In Conversation with Ryan Molloy about new musical 27 at the Cockpit Theatre
Performer Ryan Molloy may well be one of the few UK performers who can be categorised as a recognisable musical theatre star. Having worked in all corners of the performance industry, from being the lead singer of Frankie Goes to Hollywood to song writing with artists such as The Eurythmics, Sting and The Pussycat Dolls he is perhaps best known for creating the role of Frankie Valli in the hit musical Jersey Boys – a role that he continued to play to great acclaim in the West End and on Broadway for six years. After storming into the industry in the original London productions of Taboo and Jerry Springer the Opera, his role in Jersey Boys opened up a fan base across the world, and his devotion to the role helped make the show the success it has been in London for the past eight years.
After seeing Ryan as Frankie Valli multiple times it's hard to erase the clean-cut image associated with the show and indeed the role. Meeting him at an intensely sweaty Pineapple Dance Studios mid rehearsal for his new musical 27, he instantly looks relaxed, more of a musician than a musical theatre star. I instantly get the impression that Molloy is an artist who loves to work – we talk about his recent album launch in Asia, his tour of Ireland and the new musical he's writing about Che Guevara that is currently being performed around the world, with its eyes set on New York and Cuba in the coming year. Despite this seemingly intense work schedule, he couldn't be more excited to talk about his role in this brand new musical which opens at the Cockpit Theatre next month.
“It's fantastic, it's really exciting” he begins, “It's great to be up there with such a great cast, it's full of energy and belief and passion”. 27, which is written by Sam Cassidy, is described as a "modern fable of our time” and a dark interpretation of one of humanity’s oldest stories. It couldn't sound more different to the world of Franki Valli, and it's a challenge that Molloy is clearly grabbing with both hands. “There's just so much belief in what Sam's written and what's on the page” he explains. “You can inject yourself and your own personality into it to get the best piece possible. It's at a very early stage of its development but it's at a very strong stage of its development. It's got some great people behind it and some funding – and rightly so – I think it's going to be a fantastic show.”
A musical in its early stage of its development at a fringe venue may certainly seem to be an unusual project of choice for a performer with such a following, especially one who up until recently played one of the biggest roles in the West End. “The fantastic thing about being in such a successful long running show is that it has given me the luxury where I can pick and choose what I go into”, Ryan explains. “It's not about finance, it's about choosing what actually suits me and finding something where I can grow, and that's a real luxury that I've never had before in my career and Jersey Boys has given me that.”
“A lot of things that are in the West End are very corporate, it's all about getting the money in."
The difference between the two realms is certainly not lost on Molloy, and I get the sense he's incredibly proud to be part of a production at a more grass roots level, away from the commercial gaze of the West End. “The biggest thing I got involved with was the energy of it and what they wanted to create and where they wanted to go, and it was very inspirational to get involved with that” he confirms. “A lot of things that are in the West End are very corporate, it's all about getting the money in. Certain people who are stand-out talented enough to go into these roles are getting passed over so they can put TV people in who don't really care about it, but are up for the money because now they know musical theatre and the West End has had a resurgence and there's a lot of money coming in. So now you're seeing a lot of 'A Listers' coming in and being cast above those who have spent years working their craft and really bringing the industry up, so it was great to get involved with a project where they just wanted the best people possible – brave actors, people who want to be challenged and really go there with us.”
In creating a role in such an original piece, Molloy has found himself challenged not only physically but also artistically, something that he feels is vital to any performer.
“I play the character of Hades, I'm playing the Devil. To have that contrast and go back into where I wanted my career to go, that is taking on those challenging roles and getting in there, being up against a lot of hardcore text and really building a character from the ground up. It's a very challenging role. It's a real emotional journey, I think that's the kind of thing I want to be involved in, I don't want to stand there and pick up the pay cheque, you're not being fulfilled emotionally as an artist. You don't want to come out of the theatre thinking 'whatever', you want to come out and feel like you've really done something good for yourself because you know you've achieved something every day..."
27 takes a brutal look at music legends such as Hendrix, Joplin, Cobain, Morrison and Winehouse – icons whose fame and notoriety each led to journeys of self destruction. As mental health awareness in all walks of life is something that people are passionately fighting for, I wonder if Molloy feels enough is being done within the performing arts industry to help vulnerable performers.
