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As one of London's most anticipated musical theatre events of the past twelve months the opening of Dreamgirls in the West End some thirty-five years since the original Broadway production was big news. Whilst a lot of attention was placed on leading lady Amber Riley in the role of Effie White, reviews unanimously praised her fellow cast members in particular American performer Joe Aaron Reid who shines in the more unforgiving, yet hugely demanding role of Curtis Taylor Jnr.
“It almost feels like a blur to be honest” he laughs as I ask him to reflect on the madness of the past three months. “I was sick during previews, we were rehearsing pretty much all day and performing at night and I was trying to figure out when to buy Christmas presents for the family...it was a blur for sure but it was an amazing time.”
Now the show has settled following excellent notices from the press and nightly mid-show standing ovations Joe is able to look back at how he has developed into the role since rehearsals.
“I think when I was first working on the material I was approaching Curtis in a Machiavellian way” he comments, flashing a chiseled smile and affable confidence that instantly softens him from his on-stage persona. “I think I was pretty heavy handed in that, so I found that I was taking a lot of the end result and it was showing up a lot during the show, earlier than it should have for where I am now with him. I had to remind myself that Curtis isn't a bad guy. In our production I guess I take on the role of the 'villain' but the real villain of the piece is the times. We're in the 60s and the 70s in the US and racism and racial divide is massive and in order to cross that barrier sacrifices have to be made.”
Having worked with Casey Nicholaw, one of Broadway and the West End's most sought after director-choreographers, Joe was able to shape the role and lean on his wisdom to create a well-rounded character that is true to both the story and situation.
“I guess to be blunt, in previews he would say 'be careful that you do not go over the top'”, he remembers. “In terms of portrayals of Curtis that I've seen before, a lot of people play him very slimy and smarmy all the way through. When I take on the characteristics that are more aggressive I try to be true to the piece. What Casey was trying to get me to remember is to let the writing do the work, you don't have to put a hat on a hat. You can be strong, assertive and aggressive without exploding. I now get to settle into a guy who I really, really like and understand. They always say you have to champion your character and I really do think that Curtis a great guy – I really admire him.”
Aside from the character itself the pressures of mounting the first ever West End production of Dreamgirls must have been felt by the entire production team, cast and crew. A huge hit when it first opened on Broadway in 1981, interest in the show piqued in 2006 following the release of the film. No stranger to working on huge productions and new Broadway musicals I wonder how Joe coped with that additional pressure throughout the rehearsal and preview period.
“I definitely think there is a pressure there because so many people come to the show and tell us at the stage door that they've been waiting decades for this. You don't want to be the one that disappoints them” he laughs. “What's great about our production is that Sonia Friedman and Casey Nicholaw have also been waiting forever to get their hands on it. They're very passionate and very hands on, which you don't always get so that's fantastic. The pressure we feel to not disappoint, they feel as well. In a way there is no other option for it to come together and be a celebration. Our show moves at the speed of light, there is no dull moment in the show. Casey did a great job of streamlining it to make it work, it really was about necessity. When you have someone at the helm who says what do we need to tell and how beautifully can we tell it then it's a recipe for success.”
As a musical that features highly emotional characters, divisive situations and challenging material the piece itself solicits extremely vocal reactions from the audience night after night. Unlike any other show currently in the West End the audience rise to their feet repeatedly throughout the show to show their admiration and adulation for the performances. Whilst the extreme reactions obviously add to the energy of the show, there's a fine line between showing your respect and gratitude for the performances and respecting your fellow audience members.
“I get boos a lot, not just for my bows but in some of the heated scenes towards the end” Joe explains. "On the one hand I understand because it means that people are invested in what's going on, I can't say don't do that, although sometimes I want to! When you're 'in' a scene and that kind of stuff starts it's very hard to stay in the scene, so we do our best. On the other hand it's one of those things that theatre etiquette seems to be a dying art form. In a way we're in an age where people are coming to the theatre for the first time, that I fully respect – every theatregoer starts somewhere, you learn along the way. Unfortunately I have heard that sometimes a fight can break out because someone has asked someone to be quiet and they've been offended. Theatre should be a safe space, as much as it should be a space of evolution and growth and entertainment, it should be safe for audience, cast, front of house, for everyone.”
Surely that level of audience involvement shows they're turned on and connected to the material, I enquire?
“There's a fine line between being invested and having respect for those around you and those on stage trying to give you a story” Joe answers. “Overall the energy of the audience is fantastic and it makes our job so much easier. When you're getting that kind of feedback – who doesn't want to be apart of something like that? When I come out for my bow and get booed that took a lot of getting used to. When you work that hard for two and half hours and you come out and get booed, I was confused. But then people explained to me that that's their way of cheering for you and to say that you did a great job. For that I can swallow my pride or whatever it is and I can appreciate that. I hope that the energy continues and that the respect continues.”
Dreamgirls marks Joe's second London production in a hit musical having played the role of Benny in In The Heights at the King's Cross Theatre during its original run. With a string of Broadway credits to his name including Chicago, If/Then and Finian's Rainbow, I'm interested to hear his take on the differences between the two industries, and what, if anything, the West End should learn from its American cousin.
“For me I would personally like to see that the West End were to be a closed shop Union, that you must join Equity to be in the West End” he explains. “Actors are treated very differently here verses there, salaries are lower, positions of power are lower and what we're being asked to do is no less than. By not having a closed shop union it doesn't give us any bargaining tools. I know Equity is encouraging of people to join and there's strength in numbers – that is 100% true. I think it needs to get to the point where actors are not willing to step over each other for jobs. That is hard, especially here. Everyone is fighting for every last pound they can get. It's going to take some brotherhood of actors to reconcile that problem. Until it becomes mandate I don't know if it will ever be solved. This is a full time job, everything in my day to day has to work around what I have to do at night. If I'm asked to do a full time job but they don't give us the things to make it easier to have it as a full time job then we as actors need to come together and say what is it that we do need and how do we make that happen? One of those things is coming together and forming a strong union.”
As a working parent of two children just past their second birthdays the frustrations within the industry can also be seen in a different light.
“If you look at the cast lists for all the shows in the West End I'd venture to say that the majority of them are people in their early twenties” Joe explains. “I think a lot of that is because it's a young man's game here. If you go to New York you can look at the ensemble and see people in their 40s, their 50s, their 60s because they can make a legit living being part of the ensemble in a show. There aren't a lot of parents in the West End because it is a young man's game. At the end of the day it should be about your best work, right? Can someone in the ensemble give their best work if they're having to go and be a barista during the day? I don't know that they can – maybe someone who does that can argue that they can. This is a full time job - if you do want to do something on the side then I say all power to you, but you shouldn't have to. Actors need to come together and we need more support.”
Whilst Joe's children may be too young to see him perform in Dreamgirls there remains a wide audience base for the production which is seeing first-time theatre goers from around the world coming to the Savoy attracted by the music, story and legacy of the production.
“What doesn't it have to offer?” Joe laughs. “If you like great storytelling, amazing voices, amazing songs, wonderful choreography - honestly it has everything. In terms of story there is love, redemption, there are so many universal themes in the show that anyone can relate to anyone. It's almost a never-ending story, the fact that our story is still relevant that says enough. It's sad in a way, but it' reminds us that we can't sit back and become complacent, we must keep working and striving for better because we know better."
Joe Aaron Reid stars in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre.