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Hayden Thomas interviews Elf's Ben Forster
It will be Christmas before we know it! As the build-up to the festive season grips London, we thought we would embrace some Christmas cheer ourselves, as our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) caught up with West End star and ITV "Superstar" winner Ben Forster during rehearsals for Elf The Musical. The production is scheduled to begin performances at the Dominion Theatre on 24 October and will play a limited engagament through to 2 January 2016.
Read on as Ben discusses everyone's favourite Elf, his next role as The Phantom, his special relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber and the impact of reality TV on theatre.
Hayden Thomas: So this isn't the first time you've played Buddy in 'Elf The Musical' is it? You previously starred in the 2014 production, which played Plymouth and then Dublin.
Ben Forster: Exactly. I think that was kind of in preperation for this (West End premiere) really. We wanted to make sure that everything worked, so that we could get the West End interest. It was such a joy to create though. The musical was on Broadway before, but this is a brand new production. It was a brand new set that (Producer) Michael Rose commisioned. There is a whole new creative team on it. Working down in Plymouth, they have such an amazing facility down there. They have the wardrobe department on site, so you can see all the designers making your costumes, you can see the set being built through some big doors in another room and we were rehearsing in another room. There's not many facilities like that where you can see something come together from the ground upwards. It was a really exciting process to be involved in.
HT: What can audiences expect from this brand-new, UK-born production of 'Elf' then?
BF: The main thing is that it's Christmas wrapped up into two hours. Sometimes I feel it's really hard to get into the Christmas spirit. It gets to the day before Christmas and I think to myself: "Oh my God, I've not done anything Christmasy at all." You leave it all to the last minute, if you lead a busy life, and sometimes it's over before you know it. I just think it's a really nice opportunity to get your family together, or a group of friends or your partner, and sit yourselves down and commit yourselves to the Christmas spirit. You will definitely leave the theatre feeling festive. The show is full of the magic that the movie had. Like everthing with musical theatre though, the magic is heightened because you have the addition of the dancing and the music from the live orchestra. You get to see all those colourful costumes too and it's all live. It's the perfect show to go and see.
HT: I also like the idea of the West End not being left out, in terms of Christmas preparations. You know how all the big shops and department stores start selling Christmas decorations in October or even earlier. Well, why should West End theatre be left behind? Why not begin performances of 'Elf The Musical' at the end of October?
BF: (Laughs) Exactly! Why should Selfridges and Harrods have all the fun?!
HT: Is there plenty of humour aimed at the adults and parents in the production too? Or does it keep to a PG-family friendly standard?
BF: Well, the book has been taken directly from the movie. There are some subtle changes to make it work better in a theatre, but all the gags and all the jokes are the same as the movie and that's why 'Elf' appeals to adults and grandparents, as well as the kids. That's why it became such a huge movie. It has that multi-generational appeal and that's still definitely there in the theatrical production.
HT: And are there many similarities between your good self and Buddy the Elf, Ben?
BF: Erm... Well, I think the beautiful thing about Buddy is he has that innocence of a child, being brought up by elves and thinking life is lovely and fabulous and then he has to learn about real life very quickly when he comes to New York. The thing about him is that, yes he's clumsy and childish and all those things that make you laugh, but inside he has a heart and he wants to love someone and be loved. He wants a family and wants the good things in life. I think everyone can relate to that. That's why people love him.
HT: And next you'll be trading in those pointy shoes with bells on for the iconic mask of The Phantom of the Opera, which is about as big a leap as you can get in theatre, I guess. Now, you've played Jesus in 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' Augustin Magaldi in 'Evita' and next The Phantom. You're getting the whole Lloyd Webber back catalogue! There'll be asking you to play Grizabella next in 'Cats'!
BF: (Laughs) Oh and I would be there!... With bells on! I'd love to sing "Memory"!
HT: Well, if Beverley Knight ever needs a break, you'll have to step in.
BF: Ooh I'd be there at the front of the queue!
HT: So obviously you have a very positive working relationship with the Lord (Andrew Lloyd Webber). How has your relationship with him evolved?
BF: He has been so supportive of me. He supports me in all the productions I'm in. When he came to see 'Evita,' I think that made him consider me as The Phantom. I was singing "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" and it was a different style to what he's seen me do before. In 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' we were showcasing ourselves as musical theatre singers but with more rock abilities. That's how he saw me for such a long time. I think when he saw me using my standard musical theatre voice - I can sing in any style really depending on what we have to act out - that ignited the flame in his head that I may be good for The Phantom. So he invited me around to his house to talk about taking on the role and have a sing through. That was crazy. I thought to myself: "I can't believe I'm actually on my way to Andrew Lloyd Webber's house!" When they finally offered me the part, I was ecstatic. I'm so happy that I have got this relationship with him, that he does think about me for things and he does support me. I can't thank him enough for that.
HT: Of course he first laid eyes on you in the reality TV show "Superstar" and a lot has happened for you in the three years since that. As a winner of this TV format yourself, do you see a future in the whole realtiy TV/musical theatre mix or do you think you may have been on the last ship that sailed there?
BF: Well I think it's a great thing. Obviously with all those sorts of TV shows, there are always critics of them as well as supporters. For myself, I was in the position where I was doing a lead role in a West End show, but really I couldn't get seen for the big parts. Sometimes I just couldn't get into the casting of a really big show. I had a good agent at the time. I don't think that was the issue. I just don't think they saw me as that person. There are so many people who are talented and doing their thing, but the doors just aren't open for them. Closed casting is just a natural thing that exists. Casting directors are just humans and just fans of various people. They might only think of people that they have already seen in something else. They might only see five people instead of fifty people for a particular role. I was one of 6,000 people who auditioned for the role of Jesus. So 6,000 people had the chance to showcase themselves for one part. To me that can only be a good thing. So I hope that "Superstar" wasn't the last. I hope they do another one and I hope someone gets the chance that I had. It completely changed my life and where I stand now in the business. I think I was probably ready to give up before that competition, if I'm honest. I had achieved a nice place in my career. I had got to a certain stage and was singing great songs every night. I said to myself: "Do you know what, if this is the last thing I do, that's fine." But I thought I would just go for Jesus before I gave up and moved on.
HT: And the rest is history, as they say. I also hope there will be a future in it, as it's not often that theatre is given a multi-media platform to appeal to a wider audience.
BF: Yes! That's the other huge bonus. It just engages more people in theatre and we deserve it. It's an excruciatingly hard business that we are in. When you watch a movie, they work for six months and it ends up in the cinemas, but sometimes they only have to film a scene once. We have to do scenes eight times a week. We are offering people an amazing live experience, so the more people that engage in it, the better it will be for us. More producers will invest in more projects. It will take it to a new level. So yes, I do hope there will be more TV casting shows in future.
HT: And for the meantime, I'll wish you all the very best with 'Elf' and a Merry Christmas!
BF: Thank you so much. It's been lovely to talk to you.
The West End premiere of Elf The Musical is booking through to 2 January 2016 at London's Dominion Theatre.