"Equity should really start looking into actually having a support group for artists who have stopped believing in who they are and their belief structures have started to come apart at the seams"
“We live in a world where how we feel is dictated by the opinions of others, if somebody says you're good enough then you're happy, if you don't get a job then you're depressed – it's a roller-coaster” he replies. “In the industry at the minute you get a lot of people who come straight out of college, they go for their first couple of auditions and it doesn't happen for them and they are dive bombing straight down and it's too easy to get caught up in other things, especially in the big city, whether it be drugs, the sex trade...a lot of people get damaged very quickly and there's not much support for that. To be honest Equity should really start looking into actually having a support group for artists who have stopped believing in who they are and their belief structures have started to come apart at the seams. The emphasis is placed too much on cash, not the casualties which you see day in and day out. What happens to people once the curtain goes down, where do people go when the spotlight comes off, and it's usually the grave. I think 27 is tackling a lot of those strong issues in asking what happens and where are we now.”
Whilst these sound like weighty topics for a new musical, I wonder if audiences are ready for that frank expose on the industry, and how well that topic lends itself to the medium of musical theatre.
“What they're doing with this piece is really ground-breaking” he replies. It's not going to send you out of the theatre with a smile on your face with a sort of feel-good feeling. There's a lot of truth and honesty, it's the root of all evil. These are stories that have happened to real people – it's the other side of the coin and you very rarely get the opportunity to see it because lots of people don't like to show that darkness. I think it's warranted and the audience are going to walk out of there with a real appreciation for those artists.”
The creative team behind 27, which includes producers Adam Pritchard, Sam Cassidy and Nick Eve, have found a collection of performers who, like Molloy, understand what the piece is about and in some cases have even seen how the industry can treat its talent.
"Choosing the right person for the job and not just choosing someone because their Twitter or Facebook followers are the highest..."
"Casting people who have survived that process and have come out the other end a better person, that's what 27 have done really well in casting this", Ryan explains. Choosing the right person for the job and not just choosing someone because their Twitter or Facebook followers are the highest, instead choosing people who want to go on that emotional journey, people who have gone through these things on a day to day basis so it's not just bravado they're actually willing to step up and push themselves. I've been in this industry a long time with a lot of actors and bands and I've seen people fall by the wayside. All they wanted to get out and do is get out there and perform and communicate mentally and physically and too many doors closed on these people. After that, where do you go?"
I wonder how being part of such a long running and successful show such as Jersey Boys changed Molloy's perspective on the industry as a whole, specifically in relation to how it treats performers.
"You're giving a lot and I don't think people realise that because they want to do it so much, they don't realise how much it takes from you. That's a lot of energy that you're giving to someone else", he replies. "I did Jersey Boys for six years, on Broadway some guys have been there the entire run. That's what's good about Broadway – they'll let you out so you can do other things so you can blow off steam and decompress a bit. Here it is constant until the show's closing. You can't balance out your work, if you're out you're out. That's what is good about the US and I think the UK really needs to start to take a leaf out of that book. If you want the best out of your performers – they're operating at such a high level, you've got to let them blow off some steam – it's very difficult being someone else for such a long period of time because it doesn't just kick in when you're on stage, it's all day every day."
"When I was in Jersey Boys the whole rigmarole of my day was based around being able to get onto that stage mentally and physically so you didn't get to enjoy the celebration and congratulations because you're always watching your voice you have to keep it on lock-down. The amount of work I had to put into that...It's a fantastic journey but you need to stay on top of it all the time. Then when you come out of the show you don't know who you are. Your personality has gone on, so you're fumbling through life – walking through Sainsburys in a daze. There's no sort of support structure to integrate you back into society."
In terms of target audience for 27 Molloy explains that the show will resonate with a wide cross section of society, particularly young performers and those who have been part of the industry at any level. “There's going to be a lot of performers who are attracted to the message that it's giving. I think a lot of young people within the industry will come and it will give them a new awareness, it'll help them and make them think. The 30 year olds will say 'yes it's brave, that's the kind of show I want to be in' – something that's supporting their actors and allowing them to make brave choices, not candy-coating it – addressing real issues. Your musical theatre audience will come and think 'Yes, finally I can finally see some honesty'. The thing about audiences is that they're taken for granted, they're not stupid, they know when something doesn't feel right or people aren't giving 100% commitment. There's a few shows out there right now that are just taking their money – shoving people on who aren't ready, not 100%.”
27 is choreographed and co-directed by Arlene Phillips, a recognisable name and face who has grown up within a difficult and turbulent industry. “It's great to see Arlene again and work with her on this show” Molloy responds. “You know she has gone right through the industry and has always been at the forefront, has been innovative and now as well still has the energy she's still got the belief and she's up for a challenge with 27 – it's testimony that she believes in this piece and she's putting her name to it, she gets what it's about and that's great.”
Ryan Molloy stars in 27 at the Cockpit Theatre which runs from 8 September to 22 October 2016.