and indeed our coffee had been held up as he negotiatied some complexities with Japan. With two solo albums under his belt, he has also worked with fellow Phantom Earl Carpenter and an original Christine, Rebecca Caine in creating the touring Three Phantoms, a concert of show-tunes that spans the years but nonetheless retains a re-assuring bias towards the modern day triumphs of Les Mis and Phantom. Seeing Owen-Jones perform in the Three Phantoms in Cardiff a couple of years ago was a treat. His evident pride in his local roots and the returned warmth shouted back at him from the crowd was a joy to witness. Owen-Jones has a comfortably relaxed air in concert and cabaret, the assuredness of man who is both excellent at his craft yet one who is profoundly aware of that excellence with, a confidence that is as modest as it is talented. In a business often crowded out by oversized egos, his is a humility rarely encountered.
Keeping in touch with modern developments on stage, Owen-Jones speaks in awe of the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin and refers to his kids (who not surprisingly have already seen a fair amount of musical theatre!) as having sat through the show “open-mouthed” in amazement. He wonders though if there is a talent-base broad enough on this side of the Atlantic that could see the show, famed for its combination of breathtaking circus skills alongside outstanding song and dance, successfully open in London. He loved I Can’t Sing!, though acknowledges that the show’s tunes were not memorable and that whilst he and his wife were crying with laughter, his kids were baffled by it. Supporting lesser known writers too, Owen-Jones has sung twice with New York composer Scott Alan in the American’s recent London gigs, once at the O2 and more recently at the London Hippodrome, engendering a warm respect between the two men, with Alan speaking warmly of his admiration for the performer, not just as an outstanding vocalist but also as a kind and compassionate man.
A spectacularly open individual, with much sage comment upon both his colleagues and the business, much of what Owen-Jones had to say had either a frankness or an irreverence that demanded that it remains off record. Unquestionably a star of the modern stage, his erudite observations on the entertainment world are the thoughts of an individual who will not suffer fools, yet commands an air of relaxed gravitas. There is not a hint of arrogance to Owen-Jones at all, just quiet, outstanding ability.
It is to the Hippodrome that Owen-Jones returns this Saturday night. With a set list that bears a nod to Joe Cocker and Tom Jones, as well as signature tunes Bring Him Home and Music Of The Night, the evening’s patter is likely to be as revelatory as the songs will be sparkling. Almost sold-out, a few tickets still remain for what is sure to be one of the capital’s most exciting cabarets this summer.
John performs in the Matcham Room at the London Hippodrome on Saturday 21st June